Friday, December 24, 2010

Final grand theory (France’s gift to me)

What did I learn in France? The big take-away for me was the relative lack of shame. And I am surprised by how revolutionary this is to me. All the functionality and sense of entitlement shown by the French could very well come from what I see as a lack of desire to make people feel bad. Or, put another way, a great desire to shore people up, let them feel good, appreciate them for who they are, and protect them from humiliation.

And it could all be in my head—is probably a theory that says more about me than anything about “the French”—but I am enjoying the fantasy and finding it really helpful. (I chose not to watch French daytime TV just to keep it alive.)

In the US, and even more so in England (and perhaps in other northern European countries like Germany and Scandinavia), I find there is a

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Words that suddenly sound weird

For examples of my habitual train of thought about language and how my brain is slowly able to put the pieces together, over a couple of days, I kept track of words that stood out for me.

At a café, a sign saying service is only at the “comptoir.” Comptoir, a word I associated with banks and accounting. A compte is an account. So why at a restaurant? And then, of course, the “counter.” Same deal: account, counter. Just the same in English. Only it doesn’t sound weird to me at all in English because

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Big fat black pen revisited

I had one more trip back to the Mairie to pay Kadin’s school lunch bill. I had recently received the bill for September and October, but needed to pay for November and December as well. They would normally bill me for this in March, but

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two classes

Had my last French class on Thursday and my last yoga class on Friday. These 5.5 hours of classes each week were my biggest chance at speaking French. Invaluable because French was the only common language and we were forced to use it. Awkward/comical as it was at times, there was communication going on!

First I have to quickly tell about the back-to-school night for Kadin’s French-as-a-Second-Language class to illustrate how hard it can be to find a situation where you are really forced to speak French. The teacher introduced herself and said she wanted to start by going around and having the parents introduce themselves. We should say our name, where we were from, and who our student was.

I had just re-learned all this introduction stuff in my French class, so I was excited to say “My name is Jenny, I am from the United States,” etc. in French. But the first couple to go asked if they could speak English, they were from Ethiopia. The next couple also spoke English, they were from India. Then the next couple was from Korea, they also spoke English. So did the woman from Poland and the family from Malta etc. etc.

Wow, a veritable United Nations and what is the common language? English. By the time they got to me, I just went ahead and spoke English too.

But this was not the case in my French class. While a few of the students spoke English, most did not. I was the only American and by far the oldest person. The others were mostly Chinese women in their late teens or early 20s, the one male was a young engineering student from Brazil, and the class was rounded out by a Lithuanian woman doing post doctoral research in Grenoble.

When we introduced ourselves, we found out the Chinese women were all only children. I told the Chinese students that I had been to China when I was 10, in 1976. They looked a little shocked and replied, “You were? Well, I wasn’t.” They hadn’t been born yet and there has been so much change in the intervening decades, it was probably ancient history to them.

The Lithuanian woman seemed the closest to my age, so when we were learning the past tense, she was saying “I was born in 19…” and this is a good phrase because you would use être instead of avoir to form the past tense with the verb “to be born,” and then she hesitated, so I chimed in with “soixsante” the start of 60 and 70, thinking that would give her a good 2-decade range in which to be born, but no. She was born in 1980. So that was the person closest to my age. She was 6 when I last took a French class!

And so it went. I was definitely the most willing to make a fool of myself in the class. Also perhaps the one who knew the least French, but I was glad to be a little beyond my ability since I was only here 4 months. I needed to step on the accelerator!

In one class we were learning the different ways to describe periods of time using words like “since” or “during.” We were supposed to answer questions like, “How long have you lived on your own?” “How long have you been drinking alcohol?” “When did you start driving?” “How long have you been voting?” “How long have you been married?” I actually got to answer these questions with the years, as was the plan, but almost everyone else had to reply, “I have never….” Finally, some age and experience pays off!

I loved the class and I will miss it. It often gave me a headache, but my old and ossified brain has stretched a tiny bit.

Yoga class was also an ideal French immersion experience. Iyengar is a topic I know well and the teacher spoke clearly and slowly all about the parts of the body and where to put them. This was great.

The first class, I wasn’t sure what a cerveau was, I thought maybe it was a deer? So I just channeled my inner deer and imagined antlers growing out of my head while lying on the floor. And I learned the word for floor, sol, which is a perfect homophone for a different English word, and the word for ceiling, plafond, which is quite a nice sounding word that you can easily admire.

In this class, I was the youngest. Once again, nobody spoke much English. Each week I would try to carry on a simple conversation with the teacher about Iyengar in France or if she had been to India. Others in the class would engage me briefly before or after and were very kind and patient with my French. I even managed to make a few jokes during class that people seemed to understand.

The biggest difficulty came in Eagle pose when we were supposed to put one arm au dessus and the other arm au dessous and one leg au dessus and the other leg au dessous. Still can’t distinguish between those antonyms and it’s so easy to get tangled up!

I am sad that class has ended too. My body really liked it and my cerveau did too.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The stale end of the day

This phrase from Greg’s sci-fi novel “the stale end of the day” sticks with me all the time. French bread is really only good for one day. You have a stale end, everyday.

(I am also not a night person, so the end of the day often does feel stale to me as well.)

And things here are fresh, used quickly and discarded when old. Everything is smaller: toilet paper, portions, refrigerators. They are always ready for change.

Yet waste is reviled. The pigeons thrive on this. They are part of the whole ecosystem. People reuse and recycle. Pigeons pick up the pieces.

It makes me think the USA has a proportion problem----maybe because it was largely settled by people who had big dreams, who were not satisfied elsewhere, so left?

And that brings to mind my morning in Paris at the Puces or the flea markets. These are amazing places that have created something from nothing.

According to the brochure I read, the “rag and bone men” were kicked out of the city proper (in like 1870) and so made their living at the margins. Every Sunday they would lay out their wares on the ground for sale. By 1920, there were more organized collections of market stalls at the gates around the city. The gypsies and their manouche jazz became associated with this flea market tradition. So where once there were outcasts, there was now music and food and things for sale. Crowds would gather.

And the markets kept evolving so that today at the center you can find a lovely mixture of pseudo established stalls/stores selling vintage clothing and antiques, second hand furniture and industrial signs, buttons and jewelry, books and prints, and pretty much any kind of bric-a-brac you can imagine. Prices in these well-established stalls seemed high to me, but it was like eye candy to look.

I loved how each stall had its own style and its own specialty. It was all sort of ad hoc and organic with winding alleys where it was easy to get disoriented and turned around. I had been warned not to carry much money as this was also a haven for pickpockets (another part of the ecosystem that thrives on crowds).

The stall keepers all know each other and have their own thriving community. At lunchtime, a neighbor or family member brings a hot lunch, and they lay it out on their antique tables and dine. They seemed incredibly gracious with customers and loved to gab and chat.

One common technique is to take something that would normally be discarded, an old key for example, collect lots of these together, organize them, display them in an interesting way, and then sell them for a couple of euros each. Trash to treasure, just like that. It was beautiful.

Then, around these now-established market stalls, there are other less permanent stalls selling wares from Africa and Asia and usually run by more recent immigrants, and then, on the edges of those stalls, are streets where men just put a blanket on the ground at their feet and sell whatever they can find to sell. It is the same old tradition.

On the fringes there were even the proverbial guys selling watches from the inside of their trench coats. Okay, so maybe not watches and maybe not a trench coat, but more like something they had just lifted from a store. It was seedy and fascinating and incredibly lively, especially on a Sunday morning when other shops are closed.

An aside: later in the day I went to the huge Galleries Lafayette department store in the center of Paris, thinking surely it, of all places, would be open. There were thousands of people there thronging around the building looking at the Christmas window displays, but it was closed. I have to wonder what kind of forces are at work to keep such a capitalist enterprise closed when thousands of people wanted a chance to get inside. Fascinating!

The rag and bone men don’t have that luxury. Their niche is at the edges before something becomes established. They fill in when the other shops are closed. They take what is discarded or underappreciated and turn it into art. Where some see a problem, they see an opportunity.

À Paris

I would like to thank all the service people who are on the front lines: all the clerks, waiters, and other professionals who have borne with my mangled French and helped me to improve it. Now that I know a little bit more, I see how tough your job is and how much further I need to go! Thank you for your courtesy and patience while I learn.

I did finally make a spontaneous, last minute trip to Paris for a day. It was great. I hunted beads and ate at a wonderful gluten-free restaurant.

