Saturday, February 06, 2016

Le nouvel an

Sharing wishes for the new year is important in France.  Here's a simplified schedule for a typical January:

Midnight, January 1st: Send a text message to all your hip friends who are still awake. If you are still awake, that is.  Why does it get harder with each passing year? Watch B-list celebrities watching magicians and cancan dancers on television and wonder why it is you don't have anything better to do.

Noon, January 1st: Watch the Vienna New Year's Concert on television, then remember to call grand-mère.

Morning of January 2nd: You're all out of the only thing that sounds good to eat after a week of culinary excess, something like plain white rice or minestrone soup.  Good thing the supermarket is open again today.  Run into a neighbor on the street and wish them bonne année. Oh that's right, it is the new year already! Smile broadly and congratulate yourself on remembering.

First Monday back at work: Scrupulously say bonne année to everyone who crosses your path, in the hallway, at the coffee machine, in the parking garage. This is the one day of the year you are unlikely to avoid cheek kissing, so be warned.

First two weeks back at work: Try to remember who you haven't yet corresponded with in the new year so you can append flowery well-wishes to your emails accordingly.  Wish happiness and success.  If success seems unlikely, emphasize good health.

Sometime after January 6th: Your boss brings a galette des rois, or kings' cake, to work.  If you find the fève in your slice, you'll have the headache of choosing a king or queen to reign with you from among your unenthusiastic colleagues while you calculate how soon you can get away with taking off your paper crown.


Your boss doesn't bother to bring a galette this year, and you're unreasonably resentful.  After all your hard work it's the least he can do.  Plus you love almond paste and puff pastry and can never get enough of it.  You'll just have to pick one up on the way home and split it with your family. You're hungry, so you pretend the only ones left at the bakery were for eight.

Sometime after January 20th: What, another galette? Seriously?  Does no one have any better ideas for dessert this month?

January 15th: You've wished bonne année to approximately half the people you know, at work, in your apartment building, at your children's school, and now you can no longer keep track.  Do you risk wishing someone happy new year twice?  Or does it make you look worse if you forget entirely? When in doubt, mumble something unintelligible and then ask if they have any plans for the February school vacation.

January 25th:  The month is almost over and you increasingly suspect you've never managed to exchange bonne annnées with your next door neighbor.  You sneak out of your apartment in the morning like a thief after listening behind the door, call for the elevator with a glance behind you, and hope you can make it to February without any social awkwardness.

January 31st: You finally run into your neighbor and they apparently can't remember either. You both laugh and present your excuses and talk about the weather.

February 2nd: January is over, finally.  Now it's la chandeleur, and you get to eat crêpes.  This year your even manage to flip them one-handed while clutching a two-Euro coin.  Some traditions are easier than others.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Half Full

Sometime in mid-October my boss called me into his office.

"Ce n'est rien de grave," he said straight off. No big deal.

Just a project which was ill-defined and desperately behind schedule, the team so understaffed that they were calling me in as a reinforcement to do web development, a technical muscle I hadn't flexed for eight years or before I left on my first maternity leave.  I made sure to look concerned and serious, but inwardly I was overjoyed: finally something different, something interesting, something important enough to upend my schedule and abruptly hand off my current responsibilities.  I'd been doing the same thing for far too long and getting good enough at it to be bored.  Now... well, there were many possible outcomes, but boredom was unlikely to be one of them.  The project was slated for delivery by the end of the year.  I told my boss I was willing and even excited to give it a go (to the extent I had a choice), but made sure to set the expectations sensibly low: I reminded him I had no experience with the current technologies, the learning curve would be steep, the analysis had to be rethought from the beginning, and did I mention I had no experience?  He shrugged and told me I had the right attitude, with his own somewhere between flattery and resignation.

I was motivated and determined to succeed from the beginning. Then in mid-November came what are referred to here now as the "events", and I now suspect that part of my coping strategy in the emotional days that followed was to hunker down and immerse myself in work.  I threw myself into the requirements analysis, and when the only thing left to do was to start writing code, I started taking it one slow step at a time.  A simple page took me a day, a page with some basic functionality a week, and I often felt that I averaged one web search for technical help or clarification for every five lines of code.  At one point one of my colleagues from another team, who also happens to be one of the best developers we have, came by my office to chat and survey my progress.

