Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Off to Corsica

My sixth or seventh check of the New York Times website today reveals that Obama is still ahead by a (someone less superstitious might say comfortable, but let's settle for:) slight margin. Our votes are somewhere over the Atlantic right now, on their way home to be counted. A is carrying them in her luggage. She came across last week with a suitcase full of American election bits and bobs--stickers and buttons and signs--and she's going back with our votes. I imagine the candidates wish it could always be so simple.

I know he's way ahead, but I've lived through the last two presidential elections. There's a very large part of me that expects to wake up one of the next six mornings and read about something catastrophic and horrible and election-changing. We may or may not find out in a timely fashion, though, because tomorrow we're taking the boat to Corsica. It's the Toussaint holiday and the girls have almost two weeks off. Tomorrow evening we'll drive to Toulon and put the car and ourselves on a boat, and Thursday morning we'll wake up and see Ajaccio out the porthole. At least, I hope there's a porthole in our cabin.

We'll be back next Tuesday. As the first ballots are cast in New Hampshire, we'll be driving to Bastia to board the early morning ferry. We'll dock at Savone early in the afternoon, as the candidates go to vote themselves and the masses of volunteers line up 50 feet away from the polling stations. We'll wend our way along the Mediterranean coast--C wants to stop for lunch in Ventimiglia to break up the trip--and, late in the afternoon, we'll open the gates of La Bastiole. If I manage to get to Picard tomorrow, we'll thaw supper in the oven; otherwise, it'll be pizza from Madame Marie.

Four years ago, C and I spent election day standing outside a polling station in my hometown. We started out the regulation 50 feet away from the doors, but when the temperature dropped and it started to rain, the authorities, whoever they were, took pity on the volunteers and let us stand under an open breezeway only 20 feet or so from the door. The precinct went 75% the other way, and although the voters were polite to me--the protection of Southern womanhood--C had a difficult day. And it didn't get any better when we watched the returns that night.

So we're hoping for a better day next Tuesday, both personally and globally. Between now and then we--okay, really, I, the family is just humoring me--are looking forward to seeing Napoleon's birthplace and death mask. (Who can resist a death mask? Not I.) We're hoping to hike some (although the forecast is for rain) and to walk on the beach (again, the forecast). Other than that, we're looking forward to scenery, villages, new kinds of cheeses, Corsican wine, and (we're all really hoping for) lots of troupeaux of sheep and goats wandering the roads. (A year plus in rural France, and we still can't get enough of farm animals and shepherds.) None of our hotels boasts internet access and I doubt that the International Herald Tribune gets delivered to the Corsican back country, so whatever happens is going to have to happen without us.

Which, of course, it would do anyway. But we're going to be turning it loose now. So, folks, go vote. Light a candle, wear your pajamas inside out, switch your ring to the other hand, do whatever you think will help. Stand outside in the rain and pass out stickers and smile, even if you think they won't vote for your guy. Because this time around, I think--I hope--I almost believe--that they will.

And we'll be back next week.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Cartesian School of Driving

Descartes, you know (or maybe you knew once, but it hasn't come up recently), is the philosopher who brought us deductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning goes from the theoretical and abstract (Do I exist? Am I the green car?) to the concrete (I think, so I must exist; I'm looking out the windshield at the green car, so I must not be the green car). Inductive reasoning, which the English came up with, goes the other way round, from concrete observation to theory. I'm looking at the green car; that I can see the green car suggests that I must not be the green car; therefore, there must be something funny about my translation.

Now, we in the New World proceed from the concrete to the theoretical. We are inductive thinkers; that's why our politicians keep talking about individuals that they meet on the campaign trail. We go from the specific to the general. Here in France, the land of Descartes, it's the other way round. Politicians have (what seem to us absurdly) lofty conversations about the idea of the Republic but almost never talk about the plombier they met in Nantes.