I was struck by how much English there was all around me in Paris. There is much less in Grenoble. And also struck, surprisingly, by how polite and helpful the Parisiens were.

From my kind of in-between state, I can see how easily misunderstandings and resentments can develop.

Case #1: I’m in line at an urban grocery store buying a pear and some almonds. Behind me are two older American gentlemen buying a bottle of wine. They are clearly on vacation, talking about how good the bread is and what their wives are doing back at the hotel. They are well dressed and look like the golf-club type, relaxed and in tourist mode. In front of me is a local and a regular. She is buying a huge amount of groceries---probably her weekly Saturday morning shop. She is chatting with the clerk and the two guys who are packing her stuff in crates for free delivery (a common service in the city if you buy a huge amount). It is taking a while. But we are all waiting patiently.

After a few minutes, the clerk calls out to someone and then tells me to go to another line as it is about to open. It takes me a little while (as usual) to realize she is talking to me and to understand what her plan is. But it makes sense. There should be an express lane. So I go to the new line and wait for the new clerk.

The first clerk is now trying to get the attention of the men who were behind me. She is telling them to get into the new line. They have no idea she is talking to them. By about the fifth repetition, once she is yelling, they finally realize this woman is saying something to them.

From their point of view, the first they are aware of it, someone is yelling at them. They have no idea what she wants, just that she is yelling. So I tell them to come over to this line, it will be opening shortly.

“Huh? Why?”

I forget what the express lane is called in English, so say something about a “Rapid check out.” They shrug, and move over, a bit jarred, their peace and tranquility upset. They just want a bottle of wine to share with their wives, they don’t want to be yelled at and moved about. The clerk, for the life of her, can’t understand how anyone can be that dense.

Case #2: I’m in a small vendor’s stall at the puces, a conglomeration of antique vendors on the outskirts of the city. There is an American guy buying 8 of some small, funky French antique. He is happy with his find, but also seems slightly nervous, like he might be getting ripped off.

From my perspective, he does everything wrong. He doesn’t start with politeness, he is sarcastic, talks loudly, he is not good with the numbers thing as the numbers thing is always a problem, his French is minimal, his accent terrible. He’ll repeat the numbers the older female proprietor says and say, “Oh, you mean huit.” Acting like he is correcting her.

The saleswoman, meanwhile, is happy to make the sale, is being very polite, and is muttering to herself in French while she packages up his items, “oh, this is a pretty one, and [[crash!!]] don’t worry, it’s not serious, there are lots of things in this shop, things fall, it’s not a problem, I’ll just find a bag,” etc. etc. He understands none of this, is not sure what is going on.

So he tries some small talk. It is unusually cold out, so he chimes in with what he thinks is the old standard weather-related conversation starter: "C'est froid." Just like her, he gets no response. The correct construction is “Il fait froid.” What he said doesn’t make sense. It might sound to her like something about liver or faith, but not the temperature. So she ignores his odd non-sequitor.

Both are trying, but neither is being understood by the other. He is coming across as rude and she is coming across as shifty.

Overall, I came away extremely impressed by how the Parisians actually manage to be polite 99% of the time, given how exhausting it must be to constantly not be understood and to constantly hear your language mangled. I think they have the patience of Job.

And then I noticed the deferential/pseudo shy/apologetic demeanor of Americans trying to be polite---I do this all the time myself. At the gluten-free restaurant I could tell the nationality of who was coming in the door by whether they entered with confidence (French) or sort of apologetically: “I’m sorry, but do you have a table? You wouldn’t happen to have a table, would you?” That would be the Anglophone way. Seeing it with fresh eyes, I think it comes across as cloying. I could see how that too could get tiring.

And during my Sunday lunch at the restaurant, I witnessed an amazing thing. An American couple came in, in that sort of hesitant, American way. By this time, the restaurant was full. I felt bad for the couple because (1) it was freezing out and (2) this was the only gluten-free restaurant in Paris and if you need to be gluten free, it is very difficult to just eat anywhere.

The hostess kindly tells them it is full. They tip their heads to one side and look sort of distressed and pathetic. Full? Yes, full. Their eyes narrow, their mouths hang open with their bottom teeth showing. Then the two women next to me say they are just leaving. The Americans sort of bow and look down and thank them, awkwardly standing to the side as the women leave.

Soon a Canadian couple comes in. The hostess again informs them the restaurant is full. They sigh and leave.

Then, a French family walks in: a mother, father, and three young children. They too are told it is full. The mother, a very stylish, happy blond smiles and explains they have no other options as they need to eat gluten free. The hostess again repeats that they are full.

I’m not sure what all happened next and what the exchange was, but the mother never apologized, never complained, never whined, just held her ground, confidently smiled and made some suggestions and before I knew it, the furniture was being rearranged, a table was being rolled out, and the family of 5 was being seated. A real voila! moment. Everyone was smiling then.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Vive la différence!

In Germany, they capitalize almost everything
In France, almost nothing

In Switzerland, they eat outside at every opportunity
In France, anything but a leisurly hot lunch is considered barbaric

In England they wait in neat lines, expect you to defer to others, and are concerned about what others think
In france they are not shy about forming clumps, expect you to have a sense of entitlement, and could care less what others think

France has a dire overabundance of vowels while eastern Europe has an abject scarcity

Defined by difference

If you give it up, you cease to exist!

Mesa Messenger from afar

While reading the most recent online newsletter from Kadin’s elementary school in Boulder I was struck by how the principle chose to emphasize two programs: first, their “positive behavior support” program where students are rewarded for good behavior (instead of just being punished for bad behavior), and second, the focus on developing a student’s “voice” or personal style in their writing, something they will be evaluated on. Both of these things—the only two items on his agenda—are totally and utterly foreign to the system in France!

Teachers in the kid’s schools here seem to be on the lookout only for bad behavior. Kadin came home the other day and said his class was “bavarding” so much that the teacher threatened to call the police. Wow. And in the states, his teachers think raising their voice is going too far... From what I gather, yelling is pretty much the norm here. I too once thought yelling was inevitable until I saw more skilled classroom management in action. It's pretty amazing, and pretty effective.

And I went to a parent teacher conference at Rees’s school the other day. We were walking down a corridor mostly reserved for teachers. Rees was nervous, but I told him it was okay because he was with me. Then we got lost, couldn’t find the room, and walked down that corridor several more times. On about the third time through, for some reason, Rees—who must have been pretty bored at that point—got it into his head that it would be fun to slide on his back on his fleece hoodie on the polished floor. I asked him what he was doing and told him that the floor was dirty, it was where people put their feet (and we all know those feet were on the sidewalk and we also know what is on the sidewalk in abundance here in France…), but he didn’t seem to care about that, so I just ignored him (didn’t think it was so bad, just gross) and walked a few steps ahead, knowing the moment would pass (as soon as we hit the carpet).

Just then, a teacher came out into the corridor, saw Rees, and immediately marched over with a loud, accusing, “Ce qu'il se passe ici?!” In faltering French I reply something like, “C’est mon fils,” “That is my son.” And she accepted that and the matter was dropped. I got the feeling this “Ce qu'il se passe!” is the first order of business around here. Accusations first, explanations later. It's the kind of environment where everyone is focused on the bad and aberrant, where no one would be caught being good.

Still don’t know what inspired Rees’s strange behavior—there was a high, four-story sky-lit ceiling he could look up at when he was on his back—but he said I was like his armor. I did kind of sense he was pushing at the limits he felt all around him. Still, it was not my proudest moment to admit to that teacher he was my son! But we love him.

And in French school, it is hard to imagine a standard evaluation based on “voice” or personal expression. Ha! The criteria are much more structured and the value is placed on fitting in. Even using “I” in an essay is discouraged. And in handwriting too, there is no idea that everyone might develop a personal style. The emphasis instead is on one proper form to strive to achieve. And there is no acknowledgement of differences in learning style or ways of learning. It really is sink or swim (we won’t even talk about the swimming classes I've heard stories of where this is literally true…but at least the state funds swimming lessons for all…).

So I was overjoyed to learn that the child in Kadin’s class who is the “problem” kid, the one always being disciplined, was the one who excelled at the “cross” (inter-school track meet) and won the whole thing for his class. First place in the whole city for running. Gosh, could there be a connection???

