Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Holding my breath

Tomorrow (or, more accurately, in roughly twenty minutes) the much-dreaded, much-antipated country-wide workplace smoking ban goes into effect in France.

I can't wait. Despite growing up with two cigarette smoking parents, who have since thankfully both given up the habit, I have never gotten used to second-hand smoke. I notice right away when one of my colleagues comes back reeking of smoke from a cigarette break, and someone smoking behind a closed door two offices down the hall is enough to make me wrinkle my nose in disgust. Nothing annoys me more than being served a mouthwatering entrée in some intimate Paris restaurant just to have the person at the table next to me, a mere elbows' length away, light up upon finishing his dessert.

I'm undoubtedly over-sensitive and I try not to complain too much, knowing I'll come across as a self-righteous Yankee. I was therefore secretly thrilled when the government announced an indoor workplace smoking ban back in November. No more holding my breath when I walk past the break room! My clothes will no longer need to be aerated after a visit to the coffee machine! I will finally be able to enjoy a meal at the chic restaurant across the street without staring purposefully at the packet of cigarettes on my neighbor's table, wondering if they'll let me finish my foie gras before assaulting my sense of smell!

Alas, this is France, where no law is passed without qualifying clauses that try vainly to satisfy anyone and everyone who might complain. There's a lot of talk in France of the exception culturelle, the cultural exception, or right of the French to use protectionism to promote French culture and French artists. I think they got it backwards: the cultural exception is really a culture of exceptions, a French penchant for bending the rules and creating loopholes.

Thus the smoking ban that I was so looking forward to got the initial bite taken out of it. For a year, restaurants, bars and hotels will be exempt. I'll still be personally grateful that my office will no longer have a smoking area just behind the reception desk, but tourists to Paris will notice no change whatsover.

It's only a year's exemption, and I admire the government for going through with it despite the upcoming elections. We'll wait and see whether the new law is actually followed, since "the rules are the rules" isn't necessarily an argument that carries much weight in France. However, once a regulation is recognized as being for the common good, attitudes change. The ban is popular, and I'm hoping and expecting it will entice many smokers to quit smoking entirely.

Of course, I make fun of the French with their exceptions and compromises, but I'm not convinced that in America we do things any better. Unpopular issues are usually dealt with by the states, often through ballot initiatives or worse, the state court system. The issues are simplified, the sides polarized; lobby groups gather together camps of supporters and the strongest or best-funded wins. Rarely do legislators get the chance to publicly and honestly debate an issue and come to a potentially unpopular decision. The result is a patchwork of different laws across the country, no more coherent than in France: California may go one direction through a ballot initiative, and New York another by a court decision. Smoking bans in the US were first implemented on a municipal level, which the French would find confusing and fundamentally contrary to their idea of liberty and equality.

I don't really care how we get a smoking ban, as long as in some not-too-distant future I can count on always being able to properly smell and taste the food I order in a Paris restaurant. In the meantime, it's becoming more and more acceptable to complain about it, and that's progress enough for me.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Nine Months

Or six months, if you will: our big news for 2007 is currently very small indeed, a barely noticable change in my silhouette that so far only informed friends and family know how to interpret. And yet, it changes everything: un vrai bouleversement. A happy one.

The French custom is to wait until three months' past to tell everyone the good news. This made sense to me: I preferred caution in the early days, and in any event wasn't looking forward to telling my boss that I was going to leave for at least the minimum four months' maternity leave. In France, pregnant women go on maternity leave for six weeks before their due date and about three months afterward. That's great news for me, but more difficult for my boss, who I suspect will have some trouble finding a replacement.

Over the last couple of weeks I've been trying to find clever and unembarrassing ways to inform my friends and, especially problematic, my colleagues. I've picked up a very French dread of sharing details of my personal life with the people I work with. Work is work and family... well, family is sacred, and the two do not mix. Most people speak only vaguely of their spouses, and almost never share their first names. Desktops are empty of family photographs. It's partly generational, and twenty-somethings are more forthcoming about their personal lives than forty-somethings, but there is definitely a reluctance to share, a respect for privacy.

