Thursday, February 4, 2010

My Life in France Begins: My First Lesson in French Culture

You would think that since I’ve been in this country for exactly 32 days already that I would have learned a lot about the French culture and what it means to be French. However, this is not the case. I’ve been so busy making friends, orienting myself in Aix, choosing classes, figuring out how to feed myself affordably, and dealing with changes in host families that I have not really had the chance to start learning about the French culture. Until today that is.

Today I went to my Civilisation Française class, a class in which the professor doesn’t really teach, but instead, each week a different group of students makes a presentation on a different aspect of French culture. There are only about 20 people in this class and it is only for foreigners (about 6 Chinese, 3 Japanese, 4 Americans, 1 British, 1 Irish, 1 German, and 1 Norwegian). Originally this class seemed like one of those blow-off classes because your grade is comprised of a presentation (50%) which I’m really good at making, participation (20%) which I’m also really good at and a written exam (30%) which I don’t feel will be really that difficult. The first two presentations didn’t really spark my interest that much (France as a Tourist Destination and How to Live like a French Person) because I felt like they covered things I already knew about France and the French culture. You would think that this is exactly what I’d be interested in learning but really these are things that I learned in level one of French back home. For example, everyone knows that the French are well known for their wine, bread and cheese. I also know that the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe are two of the top tourist destinations in France. None of this interested me. Not really expecting to learn much about French culture that I didn’t already know, I came to class today expecting yet another useless presentation.

Today’s topic was “Le Rôle de l’État en France” or “the Role of the State in France.” There was potential here for sure. The presentation was started with a basic history of French government around the time of the revolution, and while many important things happened at this time regarding the formulation of the current French government and much more fundamentally, the commencement of the first true republic on the planet, the presentation of these facts went too quickly for me to actually grasp what any of this really meant. The next portion of the presentation went on to explain the current position of France as a Welfare State (L’Etat Providence). This is when things started to change.

We got into a deep discussion about the role of the state in different countries around the world concerning welfare, health care, and social security. I should preface this by saying that I LOVE discussions. I feel that when discussing and sharing opposing points of view, a person has the greatest potential to learn than at any other time in their life. Not only do you get to learn about how other cultures work but you also get to learn about why certain people think in certain ways, what things make different people passionate, and in the end, there is always a new sort of understanding reached, even if an agreement hasn’t been met. Just by learning what kinds of opinions and points of view exist in the world, a person can grow immensely. This is how a person learns to change their frame of reference, to see through new eyes, and even if not in agreement, one can still grow by learning that opposing views exist. That being said, I was really excited to finally be able to discuss different systems of welfare because the American welfare system is not something I understand very well, nor have I really been able to form a solid opinion on its function.

We started talking about how the French rely on their government for just about everything. In France a slogan like “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” would be completely absurd. In exchange for paying very high taxes the French receive any number of services ranging from medical care to road repair. For example, if a person with AIDS gets sick and has to pay for medication the government will reimburse them 100%. 100% for some of the most expensive treatments in medicine! If a person gets sick and has to go to the doctor, they are reimbursed some 75% of the doctor’s bill. In the United States, this is obviously not the case. Medical care in the US is increasingly privatized which means that not only is going to the doctor extremely expensive but also that many people who are sick can’t possibly go to the doctor because they can’t afford it. For people with money who can afford insurance, the United States has an incredible healthcare system. But for those that can’t afford insurance, life can be hell. Without insurance, it is next to impossible to go to any kind of doctor, which means that if you’re poor and you’ve been coughing for 3 weeks straight all you can do is continue taking over-the-counter medication that is only meant to cure symptoms for a few hours. Obama is currently trying to reverse this system by creating a government healthcare system that everyone can afford. In addition, he wants to make it mandatory to own health insurance so that if anyone, rich or poor, gets sick, they can go to a doctor to receive medical treatment. However, creating a system like this is very expensive for the government. This new healthcare system will mean an immense rise in taxes for all Americans and with a suffering economy this is not something everyone can afford. In the United States, there is very much of an individual mindset in that if you can’t afford healthcare, too bad for you because I can. With this new, raised tax, there would be universal healthcare but the upper and middle classes would be forced to pay for it as well, even though they already can afford their own healthcare.

