27 May 2013

Un certain regard

At the Festival de Cannes (the glamorous and world-renowned annual film festival in the French riviera town which just ended this weekend), there is a competitive category for imaginative and daring films that are a bit off the beaten track of cinematic expectations, but that are still deemed worthy of critical attention. This year's winner in the Un certain regard (A special look) category was a Cambodian film called L'image manquante (The missing picture), based on the director's own memoir about life under the Khmer Rouge.

Paying special attention to misfits or non-traditional participants has brought France success in the past, in cinema, and also in athletics.  The story of Zinedine Zidane, the famous French footballer is a good example.  His parents were working class immigrants from Algeria, living in a poor area of Marseille when their athletic son began playing in a local football club.  His talent was obvious, and he got enough certains regards that he was soon swept up into the soccer academy at the Cannes professional football club, where he spent several years, and then went on to a successful national and professional football career.  He probably first drew the attention of district level scouts at a tryout like our soccer-playing son attended this past January.  This son received an obligatory summons to a district-wide brassage (a type of tryout), along with two other 12 year olds from his club, and about 60 other boys from the District de Provence, the same district in which Zidane once played.  The tryout was run by an organization called Les espoirs du football (Football's hopes) which identifies football talent on the local level for France's national team training programs , as I understand it.  While it's certain that many an immigrant or immigrant's child has been vetted in such tryouts, apparently our son's appearance, as an American, was a novelty.  It was such a daring thing to be nominated that his chances for being chosen to advance to the next step were virtually nil, as one of the organizers told our son afterwards.  (He was kind about it, saying that it had nothing to do with his talent, but his nationality.  He didn't however address the fact that our son does play with a French player's license.)  In any case, just one of the three boys from our son's club in the U-13 age group were selected to a weekend training camp.  Since then though, there have been a few other opportunities during club play to show off for French national and professional team scouts as they travel the South of France looking for future candidates for their programs and academies. (This process begins early in youth sports, in France as in the U.S. I wrote about it several years ago, from a sociological perspective, as we experienced it in U.S. youth baseball; see Tracking Little Leaguers, March 2009.)  One of our son's teammates has been scouted by Monaco's professional football club over the past two seasons, and will likely join the academy there in a few years' time, while an older Norwegian expatriate clubmate had the opportunity this past winter to show his soccer stuff in front of scouts for Metz, a club from northern France.   

A country like France is able to centralize its scouting and discover unconventional talent much more easily than might be the case in the U.S. with its many thousands of players, myriad clubs, and numerous umbrella organizations.  In France, the Fédération Française de Football, or FFF, is the umbrella organization to which all football clubs are affiliated, and to which all French football roads seem to go.  Despite the lack of recreational leagues like we have in the U.S., the French football club system though is not especially elitist, at least not at the lower levels.  Football in France is an everyman's sport, drawing working class families' kids, with the relatively affordable fees at the youth level.  (I compare these to our U.S. fees in another post, La vie familiale, Jan. 2013.)  The past successes of Zidane and other athletes with immigrant roots no doubt also attract immigrant youth to the sport (although the attractions are not necessarily the same for girls, French or immigrant: see Le bonheur, Dec. 2012 ).  In our experience, the French clubs seem open to foreign youth players on their turf, as long as we pay our fees, but I do remember being asked at our son's first club if we were planning to hang around France for a while, implying that there had been problems with foreign kids joining, benefiting from the training, and then scooting.  The current club asked no such thing last spring, and lately the technical directors have even seemed a bit proud to have an American player on the club's roster (after some initial surprise that this player  could actually play le foot).  Now though, everyone is under scrutiny at the club, regardless of national origins (the foreign players at the club include a Finnish boy as well).  Les detections (tryouts) are in full swing for the next season.

21 May 2013

Les bons samaritains

On two occasions in the past two years my spouse and I have benefited from the assistance of les bons samaritains (good samaritans) along U.S. and French highways.  The first time was on the eve of our family's move to France when the car we were driving inexplicably stalled in the middle of a busy Washington state highway span, just outside of downtown Seattle.  Cars behind us were traveling at highway speeds and we had no shoulder to which to escape.  We could do nothing except call 911 for help and hope that no one would hit us from behind.  A very brave and kind man stopped his car just behind ours to offer assistance and to alert other cars to the stopped traffic.  Luckily, a tow truck driver reached us before any damage could be done to cars or humans alike, and our good samaritan departed safely and anonymously.