That's part of the reason, I think, that the driving test is as difficult as it is. It's not just the language (though God knows there's that too): it's the logic behind the questions. There are a set of governing principles (traffic entering from the right has priority; always drive in the right lane) applied, over and over again, to concrete instances. And the answer is always to stick to the principle.

For example: you are at the wheel of a car, driving in the left-most lane on a highway. There is no other traffic. The question: Are you bien placé, are you in the correct lane?

The first time I came to this question I looked at the photograph for a long time. There were no lane markers suggesting that my lane was about to end. I was not in anyone's way. I shrugged and said, Yes. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with being in that lane at that moment.

Non, Madame Marron, ça n'est pas ça! came the response. The left lane is always only for passing. You are never bien placé when not in the right-most lane. It is the guiding principle that holds sway, not the concrete instance. Even if everyone else in France were en vacances on the Côte d'Azur, sitting on the beach and eating fresh sea urchins, and there were no other voitures even turned on, you would still not be bien placé if you were in the left-most lane.

So now that's how I try to think about the questions: instead of looking at the situation specifically, I try to find the principle that could be applied to the situation. Most of the time it works. Who knew that studying the history of French philosophy would have such a practical application.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I think, therefore I am

So I was at the School of French Driving the other day taking a practice test. (That statement pretty well describes most days.) I was skimming along doing quite well, thank you, missing a bare minimum of questions, guessing correctly on whether the piétons who were standing at the edge of the crosswalk leaning forward and with their left feet poised were actually engaged in crossing the street and therefore whether I needed to stop.

And I came to this question:

The photograph from behind the wheel showed a street en ville. In front of my car, the lane was blocked by temporary construction; there was a temporary light set up which was flashing yellow, giving me permission to continue avec prudence. A green Renault had already gone around the construction, following the arrows into the opposite lane.

The question: Je suis le véhicule vert. Oui ou non?

Well, I thought, I am not some kind of moron. I know I am not the green car. I am driving the car from which the photo was taken. This is not the first practice test I have ever taken. Of course I'm not the green car.

I circled B for Non.

Then the centime dropped.

In French, the verb to be is être. If you want to say I am, you say je suis. Thus the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes translated his Latin Cogito, ergo sum as Je pense, donc je suis. I think, therefore I am.

Also in French, the verb to follow is suivre. If you want to say I follow, you say je suis.


The question was not asking if I were the green car. The question asked if I should follow the green car. I think (about the complexities of the French language, and how maybe if something doesn't seem to make sense, I should pause and consider and not just go roaring off), therefore I follow.

One more thing to remember: sometimes even if you know the language pretty well, there's a verb you miss.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The School of French Driving

The photograph is taken from the driver's seat, looking out the windshield. The towers of Chartres Cathedral dominate the skyline; the car is on a cobblestoned street lined with all the standard shops of a French town. Bins of peaches and tomatoes line the sidewalk in front of the greengrocer's. Across the street, the window of the patisserie is filled with charlottes and éclairs and millefeuilles.

A stoplight is on the upcoming corner; the light is yellow. A diamond-shaped sign sporting a yellow diamond is fixed to the post under the stoplight. As you take all of this in, a voice says:

My route has priority. Yes (A) or no (B)?


I stop at the light. (C)
I accelerate and pass through the light.

A, B, C, D. Never mind about Chartres: you have 30 seconds to choose the correct response.

That's how the driving theory test works. There's a photograph of a driving situation and then a question related to some aspect of the photograph. Sometimes it's the meaning of a sign. Sometimes it's about the speed limit. Sometimes it's about how much your tires should be inflated (actually, there seem to be a lot of questions about tire inflation); sometimes, about legal alcohol limits. Sometimes the questions are answerable by yes or no, as in: Must the driver wear a seat belt at all times? More often, the questions are like the one above, and require you to assess the situation in different ways. Or to know--or be able to deduce--a range of information from the photograph. But always, always, the photos are taken in a discernibly French setting, whether it's in a Norman village of whitewashed houses or outside the gates of a château, on a boulevard in Paris or in the French Alps.