Then Carina told me about an email thread/discussion she received via the parent organization at the elementary school. Apparently, in the German section of the school, a girl was assaulted by a teacher who lost her temper and pulled the girl’s hair. The parent (who I believe was German) asked the parent association what she could do. The advice from the other parents? Keep quiet because if she complains about the assault, the teacher could file a civil suit against her. The parent then asked what she could do to protect her child. The answer: not much.

Looks like another case of worker’s rights gone too far! Since I had heard this story third hand, I asked the head of the American School (Rees’s school) about it and she confirmed that this could well be the case. Unfortunately, there truly was a chance of the parent being sued by the teacher if the parent complained about the assault.

So we’re gaining some good perspective and won’t be taking the positive programs for discipline and creative expression in the Boulder schools for granted!

Monday, December 13, 2010

TV and Radio

I’m understanding more of the radio programs these days. Not just the sense or the feel (what I call the underlying language of gesture and intonation that seems to be pretty universal and is at least well shared by French and American cultures).

An aside: here’s a video of the facial expression part of this underlying shared language from an exhibit we saw yesterday at the Musée Dauphinois about machines trying to imitate humans. This is the language dogs have evolved to understand. This is the language key to my impressions of France!

And I am still finding everything fascinating, probably partly because it is like looking at something through slats in a fence: you only grasp bits and pieces and it makes it so much more enticing. If you see the whole, it might be boring, ordinary, or otherwise uninteresting. There is a thriving, blooming garden of a language and culture hidden behind a fence and I can only see parts of it. It’s rich, but just—out—of—reach.

The soap opera we watch every night, Plus Belle la Vie, would be totally uninteresting in English, I think. But for us, it is a real draw. We can understand the cheesy drama and the overacting, the music always lets us know whether it is meant to be comic or suspenseful. We can’t really comprehend its more mundane side. To us it is all new and mysterious, a puzzle, a mystery. We love it.

I tried to watch daytime TV one day, but it was too depressing. The shows were either dubbed soaps or those horrible talk shows where they have a conflict like “why Chantal hates Collette” and they have Chantal tell her part of the story in front of Collette, then it is Collette’s turn, and the host makes no attempt at resolution, everyone gets whipped into a frenzy, etc.

But that was not the most depressing part of French daytime TV to me. The thing that really bummed me out was the commercials. I was devastated to learn that “French women” according to the advertisers (the obvious target audience for daytime TV) are just as insecure and worried about what to feed their family for breakfast, wrinkles, how to get softer whiter laundry, etc. as “American women.” What a bummer! My illusions shattered! Tell me it isn’t true!

So I am not peeking through that part of the fence. Instead, I listen to “France Inter,” which I think is sort of like French public radio. There are interviews with artists and writers, political discussions, comedy shows, music, etc.

One show was about sex education for teenagers. First I was interested because the show was about jeunes gens (young people) and this is good for me because I find those two words difficult to distinguish. Thank goodness yellow (jaune) does not often come up in the same sentence or I’d be hopeless (Greg told me to think about saying “Jean Jen John” and that helps!).

Also, it was interesting because the conversation started out in such a much more practical and reasonable place than a similar conversation would in America. In America, sex education wouldn’t even be the issue, it would be about privacy and states rights versus individual family values. It would be about religion, beliefs, respecting difference.

Here, they had a couple of teenagers and a couple of adult experts in the field who worked in the school system or in public health. The radio interviewer asked the teenagers if they had sex education in the school and they said yes. They asked the teenagers if they liked it. They said no, it was awkward and embarrassing. They asked the teenagers if they talked about such things with their parents. Of course not!

Meanwhile, the adults calmly pointed out that there were many streams of information informing the teenagers about sexuality: the media, the internet, their friends, their families, etc. And it is a basic fact that not all these sources of information have an interest in being detailed and accurate.

Though uncomfortable for all, they conclude, it is important to society, a simple matter of public health, that correct information about preventing disease be put in the schools. (There are condom dispensers on the street corners here.) It was all so sensible! They really got to the key issue very quickly.

So on this topic I felt the French were in a much better place and addressing the real issue at its core. However, on the topic of race and immigration, I think America is more able to get to root of the problem and have a productive discourse. [Keep in mind this is the view from my very limited understanding!]

In America, the race conversation, while also controversial, starts out from a place of the idea of equal rights and respect for difference (on NPR at least). In France, it seems to be all about “them” becoming “us.” There is ONE right way to live and it is the French way. When I hear these discussions I always feel they are talking about the wrong things (just like I do in America when the topic of sex education comes up---it gets derailed by other deeply held beliefs).

I guess sometimes having one right way works, sometimes it doesn’t…

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Limbic system

My new theory is that they are more in touch with their limbic system here. It’s not an either/or kind of thing where either you are an animal acting on your base instincts OR you are civilized. They are civilized AND, at the same time, in touch with their base animal instincts. Actually, thriving on the two together.

Every culture has to eat, sleep, work, love, communicate. It may not look like these things are getting done, like where is the PDA (public display of affection) in England and where is the work in France? But they are getting done because obviously the culture is functioning. It might look wrong and strange and illogical to the outsider, but somehow it works.

Even the language. It is amazing to me that people are able to communicate in this other language. How is it that they can be clear and unambiguous? Somehow a literal translation of the words is not enough, you have to know context, connotation, history. There just seem to be so many gaps when looking in from the outside. But the evidence that it works supremely well is all around.

There is so much more to learn!

There is a whole industry built up around what I see as the odd school hours---moms who share lunch duties or set up private lunchtime kids cafés, businesses that offer childcare on Wednesdays, Wednesday camps, before care, after care. So in the end it is actually pretty much the same. And the strange shop hours seem to be only an annoyance for me. It works.

But back to our limbic system---the animal, instinctual part of the brain. In American schools, for example, there have been studies and there is a widespread belief that fear and learning do not go together. If you are in fight or flight mode, the theory goes, the blood in your body is not going to your brain but instead is going to your muscles via an adrenaline response. Hence, learning is compromised. Here, that does not seem to be a problem.

And on the streets, there is just a different sense of timing in the traffic of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. There is no hesitation or deference, you pretty much just go and stop at a much later second than I feel is safe. My “safer” cultural rhythm is about one beat behind and seems to muck everything up. If I defer and don’t take what they see as my entitlement, that is the only time when I see hands suddenly grasp for handlebars, graceful walkers falter, cars screech. People expect you to just go, they time their passage minutely to sweep in just behind you. It is very graceful until you hesitate and mess everyone up. There is a rhythm and a flow that seems much faster and scarier and more dangerous, but it works.

Walking home the other night in a fresh heavy snowfall on icy sidewalks, I saw a woman riding her bicycle (that alone seemed impossible to me given how slippery it was, I was finding walking in boots difficult) with ONE HAND because she had AN UMBRELLA in the other. Madness! But she was calm, cool, and collected and was doing fine. She was in touch with her limbic system.

And then there is the PDA thing. In America, passion is hidden. It’s seen as a bit of a crazy state where you aren’t in your right mind, something a bit out of control that you should hide because it might compromise your everyday functioning. Yet here, PDA is very common, accepted, an important part of life. No problem with people---mostly young people but also middle-aged people---being passionate with significant others on the streets, on the buses, everywhere. Again, a very civilized country that sees no conflict between intimate emotions and public functioning. The underlying instincts brought to the surface.

Or the whole smells thing, but I can't even start on that...too much to go into here...

So it looks miraculous to me but French parents ride bikes over icy street with 8-year-olds sitting on the back bracket, clinging to the seat. French shoppers calmly go back to the produce department to weigh their produce without a thought to holding everyone else up. They believe in love at first sight and make time for romance. Women walk all day in 6 inch heels, and thrive! They smoke, drink, eat high fat food, and are thin and healthy. They believe they can and they do. It works. Where I see an accident waiting to happen or playing with fire, they confidently and competently achieve.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

OFII not that awful

So this week I jumped through my final bureaucratic [woohoo! starting to be able to spell that!] hoop by going to the OFII office to register for my long stay visa.

I won’t go into all the complex details, but basically, to stay longer than 3 months you need to register, have an interview, a medical exam, and a chest x-ray. Since I am also the spouse of a French national, this was couched in the context of permanent citizenship and life in France. There was a 340 euro fee, but in return I would be offered free French classes, counseling for employment, etc.