Even so, I preferred to say something before people started wondering if my pants were tight because I'd simply overindulged over the holidays, and if I'd given up running during my lunch break as a result of winter laziness.

What I wasn't prepared for was that absolutely everyone would have advice for me. Rest up, eat well, stop working out, avoid salt, how long is your commute anyway? So much for the sacred public/private dividing line. I keep reminding myself that they mean well.

So, now that the news is out, I feel it's time to announce it on my blog, for the audience of... just how many people are reading this anyway? Two people? Mom and Dad? Yeah, but you already knew anyway.

I'm excited. As my father once told me, before you have a child, all you know is that your life is going to change forever but you have no idea how. I suspect that raising a child in France will involve me even deeper in French life, and will reveal a whole other side of the country to me. I will learn what is expected of a mother, of a teacher, and of a well-behaved child. I will probably find some things better than in the US and other things frustrating. I will participate in some things as a parent than I will never have experienced as a child, and someone will probably have to explain how it all works to me.

My child will grow up French as a matter of course, but it will be my job to help them feel American. I will speak English with them as much to avoid teaching my accent and grammatical mistakes in French as anything else, but that's just one small piece. I want to take them to the Rockies, to the Pacific, to New York and New England; I want them to discover all that wonderful American diversity, all that beautiful land, and feel that it is part of who they are.

We'll need to spend enough time in the Pacific Northwest for them to understand what makes a real forest: not your thinned and impeccably-groomed Ile de France oak forest criss-crossed with bicycle trails, but an evergreen rain forest with sheets of moss and cedar trees the diameter of the average French car.

Luckily we'll have plenty of time. If only Paris-Seattle were a toddler-friendly direct flight!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Haute technologie

We finally exchanged our 1999-era laptop for a brand-spanking-new Sony VAIO C-series. It's cute, it's sleek, it's fast, and most importantly, the latest version of Norton's Internet Security doesn't bring it to its knees. (Which in no way changes my low opinion of Norton's Internet Security. Can anyone explain why an anti-virus and firewall program needs 400 megabytes of RAM when it apparently isn't doing anything?)

The best thing about this new toy is that as soon as we get a wireless router I'll be able to blog from the couch. What will that make me, a blog potato? I don't care, it sounds cool.

The only thing that is taking a bit of getting used to is the keyboard. The keyboard is very nice, especially for a laptop of its footprint, but it's a French AZERTY keyboard instead of an American QWERTY keyboard. This shouldn't pose a problem because I've been using an AZERTY keyboard for three-and-a-half years now at work.

Strangely, though, I find myself having a lot of trouble touch-typing English on a French keyboard. It seems that my brain has been hard-wired to the American keyboard for English correspondance and blog entries, which I've always written from home on our old American laptop. I noticed in the past that I had the opposite problem at home, largely unable to correspond in French and giving up completely on the accented characters.

My brain-to-finger wiring is all messed up qnd I find ,yself zriting like this; (Except, of course, just then when I deliberately tried to do it.)

Should be a few days or at least a few blog entries before I get the hang of it.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Good manners

Like most American publications that target a certain upper-middle class, predominantly East Coast slice of American society, the New York Times is fascinated with France.

So am I, of course. I also love keeping track of the generalizations, simplifications and odd strands of insight that are reported from France back to America. The New York Times online is daily lunch break reading for me, though I admit I spend more time perusing the 'Style', 'Travel' and 'Dining' sections than following world events, and anything concerning Paris, France, or Those Wacky Europeans immediately catches my eye. Yesterday I noticed a particularly promising article:

France Polishes its Politesse

I expected the usual rant about rude and obnoxious Parisians, not that any criticism from New York holds much credibility on the subject, in my opinion. These rants are always fun reading, especially since Americans are wont to mistake normal everyday unpleasant treatment from shop clerks and waiters as some sort of anti-American political statement, which is usually isn't, since Parisian customer service is equally unhelpful to French customers.

No, the article turned out to be even more interesting than that: France is, I discovered, in the midst of a politeness renaissance, a rediscovery of good manners that reveals a complex, centuries-old social code that has only recently and temporarily been forgotten.

