Sunday, January 18, 2015

Je suis

One of the only people I know who went to the marche républicaine is a devout Muslim immigrant from Morocco. In my frank and nosy American fashion, I had been asking around, trying to find out who had gone among my friends and colleagues and hear their experience of what I'd missed.  He hadn't stayed long, this friend told me; there were too many people, he didn't feel comfortable.  And, he added significantly, some people were carrying the caricatures of Mohammed.  It wasn't the place for him, he decided, so he went back home.

Another friend, a Muslim of Moroccan origin who grew up in France, shrugged when I asked him if he'd gone. He supported freedom of speech and was upset about the attack, but he wasn't sure he would be wanted at the march or even safe.

"No matter now long I live here, I'll never be considered French," this second friend had told me before, very matter-of-factly. "When I go to Morocco, I'm not considered Moroccan, either."  He didn't feel he belonged anywhere. But that was just the way it was, and with his engineering diploma and abilities (he is hands-down the best software developer I've met in my career), he could go anywhere, so he left first for Dublin, then Barcelona, learned to speak English and Spanish fluently, and picked up some Catalan.  It was only reluctantly that he came back to France, and he still isn't sure he will stay forever.  He has options, he explained, but the kids in the projects, with no education and no prospects, who are denied a national identity as well... though no justification, is it surprising a tiny minority turn to violence?

For my part, I feel that "Je suis Charlie" is awkwardly chosen.  Flashed across television screens, reprinted on billboards, and taped to shop windows, it is everywhere right now in France.  I am certain that the sentiment behind it of respect and solidarity is true and laudable. Yet instead of making a unified statement of what we believe, it calls for us to make a unified statement of who we are.

What if who you are has already been decided for you?

"Portraits from the March: 'French before being Muslim or Jewish'" was the title of an article which appeared in Le Monde on January 12.  Why the hierarchy of identity? wondered the American side of me, though I know full well that the French notion of laïcité requires religion to be personal, private, and secondary. I thought those interviewed for the story were brave, both for showing up at the march and for telling their story.

"Up until now, I'd never been insulted," said Hanane-Nina Kaji, a librarian who attended the march wearing a headscarf.  "Now, it's almost as if I'm a considered a terrorist! I've heard 'You, you are all the same,' or 'Go home!' But home for me, that's here...'"

I won't pretend I was comfortable when my friend admitted he had turned around at the march and gone home. We both agree on the essential: that acts of terrorism and violence are unequivocally unacceptable. But I would have wished that he'd come to the same conclusions that I had: that since Charlie Hebdo had used the same crude humor against Catholics and Jews, against the far-right Front National party as well as mainstream politicians, caricaturing Mohammed was fair game. That we should allow symbols to be questioned and even ridiculed because it is simply too dangerous when we do not. Instead, he disagreed with me and I learned just how deeply he had been hurt by the caricatures.  France, according to him, is afraid of Islam without attempting to understand it.  While I talked of freedom of speech, he wondered where were the voices in the press who were willing to explain his faith and his culture. We weren't talking about exactly the same thing, but I still knew I should listen.

Some of the signs carried in the march started with "Je suis Charlie," and then continued, with one or usually several of the following: I am Muslim. I am Jewish. I am a cop. I am French.

I'm reassured by this that we've got half the conversation right.

So much for me, now, I'd like us all to say. "Et toi?"

Monday, January 12, 2015

Charlie and Me

I've never read Charlie Hebdo. I was aware that it existed, but it purveyed a brand of Franco-français off-color political humor that just wasn't my thing.  To tell the truth, I wasn't sure that I was acculturated enough to really "get" it, even after a decade of life in France: my politically correct American prudishness has worn off some, but not that much, quand même. And it feels so uncomfortable to not be in on the joke.

Not that Charlie Hebdo's humor was so hard to understand, as I see now that I'm making up for lost time, along with much of the western world, through the tamer cartoons which are currently being republished throughout the media. I heard it suggested this week that that was perhaps part of what led to the tragedy: in our modern, connected world, the drawings were easily transmitted; since they were visual, they needed no translation to generate hate.

