30 September 2013

Cobain et Cézanne

Last week, a flurry of news stories reported the real estate listing of a childhood home of Kurt Cobain, the singer of Nirvana (see "Kurt Cobain's Childhood Home...." Sept. 25, 2013, The Guardian.).  He grew up in the town adjacent to my childhood hometown, and I recognized the house for sale as one like many other working class homes in the area, small and modest.  The asking price however significantly exceeds the property and building value, so some people are obviously attaching more value to this little house because someone lived there who later became famous.  This is another excellent reflection of how we construct and re-construct the social meaning of things, places and people (for other examples, see De l'eau Jan. 2012, or Les âmes des vivants et des morts Oct. 2012).  The passage of time especially influences how we come to understand and re-imagine certain people's contributions and even the places they passed through.

It's a little like this in Aix en Provence, where native son Paul Cézanne was long unappreciated for his art, and his family didn't really fit in as they were seen as interlopers in old Aix society.  Cézanne himself was known as a difficult person so that may also have contributed to the lack of enthusiasm for him or his art. Even the early director of the local art museum refused to acquire any of Cézanne's oeuvres for its collections. Today though, Cézanne's image has been significantly rehabilitated.  He is often portrayed as the godfather among the artists who came to the south of France or who were inspired by his use of color and landscape themes (see my post Un été en Provence, August 2013 ).  His studio, artworks, the sites where he painted, his family's estate, all are cherished parts of this town and renowned tourist attractions. Plaques on walls tell where Cézanne was born, where he went to school, where he died, we know where he was baptised, we can see the signage from his father's hat shop, and his statue on the Rotonde is a good meeting spot.  Cézanne fans can even follow his footsteps through town guided by golden plaques embedded in the sidewalks and farther afield, one can walk on trails to his favorite painting spots.

The plaques on the sidewalks go right past the building in which my family has lived for nearly two years. For many months after moving here, I wondered what exactly the tourists were gazing at on our relatively plain and modest building.  I figured they were misreading their guidebooks or maps as there are two former private mansions with ornately carved doors and elaborate window trims just to the west of us, and the famous French revolutionary Mirabeau's mother-in-law's mansion with its grand gate is situated across the street at the next corner in the other direction.  It turns out that we are living in a former residence of the Cézanne family, a detail that is very briefly mentioned on some tourist office information, but not on any signs on the building or street.  Even our flat's owner did not know the historical provenance of the building. Apparently, Cézanne's mother owned the building from 1878 and lived here briefly and then gave it to her daughter Rose as part of her dowry in her marriage to a local lawyer, Maxime Conil.  The Conils had four children while living in this private residence, so it is very possible that Oncle Paul himself passed some time in the house.  Now the mansion has been carved up into multiple apartments and there is no clear evidence that a great artist may have visited or even that a successful Aixois family raised its children here, just like Cobain's childhood home has very few traces of him.  Yet, for those of us with broad imaginations, reconstructing what might have happened in a home where someone famous passed through is fun, (it's what museums do for us sometimes too).  That the famous person may not have been well-understood or appreciated in his time does not preclude us from imagining that he, on some level, was just like us: he probably looked out these same tall windows in this Aixois mansion, or through the front window of that drafty little Aberdeen house.  As a sociologist, this is often enough for me, to imagine the common experiences among people of different times and places.  For others, the excitement lies in the further possibility that maybe, by association, some of the creative genius of past inhabitants might rub off on them. After all, where did Cézanne and Cobain get their artistic inspiration if not from what they saw when they looked out those windows--that luminous Provençal light for one, and the gray Pacific NW drizzle for the other?

24 September 2013

Les fumeurs

Last week a friend and I went to a contemporary art exhibit which was being presented to the public by the commissioned artist.  The art was creative, a little inexplicable, and verging on violent, while the artist herself was a beautiful and unusually tall French woman, probably of Algerian background.  She was wearing a patterned pantsuit that few would be able to carry off as successfully as she did, and she seemed fairly poised while speaking about each work, even though she admitted to being nervous at one point.  She certainly didn't miss a beat when my friend and I asked her a few questions in English after her presentation.