When I go to the School of French Driving (slogan: Together, let's live the road!), Madame le secrétaire nods from behind her computer. I pick up a vinyl-covered clipboard from the corner of her desk, take a blank test form from the top of the ream, and sit in the front row of the classroom. Assorted teenagers trickle in and take up their places at the back of the room. The driving school fly--I think he's on a retainer--buzzes around.

Madame le secrétaire
comes in after a few minutes, on the hour or after, and puts a disc into the dvd player. And then the images begin to come up, 40 of them in all, and the teenagers and I sit there and circle our answers. I take notes, too: I write down on my paper questions that I get wrong so that I can check them later. At the end of the test, the teenagers loudly wad up their papers and toss them into the red plastic poubelle. I fold my test paper, put it away in my purse, and follow them out of the room. Madame asks each of us our score, and enters it in her computer. Once we regularly score above 35, we hear that we'll be deemed ready for the actual test and sent off to the préfecture to take it.

When I began taking the practice tests, I noticed the churches and castles and avenues of plane trees. Now all of those things fall away. The charm departs and I am in a plastic-lined Citroen wondering if my tires are adequately inflated and if the carbon emission level of my car is listed on its registration.

I wonder, too, if this isn't how cultural assimilation happens, when Chartres becomes the backdrop instead of the goal, and when the small shops with their careful displays are just the unspooling green screen to daily life. When what you notice is no longer the sites and sights but whether you can turn left here, or need to wait for the next intersection. When it's Tuesday afternoon, and Chartres is lovely, but you have to answer the question about the stoplight. It becomes a question of reconciling the France of Chartres and all that that is shorthand for--history, culture, beauty--and the France of small shops--gorgeous food, community, tradition--with the France of cracked plastic chairs and cigarette butts. That, as much as anything else, is the challenge for us at the School of French Driving.

That, and remembering the formula for calculating braking distance.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A flag pin for a Frenchman

This is how we came to have drinks with the baker and his wife.

Actually, she's not his wife, as he is quick to point out. They'll both be 70 this year, and they were both married before. He still carries a photograph of his wife, who died young from cancer, in his wallet; I've seen it. They've been together, though, well over a decade. He keeps his own place in Nice but seems to live most of the time with her, in her house the next lane over from ours.

Their names are Gérard and Anne: it's significant that I know that, because ordinarily French people don't tell you their names. That way, if it turns out that you're actually an agent of the King, and you've come to collect back taxes or haul someone off to jail, you won't know if you've come to the right place or not. (Not anymore, of course, but once upon a time, when cultural habits were formed.) We went right through most of the last school year not knowing the name of E's flute teacher--we were just told where to meet the flute teacher, and then, there she was, and we knew she was the flute teacher and she knew E was a student and what else, really, was necessary?--until one afternoon I actually asked her name. Then she told me her family name; we're still not sure about her first name. (This means that we call E's prof de flute, who may or may not have actually hit 30, Madame.)

But as I was saying: Gérard and Anne invited us for drinks. It came about, I think, because one day Gérard asked me to bring him a flag pin (like the one M. Bush wears, he said) from America. We relayed the request, and the next visitor arrived with the pin in her suitcase.

C and I took the pin to the boulangerie on a weekday afternoon at the end of the summer. I handed it over the counter and Gérard's eyes lit up. This is for me, for me? All the way from America? he asked.

We assured him that it was.

It's just like M. Bush's pin. (Gérard is the only person in France who likes M. Bush.) Chérie! he called Anne from the other end of the counter. Régarde! Look what les Américains have brought me!

I pointed out that the pin would flash--clignoter--when the front part was connected to the back part. Gérard looked at me like I must not understand what clignoter meant. Perhaps not surprisingly, flag pin technology is more advanced Stateside than here.

Anne looked at the pin and looked at me. You have no idea, she said, shaking her head and smiling.

I can wear it on my jacket, said Gérard. It's just like M. Bush's pin. All the way from America.