When I heard about the attack in Paris, I was shocked, but not entirely surprised.  I remembered when Charlie Hebdo republished the controversial drawings of Mohammed back in 2006, and also when it was the victim of a firebomb attack in 2011.  I left work on Wednesday at the normal time, shaken, but not much more.  The victims named cited in the news meant nothing to me. Cabu? Charb?  My husband had heard of them all, of course, and on the television Wednesday night began the testimonies of the grieving French intelligentsia. The people who knew the journalists and artists of Charlie Hebdo shed personal tears over the friends they'd lost. Paris is a small place. Everyone who is anyone here knows each other.

That's when it hit me, the sadness but also the indignation. Free speech is an American value.  Free speech is a French value. Free speech is the core value of the democratic world.  This is normal enough: free speech is an Enlightenment value, and if Voltaire were alive today, he'd probably be writing for Charlie Hebdo.  But there's something specific about the French expression of this, an urge to push it to an extreme, sometimes to prove a point and sometimes simply to prove that it can be done.  The unalienable right to unruly dissension.  It is considered healthier to loudly offend than to say nothing at all.  If you've ever engaged a Frenchman in an argument, you know what I mean: arms are waved, your feelings aren't spared; you're almost certainly victim of crude and often undeserved exaggeration, but it's deployed in part to keep you honest.  In French public dialog, the fringe provocateurs of the Charlie Hebdo throw the punches others may pull, and so what if many are below the belt: it's still part of a long and important tradition.  And they're having a grand time doing it, knowing they're mocking the decent and the codified and making us laugh against our better judgment.

By evening on Wednesday, Place de la République was already full of anonymous mourners and the first "Je Suis Charlie" icons appeared on my friends' Facebook pages.  It seemed a bit presumptuous to call myself Charlie so soon, since after all, we'd only just met.  And given the peculiar role of Charlie Hebdo in French journalism, part gadfly, part impetuous kid brother, and wholly out to shock, who could say "I am Charlie" and have it make any sense?  Likely few of the well-meaning people and institutions around the world who copied and pasted it in emails and twitter feeds, and surely not the NASDAQ, which flashed a giant "Je Suis Charlie" on their Times Square electronic display.

But I wanted to do something symbolic, though admittedly useless, as the knot of sadness and anger grew in my stomach throughout the day on Thursday. I hesitated, and then chose as my profile picture the cover of Charlie Hebdo published shortly after the firebomb attack: a drawing of a Charlie cartoonist and a Muslim man engaged in a juicy kiss with the title "Love is stronger than hate."

I didn't go to the Unity March on Sunday.  It didn't seem like a good idea with the kids, and to be honest, beyond the desire to be part of something historic, I wasn't entirely sure of the point.  The Unity March wasn't even called a "unity march" in French, but la marche républicaine, an untranslatable "march for values of the French Republic." And now that I've missed it I suppose I'll never know, but I hope it was more about plurality than unity: the many voices from many places which form the Republic, not with one copy-pasted sentence but with the cacophony of dialog.  Tearful, indignant, resigned, mistaken, enlightened, ridiculous, inspired, dignified, distasteful, rambling, concise, confused, brilliant and irreverent, in many languages or a few simple pen strokes, leading us all somehow together in the right direction.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Making the grade

"None of [Parisienne's] explanations have given me any confidence.  The client cannot make the simplest of functions work.  A task-force needs to be formed immediately."

This is taken from an email I got at work yesterday, paraphrased and translated.  It was copied, of course, to a sundry list of mid-level managers, most of whom I don't know. It wasn't the first mail of this nature I've received recently, but at least this time I had the honor of being directly included in the list of recipients and not have it land on me indirectly after a chain of forwards.

Yesterday I was hopping mad, scream-about-it-to-any-sympathetic-colleague mad, and it was the main subject of conversation at the dinner table.  But by the end of the day today, I had talked to the author of the email on the phone, designed and implemented a solution to his problem, and deftly and diplomatically (I hope) demonstrated that another large part of his pain came from errors in his data and not design mistakes in my code.  And I left work feeling pretty damn happy, because we'd all made progress.  I find I can mostly shrug off these dings to my ego these days, at least compared to how I would have reacted not so long ago.

"So tell me. How are the kids doing in French school?" asked a American friend of mine recently.  She's been living in Paris for years but has no kids yet.  "Is it true what they say?"