A few minutes after the presentation, as my friend and I seated ourselves along a garden wall to enjoy the complimentary wine and snacks offered by the Friends of the Museum, we caught a glimpse of the artist lighting up a cigarette.  Both of us had a similar and instantaneous reaction, as if surprised and then disappointed by the discovery of the artist smoking.  I am never quite sure why the smoking seems initially so shocking or disappointing, especially in this case, where it was a French artist, no less.  Also, I do have a few friends who smoke, and I certainly am not disappointed or shocked by them, nor is smoking something I'm interested in judging people for.  I don't care why people smoke; it's their choice.  (Okay, maybe I don't love it when young children are heavily exposed to cigarette smoke or when people litter their cigarette butts in public spaces.)  Maybe the surprised reactions are rooted in trying to understand the choice of les fumeurs (the smokers)?  I tried to think about this earlier, wondering if smoking might be related to the more relaxed demeanor the French present on the outside; maybe it's a calming device (see Je ne sais quoi, June 2012.)  Certainly in the U.S., the choice to smoke is presented as a bad one, so maybe the surprise comes from wondering why someone would then make a 'bad' choice.  But, smoking isn't all about sophistication and clever ways to suppress one's appetite in France either; the cigarette packets say unequivocally in big letters, Fumer tue (smoking kills) and e-cigarettes are quite popular right now in France among adults trying to quit conventional cigarette smoking (see "E-cigarettes as effective as patches to stop smoking" France24 News, 8 Sept. 2013).  Yet, the French still don't seem to bat an eye when someone in their midst, artist or not, suddenly pulls out a cigarette pack and lights up.  What it really must come down to then is simply a question of social norms.

Candy cigarettes
Those of us who still find ourselves surprised by les fumeurs in France are in fact reacting to our own normative expectations.  Smoking is simply not as normative in the U.S. as it is France (or even probably in England), and this is true as well when we look at the age, gender or educational levels of smokers in both societies. Here's what I know: both French men and women smoke more than their American counterparts--about 1/3 of French men smoked in 2007 to 21% of U.S. men in 2011, and 21% of French women to 16.5% of U.S. women  (see International Smoking Statistics France, web version 2011, by Forey et al., and "Adult smoking in the U.S. " CDC reports 2011)  Smoking also seems to begin earlier in France, even though in both countries, the heaviest smokers seem to be in the 20-44 years age groups.  (Is it glorified by candy cigarettes such as those bought by my kids and their friends one day last year?)  Smoking also has similar associations with educational level in both the U.S. and in France; it is negatively associated with educational level.  This means that the highest rates of smokers are found among the less educated, and vice versa.  One-third of French adults with less than a baccalauréat or bac (h.s. diploma equivalent) and about as many U.S. adults with less than a high school diploma smoke (30-34% for French with no diploma or less than bac, and 34.6% of U.S. equivalents).  But the differences in ratios begin to be especially pronounced when we look at the rates of smokers with high school diplomas and up.  Again, cigarette use declines as educational level increases in both countries, but the percentages begin to diverge, significantly, and this is probably the telling difference.  In France, 29.7% of bac holders smoke, compared to just 23.6% of U.S. high school diploma holders, while for college degree holders, 22% of  French bac +3/4 smoke and just 9% of U.S. undergraduate degree holders smoke.  Finally, in the most educated category, bac +5, 19% of these French smoke, but only 5% of American post-graduate degree holders do. (See CDC report above, and for French results, see Premiers résultats du baromètre santé 2010 Evolutions récentes du tabagism en France, Beck et al. 2010).  (I would have to do a similar survey of the data to see where England fits.)