Anne went back to the register and rang up our baguettes. Next time you go to America, she smiled, I want a Chrysler. A big, silver one that I can park right outside.

And that's when Gérard decided that we should come for drinks.

Friday, October 17, 2008


When we learned the sad truth about our need for French permis de conduire, we enrolled in the local School of French Driving. It's possible to get the permis without signing up with a school, but it means that you have to manage your paperwork and the préfecture on your own and, faithful readers, I'm sure you know the answer to that question.

So we called around to all the driving schools in the neighborhood and found the only one within 40 kilometers that has an instructor who speaks enough English to work with people like us. We made an appointment.

Our branch of the School of French Driving--it's a national chain--is two villages and one hill away, about a 15 minute semi-legal drive. The office occupies the street level of a building that dates, I imagine, from about 1650, on a side street in a village that routinely wins nationally-coveted charm awards. The office consists of a reception room, where Madame le sécretaire has her desk; a room behind that with a coffee maker, a counter, and a small refrigerator; and, to the left of the reception room, a classroom. Plastic chairs are lined up in rows facing the back wall, on which hangs a flat-screen television with a dvd player on a shelf just below. The ceiling is low, one of the only reminders that you are in a building that is more than four centuries old; for the rest, the office is tricked out in the latest white laminate and oak veneer, with red plastic accents.

'Arry, our instructor, was waiting for us when we arrived. His long graying hair was pulled back into a ponytail. He wore small rectangular sunglasses. He was leaning hard in the direction of portly, with a grey t-shirt stretching across his midriff, dark shorts, dark tennis shoes with dark socks, and decidedly not dark legs. His t-shirt showed a parrot perched under a palm tree next to a thatched beach hut, and it said "Bird's Paradise Jungle Motel.''

We all shook hands, and 'Arry explained how the process worked. Our enrollment fees would cover a copy of the Code de la Route, unlimited practice tests at the school, driving lessons behind the wheel, administrative costs, and additional sessions in English with him. The practice tests were the central component of the process: it was through those that we would learn the code, learn how questions were phrased, where were the traps and pitfalls, and thus be prepared, when the time came, to take our épreuve théoretique at the préfecture. We could come and take the practice tests any time, any day, he assured us. Madame le sécretaire started a different test dvd every hour on the hour.

So we can come any time to practice? we asked, wanting to clarify.

Yes, absolutely. You can come at any time, all day, between 10 and 12 and then between 2 and 7.

Ah. That sounded more like the France we knew. Open all day, except when it wasn't.

How long, we asked, would the process take? We were un peu pressés, for various reasons having to do with our cartes de séjour and the company cars.

'Arry nodded. The process normally takes at least four months, he said. But it can sometimes go a little faster, if you are studying a lot and learning quickly.

We gasped. Four months seemed an awfully long time to hang suspended in a semi-legal state, and, also, there was the not insignificant fact that we both knew how to drive. At least it did not seem insignificant to us. We suggested as much.

Yes, absolutely, I understand, said 'Arry. But--he held his palms out and upwards, never a good sign--what can we do? That is the process. Bienvenue en France! It's like that. 'Arry speaks a very French English; sometimes to understand what he means, it's best to translate his English back into French. When the French want to express exasperation and resignation with the constraints of the situation, they say: C'est comme ça. So 'Arry says, It's like that. And, he says, absolutely. Absolument, a common enough word in spoken French, expresses something closer to well, of course than to the dead certainty of an English absolutely.

So we made an appointment with 'Arry for the following week, and paid our registration fees. It seemed bizarre to be going to driving school again after 25 years--absurd, even--but, what could we do? We shrugged and held our palms out and upwards. It's like that. Welcome to France.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Dans le pétrin

Since July, C and I have been studying the code de la route in order to get our French permis de conduire. We've been driving, both of us, for several decades. But under French law an American driving license is only valid for driving in France for a certain period of time, after which the driver must have a French license. Unless, of course, the American license happens to have been issued in one of the 14 states with which France has a special driver's license treaty, in which case the licenses can just be swapped.