I know what "they" say, and I'd say it is mostly true: from an American perspective, French schools seem rigid, one-size-fits-all, and more concerned with applying an old-fashioned method than boosting children's self-esteem.  Starting in nursery school, kids are given standardized evaluations on subjects from motor skills to showing proper respect to elders.  In CP, the equivalent of first grade, Le Petit started bringing home letter grades, and although for the moment they're almost entirely As and A-s, I doubt it's just to boost his ego.  At three years old my kids both brought home coloring exercises with a little legend in the corner containing three schematic faces -- a smiley face, a frowning face, and an ambivalent straight-line face -- one of which the teacher was to choose and circle.  Grading starts with the pre-K set, and it gets the message across.

My friend wanted to know how I felt about this.  "I love it," I said, but then I had to qualify my enthusiasm, since my own kids are doing well in school, after all.  Le Petit seems to rise to every new challenge, and there are plenty of challenges.  He was introduced to cursive to in kindergarten, and by first grade was expected to write exclusively in script. All his work, including math, must be done in ballpoint pen. Starting this year, which is the equivalent of second grade, he has to prepare a weekly dictation.

I think it works, I told my friend, because everyone eventually gets taken down.  If you make a mistake -- and ample opportunities to do so are provided -- the mistake is called out and you get a bad grade. 10 out of 20 seems to be the middle of the bell curve. Naturally, everyone learns to pick themselves up and start over again, and that's a valuable lesson for life.

When I was growing up in the US, good students like me were expected to get perfect grades and were given all the tools to do so.  When we were graded on something, it was only after we'd been given all the preparation we needed to do succeed.  Being smart meant getting it right the first time.  Conversely, not getting it right the first time proved you were incapable.  It didn't exactly encourage one to take risks.  I am probably an extreme case, but in college I actually dropped classes when I wasn't certain of getting an A.

After I arrived in France and landed a job, I spent many months terrified that my manager hated my work. "But he doesn't say anything!" I fretted to my husband, to which he replied, "He doesn't say anything?  Keep up the good work."  A compliment of sorts finally came when my boss asked me to help another colleague with something because he insisted I understood what I was doing and she didn't.

And thus turns the French working world: compliments are few and far between, but criticism is freely shared.  Start with what doesn't work, complain about it thoroughly, and take it from there.

"Reality check: Is it just me, or is this obnoxious?" With that I forwarded the above excerpted email to my husband, because I know I can be a little bit touchy, and I needed his culturally informed opinion.  "No, it isn't just you," was his quick reply.

This didn't keep me from spending two hours on the phone helping the person who wrote the mail, and though he seems a bit prickly, a little bit (ahem) old school French,  I actually mostly like his attitude now.  He seems to know what the customer needs, and one can't accuse him of not getting straight to the point.  I'll give him 12 out of 20 on intercultural communication: Needs Improvement.  And me?  I dunno... maybe a solid 15?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seven years

Last Saturday was Le Petit's seventh birthday.  I'm a little ashamed to admit that the biggest event of the day for me was finally picking up my new car: a shiny Citroën C3, which I've been driving for a week now almost as nervously as a 16-year-old with a newly-minted license. For Le Petit, the highlight was the visit to fountain and fireworks show in the château's gardens, for which he stayed up (gulp) three hours past his bedtime.  My in-laws accompanied us, we celebrated properly earlier in the day with champagne and foie gras, and I couldn't quite believe that seven years had passed since I became a mother.

This Thursday, my husband went off for four days to a baroque music festival near Narbonne.  I stayed home with the kids, since planning a four-day excursion without them was too complicated, and attending concerts with both of them unthinkable.  I was mostly being a good sport about it.  Last night I was even relishing the change of pace, and congratulating myself on getting both kids ready for bed thirty minutes ahead of schedule.

Today, though... today violent thunderstorms were forecast in the Paris region, as well as everywhere else within day trip striking distance.  I didn't feel up to attempting a museum with a three-year-old. We'd go to the mall, I decided instead, buy clothes for a friend's wedding we'll be attending shortly, and do our grocery shopping.  By ten in the morning I was in a terrible mood; the kids were fighting over everything, scribbling on things that weren't meant to be drawn on, screaming.  My husband happened to call.  Why oh why hadn't he taken out the recycling before he left? I scolded, as I wiped up dribbled milk from a badly-closed milk jug in front of a half-emptied recycling bin.  It wasn't about the recycling.  It was about everything else.