I hadn't even noticed. I was aware that the Paris transit authority, the RATP, had launched a repect campaign, plastering caveman-themed posters all over Métro. Double-parking one's car is compared with leaving a mammoth in a bus-only lane, littering with leaving a carcass under a seat, and smoking in a subway station with lighting a bonfire. One evening I counted three people waiting on a Métro platform smoking cigarettes right in front of one of these posters, and I concluded the campaign wasn't having much of an effect.

There is one strikingly contradictory aspect of the French personality that never ceases to fascinate me: the only thing the French like more than making rules is breaking them. Plenty of written rules govern all aspects of French life, from the complex and often ignored traffic code to the reams of negotiated guidelines that every company presents to its employees. The French take for granted that a large percentage of these rules will simply be ignored, and often pride themselves on if not openly flaunting them, at least finding ingenious ways around them.

This is not to say that France is a country of rampant lawlessness, of course, and most of the rule-bending is harmless. French are horrible at queuing and are always trying to find some way to jump ahead in a line, as anyone who's gone through immigration at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport can attest. French also happily exchange "combines," or tricks, for sneaking into museums without paying, returning merchandise after the all-too-short return period, or getting apartment renovation work done without paying all the employment taxes.

All this is minor, though, or bon enfant, as one would say, because the French also have a very strong sense of right and wrong and I believe this is what the article was getting at. I don't mean the basic right and wrong of the ten commandments variety, common to all societies, but the more subtle values that govern how a responsible and respectable citizen behaves.

For example, as I've mentioned before, properly saying bonjour is extremely important in France. A greeting is without exception exchanged between neighbors in the elevator, and hello is always the first thing said upon entering a shop or restaurant. I've been deliberately corrected by shop clerks when I forgot to say bonjour before asking a question, and I've had colleagues justify their dislike for people they hardly knew on the grounds that they didn't say hello in the morning on their way to their desk.

A favorite topic of conversation among Parisians, almost as popular as real estate prices or the weather, is the bad behavior of fellow public transit passengers. The article is correct, for at the top of the list of pet peeves is failing to stand up from the fold-down seats when a subway car is full. Failing to offer a seat to a pregnant or elderly passenger is probably next, followed by standing to the left and blocking the passing lane on an escalator. Describing and complaining about other people's rudeness sometimes sounds a bit shocking to Anglo-Saxon ears, but it's a sport that's easy to adopt, since self-righteousness and ranting are so much fun to combine.

There's plenty of rude behavior that is perfectly tolerated. Littering, smoking in non-smoking areas, and not cleaning up after one's dog hardly get a sidelong glance in Paris, though I've the impression this is changing slowly. Vociferously contesting being stopped for jumping the turnstiles is also perfectly okay.

I recognized this much of my personal experience in the article, but most of the so-called French social rules mentioned left me scratching my head. I think it is a question of class: it seems logical enough to me that upper-crust Parisian families, with whom foreign correspondents for American newspapers are likely to hobnob, have rules about avoiding pronouncing the word "toilette" in public or sending flowers to a hostess a day before arriving for dinner. I'm even prepared to believe that the haute bourgeoisie never say "Bon Appetit," although it's so much of a custom among ordinary folks that complete strangers will stop and say it to you when you're in the middle of a picnic. To me, these rules don't represent France any more than Emily Post represents middle America.

It is true, however, that it is best to arrive fifteen minutes late to dinner. As a disorganized hostess who is always just a tiny bit behind schedule, I love this custom, and the one time guests ignored this usage and showed up exactly on time I was almost offended.

I don't know if France is experiencing a politeness revolution, however. I'm more inclined to believe that it never forgot how to be polite, yet what it means to be polite is constantly evolving.

This morning I was joined by a neighbor and her three-year-old daughter while I was waiting for the elevator. "Bonjour!" I dutifully and cheerfully said, and she responded with a very respectful "Bonjour, madame," then turned to her daughter.

"I didn't hear you," she said.

Her daughter looked at me without taking her thumb from her mouth.

"I didn't hear you," her mother insisted, to no avail.