Thus, my reaction to smoking in France is likely a result of spending my early adulthood years in the U.S. where my social circle, as it is associated with my income level, residential location, educational level, and occupational status, etc., was overwhelmingly non-smoking.  Perhaps 1 or 2 in 20 of my friends, acquaintances and family members might be smokers (if I apply the CDC estimates of 5-9%, for the rate of undergrad degree and post-grad degree holders who smoke), but I am hard-pressed to count that many. (There will be regional variation in the U.S., as the CDC report shows that Washington state is a relatively low smoking state, and it's a very good guess that health-conscious Seattle's rate is also quite low).  In contrast, had I been in France from ages 25 to my mid-40s, and holding the social factors above constant, that is, not changing any features of my social status, 1 in 5 of the people in my social circle would have been smokers (using the estimated 19% of bac +5 that smoke to the 22% of bac +3/4).  Smoking is simply much more normative here, even by educational level, and it is much less so in the U.S.  Normative expectations are informed by our experiences with social norms over time.  I've been in France a relatively short time, and so my expectations about smoking and when and where I will encounter smokers are still heavily influenced by my experiences elsewhere.  In that respect, my surprise each time is not at all that surprising.

10 September 2013

Les feuilles mortes

The season of les feuilles mortes (dead leaves, or autumn leaves) is suddenly upon us, even in Provence where as recently as this past Saturday, we were swimming in the Med and attending some football 'friendlies' along the still hot French Riviera.  By the next day though, I noticed that leaves were falling and floating, slowly, but inevitably, to the ground.

A similar theme, of inevitability and floating leaves, or rather, dollar bills, appeared in a blog post by a Seattle Times writer last week (see Guzman "Are wallets on their way out?" The Seattle Times, Sept. 7, 2013).  The post was about how cash, and the wallets in which we carry it, are both becoming less necessary, maybe even obsolete, as we rely more and more on credit cards, automatic payments, and our smartphones, rather than hard currency.  I haven't been in the U.S. in over two years so I am not sure about the demise of U.S. bucks. Certainly here in France, online bill paying, barcodes, and the bancaire (debit card with a chip)  that I carry means I can easily shop in most large stores, buy gas, order a train ticket online or at an automatic machine, and run through an autoroute toll booth much more quickly than I could with cash.  (Sometimes, the automated payment systems seem less than efficient, as I pointed out last August in Les files d'attente.)  L'espèces (cash) though is still used widely in France, especially monnaie (change).  After all, the single euro unit is a coin, not a paper bill.  Preparing for that, I had invested in a new wallet with a large coin compartment before coming here.  The wallet was a good investment; it carries the requisite personal identification and the copious change that I go through very quickly, particularly with our near daily baguette purchases (80 to 95 centîmes each, so that's a euro coin each time) and my biweekly or sometimes daily produce market purchases which range from 3-12 euros each time.  I also use change at some French highway toll booths where special cash baskets accept payments of tolls of less than a few euros. You just throw the coins in! Interestingly and archaically, I have a chequier (checkbook) here too, as the French still use them.  (Are they the last ones in Europe to do so?!)  I still have to write checks to the boys' school, for lunch fees, and for sports' fees, and I wrote two tax payments to the government, by check, which were reimbursed by check as well.  (Our other French bills are paid online, like we do in the U.S.)  Paper money is still necessary here also; a blogger friend recently posted about on-the-spot cash fines throughout the EU for some traffic infractions (see Speeding in Spain on Aixcentric.com, 9 Sept. 2013).  It's always a good idea to have some cash on hand for those speeding and other emergencies.  (This is true in the U.S. too: I think about the time my family had just arrived from Europe after a vacation and was stranded at a horrible run-down airport hotel in New York around midnight.  I somehow managed to convince a passing shuttle driver to take us away from there to a better lodging, and thankfully we had some cash to pay him, even though, embarrassingly, it was not in U.S. currency.)

