Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween, such an American holiday

     The kids have been disappointed to not get to dress up and trick or treat while they are here, and they asked if there was any way that we could carve a pumpkin.  I told them that we would look for one but that since pumpkins were grown for eating here, not for carving, we might not be able to find an appropriate one (either in size or price).  We've been seeing them here and there, but mostly they've been out of our price range or discolored and small.  Today, we went to the market with a mission:  search out a pumpkin!
     After not too much searching, Kate spotted a fruitière who had a few whole pumpkins available.  The price was not too crazy, so we walked over and, after asking if they could touch the produce, I let the kids decide which of the five had the best carving face.
      The fruitière tried to point us to a small, squat, pumpkin that she declared perfect for Halloween. Clearly she has never carved a pumpkin. No, no. We need that big one. Yes. That one.  She weighed it and said "It's ten kilos..." clearly expecting that I would balk at the price and decide that her attempt to assist me by pointing us to the small pumpkin was far better judgment.  Of course, it may have been, but I nodded acceptance and pulled out my wallet.  (Compared to bags of candy and costumes, one large pumpkin isn't that big of an investment.)
     She gave it to us after making quite a show of how heavy it was and how it was difficult to pass over.  I suspect that was less about the weight of the pumpkin than the fact that she knows that we are going to cut a face in it, throw a candle in, light it up, and then throw this perfectly good pumpkin away.  Of course we are going to do that!  I expect we will have a good time doing it, even if we have to use an electric knife -- or maybe especially if we have to use an electric knife.  However, the fruitière's suspicion of our motives made me realize that Americans do indeed waste a great deal compared to other people, in contexts that I never even think about it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Aren't they cold?

Got three comments today at the marché how cold my children must be (they were all wearing tshirts and jeans or leggings; it was about 60 degrees).  When I said that they had refused the jackets that I was carrying in the market bag, so I suspected they were not cold, I got warned that they were going to get sick.  (Isn't that an old wives' tale?)  When I said that I hoped not, they shook their heads reprovingly and you could tell they were kind of saddened by the combo of my stupidity and poor parenting.

Profiting from time abroad

     A few weeks ago, in music class, my son was chastised in front of the class for not having memorized the answers to a quiz.  When he indicated that his French wasn't yet strong enough to have completed the assignment, the teacher asked him how long he'd been in France.  He said two months (though he'd only been in school for about a month at that point) and the teacher said, "You must profit from your time!  Profit James, profit!"  Apparently, the exchange has continued, with the music teacher calling him up first last week and telling him that he's not really benefitting from this opportunity, because he hasn't learned enough French.
      This demonstrates that James and the teacher have rather different understandings of what it means to profit from time abroad as well as what James' "job" is here.  Overall, all the kids' teachers have been pretty understanding of the fact that they came knowing no French and that they're trying but that they don't yet know much.  However, I expect that it's hard for many of the teachers to see them making reasonably little progress in French, as it seems like they must not be learning anything about France.  Of course, that's not true.  They are picking up lots of French -- though nothing systematic -- and they are learning a great deal about social expectations, cuisine (school lunches are an entirely different animal here!), and playground games (marbles!), just to mention a few things.  They will not go back to the United States the same as when they left, whether they can carry on a conversation in French or not.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Fresh -- and local -- food

   In the United States, I've made small attempts to increase our family's local eating, but they've always fizzled out.  The CSAs, for example, were mostly small and expensive (especially for a family of 6), and the one that was easy to access and not too expensive didn't seem to really have much local produce...and everything spoiled really quickly, too.
   In France, on the other hand, it's easy to eat locally grown food, especially living in the Rhône, where there are so many types of food raised or grown within driving distance.  At our local market, held every day except Monday, we buy goat cheese from the man who makes it, honey from the beekeeper herself, and apples from the people who own the orchards.  The cheese is delicious and we can tell the seller exactly how dry or moist we'd like the cheese to be.  The apples don't always look as nice as apples in the grocery store at home.  They have lines and scars and a few bruises here and there, but they taste delicious.  As one of my kids said, "It tastes like I just picked it off a tree!" Of course, some things are starting to go out of season and be unavailable (peaches, for example), while new things are arriving (pumpkins, which my kids are sure we should buy and carve).  We won't be able to buy any kind of fruit or vegetable that we want whenever we want it.
   However, when thinking about the available foods at the market and comparing their taste and quality to the same foods at the grocery stores in the US, I'm reminded of how much we've sacrificed in terms of taste in order to achieve convenience (one-stop shopping, year-round grapes, etc).


