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.