Eleanor Beardsley, an NPR reporter in Paris, recently did a piece about how she had to go through a similar process. Her take on it was really pretty positive: "Despite the recent uproar over the treatment of Roma, France remains a beacon for immigrants and a nation built on immigration. France accepts the highest number of asylum-seekers after the U.S., and a quarter of French citizens have a foreign-born parent or grandparent, just like President Sarkozy." I was happy to read her positive spin on this bureaucracy. The benefits I would be offered would be nice if I were [that’s the subjunctive, I think!] planning to stay. But I didn’t want to spend 340 euros just for the next three weeks that we are here. But I also didn’t want to mess up any opportunity I might have of becoming a French citizen down the road either.

My original appointment had been scheduled for October, but coincidentally it was during our one “holiday” here, so I called to change it, and it was rescheduled for December. I thought of postponing it one more time, just leave it hanging…but didn’t.

So, there is this medical exam part to the immigration process. And I guess that makes some sense. For me it is not a big hurdle, but it still felt very strange.

For example, in France, they have different rules of decorum and at the doctor’s office they don’t see any reason to leave the room while you undress. Fair enough (and luckily I had been forewarned about this, so it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been, like the first few times you encounter the French cheek kiss…). But I don’t know about you, I kind of have to psych myself up to maintain dignity when undressing in front of strangers. Does the saying "give someone a dressing down" exist in French? I don’t think this is an issue for them at all.

Thank goodness I am not from an even more restrictive culture. For many women this could be a very traumatic, even violating experience. You’re being inspected. And since this was about immigration, it was easy to feel that the main requirement for getting to stay in France was a test that involved being able to take off your clothes in front of strangers. Odd but true. It comes across as yet another example of the French enforcing their code of immodesty (other examples in this vein include: you can’t wear a Burka, middle school boys have to wear speedos…etc.). And when you’re not clothed, it creates a situation ripe for feelings of helplessness and vulnerability, especially when these strangers (who are clothed) speak a language you don’t understand and vice versa.

I would say 5 out of the 6 officials I interacted with were very kind and considerate. The one nurse who weighed and measured me seemed to have a bit of a sadistic streak---for her I only had to take off my shoes, but boy did she bark at me about that---but overall, everyone was very courteous and professional.

And, after all that, in the end, it was unnecessary. When I'd made it through the medical evaluation, I finally had my interview and the chance to explain that I would be leaving in a few weeks. The woman interviewing me agreed that it would be silly to pay the fee and sign the contract for citizenship, take French classes, etc. If and when I returned to France for a longer stay, I could complete that part of the process. They really did listen. I was not just pigeon holed and rubber stamped.

So I left feeling somewhat poked and prodded, but also triumphant, with a free check up, a clean bill of health ("Remplit les conditions sanitaires pour être autorisée à résider en France"), and a souvenir chest X-ray.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

She got a "Ce n'est pas grave"!

When you don't speak the language you miss a lot of cues and can encounter baffling surprises.

Like at the grocery store the first time we bought produce. Even though there are large signs all over saying "Weigh First!" and helpful, cheery announcements from the store loudspeaker saying things like, "[bing, bing, bing] Customers, please be so kind as to weigh your produce before proceeding to the register [bong, bong, bong]," you can still easily get to the register with unweighed produce.

Thank goodness Greg was with me the first time and actually understood that "peser" meant to weigh.

So when that happens you (or "one," or actually, "I") go and quickly weigh it and sheepishly return and feel like you are from Mars (but you prefer to pronounce it America).

And of course you are desolated to have deranged everyone.

So you become a little wary.

And if someone says something to you, you get that doe-in-headlights look and pray you somehow manage to understand them.

So I was a little uneasy when the older woman in front of me kept sort of checking me out and staring at what I was doing. Was I doing something wrong? Was I in the express? The cash only? The no carts? What?

No, I doubled checked everything and it was all in order, nothing I hadn't done before.

When it was her turn, she asked the clerk something about an item and a coupon and then decided not to buy that item. Then the clerk held up her bananas. Unweighed. She didn't understand. The clerk says it again. Being very familiar with this drill, I blurt out, in English, "you need to weigh them." And it turns out the woman is also American and didn't grasp all the instructions.

So she was watching me carefully to see what I was doing RIGHT, not what I was doing wrong...

She looked kind of catatonic at the idea of weighing her bananas, and since I had been in her position many a time, I simply took her bananas to the produce aisle and weighed them myself. The clerk, a little surprised, thanked me and of course so did the woman.

And today, again the same experience, but with what I think is a French twist. Maybe the difference was the nice, fresh clerk or maybe it was a good time of day, but I think there's more to it. The attitude is key.

This time the woman in front of me was French. She doesn't have a fidelity card and she didn't weigh her tangerines. But she understood and, no matter, she elegantly and easily, no hurry in her steps, takes them back to weigh them. When she returns (while we've been waiting) she presents her tangerines (now sporting a fresh pink sticker) with a lovely, enthusiastic "Voila!" as if she is actually doing US a favor.

And what does the clerk say? That she should be embarrassed for being so thoughtless and clueless and she should be desolated to have deranged us? That would be the American (and even more so, English) response.

No, the clerk smiles and says, "Ce n'est pas grave" which sounds like "it's not the end of the world" or something, but when calibrated correctly in French seems to mean "it's no big deal." (It's music to my ears when people say this to me because it means I'm off the hook! And I've found people here love to let you off the hook if you give them half a chance.) And it really is what you make it. This woman with her poise and grace just conjured up a "Ce n'est pas grave"! I want a "Ce n'est pas grave"!

I am going to have to cultivate a little more of this "Voila!" stuff.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


We hiked up the hill from the parking lot to the site of an oppidum—Oppidum D’Esérune—a hilltop settlement from the ancient Mediterranean world. It was a nice spot, at one time inhabited by more than 10,000 people c. 300 B.C. We were moving up from the Neolithic.

I'm sure the whole South of France and Mediterranean coast is littered with such sites, many of them now cities and villages (and even small countries!), many of them unexcavated. This one had walls and foundations unearthed and a nice museum of the Gallo/Roman artifacts they'd found. One of my favorite French words is quotidien(ne)(s), and there was lots of that, along with more fancy stuff too. And I love how wherever you walk, if you look down, there are all sorts of pot shards under your feet.

Okay, so they are open every day and it was the off season, or low season, and I don’t think this is the case during the summer, but when we got there at about 11am they pointed to a sign of "closing times" which said: 12:00am and 5:00pm. Now this was not the usual, less ambiguous, French 24 hr clock and Greg and I got caught up in the 12am thing. Did not compute. So they only close? At midnight? Then I noticed another sign with "opening times" so apparently they open too.

What they were trying to tell us is that we only had about an hour until the first closing time, which turned out to be noon, not midnight. And then the next opening time was 2pm. Okay, we went ahead and bought our tickets and enjoyed the sites and museum.

At the gift shop, Kadin bought a new Asterix book, and near the end of our visit, while we were looking at the rooms and walls of the old artisans buildings outside, he sat down to read his book. We moved on about 10 meters to look at an old road with the ruts from the chariot wheels still visible, took our time, read the sign, then we moved on another 10 or 20 meters to see grain storage silos and houses, etc. We went over a little rise, heading out farther towards the cemetery, at which point we encountered some donkeys and thought it was time we turn back, retrieve Kadin, and head out.

A man was walking very quickly towards us with a walkie talkie. It was still about 15 minutes before the first closing time, but maybe they were clearing out the back part of the site first?

He approached us and asked us something about our daughter being lost. Our daughter? Lost? There was no daughter, there was no lost. Once again: did not compute. Did he mean our son who had chosen to stay about 100 meters behind and read his book? We were not looking like the brightest bulbs on the planet.

So we returned with the man and found his female colleague with another walkie talkie and Kadin. Not sure how distressed Kadin had been. The French word “criée” was used, but this can also mean to call out. He seemed happy enough now. We left the park and as we slowly ambled down the winding road towards our car, another car with the three employees passed us as they went out for their two hour lunch.

And to us this was strange. In America, the employees would just bring a sandwich and take turns managing the gate. But here, anything less than a hot, two-hour lunch is considered barbaric. Perhaps once you get used to it, it’s a tradition that is hard to give up. I mean, you wouldn’t want to be associated with these clueless outsiders who can’t read simple times on signs and loose their children at the drop of a hat.