I suggest that hard currency will continue to be important despite the prognostications.  For one, it remains the means by which we purchase, sell, and exchange goods and services with many people, such as the market vendors I visit each week in Aix en Provence.  And, besides its obvious instrumental value, currency is also a social artifact, one that is closely tied to a people's values and identities. Societies spend time (and money!) designing currency that reflects their social values and origins.  (We can see this in the old coin collections of national and historical museums as well.)  For example, Americans continue to proclaim their Godly trust in and on their money, while the face of the long-living Queen Elizabeth graces the many different currencies of her current and former dominions.  Even in Europe where the European monetary union has submerged numerous national currencies into a shared regional one, the member countries reflect their national identities by taking turns designing the backs of euro coins (above, starting clockwise from the top left, 2 and 1 euro coins designed by France, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Spain).  For many of the members, a kind of nostalgia seems to persist for their old currencies which keeps alive some aspects of social identity.  For example, in France, prices are often still listed in francs and euros and the names of even older currencies like sous (from the time of Charlemagne) are used in casual speech to refer to money or cash.  These currencies may have gone the way of les feuilles mortes, but they remain important symbols of French identity and daily life.

And on that nostalgic note, here's a youtube clip of Serge Gainsbourg's lovely, melancholic song Le chanson de Prévert inspired by Jacques Prévert's poem about those fallen leaves of autumn.

03 September 2013

Les chemins

One thing that can make me anxious in less than five minutes in the South of France is to get an address to someone's home that begins "Chemin de la...."   I usually think of a chemin as a country road, as a route leading to a farm or something.  For example, I took a chemin today with a friend to pick up her produce box (look how beautiful these are right now with the new grapes and peppers and tomatoes), and for once, I got just what I expected. Yet, I can't even count anymore how many times I've gone off confidently to visit a new acquaintance or take my kids to a birthday party in our car only to find myself essentially still within city limits, turning off the route departementale or nationale and suddenly bouncing along on a pot-holed, gravelly, ever-narrow, what-I-would-call logging road (I grew up in a logging town in the Pacific NW so I know what these are), wondering if I made a wrong turn and if I will have room to let an oncoming car by me.  Often, my navigator app on my phone urges me to continue on this seemingly remote road, and sometimes I do, despite having to reverse or somehow squeeze by an occasional car coming towards me.  Other times, I stop and phone my host to double-check, like last week when my son said, 'Mom, no way, this CAN'T be right!'.  Yet EVERY time, I am surprised to find myself eventually at a tall, often forbidding gate that when opened remotely, takes me down a rough driveway that ends up at......a gorgeous French home.  And all the other gates along the crazy road I've just driven down lead to similar homes.  I've never seen anything like this anywhere!  A French friend tells me that this may be a bit particular to the south.  I don't know yet what to call the phenomenon, but I still find it so surprising.

What is it about the forbidding routes to residential homes?  I've decided these are the result of shrewd calculations about impression management, coupled with perhaps a greater French tolerance for discomfort.  Or, maybe there is some stinginess too?  First impressions and packaging are very important to the French, when it comes to public encounters and outward appearances.  People dress well here, especially in town like the woman I saw in Aix today walking her dog in the highest, spikiest heels I could imagine for the job.  Gifts and pastries all arrive pretty in boxes, with even single pastries laboriously packaged, such as l'opéra that I enjoyed myself one night recently.  But, family homes are much more private here than in many other places; they hide behind high walls and gated driveways.  Earlier, I suggested that this is in part  for reasons of privacy and concerns about security (see Maisons and chateaux, November 2012).  Popping over to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor might not be that common here, because popping over would mean exiting one's gate, ringing the buzzer on the neighbor's, and that puts pressure on the neighbors to keep up appearances and manage impressions.  Perhaps because family and home lives seem to be more private here, people may be less compelled to make the effort to create a beautiful, comfortable entry road to one's home.  It also seems to be true that the French tolerate personal discomforts to a degree that many others might not (eg. bathroom facilities, indoor heating...), even tolerating unhappiness more than most (see Contentement, May 2013).   Bouncing along on a ungroomed, unpaved, uneven, tiny road to get to and from work or school each day may just not be a big deal to many people here.  Or, maybe some are simply not willing to fork out the money to improve the roads to their homes?  Is this another one of those instances where if the public interest isn't there, no one will take care of a bumpy situation?