June 22, 2016

Air Issues

There has been a recent spate of serious problems caused air. Well, at least that's what French people seem to think. Air -- it's freshness, it's temperature, it's movement -- is a national obsession. Every Frenchwoman walks around her entire home every morning and opens the windows for five minutes, no matter the weather. It is extremely important to air things out, one medical expert commented on the radio this winter. The show host asked, "But what if it is very cold outside?" combining two thorny issues: aire freshness and the need to never waste a single speck of heat or electricity. The medical professional said that even when it is minus 10 Celsius, you must open the windows in the house. "Cinq minutes. Pas plus." This morning, the same show was dedicated to air pollution and all the havoc it can wreak. The wet weather has confined children and adults alike to long stretches of indoor time, resulting in much speculation about the damage all that recycled, un-fresh air was causing on the local population. 

But it got more serious with my own child. My three year old had a red and irritated eye; like any parent, I feared conjunctivitis. To the doctor we went. It was a Saturday, so we went, naturally, to the doctor's personal house for the check up. He poked and prodded, and did some very scientific stuff, namely rubbing his thumb and index and middle fingers together beside each of my son's ears and asking him if he heard the same volume in each ear. The technique reminded me of my own hearing check as part of my "fitness to drive a 9-person vehicle" exam. In my case, a different doctor stood behind me at various distances and called out numbers in a whisper, asking me to repeat: "Dix-neuf! Quatre-vingt-cinq!"

At the end of the exam, the doctor said he didn't think there was anything to worry about. "Perhaps," he mused, "il a pris un courant d'air." 

Maybe my son had caught a current of air.

OK, I thought, so he's fine. Nonetheless, we had a prescription for the pharmacy, so we went there. The ladies expressed concern for le petit mignon, and asked what was troubling him. I pointed out the eye in question, and the ladies, almost in unison, said, "Perhaps il a pris un courant d'air."

Breezes, winds, gusts, draughts, and gales in this country were beginning to make me nervous.   

We trundled back to the car and drove out of town, stopping for a minute in front of a friend's boutique. I told her, pointing back at the little one in his car seat, that we had just been to the doctor for a second time in three days. 

"Encore!" she exclaimed, clearly upset and worried for his health. "Qu'est-ce qu'il a le petit lapin?

[Side note: I love how French people call my kids "little rabbits."]

I again pointed to his eye, and she stood bolt upright, authoritatively, and said...

"I think that he caught un courant d'air."

I waved my thanks and quickly rolled the window up, trying my best to protect my offspring from the vagaries of the invisible gas that surrounds us on Earth.

A day later, we had guests over for lunch. It was cold at the beginning, and people were concerned we might need to close the walls of the tent we had erected to protect us from the elements. One woman described how the previous evening she had gone to a concert in town, and the entire group of a hundred or more had to be enclosed under the tent because the air and wind were so cold. As our afternoon wore on, the sun finally won the battle, and temperatures rapidly rose. We had never closed the walls of the tent, but it was nonetheless a bit hot underneath, just on the edge of being uncomfortable without ever getting there.

The following day, the woman's husband came by to get some items he had loaned us for the gathering. He informed me that his wife was not well, and had taken to her bed. Worried, I asked what the cause might be. We loosely speculated about it being the food ("Maybe she had bad digestion," quite possibly the gravest of situations for an honorable French person to be in) but, as he was in perfect form, he didn't seem convinced. Upon a little more reflection, he said, "It was very cold, then it was very hot under the tent. Je ne sais pas...peut être elle a pris...un courant d'air."

Right now, my son is feeling much better and is currently outside in the sunshine and light breezes, running and playing with his brother and mother. 

Pray for them. Meantime, I will be inside.

June 7, 2016

If you like eating in France

You can read my article on how to do it cheaply here in my post for International Living.

May 31, 2016

That's One for You, Nineteen for Me

Been awhile...sorry about that. 

Today is the day that, I thought, taxes are due in my region of France. As we aspire to be responsible human beings ("aspire" being the key word), I dived headlong into the FrInternet this morning, convinced that, after more than a few weeks here, I would be able to decode the government mumbo-jumbo and decipher the different acronyms and, well, pay my taxes.

As is her wont, France guffawed at me, leading me down a trail of imprecise advice ("enter your fiscal number, which is different than your ID number," "you must pay online" with a link to a .pdf form that cannot be completed online, a series of phone numbers that I can call for help [billed at the cost of a local call] where pressing "0 for the operator" leads back in a vicious cycle to the original welcome message...). Eventually, perseverance -- the most important character trait in any governmental dealings, here or in any modern state -- paid off and I had a human on the line.

Pascale was lovely, telling me that I had done several things wrong so far, but that I shouldn't worry about it. She gave me the number of another office closer to my hometown where they would be able to help me. She even looked up the direct line for me, prompting me to say, "And people tell me that French public servants aren't helpful!" We laughed, and I told her that I, too, had worked in government at home, and that Americans largely shared the French's opinions of government workers, but that I knew, like Pascale did, that folks work hard, even when they are on the taxpayer dime.

In Beaune, at the correct number, a woman cheerfully explained to me that she would need to send me documents to fill out. When I expressed mild concern about the supposed deadline of today, she chuckled and said, "It's your first time, Monsieur. You couldn't possibly have known what to do. Do not worry about; we'll help you figure it out."

It feels like a remarkable accomplishment for a day, and it's only 11. Naturally, I cannot write anymore right now...it is time to start preparing lunch. 

April 8, 2016

Mundane Observations

When living abroad, as I do with my family in rural Burgundy, France, it does not take long to notice the little differences between here and home. It is only with time, however, that one begins to comprehend the cultural links in the chain. Eventually, experience and simple observation help decode the mysterious until the relationship between two seeming oddities becomes part of the social logic of a foreign land.