On a very wet Saturday in Provence this past weekend, we had another similar experience, as we were trying to head south for a sports tournament and camping weekend.  As I was easing our car onto the autoroute, the car fishtailed suddenly, and then began hydroplaning, causing me to lose complete control.  We somehow slipped between the highway entrance barriers without touching them and spun around at least 1 1/2 times across three lanes of the highway without getting hit, and then came to rest with a little crunch, against the center median.  We all caught our breaths for a moment, and then suddenly realized that our car was wedged into the barrier and was directly facing oncoming traffic in the fast lane!  As my family escaped the car, scrambling onto the small gap in the center median, a driver in a minivan just entering the highway and perhaps witnessing our spinning, pulled over.  The driver ran up along the autoroute, opposite my spouse, and in the rain, both waved their arms up and down to slow the oncoming traffic as best as they could.  It appears that another good samaritan stayed in the car to call for assistance on our behalf.  Meanwhile, another car also stopped, with a third good samaritan making a call on his cell phone while yelling to us across the slick wet lanes to ask if anyone was hurt, and reminding me to put on the gilet (safety vest, an obligatory piece of car equipment in France).  Thankfully, highway traffic and public safety crews arrived shortly after, blocking our lane of traffic and helping us get out of the mess.  While these men were not what we would call good samaritans, as they were doing their jobs, their professionalism was dosed with empathy, and I appreciated that they didn't smirk or act frustrated with our French, which was even shakier than usual.  The man with the lane closure equipment and the tow truck driver were both especially kind, and somehow, all of these strangers were able to help us enough to send us back on our way.  (We didn't even merit a visit from the local gendarmes, or police, and the resulting damage to our car doesn't quite tell the harrowing story, although we tried to describe it the best we could to the waiting football families at our campground near Montpellier.)

The big surprises to us from the past weekend (besides the fact that our son's team actually won the tournament that we struggled to get to!) were the assistance and expressions of kindness from strangers that we experienced.  These are certainly not what one is taught to expect in France, if the countless books about the French are to be believed, and at least in terms of French drivers, in my experience, they aren't often even very generous about moving over for ambulances or police cars whose sirens and lights are on.  In the U.S., on the other hand, it seems that often, if a stranger is hurt, people will try to help in some way.  In fact, there are some interesting national differences in the sociolegal expectations associated with being a good samaritan.  In the U.S., being a good samaritan is seen as personally risky, especially if help is rendered without consent and if something goes wrong.  So, good samaritan laws, which vary by state, tend to protect the good samaritan's actions against liability, but don't require anyone to offer assistance.  The French law, on the other hand, actually requires passers-by to be good samaritans.  The protection lies with the one who is in danger, and thus, assistance must be rendered if it can be done so without peril.  Not helping someone can result in the charge of la non-assistance à personne en danger (non-assistance to someone in need), and a hefty fine and/or jail time. (Click here for a short piece in The Global Times, Oct. 31, 2011, comparing 3 different kinds of good samaritan legal scenarios, in China, U.S., and France.)  In a sense, these differences accentuate the U.S. protections of private rights and the French expectations of public responsibilities.  (The different assessments of risks are clear too; see La sécurité, Oct. 2011 for more on this topic.)  Yet, I think for those requiring assistance, whether due to car accidents in France, or tornadoes in the U.S. midwest, or even wars as in Syria and elsewhere, in the moment of dire need, it matters little what the civil incentives and protections are.  I have to speak from experience on this one: what matters the most then is that someone has stopped to help.

16 May 2013

À table

As we move through le printemps (spring) into summer, we have more and more opportunities to participate in the French version of le pique-nique (picnic), and boy, do the French know how to picnic.  My spouse discovered this in his first summer consulting in France, when he was invited to the beach on a warm Friday evening after work by some co-workers.  He was awestruck by the blankets, the candles in the sand, and the elegant foods and drinks brought by everyone.  We've since picnicked many times along the Mediterranean beaches, particularly at dinner time, surreptitiously watching the French families around us.  Our more revealing picnicking experiences have come through the many sports tournaments we've attended with our sons and their teammates' families during the past two springs.  By now we know to expect the ubiquitous baguettes and wine, even at youth sports' events, (I first recount this discovery in Rouge ou rosé, June 2012), and we've even had the novel opportunity of introducing a favorite Bordeaux sausage to our French picnicking friends!

