24 August 2013

Un été en Provence

One summer in Provence is often like any other; they seem to have a timeless quality about them.  The many old rituals that mark the beginning of summer here are one contributor to that sense, as I recounted a bit breathlessly last summer. (See L'estival, June 2012).  This year, the images presented in artistic and literary works, especially those by Provençal natives, have revealed other ways in which Provençal summers have eternal qualities.  For example, at the major two-part art exhibition in Aix and Marseille right now called Le Grand Atelier Du Midi, I saw scenes and portrayals of Provence by the painter Paul Cézanne, and others, that were astonishingly similar to sights we can see today even though they were painted up to 100 years ago--the gorgeous seashores and ports at Marseille or Cassis or Nice, and the hilly and mountainous landscapes of scrubby pines, olive groves, red soil near Aix and in the Luberon, the baigneurs (bathers), the agricultural workers, the people reposing on verandas or near open windows.  The artists who make up what is being called 'the studio of the south' all saw, despite their different styles and portrayals, the same amazing azure color of the Mediterranean sea, and the light, that famous Provençal light, that we ourselves can see here every day in 2013.  (See my earlier post about this exhibition, Les oeuvres d'art, June 2013.)

The timelessness of Provençal summers is also echoed in literature.  I've recently completed two parts of playwright Marcel Pagnol's memoirs in which he describes summer holidays in le midi (the south) starting in 1903 when he was the same age as my boys, about to enter quatrième (4th grade, or U.S. 8th grade). In La gloire de mon père we learn about the magical first summer at la Bastide Neuve  near La Treille with his aunt's family, and the epic opening day of hunting season which brought unexpected glory to his teacher-father and a new friendship to Pagnol himself.  The second book, Le chateau de ma mère describes how Pagnol's family managed to continue their visits to the beloved Provençal summer place during the school year despite the difficult and long distance from their home. (Both books have been translated into English: My father's glory, My mother's castle.)  The ways in which Pagnol described the landscape, the daily routines, the summer foods, even the melancholia associated with the end of summer holidays, continue to be evocative of Provençal summers today.  Not a day has gone by this month that we haven't heard descendants of the cicadas that Pagnol described, and the heat in August continues to bake the ground as it has each late summer since time immemorial.  Likewise, 21st century late summer days seem to be as languid as those experienced by Pagnol's family, with slow, lazy afternoons, drinks enjoyed outside, and the late and leisurely market-fresh dinners.  Even that first bit of sadness marking the end of the holidays has begun for us as it did for young Marcel many summers ago.  Some of the details differ, as Pagnol was describing a time when transportation and electricity were still fairly primitive and not widely accessible.  Our end-of-summer melancholia is reflected by the need to turn on electric lights as darkness cuts our dinners on the terrace a bit shorter each night, and by the filling up again of the empty parking spots on our street as locals return from their own holidays.  However, just as Provençal summers have always been marked with a sudden influx of fêtes, special market days, and boules tournaments that then gradually lead to slower, more relaxing days in the sun and shade, the end of summer, or any season really, is also both sudden and gradual, but in reverse. This is as true today as it was in Pagnol's and Cézanne's Provence, and one could even say it is true anywhere.  Gradually, we make small daily adjustments to our daily routines to accommodate shorter summer days and windier or rainier weather and calendar dates that come closer and closer.  Sometimes we may even try to ignore the signs a little as Pagnol himself did.  But then, suddenly, we have to accept, just like every year, that another wonderful summer, in Provence, or elsewhere, has come and is almost gone.

12 August 2013


Prior to the our first visit to France as a family, a Seattle mother recommended Musée de l'Armée in Paris as an engaging touristic sight for our then pre-teen sons.  We certainly don't glorify war games or weaponry in our family, but after umpteen churches and art museums, military museums offer another glimpse of a nation's history and cultural perspectives in ways that might capture the attention of adolescents.   The World War II images and Napoleon's giant tomb next door certainly stuck with our boys.  The following summer, we visited the battlefields of Normandie and the WWII museum in Caen, and the following spring, we went to see what was left of the World War I battlefields in the Verdun. (For a photo and brief mention of this trip, click here: Les communications internationales, May 2012 ).  We've also watched France's contemporary displays of military might as these are televised on le quatorze juillet (14th of July, a.k.a. Bastille Day).  This past Christmas in London, we made a stop to see England's Imperial War Museum before it closed for a remodel, and just two weeks ago, I took my sons to the Sotamuseo, Finland's military museum in Helsinki.  World War II was the main focus of the museum, and as I was simultaneously reading a novel about a nurse in the north of Finland just as the Germans began their retreat towards the end of World War II (Kätilö by Katja Kettu), I got a better understanding of the complicated warring that took place in Lapland at that time.