Take, for example, one of the ironclad rules of French life: “On ne mange pas entre les repas.” One does not eat between meals. At first glance, this dictum helps explain why, generally, French people are thinner than Americans. Imagine eliminating every muffin or bagel you snitch at during your mid-morning break at work. Wouldn’t you be able to tighten your belt an additional notch or two if you never had that “whoops-I-ate-the-whole-thing” bag of Smartfood or shared a snack with your children in the afternoon?

But there is more to it than simply eschewing edibles outside of proscribed mealtimes. The repasts themselves explain the overriding philosophy. If you ditched your bland turkey sandwich at noon in favor of an appetizer of poached eggs in red wine sauce, a main course of rosy, sliced duck breast in a honey-mustard sauce with skillet-browned potatoes and green beans, followed inexorably by a cheese course and a slice of apple tart, it would be much easier to stave off a case of the afternoon hungries.

Our journey with this seemingly innocuous maxim is not over. Because the entire population has absorbed the words and accepted them as near-Biblical truth, supermarkets, small grocery stores, and the weekly outdoor markets that dot the countryside offer astonishingly little to eat on the go. There are no hot dog carts, no hot slices of pizza, no deli counters offering made-to-order sandwiches, no little tubs of carrot sticks and hummus. Even at rest stops on the highways, one eats, seated, with metal flatware and chooses from several hot plats du jour.

The No Take Out mantra applies to drinks as well. I cannot recall ever seeing a French person perambulating with a cup of hot coffee or a bottle of water. Nobody drinks any type of beverage in the car. A Frenchman in the street almost never has his hands full.

This national empty-handedness leads to the final reality stemming from a refusal to nibble. Because one is never carrying anything disposable, there is a surprising dearth of refuse receptacles on the Burgundy landscape. Perhaps more surprising, the ones that are provided for passers-by are almost universally empty. But it makes perfect sense. If we think back to the original premise – on ne mange pas entre les repas – and then consider what goes into the trash cans on busy US streets, the differences are clear. No white butcher paper wrapping a submarine sandwich, no paper bags, no straws, no take out coffee cups, no empty Doritos bags, no foil that wrapped your egg and cheese on an English, nothing to do with food. In other words, they don’t need a trash can because they never have trash with them because they never eat between meals and, when they do eat, they eat at a table with real utensils and dishes.

What do you think? A stretch? I actually think I am right.

March 18, 2016

La Technologie en France

Pour les américains, le stéréotype du Français -- au delà de la baguette et le béret -- est quelqu'un qui est 100% convaincu que la vie qu'il mène est plus ou moins parfaite. Il a une culture, une éducation, une compréhension du monde autour de lui qui sont les meilleurs de tous les autres pays du monde. Bref, pour un américain, le Français, c'est l'Art de Vivre. 

Quand je regarde votre rapport avec la technologie, je pense que l'idée ci-dessus n'est peut-être pas loin d'être vraie. Jusqu’ici, vous avez mieux maitrisé la technologie que nous. (Avant de continuer, il faut avouer que je n'habite pas Paris. Je sais très bien que la capitale a un autre rapport avec la technologie qui n'existe pas ici dans la France profonde. Mais Paris est la France comme New York est les États-Unis...)

March 13, 2016

All Politics is Local

If there is ever a time when it is acceptable and even desirable to ignore the racket of the American political world, it surely is when living in rural Burgundy, France. In our small village, locals are concerned more with the cost of bread than the cost of winner-take-all primaries. I have repeatedly tried to tune it out, to enjoy local food specialties, wines, and habits on local time without the distraction of democratic socialists (we've got the real thing in power here). 

The US presidential race, however, has just been too spicy to block out. I devour the noise from big-time prognosticators, experts, and insiders. (Only in America do you get a high-paying job where you get to say on television or in print, "He has no chance" and then later get to say, in the same mediums, "He is inevitable" without issuing a mea culpa. And if you think I am talking about the current situation, be reminded of 2008, s'il vous plaît. What a great country.)

In time, I realized that, while my new French friends may not know much about filibusters or why DC license plates say "Taxation Without Representation," they do follow U.S. politics. And, so, in my little corner of the Burgundian countryside, I offered up my knowledge.

March 11, 2016

Bonjour les Français

Quelle surprise ce matin de regarder mes statistiques sur ce petit coin de l'internet. D'après ce que je constate, vous avez été 400 à venir ici hier pour lire un peu comment je vis en Bourgogne. Si ces statistiques sont fiables, il me semble que l'heure est arrivée de vous poser une question. J'aimerais partager un peu plus ce que je vois ici et de vous décrire les différences entre votre culture et la mienne. Donc, la question est la suivante: 

Parmi ces sujets, lequel aimeriez-vous que j'aborde prochainement:

  • Les règles du "bonjour" en France et aux États-Unis. Difficile à croire qu'il y a des différences, mais je vous jure que c'est le cas.
  • "On n'a pas le droit," "ça ne se fait pas," et "être bien élevé": des expressions typiquement françaises que nous n'avons pas vraiment chez moi...mais pour comprendre les Français, il faut les comprendre et savoir s'en servir.
  • Le service clientèle: chez vous, j'ai parfois l'impression que l'on commence en disant "non." Chez nous, on commence sur le principe que le client a toujours raison. Qu'est-ce ça fait pour un américain en France? Avec plein d'exemples!
  • La technologie en France par rapport à la technologie en Amérique. Dans les deux cas, tout le monde a un smartphone...mais on s'en sert d'une manière très différente. 
Si un ou plusieurs de ces sujets pourraient vous intéresser, laissez un petit mot dans les commentaires ci-dessous ou envoyez-moi un mail. Merci!