We eventually head down and look for a picnic spot along the Canal du Midi, a beautiful canal that runs from Toulouse to Sète and is now high on my list of places to boat and/or bike along. You can’t go far around here (Languedoc) without hitting a great site, great food, great wine….languid? Yes!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Score one for Control...or maybe not?

Coming home today on the bus I was sitting next to a teenager who was pretty much in a teen coma, listening to his iPod, zoning out as one is wont to do on a long bus ride. He even smelled like a teenager. I was on until almost to the end of the line and was wondering if and how he would signal me when he wanted to get off.

Suddenly, a couple stops before my stop, there was stirring next to me. His bus card was out. He was hesitating, then moving awkwardly, he wanted out. I let him out and he quickly validated his card at the machine and sat right back down again. Huh?

When the bus doors opened, the rationale behind his actions was revealed: the doors were blockaded by controllers. Every single person getting off had their cards checked. The controllers were organized this time, systematic, no one escaped their oversight as they swept methodically through the bus.

The guy next to me was a-okay. He was so on it. I was impressed. Another guy a few rows behind was not so lucky. By the time the controllers got to him he was studiously zoning out, paying them no mind at all. The controller waved in his face to get his attention. I don’t think he had a valid ticket. Unfortunately (?) my stop came up before I could see what happened.

But what does this mean? Why wait to validate? Maybe there is a way to recharge your card for 30 rides or something and the guy next to me didn’t want to use up a ride unless he had to? He was working it and it was working for him. The mysteries of the honor system continue…

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Opening times

Still haven't figured this out. Some stores are open in the morning (like food stores and markets) while other stores are open in the afternoon (like more specialized shops like the magic shop or the healthfood store). Big stores---like the hypermarchés---are not open on Sundays (or if they are, only in the morning) while smaller shops may or may not be. Many small shops are closed on Mondays. Some places are only open at lunchtime (like restaurants) and others are closed at lunchtimes. Some are “non-stop” or open all day, but not open every day. Others open only in the evening. Some places are open more on Wednesdays when the schools are out, others are not open on Wednesdays, etc.

On every storefront there is practically a whole paragraph to decipher. Not easy to grasp (click to enlarge):

So I am trying to figure out if there is ONE BEST TIME to run errands. I'll have a plan for a circuit I need to get done (post office, bead store, shoe store, grocery store, butcher, healthfood store) and I’ll either hurry to go out early or wait to go out later, but half the stores will be closed and open at the other half of the day. Do people go out twice? How does a working person do it? I don't get the sense that other people find this frustrating, though, it just seems to be a fact of life. I’ll have to ask.

When traveling, we’ve learned, the thing to do at noon is to find a restaurant and sit down for 2 hours. Somehow, though, when we're on vacation or out for a day of exploring, I always feel like we are just getting started about noon and not ready to sit for two hours when there is so much still out there to see. And how can we start out earlier in the day if we are up late for dinner? There is an internal rhythm here that I am not getting.

I'm sure there is a logic to it (well, not exactly sure about the "logic" part, but it doesn’t seem to be a hassle for others), so I need someone to just spell it out for me. I have been unable to get the feel for it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


46˚ and raining

So we have just passed the halfway mark of our stay in Grenoble. And the kids have reached what I hope is the nadir of their stay. For me, we are not here long enough, for them, they can't get home soon enough. They are very down on school. Very down. Very homesick. Not that they don’t complain about school in Boulder too, but it does seem especially difficult here. One of the benefits is that they will likely appreciate their Boulder situation more when we return. One of the big problems with growing up in Boulder is that you think it is normal….

So, if nothing else, at least they’ll get some perspective, but I don’t want it to be all bad. At the moment, everything associated with France and French seems to be a turn off. I have never seen Rees so enthusiastic about things such as Dominos pizza and Kraft macaroni and cheese. We are in the land of lovely food, so what is up with that?

I am hoping that we are here long enough for things to turn around for them. But it could go either way, it’s kind of a coin toss.

While I have mostly heard good memories from adults of living abroad when they were young, this is not always the case. Greg has a colleague in Boulder whose wife has forbidden sabbaticals abroad because she was so scarred by her year in Switzerland as a child. (Meanwhile Switzerland has taken on godlike status with my kids because it is not France…)

And Rees has a friend who is here because his mom, who is French, is back to take care of her mom, who is ill. They don’t know anyone in Grenoble, but are living in the city because it is where the American school is. His mom didn’t want to put him straight into the French schools. She had a friend (also French) whose son (grew up in America) was in France for his 6th grade year. He was not used to the school system and, while he understood French, his writing and other academic skills did not match up to what was expected. In France, the students are all ranked from best to worst and he struggled all year and was at the bottom of the class. It crushed him, she said, and though he is now in his 20s and supposedly recovered, it was many years before he once again felt confident in school. Whoa!

And it does seem to take a thick skin here in school, something my kids are not versed in. Carina went to her back to school night and her son’s (3rd grade equivalent) teacher began her presentation by saying what a terrible bunch of students she had this year and how careless they were in missing their punctuation marks and how they had forgotten all their manners over the summer. She said she would give them each an X for a mistake and when they had 5 Xs the parents would be called in for a conference. Most of the students already had about 3 Xs so “expect a note from me soon.” And so on. She went on to say that in PE, though they should be doing swimming, it was just too much bother because she would have to wear a swimsuit and she couldn’t take the whole class in at once and didn’t know what to do with the rest of the class, so instead, they would be doing long distance running. This is one woman who loves her job! She seems to be thriving on her resentment of everything.

To be fair, that teacher seems to be exceptionally bad. At my back to school night (same school), Kadin’s teacher started out by saying what a great group of kids she had and how she was very impressed by their hard work and intelligence, so it is not all grim, but it’s not all touchy feely and cushy either. (Recall Kadin’s first phrases learned from her were “Ce n’est pas d'accord!” “Ce n’est pas amusent!” and “Silence!”)

When I took my placement test here I tried to tell the teacher what I thought was a funny story from my French studies in France the summer of 1986 (I took a one month intensive, the last time I studied French….). My 1986 teacher would do these long dictées where he would read something in French and we were supposed to write it down. I have already talked about all the homophones and silent letters in French, so as far as I am concerned, such an exercise is nearly impossible. He would give 30 points per dictée and take off 1 point for each error. Now, there were hundreds (thousands!) of letters in each dictée that I got in their correct, proper places. With accents! I was really excited when I would correctly decipher some phrase that I had never heard or seen before in my life. But the results were always the same: 0. Sure I might have only made 80 errors instead of 100, but there was no acknowledgement of my progress. At one point I even tried to ask him if he was proud of how much better I was doing, but he didn’t seem to understand the question…

The recount of this story fell flat too. I thought it might have been my poor ability to relate the story, it's outrageousness, but when I went to a potluck at the American School, I learned that what I thought was absurd was the norm, not the exception. French teachers routinely give dictées with a fixed number of points, 0s are common, and there is no acknowledgement of progress. A 0 is failing no matter how much improvement is underneath.

In my French class here now, I also got a taste of this more critical style. I like my teacher, she is young and knowledgeable, has lived in many places, and seems open minded and forward thinking, not a terrifying old school rap-you-with-a-ruler type at all. Not one to give dictées. But one class a few weeks ago, she came in in a foul mood. It was the only time I was slightly late and she was berating the students for not coming prepared with the homework (I always do the homework as I need to learn all I can!).

Then, a couple of students needed to leave early, they said because it was too cold to walk home later. Then my phone rang and it was one of the kids, who were home alone, so I had to take it. I apologized profusely, explained, and excused myself. (Of course it was just Rees asking where something was…arrrrrgh, but what’s a mom to do?) Then another student got a phone call, so the teacher started telling us we should not take calls in class, fair enough, but I felt justified (once I tell the kids to only call me if it is an emergency!).

Finally, near the end of class, she laid into one poor girl who seemed to be struggling, more due to extreme shyness I felt than lack of ability. In front of everyone the teacher asked this student (in French of course) if she understood what was being taught and if she didn’t think that perhaps she was in too high of a level, that she was overwhelmed, that perhaps she should go down to an easier level. The teacher asked her what level her assessment test had put her in and wondered if there hadn’t been some mistake. She kept asking questions in rapid fire French and kept asking the student if she understood. Whoa! That just seemed so inappropriate and counter productive to me.