In part, our boys are interested in military displays as many children are, without perhaps understanding the true horrors of war.  We also have some family military history as many families do; my husband's grandfather crossed the Channel as an American soldier in the weeks following D-Day and his stories of his time on the Continent are still with us as are the medals and a few letters that he wrote during his tours.  My grandfather was a career officer in the Finnish army, and although he died before I was born, there are many pictures of him in his military uniforms and a few mementos as well.  Finally, there is that small matter of obligatory military training (Asevelvollisuus, or Intti in Finnish slang) in Finland that my bi-national sons may or may not have to fulfill after they turn 18 if they wish to retain their Finnish passports when they are 22 (the age at which they could lose their passports if they don't meet certain conditions).  These conditions, for Finns living abroad, seem to be in flux, but military training or civil service remains a requirement for young Finnish men, and is optional for women.  It has been shortened considerably since my father, uncles and even my male cousins took their training, from over a year to something like 6 months to a year, although the obligation to step up in times of war lasts throughout adulthood.  In any case, my boys know that military training is a real possibility for them, and at the Finnish war museum, we had the opportunity to see what kind of clothing and equipment are issued to recruits today and to try on both an army jacket from World War II and from the contemporary period.  A film showed us some of the activities of contemporary Finnish soldiers, particularly as members of U.N. peace-keeping forces.

As 13-year olds, my boys don't really know if and when they will participate, or if they will even want to; one boy expressed concerns about 'boot camp' (he's probably watched too many U.S. movies of screaming U.S. Army sergeants), while the other one pointed out that the training period would provide a good opportunity to learn Finnish well.  For my part, I am wary of the social control and structural conditions present within the military order, even though I recognize that the military is an essential social institution, one that ensures the protection of societies.  Furthermore, military training and/or service can offer young men and women tools with which to learn how to structure and prioritize one's time and can help build self-confidence and self-discipline. It is this last point that I was thinking of when I saw this funny Finnish military poster from the 1980's that promoted puhtaus ja terveys (hygiene and health).  The bubbles are titled (from top left and clockwise): Brush your teeth, Comb your hair, Keep your armpits clean (!), Remember genital hygiene (!), Wash your feet every day, Take a shower, Wash your hands, and Shave.  Those are the very things we are working on right now with our young teens, and if it will take a short Intti stint to cement those habits, I might be ready to send them next summer.


06 August 2013

Jalapeños in Helsinki

A few years ago, one of my retired graduate school mentors dropped me a line after his first-ever trip to Finland.  He saw many people that resembled me, which he explained as persistent evidence of inbreeding in a still relatively insular society.  (I was amused by this characteristic observation from a confirmed sociobiologist).  On my recent trip to Finland after two years in southern France where people seem shorter and smaller and have more dramatic coloring, I did feel like my blonde hair, pale skin, and height were just about average.  In my own sociological view though, what really stood out for me on my visit was how globally diverse Finland has become, and how easily English rolled off people's tongues.

I was thrilled to discover so many people of foreign origins speaking Finnish fluently.  There was the man of Chinese, or perhaps Korean origin, who sold me a hat at the flea market in Naantali; his Finnish had a lovely inflection as did the Helsinki bus driver's, whose native tongue was probably Arabic.  At the airport, the young grocery store cashier with the dark, perhaps African complexion seemed to have absolutely no accent that I could detect, nor did the airline agent of Somali or north-central African origin.  Aside from a course I took many years ago in Helsinki with other young students from mostly Europe, I have never before heard fluent Finnish spoken by such a diverse group of people. In the past, it was my accent or inflections that puzzled Finns who couldn't quite place my origins.  Today, many more immigrants have come to Finland from beyond Europe, settling in to work and learn the language of their new country.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the ease with which young Finns slip between English and Finnish.  When I was younger, just the shop clerks at the big department stores and flight crews spoke English comfortably, but now, museum ticket-takers, waiters, ice cream stand sellers, apartment managers, all effortlessly switched to English when my husband was talking, and then switched back to Finnish when I spoke up.  Today, English is the first foreign language that Finnish schoolchildren take in school, and it is then followed by, instead of preceded by, the second national language, Swedish.  This, along with the ubiquitous English-language television programming which is subtitled but not dubbed as it is in France, means that Finns are broadly exposed to English.  It is after all the official language of the EU.  Yet it doesn't appear that Finnish is disappearing by any means, as it clearly remains important for the immigrants who make Finland their home.  As with many languages, external influences are enhancing how the Finnish vocabulary develops.  In a short article in a Finnish women's magazine, the chairperson of the Left-Wing Youth used many Anglicisms: would people get the 'pointi', if women 'sheivaa' or not their body hair? ("Antaa Rehottaa", Me Naiset, 1.8.2013, nro. 31, p. 16).

Finally, we also observed that the foreign culinary influence in Finland has widened, as we discovered jalapeños on our hamburgers and pizzas! Subsequently, we noticed the proliferation of Mexican-influenced restaurants in Helsinki.  While we enjoyed eating certain uniquely Finnish foods (the meat pies, the rice pasties, Fazer chocolates and candies), we did appreciate the flavor enhancements brought about by globalization.  Apparently, so do other Finns.  In a newspaper interview comparing the values of Finnish elites and ordinary people (that I happened to catch a glimpse of at the Cafe Strindberg on my second to last day in Helsinki, "Homoliitto erotti eliitti-Benin ja kansa-Karon" by Hannu Tikkala, 4.8.2013, Helsingin Sanomat), the Finnish guy representing the point of view of ordinary Finns pointed out that having international workers and people in Finland means that Finland gets better food...and better-looking people.  While I don't know about the latter, there are clearly benefits associated with the global movement of people, languages, and traditions.