How many times do you need to ask a seven-year-old to put on his socks?  How many hours does it take to get two kids to the breakfast table, or out the door?  I wanted to hide in another room and just read a magazine, or be able to take a shower without negotiating a preliminary ceasefire, but no.  We finally went to the supermarket after lunch, and both kids wanted their own rolling basket.  Mademoiselle wandered off once or twice and I had to search for her briefly but frantically.  Le Petit grabbed items out of his sister's basket and put them in his own when she wasn't looking.  They both insisted vociferously on carrying the same block of cheese.  My children are loud, and I feel like I only barely have them corralled when we are out shopping; I do my best not to lose my patience but by the time were were back in the car I Lectured them both with a capital L: my father the lawyer could hardly have done better.  It was still stiflingly hot, and I was grumpy that the threatened/promised thundershowers still hadn't arrived and we could have done something worthwhile outside after all.

Le Petit looked disappointed, truly.  To his credit, he had honestly helped me out at the end, loading items onto the belt from the baskets at the checkout as I filled three heavy bags.  He wanted so much to be good (sage, the word in French, is so much more satisfying).  I proposed a do-over.

After dropping off the groceries, we went back to the BHV, the department/hardware store which is my happy place of sorts.  I needed a strange kind of light bulb, a drain snake and other odds and ends and had a vague idea of hitting the craft section for some rainy day supplies.  And... both kids were wonderful.  Le Petit set the tone, being helpful, attentive, listening to me immediately, compromising when necessary with his sister.  We bought big capital letters for them to paint tomorrow -- the first letters of their names -- and they are both so excited.  As we drove home fat, heavy raindrops finally started to fall on the windshield.

After dinner, an involved search for a lost Lego, bedtime, ten goodnight kisses and two glasses of water, after cleaning the kitchen and putting the house back together, it was finally quiet.  I swept the floor.  I considered folding laundry.  Then I went into Le Petit's room, as I'd promised to check on him, and heard him breathing slowly in his sleep.  I'd checked on him earlier, and rubbed his back when he was half asleep; he'd seemed so reassured that I was there and it had made me so happy that when I came back a second time I bent over to kiss his head in his sleep.  In the dark I missed his forehead and accidentally kissed his ear, which woke him up briefly.  He rolled over immediately and reached out to hug me, whispering good night again.

I feel like what I owe my kids is to see them really truly the way they are at any given moment in time, and understand what they need from me there and then.  I want them to feel understood, really truly understood.  That's the theory.  In reality, at many a moment in time I'm worrying about what the woman next to me in the supermarket aisle is thinking, or I'm forcing myself to put down the smart phone (but I barely got to browse the web all day!), or I'm working down my to-list, or I just don't want to listen to another seven-year-old observation or answer a three-year-old "why?"  I don't wanna get down on my knees and play Lego.  I don't wanna drink another pretend cup of tea.  Don't wanna don't wanna don't wanna. Bad attitude mommy.

Tonight  through the open window of the kitchen in my mostly-silent house I heard two things: the music from the fountain show (the rain had stopped) and the brief cry of a baby.  As I leaned out the window to hear better, I found myself jealous of the parent with that baby, wishing it was me who was comforting an infant in the middle of a hot summer night, nostalgic about how time slows down and all the priorities you have shift or disappear because someone small needs you and no one else.  I never thought I'd miss that.  I know that some day I'll miss the way my kids are now.  I don't miss the relentlessness that comes with it... but I now know that I'll forget that part.

Tomorrow is my do-over.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Time Machine

Tonight as I dug Le Petit's pajamas out from under a mound of pillows and blankets, he grinned and whispered, "Hey Mom, do you know why my bed is like that?" I couldn't guess.  "I turned it into a machine to speed into the future!" he announced, giggling. "And it worked super well! Yeah, I hid under the covers, and it was four... what does the nine mean again?"  He pointed at the clock propped up on his bookshelf, with the wooden face he painted himself and the handwritten numbers I outlined in gold so that they stand out on the dark blue background.