"I don't understand why they gave that to you," he said flatly.  I responded with a mix of sarcasm and indignation which made him explain himself.

"I don't understand why they gave that you given they want it in less than a month," he amended.  Then he explained helpfully that while the average developer can put together a page in one to three days, an inexperienced web developer should expect to spend five or more.  Which reassured me more than it offended, since it corresponded to what I was figuring out painfully for myself... so I hastened to repeat his assessment to my boss.

He shrugged again and said something like, "If we had any choice." I kept plugging along, increasingly determined to prove everyone wrong.  I started working from home many nights and weekends, and slowly the pages started displaying correctly, then working more or less when tested independently, and I could see the day when the whole thing just might function from beginning to end and write something useful to the database.  I wasn't the only one: my office mate had been given another piece to develop and was almost equally inexperienced with the technology.  We complained about it together and threw up our hands or rolled our eyes, it would never be done in time.

And yet.

The day of the demo arrived and I had something -- we all had something -- which worked.  Most of the time.  OK, some of the time.  Under very controlled conditions.  And it wasn't exactly pretty or intuitive, but I was still over the moon.  I did it after all!  I wanted to yell it from the rooftops.

When I arrived at work the next day exhausted but satisfied, the reception was cool.  The boss -- who had spent much of the night before preparing the demo and testing and landing on bug after bug -- was unimpressed, and didn't make any attempt to hide it.  The project lead was equally unimpressed, and looked panicked and deeply disappointed by turns.

"If they'd only started out with 'I can see you made a big effort and got a lot of things working, and that's great,' they could have gone on to tell me it was a piece of shit, I honestly wouldn't have minded," I later told a friend.  "I just needed the first part.  The first sentence.  The piece of shit part may be true, but give me something.  Anything."

I've been working in France for almost twelve years now, I should have known better.  People do not manage here by positivity. Praise is rare. Pessimism is omnipresent. Not just in business but everywhere.

"You know why the French national bird is the rooster?" a French friend once asked me back in Boston, thrilled to have landed in a country where no one yet knew the old joke. "Because it's the only bird which sings while standing in its own merde!"  I laughed politely, unsure of the etiquette to apply when foreigners mock their country of origin, but I didn't get the joke then and I still don't get it now.  Unjustifiably proud of a pile of shit? Really? If you ask me, the French never seem to see how good they have things.  Education and health care which work and work well for the most part, a land of striking natural and historical beauty, and the best damn cuisine in the world, yet all you hear talk of is unemployment, economic stagnancy, and the French football team.

"The problem with the French is they're just so damn negative."

It was early December and I'd met my American sister-in-law for dinner in Paris.  She has been living in France for over a decade as I have.  We'd gotten together for a cathartic girls' night out.  My train had been late, my project panned in a meeting that week, my mood atrocious.

"I just can't stand all the complaining.  All the time.  Nothing else."

And so we gaily went on, two American chicks in an old-style Parisian brasserie, interrupting our tirade only to smile politely at the waiter when he came by and ineptly flirted with us in English.  I don't remember if we managed to turn the conversation around to happier subjects that evening or not, but I remember feeling better when I left, noting not for the first time that I prefer French pessimism to naive American optimism even if it isn't my native tongue.

I let up on the work in mid-December, having discovered that while being invested is good, there is a law of diminishing returns.  Then I took a week's vacation over the holidays. I came back refreshed and detached.  Three alpha versions into the project, I see how much I've learned and how much faster I am at developing and reworking the code, and also at adjusting my reactions to feedback to the reality I live in.  Meanwhile, my boss is starting to be happy with the end result.  By version two, he smiled and said, "Now that actually looks like a user interface."  With the latest, he told me it looked "done," and I had no doubt that it was (something like) high praise.