But maybe that is a taste of the traditional French way. Luckily, that night seems to have been the exception, so I am inclined to think the teacher was just set off for some other reason. I’m thinking it was a remnant of a style that is on its way out. I’ve heard that the EU is going to have a more standardized curriculum across the board, so that will be an impetus for change. Still, it does seem that part of the French training is in getting a thick skin. You either thrive or are scarred for life. And if everyone who runs the system successfully develops a thick skin and succeeds, change will be slow. But you do have to admire anyone who has been through the French school system and survived.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

A tale of two books

On one of our “incidental journeys,” we came across a book sale at a school in Meylan. The price was right, so Greg and I each looked for a book we’d enjoy reading in French. Nothing too difficult, but something we could try to sink our (baby) teeth into. We chose carefully and have learned unexpected things from the books we chose.

Greg’s choice: Blanche Neige et les Lance-Missiles: Quand les dieux buvaient – I by Catherine Dufour (a prize-winning French sci-fi novelist)

My choice: La Saison Des Bals a novel by Geneviève Bon (a romance novelist)

Here is the first page of Greg’s novel:

Les Uckler formaient un peuple industrieux, gai et généreux.

En général.

Ils se levaient tôt d’un air content, sifflaient en travaillant et avaient toujours un morceau de pain à donner à plus pauvre qu’eux—le quignon rassis de la veille bien sûr, car ‘généreux n’est pas neuneu’ disait souvent la grosse Couette.

Pourvu cependant que le plus pauvre qu’eux soit le beau-fils de la soeur de la nièce de l’oncle du cousin. Ou le beau-père du frère du neveu de la tante par alliance. Ou quelque chose d’approchant. Car les Uckler avaient un défaut: quand ils voyaient un étranger, un vrai, qui échappait à tout généalogie même de la main gauche, ils le tuaient d’abord, ensuite ils ne se posaient aucune question.

Ce qui ne contribuait pas peu à préserver cet équilibre psychologique qui leur faisait au matin l’oeil frais et l’air content.

Bref, c’était un sacré foutu ramassis de salauds.

Which, roughly translated, means:

“The Uckler formed an industrious people, gay and generous.

In general.

They got up early with a satisfied air, whistled while they worked and always had a piece of bread to give to those poorer than they—now it was the stale hunk of the day, of course, because 'is it not generous to be a nanny[?]' as was often said [under?] the fat duvet. [not sure on that meaning…um…anyone???]

Provided however, that the poorest of them is the stepson of the sister of the niece's uncle's cousin. Or step-father's brother's nephew's aunt by marriage. Or something like that. Because the Uckler had a flaw: when they saw a stranger, a true stranger, who escaped all this same genealogy with his left hand [?], they killed him first, then no questions would arise.

Which contributed not a little to preserving the psychological balance that made them fresh eyed in the morning and seemingly happy.

In short, they were quite a bunch of fucking bastards.”

Well, okay then. Not boring. Started out with promise, anyway…and now I look at the title of the chapter: Une Omelette de Cul d’Ange (an omlette from the ass of an angel) and think, maybe he should have expected as much?

And here is the first page of my novel, a little simpler with more everyday details:

Martin Grüne enleva ses gant de jardinier et monta l’escalier quatre à quatre. Devant la porte de la salle de bains, il s’arrêta malgré sa hâte, écoutant la voix pas très grave, mais joyeuse et alerte, qui chantait:

‘Celui à qui Dieu veut montrer une juste faveur,
Il l’envoie par le vaste monde…’

Martin Grüne frappa et entra.

Andreas Freiherr von Berg-Alsdorf se tenait nu devant le lavabo. En chantant à pleine voix, il s’efforçait de couper avec de longs ciseaux quelques mèches de ses cheveux blonds, dont les boucles désordonnées étaient un de ses constants soucis.

Which, roughly translated, means:

“Martin Grüne took off his gardening gloves and climbed the stairs four at a time. At the door to the bathroom, despite his haste, he stopped, listening to the voice, not very serious, but cheerful and alert, singing:

'He to whom God wants to show a just favor,
He sends out into the wide world ... '

Martin Grüne knocked and entered.

Andreas Freiherr von Berg-Alsdorf stood naked in front of the sink. Singing in full voice as he tried to cut with long scissors a few strands of his blond hair, whose curls were disorderly and a source of constant worry.”

A naked baron in front of the sink cutting off his blond curls. And let me just add, a few pages farther in, the stairs weren’t the only thing being mounted four by four.

So we did pretty well finding books that were interesting enough and at the right level though not what either of us expected. Greg learned interesting phrases like “the stale end of the day” which sticks with me as poetic and seems to say so much about the culture. But he said it was difficult because in science fiction super natural things can happen, so it’s hard to figure out the meaning from the context. But the potential is there. I mean imagine the garden you’d discover learning what “the sayings of the big duvet” and “escaping the left hand” really mean. There is much to be uncovered…

And I learned things like knocking and entering is fine and every verb must be carefully chosen to be as enticing as possible. My problem with the French, however, is that there are all these twisted reflexive sentences and I can’t tell who is doing what to whom. Also, not understanding tenses, it is hard for me to know if it is happening, has happened, or someone is wanting it to happen. I also can’t tell if the book is truly interesting or if it’s the puzzle of figuring it out that I find interesting as my imagination that fills in the blanks with what I think they are doing. (Kind of like you do with dreams.) But I am certain the books are very French.

And now that I am learning tenses and pronouns I am going to try again. I do like the descriptions of everyday scenes and the discussions of character. It is the kind of book where lots of time is spent introducing and describing a character and everything around them from their clothes to the decor contributes the same information in a new way. Like said baron above, with the curls, who is cheerful yet disorganized as things around him are always precariously balanced. And though his trousers might be old and threadbare, they hang ever just so and look very chic on his stylish frame, and though his furniture is a bit shabby it is large and expensive and well loved. That kind of repetition is very helpful to my (flawed) understanding.

Interesting too that both books feature German names. Will have to look into that.

16 November, 2010, update:

Just read a blog about repurposed books and it struck me that perhaps these books we got at the sale are all that much more interesting because we don't understand all the words. It is like an ornament made out of a vintage French paperback that only has a hint of the original. That is intriguing. Like a page with holes punched in it. Some of the mystery is preserved and the story is layered with both the words on the page and the holes that you fill in with your mind. Structure and suggestion with improvisation on top. That is a fun place to be.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Incidental travel

How to travel, now there is a difficult question. Having just returned from our one “vacation” while we’re here in France (yes, I know, it’s all pretty much like a vacation…), I think I’ve figured out a favorite way (for me), and that is what I am calling “incidental travel.” It’s where you don’t do “great things,” but instead, make lots of small discoveries. Of course, variety is key, so I like to mix in some “great things” and some “no things” days as well. But here’s a general outline of how it works.

My favorite thing to do is to pick a destination that’s not too far, and get there in an interesting way. The destination can be anything, but is usually something small and minor like a store, a weekly market, a festival, a scenic overlook, a statue, a village. Just a spark that you heard something interesting about. That spark functions as the excuse to go somewhere new and see what you find along the way. It’s the journey and creativity you bring to it, not the destination. You don’t know what you’ll find, there is no itinerary, but getting there is part of the fun, so maybe take the bus, take the scenic route, bike, walk.

Our first two weekends in Grenoble we simply had a general destination in mind (one day a “sports forum” in a northeastern suburb where they had different activity booths for the day, the other an 11th century church in a southwestern village) then we took the bus or the tram as close and we could, and walked and explored.

One key thing we figured out is that every bus stop has a map. This knowledge would have saved me the day I got lost coming home. So my rule about always carrying a map turns out to not be so important. I still use my map from time to time, but in a pinch, you can just find a bus stop and get oriented immediately.

So on our first suburban excursion we used dead reckoning and found a nice historic path through the suburbs, lost the path, checked in at bus stops, and continued to meander. Along the way, we found a school book sale, a rock climbing demonstration, a basketball hoop the children enjoyed climbing (after which we started looking for OP-COs or “other potentially climbable objects"), a merry-go-round, and, the ultimate destination, a demonstration of various athletic activities including props we could try from the circus school. Rees learned how to walk on a ball and both Rees and I were able to spin plates on the top of sticks. You just never know.

It was its own sort of geography lesson too and we now know there are walking paths, playgrounds, commercial centers, and parks scattered all around (with maps at every bus stop!). Each has its own sort of unique activity.