"Forty-five," I say.

"Yeah, four forty-five.  And then when I came out it was... four... sixty... no fifty... where is the sixty again?"

We went over the minute-hand part of telling time again -- briefly, because it was past bedtime and I wanted to have time to read Dr. Seuss before lights out -- so I'm not sure that any of my explanation stuck.  What I might have explained is that I have a mechanism for speeding into the future, the best ever invented perhaps : it's called having kids.  And... I'm enjoying the ride.

[Le Petit told me this in French, as usual, so I'm doing my best to capture the spirit in English.]

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Le Car

It took me one hour and forty-five minutes to drive to an offsite meeting this morning. I'd planned for an hour, which was more than it took me yesterday, but then there was an accident on the A13, and after thirty minutes of inching ahead I cut over to the A86 and got stuck in the tunnel under La Défense. There I sat for a long time breathing concentrated diesel fumes on an underground off-ramp in Nanterre, stuck in a single immobile lane while motorcycles and scooters zipped past me on the shoulder to the left.  My only entertainment was listening to the honking fits provoked by cars squeezing in around me at the last minute, since Chante France on my car radio ("Your favorite French songs! Sing along at least once a day!") was reduced to static.

I arrived at the off-site meeting in a terrible mood.  And yet, I have to admit the frustration was tempered with a certain satisfaction because I can drive in France.  I can not only drive in France, I can drive in Ile de France, the region around Paris.  I can even drive in Paris proper if I have to (though I'm still not sure I'm brave enough to attempt Place de l'Etoile).

There are aspects of my life now that once felt strange and are now commonplace, like firing off e-mails in French, debating French politics, or vociferously defending my design decisions to my French boss.  There are other things I do regularly but which never quite feel natural, like consulting a French doctor.  And then there are things that once upon a time in a faraway land were everyday but now feel unfamiliar. Until recently, driving was one of these foreign activities. For eight years I didn't drive at all before finally suffering though obtaining my French driver's licence.  Then we moved to Versailles, off the Métro grid, part of another suburban world.  Sure, I can still walk to get bread, or a little farther to get downtown, or to the Opera at the Château (one of my favorite places for a night out, in fact), and my husband takes the train to Paris most workdays.  But I work in another suburb a short drive away, and a car just makes more sense than relying on an infrequent bus.

In September, my mother-in-law generously loaned me their second car, an old Renault Clio which since her retirement had been sitting in an expensive municipal parking garage and not getting out much.  When my husband told me the news, he was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm.

"Don't tell me you're scared!" he scolded.

"It's not that!"  I protested.

It was that.  It was totally that.

So I reluctantly began to take the wheel each morning, more stressed out at first that I'd been with my freshly-minted Washington State licence at age 16.  By October, my heart rate was finally approaching normal on my way to and from work.  By November, I was brave enough to drive into the heart of Paris to meet my sister-in-law for dinner -- leaving the car in a handy, overpriced underground parking garage, but still, it took courage.  By February, I was going on solo runs to hardware stores and to IKEA (one of my biggest motivations for relearning to drive, I must admit).

So it was that in this age of ecology and interdependence and the Eiffel Tower disappearing behind a curtain of smog, my life was transformed for the better by the automobile.

Mid-February, I had to admit, however, that the loyal Clio had a problem.  Periodically while driving it would lurch, make a horrible noise, and drop into a lower gear.  Eventually the automatic transmission light starting coming on as well.  I got it checked out at a local garage, with the diagnosis that the transmission would need to be replaced and it would cost far more than the car was worth.

"You know, automatic transmissions... especially on French cars..." When I mentioned the situation to my colleagues, they all seemed to think I should have expected as much.  Who else but an américaine would require something so contrary to true esprit of French engineering?  That's when I would proudly explain that it was my mother-in-law's car and that *I* would have been perfectly happy to drive a manual and by-the-way-my-parents-only-had-manual-cars-so-I-had-to-learn-the-hard-way-and-it-was-uphill-both-ways.