I sometimes ponder how this treaty was drawn up. Did the directors of the national Sécurité routière in Paris write to all 50 Departments of Motor Vehicles and invite them to join in negotiations? Why did only 14 states send their representatives? Were the negotiations held in France or in the States, in a dingy back room of a préfecture or in the banquet room of the Holiday Inn outside Scranton? And why, oh why, didn't the other 36 states show up?

When I have these thoughts it is usually because I have just answered a question like this incorrectly:

Q: Is it ever permissible for a child under 10 years of age to travel in the front seat of a fourgonnette?

What's a fourgonnette, and how are the seats arranged in it? I don't know; neither did the editors of my Larousse French-English dictionary.

A: Yes. A fourgonnette only ever has a driver's seat and a front passenger seat.


There are two tests that would-be holders of the French permis must pass: a theory test (that's what it's called, really) and a half-hour driving test. The theory test has 40 questions, of which the postulant must answer 35 correctly. You cannot just show up of a Wednesday afternoon to take the test. You have to apply at the Préfecture; you have to have documentation of your age and qualifications; you have to have a set of mug shots. Then you are assigned a test date. If you fail the theory test, the rumor is that you must wait three or four months before you get a second try. So a fair amount of anxiety surrounds the event.

There is a cottage industry in France of driving schools and online driving test prep courses; you sign up and you take practice tests. A lot of them. My online test prep course doesn't just give me the number of questions I answered correctly after each test. It offers a slightly bullying judgment. When I do well, I get: That's not too bad, Madame Marron! Less well and it's: You haven't got it yet, Madame Marron! Not for the faint of self-esteem, this is.

The questions are un peu compliqué, like the one above, if French is not your first language. But the questions are complicated even if it is: every French person I have told about having to take the test has assured me, unequivocally, that if he had to take the test today he could not pass it. Every one of them, too, has done the hot pot lid gesture, holding his hand in front of and facing his hips and shaking it up and down rapidly. Olivier went so far as to add an Ooh la la.

The questions on the test are multiple choice, and there is generally more than one correct answer. If you do not give every correct answer, then the entire answer is wrong. For instance:

The painted lines at the edge of a two-way street and at the edge of a highway are identical:
--on the left side
A. Oui.
B. Non.

--on the right side
A. Oui.
B. Non.

and non, if you're interested. And, by the way, without looking, what do those lines look like in your country? And, while we're on the subject, if the line is a broken one, how far apart are the breaks? Is the line broken in the same way on a state road as on an interstate? And could you tell me, please, based on the way the lines are painted, what is the speed limit?

Just asking.

So now we take practice tests. We talk about the practice tests. And when C and I are in the car together, we parse signs.

Can you park here?
No, has to be the other side of the sign. Who has right of way?
You do; we've got the yellow diamond.
But I thought I saw a yellow diamond with a slash through it.

No, that was before we turned left.

E complained about it one day. All you guys ever talk about is driving.

We know. We bore ourselves, too. But here's the thing: we can't figure out a way around taking these tests. Believe me, we've tried. Thanks to those representatives of the other 36 states, we are,as the French would say, dans le pétrin. A pétrin is a giant kneading machine, standard equipment in a boulangerie. My friends at Larousse suggest that being in the kneading machine translates idiomatically as being in a pickle, but I've been in a pickle before. Being in a pickle is leaving your lunch on the kitchen counter. It's getting stuck in traffic and running late for an appointment. It's having a meeting at school the same night as a conference call at work.

Taking driving tests in a foreign language, country, and culture? That's more like being in a pétrin.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Capitalism and croissants

It was C's turn to buy croissants for the office this week. He stopped in at the boulangerie on the way to work. The bakery was warm and smelled like fresh bread. C and our friend the baker exchanged greetings: how is madame, how are les jumelles, how is M. Bush?

All as well as could be expected, thank you very much. And then: 30 croissants, s'il vous plaît.