"On y arrive quand même," I said modestly: we're managing after all. No sense making a big deal of it all, I say, since as I see now, it could always be better.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Dark November

The first sign for me that something was wrong came on Saturday morning, when shortly after getting up, I checked my phone in the living room and discovered vague, worried e-mails from my family and friends in the US. I shouted out and woke my husband before I even knew: "Something's happened in Paris."  He loaded Le Monde, and as he read the details out loud, I listened in shock.

Then my daughter asked, "Mommy, why are you crying?"  

I wanted right then to send the fighter jets; the bombs were already dropping in my head, destroying them, whoever they were.  How dare they... it was my city and my country... and my uncharacteristic rage. I took a deep breath and at the same time gave the official parental narrative with so little trace of the anger in my voice I surprised myself: 

"Bad people in Paris last night... they did terrible things... a lot of people died."

I think my daughter might have given me a hug then, the four-going-on-five-years-old remedy for all that is wrong with the world. I don't remember when and how we told my eight-year-old son, or if we simply answered his questions as they came. If they both noticed that their parents seemed absent the rest of the morning, constantly checking their telephones and talking over their heads, they didn't say anything about it.  I was short-tempered, simultaneously light-headed with adrenaline and numbed by an anxious weight in my stomach.  At the same time, we were in Versailles and the events seemed very, very far away.  Acquaintances from high school were expressing relief on Facebook that I'd marked myself as "safe," and it almost made me laugh: was it at all likely that I would be out on a Friday night, in Paris, at a rock concert or a sidewalk cafe? As it happened, I'd gone to bed at 9:30 after a long week, right after tucking in the kids. Grim as the news was, in a city the size of Paris, what were the chances?

My daughter and I went into town in Versailles on Saturday afternoon and it felt like an act of defiance.  The chateau and park were closed, but the local shops were open but for a few exceptions.  The street market on the main commercial intersection was set up, though police cars were parked at each corner.  I made frivolous purchases I wouldn't have otherwise just to prove something, I think.  I bought a garish pink skirt and a silver-striped top for my daughter for the holidays. We chose invitations for her upcoming birthday party.  She clutched the shopping bag proudly and held my hand as we walked together.  Night was falling as we reached home.

November took me by surprise this year, for the weather has been mild and even unseasonably warm.  The leaves and rain are falling on schedule, but once I'm outside I shed woolen scarves and coats and wonder what to expect next.  Meanwhile, my daughter in her last year of nursery school is learning the reassuring logic of the seasons: with spring comes flowers, with summer the sun, with fall the brightly-colored leaves, and with winter the cold; then we begin again.  My son, with his eight-year-old passion for geography, savantly extends the logic.

"Maman, which one is the tropic of capricorn and which one is the tropic of cancer?" he recently asked, "I always forget."  

Thus I found myself holding his globe at a tilt one evening, orbiting around him as he stood in the center of his room in his pajamas. "And here the sun is as far away from us as it will get during the whole year. And then we go back again." I paused at the winter solstice, and he smiled because he understood. 

The rumors now are telling us things will get worse before they get better. As after September 11 in the US, the press -- or perhaps just our reading of the press -- is fueling a certain hysteria, and we hold our collective breath and wait for something even more terrible to happen. I'm afraid of a lot of things, many of them irrational, but I'm not particularly afraid of being the target of a terrorist attack. I am afraid of the darkness that is falling.  I'm afraid of decisions by those in power made in haste or made too late, of unintended consequences, of the simple reflexes of fear and hatred, of more human beings becoming trapped in the false logic of extremes. 

My children are not particularly concerned, though the adults around them look serious and scared.  For them, the fear is abstract and illogical, like so much else in the world of big people, not concrete like the changing seasons, where spring always follows winter just like we were taught.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Burgers and white wine

J'adore votre accent.

I get it all the time.  I can't help but cringe, though I try not to do so openly.  Yes, I'm obviously American and no, after twelve years in France it is pretty clear my accent is not going away.  I think the American accent in French is grating and inelegant, and I can hardly stand hearing my own voice on my voice mail recording.  I've been told my accent is less American more generic English-speaking, and that makes feel a bit better, since to my ear a pure American accent in French sounds particularly flat, nasal, and loud.  But my u can be a little bit ou, I have a terrible time distinguishing an e from an é and an é from an è, and I'm still not entirely sure what I do wrong with r.  Beyond the phonetics, there's the pace and the flow: though I speak fluently, I bounce over words which should be even, draw out syllables which should be clipped, and generally speak the way a Citroën 2CV drives through a freshly plowed field: neither smooth nor direct, but I get there.  This though I'm proud to speak with true fluency, both linguistic and cultural.  I can make jokes, and savant allusions to Molière and Les tontons flingueurs and actually get laughs.

