Sunday, July 22, 2007

Le petit est arrivé !

Le petit has arrived! Deciding not to pay patriotic hommage just yet to either of his countries of citizenship, he arrived neither the 4th of July nor the 14th, but the 12th.

Everything that they say about the fatigue, the anxiety, the stress, but also the joy and the wonder of the event is true. (Okay, it's trite, but I'm a new mom, I'm allowed.)

That said, it's easier to appreciate it all now, for after several sleepless nights at the maternity ward, I'm very pleased to report that monsieur has decided to start sleeping six to seven hours a night at least some of the time, and take long naps during the day. That doesn't mean he doesn't express himself loudly when he's awake! It's easy to forget right now, since he's been sleeping soundly since early this afternoon, but when he's crying inconsolably it's one of the most trying experiences I've ever had.

I've decided that there is no language on Earth more difficult to understand than Baby. If only I could find a reliable translator...

In the meantime, we've started his English and French lessons, conducted by Maman and Papa repectively.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Gross National Happiness

According to an article in today's Le Figaro, the Gross National Product is now outdated as a measure of a nation's prosperity. Since the GNP fails to take into account environmental progress and sustainable development, as well as the basic health and happiness of a population, economists are now considering other measurements when evaluating a country's progress.

One of these new measurements is the Gross National Happiness Index, a figure based on a population's answer to the question "to what extent are you happy with your life?" Individual answers, a number on a scale from one to ten, are averaged to give an overall score for the country. A nation can also be evaluated by the difference in score given by its richest and poorest citizens.

Out of the 95 countries surveyed, Denmark's overall score was the highest at 8.2, and Tanzania came in last at 3.2. More interesting to me are the relative scores of the two countries dear to my heart, the US, in 17th place with a score of 7.4, and France, which trails in 39th position with a score of 6.5.

I grant you that I am not an impartial observer, and if I didn't consider my Personal Happiness Index higher in France, I wouldn't still be living here happily after almost four years. I feel, however, that as well-intentioned and innovative as this new measurement is, it forgets that different cultures have very different approaches to answering surveys. The French are notorious complainers, and what's more, are used to the grading policy of an educational system which considers a 14 or 15 out of twenty perfectly acceptable, even exceptional. In contrast, Americans are natural optimists, and given to grade inflation. In the American educational system, a B grade is considered average and a C substandard.

Is my theory correct? Who knows, but I'm convinced that an entirely subjective rating alone, especially one based on a single question, cannot be sufficient. I think that the concept of a happiness index is interesting, but why not factor in objective criteria, like access to high-quality health care and education, or the likelihood of economic advancement from one generation to the next? Not only would the rating be easier to understand, but it would point clearly to areas for improvement.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tous contre la malbouffe

A few days ago the film L'Aile ou la cuisse aired on French television. My husband urged me to watch it pour ma culture générale. Not that it is a classic. It's simply your typical 1970s French comedy, with Louis de Funès doing his typical incomprehensible vocalisations, gesticulations and facial expressions. Every summer, de Funès' entire filmography is shown on French television, in a seasonal ritual as important to the populace as bad rosé. My husband was correct, though, because I immediately appreciated this movie far more than the others, for it addresses an issue dear to my heart: the struggle against la malbouffe.

La malbouffe can be roughly translated as "junk food," but I find the expression in French far more appealing because it sounds disgusting. Bouffe is a slang term for food, as removed from its artistic, gastronomical sense as possible. On va bouffer is the French way to say "Let's grab a bite somewhere." It's not a term that the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin would employ if he were around today. Malbouffe is simply the conjunction of bouffe and mal, meaning bad or poor.

In L'aile ou la cuisse, de Funès plays the editor and owner of the famous food guide Duchemin, obviously inspired by Michelin's famous Guide Rouge. After a few classic de Funès scenes where he goes undercover to rate different restaurants, the film quickly turns to a showdown between Monsieur Duchemin, lone gastronome crusader, and the industrialist Tricatel, who is busy replacing French cuisine everywhere with modern, factory-produced food products, the very definition of malbouffe. Duchemin wins in the end, of course, after infiltrating Tricatel's top-secret factory, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a 1970s Star Trek set and where fish, chicken and rubbery lettuce are manufactured out of colored goo.

My husband notes that the late 1970s mark a sort of turning point for French eating habits, when the country suddenly realized that they were buying too much into American-style supermarkets and fast food restaurants, and the movie reflects this. He's probably right, to a point: I believe that France, far more than even other countries in Europe, is still a place where you can do almost all of your shopping in farmer's markets and small, specialized shops and avoid supermarkets almost altogether. This doesn't mean that most people do. Carrefour, a supermarket retailer which, if I remember correctly, is globally second in size only to Walmart, is French and exerts enormous power over the food market here and abroad. Picard, a supermarket specialized in high-quality frozen food, is hugely popular especially in Paris, and McDonalds has long been a success all over the country.

I haven't lost hope, however. Sure, France has embraced convenience foods and even the horrid malbouffe. It's gotten bad enough that the Ministry of Health now requires food advertisements to reference their nutritional information web site, Mostly, though, the French have integrated convenience foods into a traditional way of eating that hasn't much changed, and that is promising. They'll eat Picard frozen food, sure, but the whole family still sits down to eat dinner together at eight o'clock. Sandwiches and hamburgers are eaten in a pinch in the middle of a busy work day, but most French will still sit down to a proper lunch if they can possibly make the time. And Sunday lunch with the extended family is still sacred.

I had to wonder, however, when the very first commercial that followed the movie on Sunday was for frozen hamburgers. Frozen, entire hamburgers, that you put into the microwave bun and all. The commercial showed the kitchen appliances coming to life, Transformer-style, to fight over the hamburgers as they came out of the oven. Yuck. Proof that we mustn't let our guard down just yet.