Quickly I started shopping for a new-to-me car, thinking at first I'd buy used, then learning that with a trade-in of the Clio I could get a shiny new Citroën C3 for a very good price.  Me... in a new car.  In a new French car.  There was something enticingly exotic about the idea.  I looked at a Toyota as well, but the price and my motivation just weren't there.  Toyota is just so... California.

When I was in elementary school in the eighties we hosted a French-speaking Belgian exchange student.  The same year, Renault started marketing the less-than-iconic R9 in the US as the "Le Car." This annoyed our exchange student to no end.  "Why do they call it 'Le Car'?" he would ask, "It's ridiculous!  It isn't even le.  It's la voiture."  Naming issues aside, it wasn't a success and Renault disappeared from North America leaving nothing but a crappy reputation.

Citroën, my husband insists, is a different matter: "It's like the difference between Ford and Cadillac!" he told me, and when I looked doubtful, he cited the famous Traction and the classic DS. The cute llittle C3 which will be mine in May has compact curves that remind me a bit of the Deux chevaux, which though before my time, remains the only French car most Americans of my generation can recognize. There were plenty of C3s stuck in traffic with me this morning. I admired them, reassuring myself at the same time that when I'd ordered 'Shark Gray', I really had picked the best color.  And it'll be a manual transmission... of course.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Home improvement

I have a new obsession: home decor.  It started as a coping mechanism when we were in the midst of the interminable process of buying our apartment last spring.  I spent my theoretical spare time surfing Apartment Therapy and bringing home decorating magazines, projecting myself to a point in the future when my only concern would be paint color.  The apartment purchase and sale closed, we moved, and now we've been here nine months.  I'm still obsessed.  

"What do you think of this table?" I asked my husband, handing him my phone with the browser open to Le Bon Coin, the local equivalent of Craig's List.  My husband has learned, I think, that the best strategy is to humor me, so instead of making an noncommittal "Hmmm," he told me what he really thought.  

"Only 250€ for the table and the chairs! That'll be gone fast."

"So you like it?"  I said hopefully.

"Not really. It's too dark."  

"It's walnut.  Like that bookshelf."  I pointed to the entryway.

My husband, with remarkable diplomacy, managed to explain what he liked better about our current dining room table, a beat-up round IKEA table in pine with a central leaf that's a different color, without starting an argument.  He humors my obsession within reason, and perhaps it is because he knows I'm serious: I've picked up two chairs and a twin bed this year.  I'm ready to start selling things, too: out with the flat-box crap, in with the real stuff, I say.  If it is second-hand, all the better: the thrill of the bargain hunt, and it's ecological, too.

I come from a long line of the house-proud and decor-obsessed: my grandmother's favorite pastime was trawling garage sales and antique markets to complete or start new collections.  She once told me solemnly, "If you only remember one piece of advice from me, let it be this: if you can't find anywhere to put something, you can always hang it from the wall."  (Did she know somehow that someday I'd move to a tiny Parisian apartment?)  My father and stepmother's home is like the coziest of museums.  And I remember distinctly that as a small child I used to regularly come home from school to find that my mother had completely rearranged the furniture in the living room.  

Like all obsessions, it can be a tiny bit unhealthy.

In a couple weeks, we'll have the three bedrooms repainted (involving ripping out wallpaper and replastering, making it worth giving it to pros), new carpet put in, and new curtains.  I'm thrilled.  Meanwhile I've got a project list which involves light fixtures, refinishing chairs, building shelves, and spending a weekend of quality time cleaning grout and recaulking bathrooms.  This has replaced blogging.  This has replaced reading.  

"I think I'm trying to escape reality," I told a friend recently.  She looked surprised.  "Escape what reality exactly?"  I couldn't answer. Maybe things feel too good, so focusing on imagined imperfection at home reassures me.  Maybe things are too serious, and I need something frivolous to occupy myself.  Maybe it's the ten previous years of living in a 700 square foot apartment that are catching up with me.  Maybe I'm just, as we'd say in French, slightly grave.  

I brought home a deluxe metal window planter this evening for my new kitchen herb garden.  I invited the kids to help me fill it up with potting soil and then plant rosemary, thyme and coriander.  Dirt was all over the kitchen floor and all over the kids, and I didn't mind; I decided to count it as keeping perspective.