In thinking about how French picnics feel different from the American barbecue or the tailgate party, I think it is partly in the scale but also in the intention.  The many pique-niques in which we've participated seem pretty simple.  Everyone brings a bag or two, or a cooler, with their food, but we don't see the hauling of grills or the schlepping of piles of paper plates and huge quantities of food.  Among our two groups of sports families, salads and bread with some protein are the normal fare, while the supplies often include cute folding camping tables brought by a family or two, a roll of paper towels and a garbage bag, and of course, a corkscrew and plastic cups.  Simple sandwiches are often assembled on the spot, as our rugby-playing son's coach did last weekend, with a baguette, some ham, and a jar of moutarde de Dijon (Dijon mustard) that he pulled out of his bag, along with a bottle of wine to share.  Families may also share olives, cut-up watermelon, and cake or chocolates.  Each stadium or venue has a buvette (a bar, or a concessions stand) hosted by the sponsoring club, for those needing to supplement their picnics.  The limited offerings seem to be fairly standard and inexpensive, along the lines of one type of grilled sausage, french fries, candy, ice pops, crêpes, espressos, soda and beer.

photo courtesy of Bernard Guigues, AUC Rugby, 1 May 2013 (Tournament at Les Cadeneux)
The bigger difference between U.S. and French picnics seems to be in the intentionality of the dining experience.  At French youth rugby and football tournaments, there is actually une pause (a break), where matches stop and everyone attending eats at the same time, even at the huge rugby regional tournament last weekend in Avignon, with its hundreds of players and their families.  The research institute Insee notes that the French are much more likely than Americans to eat meals at the same times across the entire country, suggesting that well-established mealtime traditions continue to be important here.  Lunch is one of those meals that is particularly sacrosanct; at 13h (1 pm), Insee estimates that half of the French are engaged in eating their lunches (see de SaintPol et Ricroche, Insee, Le temps de l'alimentation en France, no. 1417, Oct. 2012).  At tournaments, this break in the action is notable; the little camping tables are quickly set up, food containers emerge, and the wine bottles are uncorked.  You don't just attend tournaments with some money in your pocket, hoping for a gap between matches that will allow your family to eat a greasy burger or something.  French picnic meals are planned, even if simple, and they will be eaten as properly as possible, à table (at the table).  I am often surprised by the unexpectedly lovely salads, olives, cheeses, and fruits that emerge from coolers, that reveal the clear effort and intent associated with mealtime.  Interestingly, I rarely see potato chips or crisps as part of the tournament meal (these often emerge as a snack, later), but we do see a lot more sweets than we might in the U.S.--chocolates, candy, and soda.  The French seem to gravitate towards sweets while Americans like their salt, but some of this difference may also be related to the importance of dessert as a traditional end to most French meals, and to the tendency for afternoon gôuters (snacks) to be on the sweet side.  My family isn't as consumed by the sweet habit (although we do eat dessert here, without guilt; see Les Desserts, Sept. 2011), but we appreciate the time taken to eat meals, even at tournaments.  The French savor their meals; despite all kinds of modern distractions, the hours spent eating by the French have actually increased lightly in the past years.  (See Insee source above.)  My family is becoming so acclimated to this aspect that I think we may have to acquire our own little French folding camping table to bring back to a U.S. soccer tournament someday.

photo: Decathlon http://www.decathlon.fr/media/803/8030285/zoom_400PX_asset_11984223.jpg

08 May 2013


In a talk that I gave at the local Institute for American Universities earlier this afternoon about how the French spend their time, I also summarized French economist Claudia Senik's argument about why the French seem to be less happy or satisfied with their lives compared to others.  She blames in part the authoritarian and rigid French school system for creating citizens who lack the self-confidence and the contentement (contentment or satisfaction) that one might expect in a country with so many wonderful attributes.  (See Claudia Senik's homepage here, or click here for a direct link to her paper The French Unhappiness Puzzle, Working Paper, 2012.)  My family's limited experience with the school system, at its middle school level, suggests that the system is firmly focused on staying within the lines and structure of the nationally established curriculum (this feels especially true in the maths and sciences), and that the teaching and learning within the system is generally not very creative or active or nurturing.  At first glance, it's hard to say if such schooling could lead to broadly-experienced passivity and pessimism among adults.  

I can say that I see more and more how a centrally-organized society uses its national school system to impart broader social values and practices to its emerging young adults.  This process begins early, at the crèches and maternelles (nursery and preschools) where very young French children, from ages 2 and 3, spend hours away from home in the care of others, learning how to sit patiently and how to eat meals like little grown-ups.  It is the recounting of this by some expatriate foreign mothers that has caught the attention especially of the American and English reading public. (See my discussion of one such book in Encadrement February 2012.) 