"What is it you say? There's a lady here, you're supposed to say 'Bonjour, madame.' You don't want her to think you're a bad mannered little girl now, do you?"

I smiled at them both, a little embarrassed. I think the education of the next generation is assured.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Bonne Année

I was not looking forward to going to work last Tuesday.

This wasn't just because it was my first day back at work after the last long holiday weekend, though that was certainly part of it. It wasn't a lack of sleep either, for once: we'd managed to get back to Paris at a reasonable hour the evening before, so we'd had a chance to unpack, organize, and even sit down to a nice improvised dinner before heading off to bed. I was well-rested, resigned and ready to start digging through a huge pile of work, but I sighed and groaned inwardly when I reached the front door of my office.

What I was dreading was the French New Years ritual that I knew waited for me: a week of overly-enthusiastic wishes of prosperity for the new year to everyone and anyone whose path I crossed. Many wouldn't know my name, or be able to identify me as anyone other than la petite américaine. Most would expect a New Years kiss on both cheeks nevertheless, because, well, tradition demands.

As usual when confronted with such foreign social rituals, I would have the vague feeling that I was doing everything wrong. Normally I shake hands with my colleagues, and when I stopped to say hello to everyone as usual on the way to my desk, I debated whether to hold out my hand. If my colleague did nothing, I went ahead and shook as usual, but a few stood up. Ah, the kiss! I thought. I'll never get used to this.

On a couple of occasions over the following days I made the mistake of offering a handshake only to realize that it wasn't what was expected. "Bonne Année," was the reply, either confused or reproachful, "So we'll shake hands?"

This handshake-or-kiss protocol flusters me sufficiently that I have trouble figuring out exactly what I'm supposed to say along with it. I manage an enthusiastic "Bonne Année", but that's about all I can muster, while my colleague wishes me prosperity, happiness, professional success, and any and all other good things that come to their mind.

The good wishes usually trail off without any logical conclusion, which I find amusing. The director of the research and development department came through our office, mumbling some vague expression of "best wishes and all the good things you may want... or whatever." He looked embarrassed, as if he were doing his New Years duty but wasn't any better at it than I am. He didn't expect a kiss from anyone, and didn't even stop to shake hands.

As last week progressed and into this week, I was increasingly confronted with the embarrassing problem of remembering exactly whom I'd already seen in 2007, and who was left on my New Years to-be-greeted list. This was fairly complicated, since people were trickling in from vacation during most of last week. The first half of January is essentially a two-week-long variant of the classic problem of remembering who you've seen in the day lest you commit the horrible error of saying Bonjour to the same person twice. By this Friday everyone will give up and assume they've already seen everyone, and start a new topic of conversation: the annual February ski vacation.

I'm just glad that New Years comes only once a year.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Loire Valley

If I had to find the rural France as described in storybooks and taken from the collective American imagination, I would place it in the Loire Valley, in some village of white, slate-roofed limestone houses presided over by a turreted chateau. In this part of France, wide, shallow and sandy river valleys cut through rolling hills, with rows of vineyards spilling down the slopes. The landscape breathes calm and the architecture light; even the humblest of houses are build of neat, evenly carved blocks of stone, and often lead back into elaborate chambers dug into the backdrop of chalk cliffs. Villages elsewhere in northern France often look to me slightly sad or austere, with rows of houses covered with the same graying stucco that enveloped most of post-war France. The local architecture is rarely conserved as beautifully as in the Loire Valley, and where it is, as in Burgundy and Normandy, the stones are darker, smaller, and less refined than the Loire’s limestone tuffeau. So if I have to choose my France, where I’ve spent hours imagining the house of my dreams, it would be somewhere along the Loire, the Cher, or the Vienne, either an hour or so from Tours or an hour or so from Blois.

If pressed for a particular village, I would choose Chinon, birthplace of Rabelais. I’m influenced in my choice, I’ll freely admit, by a favorite restaurant, Les Années Trentes, with a particularly imaginative menu. Eating well someplace always leaves me with a positive impression, and the quail with sautéed apples, accompanied by a galette of potatoes and a touch of andouillette sausage that I had on a trip a few weekends ago left a fond memory, especially seated à deux in front of the fireplace. I’ve heard from several reliable sources (and read in no less than the venerable French gastronomy guide Gault et Millau) that this is but one of several remarkable restaurants in town. I’ll simply have to wait to own my dream house there for find out for myself, I suppose.

