19 October 2013

En famille

A beautiful gate and doorway in Aix's Villeneuve quarter
Weekends are family time in France.  People tend to spend their time en famille (together with family at home), or at a second family home or with relatives.  Some go into town together like in Aix, where we see many families in town on Saturdays; the grocery stores and marchés fill up with them, and once the holiday season starts, parking is very, very difficult on Saturdays.  (This year, the season may be starting sooner than later as the city workers were stringing the holiday lights on the plane trees along cours Mirabeau already this week.)  Sundays are another story.  Then, most towns and villages are quiet and almost lifeless, with shop windows shuttered and restaurants open sporadically.  For those of us without family here, or for tourists, there is not much to do on a Sunday.  Our family frequently has a championnat football game to attend on Sunday morning (this is what the French football federation seasonal games are called), and we appreciate the chance to have a slow morning, but Sunday afternoons are really empty, except for the cinemas which are open.  I take a lot of walks and pictures on Sundays, but not of people because the streets are so quiet.  The photos here were taken on recent Sundays.  My guys watch a lot of tv or spend time on the Internet.

Sundays are protected by French law, for le repos dominical (Sunday rest).  In secular times, this day off work has been reinterpreted to mean a day to spend en famille, resting and relaxing.  So most shops are closed, by law.  Year-round, a few exceptions are made for special commercial or touristic zones: a large shopping area between Aix and Marseille is open during the day on Sundays, and in Aix, a number of grocers are open until midday while a shopping street has a few shops open for a few hours in the afternoon outside of the holiday season.  These openings are in part justified by the needs of tourists and visitors to have access to some commercial services on otherwise deserted Sundays.  (The rules during the holidays are a little looser.)  For now, other businesses are trying to get in on the Sunday opening hours, such as home improvement stores, the owners of which argue that even the ordinary French would like broader access to shops on Sundays, perhaps to bricoler (do repairs or household maintenance work) a little bit on a Sunday afternoon.  That is certainly how we often spend our Sundays in the U.S., running to the hardware store for supplies so we can putter around the house.  So far though, such stores in France have not been successful in getting the right to be open on Sundays. (see "No late-night shopping please, we're French," by Leela Jacinto, France 24, 3 Oct. 2013.)

Nevertheless, this is a perennial discussion in France, about which shops should be allowed to be open and for how long on the weekends, and it seems that eventually, one will see more stores open on Sundays, not just for the tourists and expatriates, but for ordinary French families too.  For those with dual working parents, having broader access to grocery stores and hardware stores would seem to be beneficial.  It took me nearly a half year in France before I was able to figure out how to replenish our larder sufficiently and efficiently on Saturday so that we would have enough food through Monday morning (and I still don't understand how French parents do it).  As I mentioned above, on Saturdays, the grocery stores and even my beloved marché down the street are crowded, so crowded that I often want to avoid them altogether. (Wednesdays are another bad day, particularly for grocery shopping, with grade school kids home from school).  The local shopping area that is open on Sundays, that I mention above, is an even greater nightmare on Sunday, with traffic jams, crowds at the restaurants, and long lines at check-out. Clearly, there is a demand for Sunday opening hours among the French, and with the current unemployment rates, there are surely workers and students eager to fill the ranks of weekend sales and grocery clerks.

A graffiti filled stairwell on the east side of Aix

11 October 2013

Le respect

Because I haven't attended French schools myself and parents are not typically invited to be on school grounds during the school day, there are many everyday classroom protocols that I only know about through my children.  For example, when middle school students enter a classroom, they must stand by their desks and wait until the teacher tells them to sit down.  Likewise, if an administrator such as the principal enters the classroom, even unexpectedly, all of the students must instantly scramble onto their feet to stand beside their desks in a sign of respect for him or her.  And, when raising their hand in response to a teacher's question, students raise their index finger, as if gently pointing up to the ceiling (no frantic U.S. style hand waving here!).

These are markers of le respect that are specific to a culture.  Curiously though, they imply strong deference to authority, in a society where many other social conventions seem to be intended to create social exchanges on a more equal footing.  I've noted earlier how the French offer greetings and farewells in stores, and this is in part I think to create a setting of mutual respect between the seller and the consumer for the potential economic exchange that may take place.  Once, when I was so focused on making sure I got my order right in French at the fanciest bakery in town, I forgot to say bonjour.  The bakery clerk repeated his bonjour to me three times, waiting for me to return it before he would help me with my order.  And there is what I sometimes think of as the kiss-fest that occurs whenever we go to football practice or a game.  I easily faire les bises with at least 20 people, parents, coaches, players, siblings of players, grandparents of players, etc.  It doesn't matter what the person's social or coaching rank is, we make these exchanges as a way to imply a kind of respect for each other as persons, where we acknowledge each other's humanity for just a moment even if we go on to sit or chat with someone else.  Finally, there are the opportunities for the French public to respectfully disagree with their political and economic leaders, by striking and bringing the country to a standstill, if for a moment.  This week the air traffic controllers and local train line staffs took their turn in the South of France.  (I also wrote about the strikes of last October in Les manifestations, Oct. 2012.)

Unfortunately, in some social arenas, authority figures do sometimes use their positions to demand respect from their followers but don't always offer considération (respect) in return.  We see this in politics often, even in democratic societies.  For example, we have the government shut-down in the U.S. brought about by politically powerful people who can't seem to make compromises for the good of everyone (striking is not a privilege for the government, but for its people!), and in France, we have the amazingly sexist behavior of some French MPs (members of parliament) towards their female colleagues ("France's sexist National Assembly", France24blogs, 10/10/2013), and the unfortunate comments by a presidential cabinet member in regards to the Roma population in France (Roms: le Mrap va déposer plainte contre Valls devant le CJR, La Provence, 11 Oct. 2013).  In the educational setting, the rules about respect seem to vary a bit more widely.  In U.S. schools, students are expected to act politely to their teachers and administrators, but standing up in the presence of teachers or shaking their hands is not required, not anymore anyway.  Teachers and administrators themselves must abide carefully by rules governing appropriate personal or physical contact and are expected to be mutually respectful.  In French public schools, the model seems to be be much more authoritarian and the flow of respect is largely from the students towards their teachers.  I hear a lot about verbal berating of students--students are often told what they are doing wrong and very little of what they are doing well--and this week at my sons' school, a teacher reportedly hit a student violently for misbehaving.  Yet, the school year began with the national announcement of a new secular code of conduct for all French students ("School year begins in France with string of reforms," France 24, 4 Sept. 2013).  Codes of conduct are pretty common in U.S. educational institutions, and a few months ago, I reiterated a feminist's call for a broad social code of conduct in everyday life (see La politesse March 2013). Yet, I gather from the cartoon below from a page in my French daily calendar that the question of mutual respect is still a bit of a joke at French schools.  Maybe the new code of conduct should address everyone at school, students and adults alike?

In the Ethics class, on Politeness, a student says to the teacher,
"One stands up when the students enter the classroom!"