The baker frowned. You need 30 croissants? If you buy all my croissants now then what am I going to tell the next customer?

C faltered. He still thinks that shops are for selling things.

He explained: they were for his colleagues.

The baker sighed. He shook his finger at C: Next time you are going to want this many croissants, call me. Tell me. Let me know, so I can make more. Otherwise, you buy all my croissants, and what do I tell the next people who come in?

C, totally humbled now at the presumption of his request, suggested that perhaps he could take 15 pains au chocolat, and 15 croissants? Would that be plus façile?

The baker nodded. He took out a plastic bag to put the pastries in, and then, remembering that they were still warm, so warm that they would melt the plastic (it's hard, living in France, it really is), he took out a paper sack instead.

The croissants disappeared well before the 10.00 coffee break at the office. Later in the day, we saw the baker and he said that he had managed to bake a second batch of croissants, so the crisis was resolved. He had enough croissants for the later customers after all.

I'm sure that this story, in the hands of someone who had taken Economics 101 in college, could offer some insights on the Current Economic Unpleasantness: something about building relationships, not overextending, maintaining a close watch on supply and demand. I never took Econ, though, so all I can say is this: it's not about the exchange of goods, it's about the relationship. If the baker had sold out of his croissants before 8.00, what would he have told his regular 8.15 customers? His goal is not to make as much money as he can as quickly as he can, but to build lasting relationships with enough customers to be able to make a sustaining amount of money over a lifetime. And, of course, to enjoy a quick chat when the customers stop in.

Next time, we'll call ahead.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Vous / toi

I've been aware recently of how we Americans have different privacy zones from our friends the French. Nothing brings that home quite as clearly as a visit to the doctor; more specifically, visits to the gynecologue and the mammographie clinic. Just annual checkups, folks, no cause for alarm. At least, no cause for medical alarm; a general sense of disorientation would, however, not be out of order.

A visit to my American gynecologist goes a little something like this: I check in, fill out the lastest version of a privacy form and offer up my insurance card, and then, after an indeterminate waiting period, a cheerful, motherly nurse in a pastel uniform,maybe with some baby animals printed on it, with white nurse's clogs and a practical, wash-and-wear hairdo, opens the door into the waiting room and calls my name. I follow her; as she weighs me there's some chitchat, traffic or weather or the flu or the kids or maybe all of the above. We walk by a bulletin board covered in photographs of newborns that my doctor has delivered. The nurse puts me in the examining room and, apologetically but with an attitude of resignation that we share, hands me a cotton robe and sheet. I undress, wrap up in my new outfit, and my doctor comes in for the exam. More talk about: traffic, weather, flu, kids. My American gynecologist is a woman who is about my age, and her kids are the age of E and G, so the playing field is level. We talk about our daughters, their schools, our neighborhoods. All very familar and, at the same time, all very covered up.

It was time--past time--to see a gynecologist here, so my friend S and I agreed that we would both make appointments with Dr R, who was referred by both the hiking ladies and our family doctor. Here is how that visit went: I was able to make an appointment within two weeks of the day I phoned (already that's different; did I mention the six month wait for an appointment Stateside?). When I arrived, I filled out a form: name, address, profession. That's all; no insurance files, no privacy forms. A few minutes later, Dr R himself summoned me. We shook hands. We spoke English; his wife is from the next town over from mine in America. Sitting behind his desk, he asked me a few questions--all the standard ones--and then took me into the examining room and showed me where to put my clothes. Then he did the exam, and we talked about...well, not a whole lot. But it was fine.

Did you notice the missed step there? The one with the robe and the sheet? Good. Just making sure.

Dr R sent me to have a mammogram--I am of the age--and, again, no robe; no maternal nurse. No pastels, no duckies. The mammography technician was a young man in his early twenties who was working on maybe growing a beard someday, very professional, very experienced with all the (ahem) equipment. Once I was arranged, he would step behind the screen to press the radiation button and call out: Respirez pas! Bougez pas! Don’t breathe! Don’t move! There was precious little risk of either. This young man who had just finished lifting my hair off my shoulder so that he could have a better vantage point from which to place me against the machine—he addressed me with the respectful, formal vous.