The Loire river system is one of the most pristine in France, without a canal or a dam along its entire course, but it feels more civilized than wild, like a landscape that has been modeled into a perfect balance of nature and humanity. It could be considered the heartland of French civilization, where the most “pure” form of French is spoken. I have little trouble imagining why Charles VIII and Francois I, back from the Italian campaigns and inspired by the art and architecture of the Italian Renaissance, chose to build new, elaborate chateaux and gardens in the Loire Valley, establishing the region as a center of learning and political power.

It is a region that has been part of France almost as long as France has been a nation. Charles VII, denied his birthright to the French crown during the Hundred Years’ War, took refuge in the region, one of the last to hold out against the invading English. And in Chinon, in the castle that towers over the city, Joan of Arc had her first audience with Charles VII to organize the campaign to win back his throne.

The castle of ChinonOn the second morning of our trip, we visited the castle of Chinon and saw the room, now in ruins, where Charles VII and Joan of Arc first met. The castle sits high on a hill above Chinon, and its crenellated walls stretch out as far along the crest as the town stretches below along the river. That morning as we peered down we could see little more than a few vaguely defined rooftops in the fog, and the river was completely hidden. No signs of modern life were visible, as the weather seemed to conspire to transport us back in time. We crossed a drawbridge to visit the tower where Joan of Arc was lodged and where a century before her Jacques de Molay, the last leader of the Knights Templar, was imprisoned. Sketches of knights and various cryptic symbols, believed to be drawn by Molay himself, were still visibly carved into the stone walls.

The castle of Chinon evokes medieval battles and carefully designed armed fortresses; I thought of wars that lasted generations, and the generations of leaders, from Philippe-Auguste to Louis XIV, who fought to define France’s boundaries. Most of the Loire’s chateaux say nothing of all this, however. Even though Chenonceau, Azay le Rideau, and Chambord are surrounded by watery moats, who would take refuge in any of them during a siege? These chateaux are pictures of 16th-century modernity, with large windows, sculpted portals, and delicate towers perched above steep roofs. There’s nowhere for an archer to hide and take aim, and no windowless keep in which to cower. The gardens alone, with rows of roses and miles of boxwood trimmed into elaborate arabesques, are enough proof that invading armies were not an everyday occurrence: who would dare tell the gardener that his work of art had been trampled?

ChenonceauMy favorite of all of these Renaissance chateaux that I’ve visited so far – and I have many, many more to see – is Chenonceau. Who can resist a chateau built as a bridge across a river as romantic as the Cher, where the ballroom gallery offers a view on both sides that spans the entire stream? Who can expect me to resist a chateau so expertly marketed as the “chateau des Dames,” where such remarkable women as Catherine de Medicis and Diane de Poitiers made their home? The rooms are all beautifully (and for all I know, accurately) restored with period furniture, tapestries, and portraits, all woven together with the stories of the chateau’s former inhabitants.

Perhaps I’m too inspired by Rabelais, or simply Les Années Trentes, but what fascinated me the most at Chenonceau were the kitchens. Tapestries and canopied beds give one idea of what life was like, but nothing is more fun for me to imagine than an entire wild boar roasting before a fire, or baskets and baskets of fresh vegetables hauled up from boats along the river. The kitchens at Chenonceau look alive enough that I almost wondered if I came back in a few hours if I’d be greeted by rich, savory smells and a seat at a table by the fireplace.

The kitchens at ChenonceauI contented myself with a seat by the fireplace that evening at the restaurant, à deux as I mentioned, and dreamed of the day we will hopefully choose someplace outside Paris as home. For the moment Chinon is ahead, but next week it may be Beaune in Burgundy, or the Gers in southwestern France. I have much, much more of France to see before I finally make up my mind. Dreaming is cheap… happily!