In France, the key word here is égalité. Of the three words defining the French culture (liberté, égalité, and fraternité) égalité is definitely the one that describes France the best. Here it is all about receiving equal care and equal treatment even if it means that other people have to suffer because of it. This can be a good thing. Obviously universal healthcare is a great thing if you have a population that is both willing and has the means to pay it. On the other hand, this concept of equality also applies to the social sphere. For example, the French might ban the wearing of headscarves (les voiles) in any public space because they believe headscarves to be a representation of one’s religion, something they banned long ago when they created the distinction between Church and State with the founding of the Republic in 1789. Despite the fact that the French are overwhelmingly Catholic, laïcisme or secularism has been a fundamental part of the French state for some 221 years now.

In the United States the key word is liberté. We are too afraid of stepping on people’s beliefs that universalism is next to impossible in the United States. I’m not saying that stepping on people’s beliefs is a good thing; in fact, I think it’s very important to be sensitive to other people’s customs. However, as I mentioned before, certain things like universal healthcare that benefit all (not just the privileged) may never come to be because we think that asking the wealthy to pay higher taxes is impinging on their liberties and freedom to act as an individual. I’m not sure yet where I stand on all of this but I think it’s important to know that there are always two sides and that one must always try to gain new perspectives on every scenario in life. And while I’m on the topic of dual perspectives, I want to leave you with a little joke that my French professor told us today about the difference between the French and the Americans:

A Frenchmen and an American are walking down a sidewalk and see a beautiful limousine complete with a chauffeur. The American says “I wish I wish I wish I could own a car that nice with my own driver.” The Frenchmen then says “I hope that bastard who owns that car loses his money and has to drive a car just like mine.”

Liberté versus Égalité. My first lesson on French culture.

A Failed Attempt at a "Provencal Morning"

This morning I decided to have what I like to call “A Provencal Morning” (Provencal being the French word for provincial). Because I don’t have class until 2pm on Tuesdays I slept in until 10:30am, showered, got dressed and left the house by 11:30. Intent on finding myself a delicious lunch filled with local specialties, I wandered out to the large market located in the center of Aix. While there is a food market every morning here in Aix, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the market grows to include housewares, clothing, and rare collectible items.

When I got into downtown I was suddenly surrounded on all sides by tiny little food stalls each shaded by a different colored striped awning. Under each stall, burly venders sold a different type of regional specialty. Apples, oranges, olives, avocadoes, potatoes, tomatoes, fish, fromage, nuts, litchi, grapefruit, herbs, sausages and flowers of all variety crowded the already tiny streets of Aix.

Despite the fact that I was here to “wander” the market, I was also a woman on a mission—I was intent on finding the infamous “olive man” (as my American friends call him), a man made legendary for selling up to 15 different varieties of olives all local to southern Europe. Trying my hardest to imitate the provincial French and lazily peruse the market, I planned to stop at each stall to hold an apple in my hand, testing for firmness, smell and color and even dared myself to ask the vendor if I could possibly try just a little bit.

But the rushed American in me won out. I didn’t walk nearly as slowly as I’d wanted to, the only things I held were the ones I’d bought and I didn’t dare ask to try anything (if I had, I would have known the olives I chose weren’t as strong as I’d wanted them to be).

I think I just don’t understand what it means to be provincial yet. Sure I know that you take an hour to drink a tiny cup of coffee or two hours to savor the perfect glass of wine. I know that it means not rushing anywhere (even if you’re already late) and taking three hours to eat an average Monday night dinner. I know all of these things, but knowing and doing are completely different things. To do, observation of customs simply isn’t enough. To do, you have to understand the history of the custom, you have to completely change your mind set to one that is patient and has nowhere else to be. You have to have no future in that moment so you can savor the present. It’s not so much living like there’s no tomorrow, it’s more like living like you know there will be a hundred moments just as wonderful as this one, so why rush on to the next when this one is just as good. That is what I think living a “provincial life” means.

So while I’m a little disappointed with myself for not taking more time at the market today, I also know that there will be many more mornings just as beautiful as this one where I can try again. Despite having been here for one month already, I think it’s still too early for me to achieve this goal.

The first month is always kind of stressful anyway because everything is so new. I was so busy making friends, choosing classes, orienting myself in Aix, dealing with host family problems and calling my parents that I haven’t really had time to live a “provincial life.” That part of my stay is only beginning.

For now I’m taking little steps to achieve this goal. For example, I had the most delicious lunch today filled with fresh, local produce. I had avocado, salami and mamolette cheese on a baguette with “olives de Provence” on the side. After the meal I warmed up some Milka on the leftover baguette (just to keep it healthy!) Now that is what I call a perfect lunch!