When I'm told my accent is adorable, I usually wrinkle my nose and reply, "That's kind, but I prefer the French accent in English."  At which point the other person invariably wrinkles their nose and says, "Ah non." They usually add, "De toute façon, the French are terrible at English."

"Mais non, mais non," I protest. I come from a country where, in my generation at least, the vast majority never learned a foreign language in any durable fashion.  We all took French, Spanish, or less commonly Japanese or German starting in middle school.  Many of us got straight As, as I did.  Most of us dropped the language (in my case, Spanish) as quickly as our language requirement in college was met and we never seriously looked back.  Sure, I've had vague regrets about it every since: if I'd had half the guts in college that I have now, I would have studied abroad in Spain.  But the choice to give up never impacted me much.

In much of the rest of the world and certainly all of Europe, the linguistic stakes are much higher.  Being comfortable in English is often the difference between a promotion or professional stagnation, or the deciding factor in landing a job in the first place.  I observe this to be as true in the service sector as it is in the professional sector. Rare is the job nowadays, at least in Paris and other major cities, where you never greet a foreign tourist or address an international colleague in English.

The irony is that while the French are forgiving and indulgent with foreigners like me who muddle through their language with odd accents and vocabulary errors, they are ruthless critics of their own ability in English.  I've always assumed that this was because the French method of teaching English valued perfection over real-life proficiency.  Many French people I've met are just like my boss, who is timid and almost paralyzed when he speaks English despite being passably good at it.

I've recently been contacted by a couple of bosses in other groups at my company for a potential internal transfer.  I'm at a point in my career where I'm thinking toward the future, open to making a change, and making this fact known.  Yet neither of the contacts were for positions which were a natural fit for me, and I was a confused at first.

"They just want you because you speak English," was my boss' unflattering assessment. 

Though I knew that he was simplifying things -- and trying to convince me to stay put, somewhat out of self-interest I assume, since he knows I'm good at what I do -- I had to admit he wasn't entirely wrong.  That's just the way the world works now.

"...and then," he went on, "The French are so poor at English that even in our commercials we can't get it right.  Think of Renault and their slogan, 'La French Touch.' Badly pronounced, ridiculous!  We could make an effort..."

"It doesn't bother me."  I insisted.

That's when I realized something: not only did it not bother me, it made me cheer.

For better or for worse, English is the standard of international communication and isn't going away.  We have no choice, and it can be lived as a form of submission. I try not to let my bilingualism lead to laziness and imagined superiority: I try not to place English words in my French and assume everyone can and should understand.  What counts, I realized, is owning both languages wholly as my own.

"What if it were yours?" I asked my boss.  "What if English, now that it is the language of international communication, no longer belongs to just the English and the Americans, but to everyone?  What if you owned it, too?"

By owning it, you see, there is no longer a native-speaker ideal to which the rest of the world cannot aspire, but a rich palette of experiences though a shared global vocabulary. No accent is the "right" accent, and English is a tool for everyone, a catalyst for exchange.  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  My boss apparently didn't understand what I was saying (despite my limpidly expressed thoughts in his native language. Go figure).  

Later that day, I told the story to my husband, and he did understand.  As we walked to a restaurant for dinner on the other side of town, we passed a neighborhood bistro which is typically French in all respects except for its burger menu.  It was a warm summer evening and the sidewalk tables were full.  We passed an older couple just digging into their burgers, dismantling them delicately in the French manner, with a knife and a fork in each hand.  

"Look," I whispered as we passed.  "They're eating burgers, with utensils!  And they've each got a glass of white wine.  I love it.  That's what I meant... with English.  Eat the burger... but on your own terms." 

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?