The next weekend we headed out to a small village with an 11th century church. We found a fun skatepark (Rees had his roller blades on) near the tram stop, miniature golf, a climbing wall, an old dovecote (where I banged my head and once again bled all over the place in dramatic fashion, but luckily, another feature of this area are the numerous water fountains/pumps where I could wash up), and the church and cemetery in the old, central part of the village. We smelled delicious Sunday lunches being grilled in outdoor ovens. I started taking pictures of Gallic Rooster statues. The church had interesting icons and symbolism about water. There is always something.

For our trip to southern France, we took a similar approach. After visiting a few towns and few abbeys, we wanted something different. Each town is great and all, but it’s so predictable to walk around though lovely winding, cobbled streets, find a luncheon spot, see the market square, the church, etc. etc. Abbeys are gorgeous and historic, but also predictable in many ways. So we did the beach and collected some stones and shells, and that was nice too. We were craving more open spaces and noticed some symbols on the map for menhirs and dolmens---symbolic rock structures created by Neolithic peoples---and that’s when we started menhir and dolmen hunting and that’s when I remembered the joys of incidental travel. (This is much of the appeal of geocaching as well, an activity my Aunt excels at.)

Along the way we found many interesting villages and sites and many a backroad that we never would have ventured down. It’s the small place you find for lunch, the sweet donkeys in a corral, the feeling of connection to people from thousands of years ago, the lay of the land, the garage sale or farm stand or medieval ruin that you unexpectedly come across. Expectations are low and pleasures are many. It’s perfect.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost pass and missed detention

We had a wonderful weekend in Switzerland at the home of old family friends. Last week, my mom and aunt were visiting us and had planned to visit these friends next at their home southeast of Zurich, near the Liechtenstein border. But, because of the ongoing strikes in France, it looked like mom and Diana would have difficulty getting a train. But Switzerland is less than a two hour drive away and the trains there are running as scheduled. Greg was also leaving town, going to Texas (luckily, via Geneva), and the thought of being alone for the weekend was not appealing. So discussions were had and a plan was hatched to drive everyone (except Greg, sadly) across Switzerland by car. We left on Friday morning.

The schools are very strict here about attendance. For Kadin’s school, where the teachers have taken several days off to strike, I just thanked them for their understanding that Kadin would not be in school on Friday. For Rees’s school, I told them that the ongoing strike had made it necessary for us to take my mother to Zurich by car. (You’re supposed to give at least 15 days notice for planned absences, but that is not how the political situation works here.)

The drive was super easy. The roads were smooth and clear. Not unlike driving in the US. In France you pay at tollbooths, in Switzerland you buy a sticker. Figuring out what this highway sticker was and where to buy it caused some concern, but turns out you can get them at any gas station. And Swiss roads are wonderful, the fee obviously used well. Viaducts fill the valleys and tunnels lower the mountains. It was smooth sailing.

The kids were shockingly in love with Switzerland. Not that it isn’t great, but it is just not all that hugely different from France. When we try to do road trips with them on weekends from Grenoble they whine and complain and act like we are torturing them and “wasting” their weekend. Everything is somehow dull and unimpressive. In Switzerland, they were eager and loved everything---even old playgrounds at rest areas. The only significant variable that changed, as far as I could tell, is that they got to get out of school to go to Switzerland.

A little before Bern we go through a long tunnel and instead of SORTIE it's AUSFAHRT. The language has changed, just like that! After that hill it was all Swiss German until we headed back through that same tunnel on Sunday. (Hard for me to put my German head on, but people in Switzerland are more multilingual and likely speak English.)

We spent Saturday touring Liechtenstein (just across the road/Rhine and it really does look like a fairy tale kingdom) and a more traditional region of Switzerland called Appenzeller where they are known for their Appenzeller cheese, embroidery, widely spaced houses, and being the last Swiss Canton to allow women to vote. I enjoy this slow kind of travel where you do one small area more in depth.

I felt so well cared for by these generous family friends that I really let my guard down. At the Appenzeller cheese factory, Kadin left his sweatshirt. Then, when I came back to buy souveniers later with the boys, the waitress pointed out that we had left Kadin’s gloves at the table. Then, after paying for the souveniers, another clerk came running after me to return my bank card that I had left in the machine. Sigh. I’ve been so vigilant this whole time I've been abroad---up to that moment!

The next day we headed out to the local castle in Werdenberg and then through Leichtenstein again to Austria where we had lunch and found another geocache at another castle. Two castles and three countries before noon.Wild game for lunch.

Mom and Diana stopped at the small border crossing to get their passports stamped each time. Sadly, Liechtenstein does not stamp passports. While they wanted more stamps, I did not feel like explaining why my kids have French passports and a different last name while I have an American passport. I also have yet to complete my long stay visa process so am happy this was purely voluntary.

Then, while they headed on to Zurich, the boys and I headed back to Grenoble. The only slight flaw in the trip was the weather, which was foggy and rainy much of the time. We did get some nice hints of the mountains the last day, but my kids will have happy, if mostly mountainless, memories of Switzerland.

All was easy and uneventful on the drive back. We stopped at the last rest area in Switzerland to fill up on gas (since there are petrol depot blockades in France and there might be shortages) and clean out the car. We would be arriving late and wanted to have everything packed and organized before it got dark. The rain had stopped and so we took a few moments to put everything in our bags, brush everything off, and dispose of the garbage we had accumulated, etc.

To cap off our day of 5 border crossings, 4 countries, and 2 castles, at around 9:30pm, we pulled into the parking garage in Grenoble where we were supposed to return the car-share car. Just a short tram ride between us and our beds. Then we discover that Kadin has somehow lost his transit card during the drive. Outside of Zurich I had asked him if he knew where it was, and he showed it to me in the car. I told him to put it in his pocket, and that was the last we saw of it.

It wasn’t in his pockets, it wasn’t in any of our bags (which we methodically searched). Rees did an excellent job of checking every nook and cranny of the car (found a water bottle---ours---and a comb---not ours) to no avail. Kadin could not remember for the life of him what he might have done with it. It just wasn’t anywhere. We searched through every book and sheet of paper, every box of crackers. The boys were very patient and indulged my obsession about this. "Mom, it's not in the car," Rees truthfully pointed out. It might have fallen out of Kadin's pocket at a playground at a rest area or, more likely, it had fallen onto the garbage bag on the floor of the car and been inadvertently thrown away.

Well, it was a long walk home, so we figured we'd take our chances on the tram anyway. It was Sunday night, about 10pm. The trams don’t run that often at that hour, so we walked to the next stop while we waited. The tram finally came and, just as we were about to board, I could see that while there were not that many passengers on the tram, there were about a dozen controllers. Just our luck! So we let the tram pass and hiked it home with our bags. Kadin really couldn’t complain since Rees and I did have our passes at the ready!

This morning I again walked Kadin to school and later went out to get the card replaced. This was another successful, if not beautiful, conversation all in French. I told her my son had lost his card (so glad that I am now feeling comfortable with the past tense!). The woman asked me when and where it was lost, so I told her yesterday, in Switzerland. She laughed at this and agreed it probably was good and gone, but she said they would put a block on the card so it couldn’t be used and if it hadn’t turned up in 5 days they would issue a new one for a 7 euro fee. In the meantime, she gave me a ticket good for 5 days of tram riding. Standard procedure. Live and learn.

Meanwhile Rees came home for lunch today and said he was soooo glad he did not go to school on Friday. Apparently in 8th grade geography class (includes all of the 8th graders at the small American School), things had gotten out of control while they were painting their paper maché globes. Two people had apparently put blue hand prints on the walls with the paint. One fessed up, but the other didn’t, so as punishment, the whole 8th grade will have detention until the guilty party comes forward. Everyone, that is, except Rees and another 8th grade student who was away in Paris on Friday. Phew! Fascinating enforcement....(and is it any wonder that the French high school students are now the ones out marching in the streets?)

You win some, you lose some, but it's not dull.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Broken honor

Like in most European cities, the buses and trams in Grenoble work on the honor system. You don’t need to pay when you get on. You have a card or a ticket that you validate. To keep people honest, there are spot checks. If you don’t have a valid ticket, you get in trouble and have to pay a fine. The idea is to save time, increase ease of use, and decrease the number of transactions at each stop.

Which sounds really good. And, for someone like me who can afford to buy a pass and doesn’t want to get into any hassles, it works.

What I don’t understand is the enforcement end. It is done by people called “controllers,” who circulate on the transit system.