This week I had another revelation of how the school system may pass on social values and skills.  Faithful readers may recall that just over a year ago I embarked on the painful and expensive process of acquiring a French driver's license (See A is for Autoecole, April 2012).  For weeks, I grumbled about the ridiculously tricky theory questions that had more than one answer and the authoritarian teaching styles of the driving instructors.  Now I have learned that as 2nd year middle schoolers (French 5th graders), my twin sons will be taking the ASSR1 test this month, while students two years ahead of them will take the ASSR2.  The ASSR's are exams offered by the Education Sécurité Routière (Road Safety Education) arm of the National Ministry of Education to middle school-aged French kids to test them about their knowledge of the appropriate behaviors in shared traffic situations.  The parent representative of our boys' class suggested that these exams will be beneficial for the kids when they begin riding motor scooters and eventually prepare for their automobile driver's licenses.  Learning the rules of the road at age 13 is not a bad idea, particularly given the new interest among my boys and their classmates in skating around the busy streets in town on skateboards and longboards.  However, I was amazed to discover after one son took some practice exams on the traffic safety education website, that these were really quite similar to the practice driving theory exams I had taken last spring, right down to the tricky questioning.  So, I think I now understand better why I felt out of my element in driving school; it wasn't just the language.  By the time most French turn 18 or start driving school in earnest, they have the French-style examination drill down, from years of practice: they know what to expect in terms of testing methodologies and teaching styles, they know that it won't be easy to pass the exams the first time, and they know if they don't pass, everyone else is going to know about it.  These students were simply better prepared for the process and its potential outcomes.  And, it might not be such a big leap to consider the possibility that these same students may feel less satisfied or less sure of themselves later in life, when social scientists come along asking them to assess their personal happiness.  Social institutions, such as political and school systems, do have that kind of influence; some may empower their members, with the right to vote, for example, while other institutions may limit their members, say by stifling their intellectual creativity.  Senik's thinking about the French school system may be on the right track after all.

Various wheeled modes of transportation parked on the landing below our apartment

02 May 2013

Les os

According to French meteorological tradition, the reason spring hasn't fully arrived, even in Provence, is that the days of les saints de glace (the ice saints), St. Mamert, St. Pancrase and St. Servais (May 14, 15, and 16) have not yet been passed, so the threat of frost is still present.  (Météo France tells us about this tradition, here, in French; and Wikipedia does here, in English.)  Despite the so-so weather this past week, we did go traipsing about with visiting grandparents, enjoying the irises blooming here and there, and we came across some human bones which told us about some other saints and traditions.  We stopped in at the church in the coastal town of Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer where Mary Magdalene and another Mary, and their servant Sarah, were believed to have come to Provence in their escape from Palestine nearly 2000 years ago.  Les os (the bones) displayed in the glass case in the crypt are believed to be those of black Sarah as the servant woman was called, and it is in her memory that Romany or gypsy families come to this town each May.  There is also a font of freshwater in the middle of the church sanctuary which seems to have sprung miraculously around the time of these women's arrival. 

I asked a nun about purchasing a pamphlet in English about the legende (legend) of the three women and the bones, and she swiftly corrected me, saying that this is what the tradition tells us.  In French, legende seems to invokes a story that may not be altogether true, whereas perhaps tradition gives the sense of something that has been known or believed for so long that it must be true, or it certainly can't be proven wrong.  Perhaps it's like the quote I have long savored, from American author Ruth Reichl's memoir Tender at the Bone where she says her story "...is true, but it may not be entirely factual...I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story." Societies sometimes are compelled to tell good stories when they are missing some of the bones or other details about certain events or people or discoveries, especially when these relate to questions of faith and origin.  In fact, I have been to another crypt, in another church, in another town in Provence, at St. Maximin, where tradition suggests that it is Mary Magdalene's skull that is before us in the hushed and darkened reliquary.  Is it really her skull?  We will never know for sure, but it doesn't matter, so long as someone believes it, either the tourists or the religious pilgrims.

In the U.S., with our much younger historical record, we also have traditions and legends that fill in the gaps about our national origins and our nation's "saints."  We have the story about the first Thanksgiving and the pilgrims, about which I gave a short presentation when we first arrived in France (see Beaujolais nouveau, Nov. 2011).  We have known for some time that that story may not be quite as we learned it in grade school or in our U.S. history books, but it still remains an essential part of our traditional understandings of the nation's origins.  Yet, just this week, this tradition may be challenged, thanks to the news report about the discovery and scientific analysis of a set of bones.  These bones, of a young pilgrim girl, tell a new, different kind of story, of cannibalism among the Mayflower settlers (see "Evidence of Cannibalism Found..." by Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, May 1, 2013).  This makes me think about the story of the American woman whose cells made medical history but were loaded with very different meanings to her family and others (see my post Les âmes des vivants and des morts, Oct. 2012).  Two thousand years from now, what will we think about the young pilgrim girl's bones?  Will there be a tradition, or story behind them, that goes beyond what science can tell us?  Will it be a story of thanksgiving, or one of horror?  Will the bones be resting in public view; will they be revered, or feared, or even disbelieved?  What will the bones tell us?