Friday, October 12, 2012

French School System

     I had big plans for this week:  meetings with scholars and plans for work at ENS-Lyon.
     So on Monday, I showed up at the Ecole des Entrepots, all excited for Lucy to have a full day of school -- and for me to have a full day of work. Turns out one of the teachers was out sick, so they were asking parents to keep their kids home in the afternoon. You could say no, but then they would parcel your kid out to another class so they could reach a better ratio. I don't think that's a recipe for success, given what a hard time she's having with the idea of full days. So she stayed for lunch and I picked her up at 1:30.  Since her teacher was going to be out sick for the entire week, it meant that I had to pick her up at 11:30 every other day.
    Then, on Thursday, I went to pick Lucy up and found Kate in Lucy's classroom. My first thought was "Oh no, lice!" But no, Kate's teacher was sick, so they parceled the kids out to all the classes...and sent Kate to preschool, where she was helping the four year olds with crafts and gymnastics.  Since I was already bringing Lucy home, I brought Kate home, too.  Then, about an hour later, I got a call from the principal, telling me that Molly's teacher was going to be sick tomorrow as well, so I am keeping all the girls. I really think I am not supposed to get any work doon Friday (along with Kate's and Lucy's).  So I just kept them all home.  
     This makes me wonder a few things.  I wonder if "sick" is code for "strike."  I suspect it's not, or they would have said, but perhaps they have a reason.  More importantly, I wonder what this says about childcare and the French public school system.  I saw many grandparents arriving to pick up the kids in Kate and Lucy's classes.  What do single parents or people without flexible jobs or without family backup do?  Often in the U.S., people point to Europe --and notably, France -- as a country that has solved the problem of childcare and working, but this experience doesn't seem to demonstrate to me the truth of that statement.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Cold (or lukewarm) calls

     I would never make it as a telemarketer.  I am not fond of the telephone and particularly dislike talking to people I don't know.  Even when the format is clear (for example, a cocktail party or an awards reception), I find it stressful.
    In that context, being a historian has a lot to recommend it:  you go to the archives or library and sit with books, articles, and ideas all day.  You don't really have to talk to many people (except perhaps a librarian or archivist, especially if you need special permission or an unusual document) and the people you're researching are long past talking back.
    The Fulbright meetings, however, reminded me that I'm really not just here to spend time at the Bibliothèque Part Dieu (as awesome as their collection is for me) or other archives (ditto).  I'm also here to make connections.  I have done some of that, but I heard the encouragement to do more and I know that it's a good thing to get in touch with more people (or to email the people that I contacted once but never really connected with because my arrival coincided with summer's slow-down).
    I think that's probably important in any location and field of study, but it's especially true in France, where personal connections can make the difference between access to an archive or no access at all.
    So today, I had a meeting with a friend of a friend.  I don't really need anything from him, but I had been given his name and there is potential overlap in our interests.  We sat and chatted for about an hour, so now he knows who I am, if I need to contact him.
   What this reminded me is that A) my French is improving and B) I am really glad that I don't have to talk to my sources on a regular basis!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It always sounds better in French...


French Minister of Foreign Affairs Receives Fulbright Laureats

Fulbright Orientation

   I just spent three days in Paris with the other boursiers Fulbrights, ranging from English-language teaching assistants to research scholars working on advanced projects.  A good majority of them were in Paris or its surrounding area, though if I remember correctly, not a single research scholar is working in Paris right now (Lille, Bordeaux, Montpellier, etc.).
    It was a really invigorating and enjoyable time.  On the enjoyable side, we had a trip to Chantilly (and got to see the opening of the Delacroix/Orientalism exhibit, as well as a truly fantastic symphonic perfomance) and some great chances to connect with scholars that I would never otherwise meet.  This year's research scholars are biologists, with a political scientist and a behaviorial psychologist; I was the only humanist among them.  We had conversations about such diverse things as genetically-modified food, organic farming, and the problems of enrolling kids in French schools.   I was also able to speak with some of the doctoral Fulbrights about their work (many more of them are humanists) and their career plans, and I think I had some good advice and connections to offer.
   I left feeling both encouraged (I've gotten some work done and have had what appears to actually be an easy time negotiating school enrollment, etc,) and challenged to get the rest of my work done (make those contacts!  keep up that research!).  I now have a "to-do" list that has gotten a bit longer than before, and I'm very conscious of the fact that I have just over two months remaining.