On his recent visit, Bart asked me how often I have had my ticket checked. Well, I take the bus at least 4 times a day and have been here 30 some odd days. I’ve seen controllers board my car 3 times and had my ticket checked a total of once. One out of at least 120. I have no idea how much the fine is, but if it was about 50 euros, then it would be a toss up whether it is worth it to ride legally. (I also have other reasons to ride legally, but that’s not true for everyone.)

Ideally, to keep the honor system working, you need swift, enforceable consequences that everyone agrees upon. I’m not sure how that would work, but from what I’ve seen, it would take a big culture change for that to be the norm. I don’t understand what is going on at all, but I can tell it is not good. The enforcement end here looks broken, and it is causing unnecessary tension.

What I see is teams of controllers boarding buses/trams in groups: a pair through each door. But there are not enough of them to completely cover all the doors so it would be easy, if you didn’t have a valid ticket, to just get off and wait maybe 3 minutes for the next bus/tram.

The agents do not look happy. They look mean and annoyed, chest puffed out, defensive smile. They are waiting/asking to be challenged. The car takes on a palpable coolness, people close down, eyes lower.

Every time I’ve seen them board, they have quickly found someone without a valid ticket. A discussion with this person ensues. This person begins to sweat. I have never seen any exchange of money or identification. I have just seen long, heated, tense discussions, and so has everyone else in the car (with most of the other people in the car actually able to understand the discussion). After this lengthy discussion, either the passenger or the controllers get(s) off.

There is just waaaaay too much negotiation going on, no matter what it is about.

This puts everyone in an awkward position. The controllers spend their days in annoying discussions and the tariff dodgers spend their days thinking if they can just keep up a good enough argument for long enough they can get where they are going or just catch the next bus.

This makes it like a game.

The system is ripe for all sorts of corruption. If you need to pay the fine on the spot, does that mean the controllers are walking around with wads of cash? What if you don’t have the cash? And if they are walking around with tons of cash what is keeping them from taking a cut? If you need to pay later, then you need to identify yourself. What keeps you from giving a false name or saying you don’t have ID?

As a foreigner, I could just pretend (or not!) I don’t understand. What would happen if I didn’t understand that he wanted ID? That I didn’t understand how to validate my ticket? That I didn’t understand the fine? Etc. etc. They might just let me off, too much hassle.

Perhaps they are telling people this is a warning, but if they are caught again… This might theoretically work since Grenoble is not such a big town. I’m sure everyone knows the controllers and the controllers know most of the frequent transit riders. (Even I am now recognizing people whom I see over and over again.) If you were out and about all day looking for trouble makers, you’d probably get to know that segment of the population pretty fast.

But the negotiation is bad. It shows everyone riding that they too can negotiate. It opens the door for prejudice and stereotyping in a big way. It enables the agents to pick on different people. It allows their emotions in the door. From what I’ve seen, if you are black, don’t expect any leniency. Even if everyone were treated equally, it would still enable people to see the patterns they expect to see.

It’s not unlike people who give out parking tickets. Universally disliked, but accepted none the less. Now imagine if every parking ticket involved a face to face confrontation? Not the happiest job to begin with, add constant negative interactions, and you’d cultivate mean people. Hate would inevitably grow.

The personal confrontation part is really bad. It encourages the controllers to be bullies. It becomes part of a cat and mouse contagion. What kind of person would want to be a controller? At a party when someone asks you what you do, who would want to say, “I’m one of those obnoxious intimidating people who checks your ticket”? Well, only obnoxious, insecure bullies would want to do that! And then, for the dodgers, it becomes a source of pride, a source of stories of bravado and stealth. They feed off each other. Broken system.

And I don’t know how to fix it. But just as I was thinking all this (had my pass actually checked for the first time on Tuesday), Greg comes home to say that once again, the trams are not running. This time, due to an “incident” that had caused “perturbations.”

So I google “incident, tram, Grenoble” and find that the night before, in the early hours of October 7th, a team of controllers had been assaulted by a gang of youths in the area of town where there were riots last July. (Kadin and I had actually been on that same tram during the day that day. It’s one of the most well travelled areas.) Six of the officers were treated for minor injuries and 2 people were arrested.

The next day, the tram drivers exercised their right of “retrait” (withdrawal, one of the numerous French worker’s rights) and stayed home for the day. Perhaps they feared for their safety, perhaps they wanted to show solidarity with the controllers? Not clear to me. But once again, transportation was disrupted.

It’s a powder keg. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Rees is a picky eater and seems to subsist on a diet of white carbohydrates (you know the four food groups: bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes). The other day, however, he was in the mood for a hamburger. He rarely eats meat, never beef. He is 13. We were out and about all day and, when a teenager is hungry for protein, he gets protein. So Greg agreed to take him to the dreaded Quickburger (aka “quality burger restaurant”) to get a…quick…burger. I guess this was inevitable. Kadin decided to tag along too. Rees ordered “un cheesburger” which was pretty straightforward. For Kadin, Greg ordered “un hamburger.” But this the woman didn’t understand. “Quelle sort? Il y a du….” and she started in on a whole list. "Non," said Greg, “un hamburger simple.” This was apparently not one of the options she had rattled off, not one of the items on the menu. After much discussion back and forth, they finally figured out what it was that Kadin wanted: “un cheeseburger, sans fromage.” Well, okay then!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Repair or replace

So this morning I noticed the sun streaming into the living room and saw that the curtains in the bedroom were still closed. I went to open them and couldn’t. The string was stuck. Upon investigation, it was stuck because it had frayed and would no longer glide in its track.

Now I am not a curtain person and know very little about their care and maintenance. At first I thought it was a simple matter of replacing the string. But alas, it turned out to be the sort of thing where the string goes deep inside a track all encased in metal and there was just no quick fix.

So I manage to remove the track and switch the big heavy curtains onto the still working track of the liner curtains. So we still have curtains, just no liner ones. But I have the broken track in my hand and I had just been in a store down the street that sells all sorts of fabrics and upholstery and curtains and ribbons and buttons. So I plan to head there first. I look up the words for “repair” and “replace” and memorize several synonyms (in case they are used in a response).

First, however, I have to wait for this week’s protests to clear out of the street. Today, the syndicates are trying another tack to protest the retirement and pension reforms. They are having protests on a Saturday so that salaried employees and students and families can participate. Instead of starting in the morning, they have started after lunch (2pm), I guess so everyone can still do their Saturday morning shopping. And it is funny to me how they disrupt the very same public transportation that they took to the protest and that they will subsequently take home again afterwards. It is all carefully choreographed.

Once again, I do not understand the protests even as their grievences are being blasted at me from the street below. I don’t even get the basics, much less the subtilties. Chants, drum, horn, siren, vuvuzela reprise!

Meanwhile, Greg and the boys have gone out to the Bastille again. I call them to see if they can bring home a couple of rocks or pieces of concrete or bricks to use as bookends. Greg says they have a great view of the protests and the boys are imagining the crowds are orcs, swarming below, preparing for battle....

So while I’m waiting, I sew a scarf on the treadle machine and this time I even manage to wind a bobbin. I am super impressed by the 100% mechanical workings of this old machine. It is so cool!

Just after the marchers pass there is an uncanny silence. It is the brief pause between the protests and the time when the traffic returns. It’s nice.

Then I grab my curtain rod and head out on my mission. At the store, I find a group of clerks and give them my prepared spiel, which probably sounds something like this: “Hello, um, this work not. Can I repair such or do I need replacer?” The clerk nearest to me shakes her head, but she understands. The verdict is replace.

“You have?” I ask. She nods and takes me to the curtain track section. There is something about how the one I have is too old, so they don’t have the exact same thing, but they do have something similar in white plastic. She asks me some questions about whether there are one or two drapes on the track and she measures the one I brought in. She wants to know if I need brackets. I don’t think so. I’m all set with the track.

I also want to look for some webbing for a bag and some trim for my scarf, so I tell her I want to look at more things. She says she’ll leave the curtain track for me at the register. This is all going so swimmingly! I get it!

I manage to buy 1.5 meters of webbing from another clerk and then she marks a remnant for me that I somehow explain was unpriced. I do none of this gracefully, but I do it successfully. I leave with exactly what I came to get. The thrill is strong.

You know the feeling when you go to McGuckins (awesome Boulder hardware store) with a question and find a clerk and describe your problem and what you want and they find what you need? You know how good that feels? Well, it is even better in a foreign country, in a foreign language.