And that's what really strikes me: in America, it's all about covering up, modesty, pretending that what’s being examined isn’t on the one hand--and familiarity, intimacy on the other. My American doctor and her nurse's attitude is that we are all women together and understand each other just because we're of the same gender, and isn't all this medical stuff uncomfortable, don't we wish we could avoid it? While my French doctor and his équipe are nothing but frank and straightforward about the medical work they have to do, but would never dream of treating me familiarly, as a peer. Of course, we're not peers; I'm female, they're male; I'm American, they're French.

Sometimes I forget just how American I am. In America, what's private to the French (family life) is public (at least, it's something you talk about with semi-strangers while they take your blood pressure). In America, a medical exam without a sheet and robe would be an invasion of privacy, a lack of respect--and that's just what it would be here for the doctor to treat me as a peer, to tutoyer me. The zones are different. Not better, not worse. Just different.

A little context

Madame Marron mère visited this summer and went with the girls and me up to the Loire Valley. We went to Paris first and then drove out of the city to Versailles, so that E and G could tick the Hall of Mirrors box on their list. Madame Mère has not driven in France (as one wouldn't, if one did not live here and have to take the children to school), so as we loaded up at the end of our day at the palace, I handed her the map and told her where we going. It was 54 kilometers from Versailles to Maintenon, about 45 minutes' drive.

Two hours later, I passed a road sign that let me know we were 20 kilometers from Paris.

That was not where we were going.

Here's what our Cultural Awareness Training Professional told C and me before we came to France: France is a High Context culture, and the United States is a Low Context Culture. When we were told this, we nodded politely at this particular bit of sociological gobbledygook and checked to see when it would be lunchtime. However.

In High Context cultures, according to our Cultural Awareness Handbook, people see the present through the lens of the past. History matters. People work in order to be able to take vacations and spend time with their families. The community matters more than the individual. Time is elastic; you get there when you get there, the work gets done when it gets done, and don't forget to stop for a drink. In Low Context cultures, people think more about the future and less about the past; people place more value on their work life; the individual comes first; time is money.

And, in High Context cultures, the road signs are different. The road names are different. In fact, the road may not have a real name at all, it may just be called the road that goes to Maintenon, or, the road that comes out of Maintenon and then becomes the road that goes to Chartres. In the fine print of the map you may notice that it is called the D17, but you have to be an adept at parsing French road signs to notice the very very small yellow etiquette at the top of the panneau that mentions it. And chances are that instead of noticing that teeny tiny sign, you are busy trying to find Wazem on the map in your lap, since that's what your daughter just told you to look for, and not realizing that it's spelled Oisème.

French directional signs tell you not where you are, but where you are going. American signs tell you where you are, not where you are going. French signs list the places that the road will go through on its way to the next major village or town: that's how you orient yourself. You have left Versailles, going towards Rambouillet. After Rambouillet, you'll get to Epernon, unless you go left at the rond point, in which case you'll get to Orphin instead. In America, you leave Richmond and you head south. If you want to go west, you take a different road. Charlottesville happens to be on that westerly road, but what you know, first and foremost, is that you're on the road going west. I have yet to see a French road sign that mentioned a cardinal direction.

So this was disorienting for Madame Mère, as you might imagine. She's one of the most oriented people I know. She doesn't get lost. She knows where she is and can tell you whether she's facing north, south, east or west at any given moment. Also, pronouncing words in English: aces at it. We would reach rond points and I would call out the possibilities: Epernon, Hanches, Raizeux, Droue, and she would have not the first clue. Just a minute, she would say. I'm looking at the map. Take the southwest exit.

There is no southwest exit. Hanches, Raizeux, or Droue.

How do you spell that?


At least rond points are round; you can go around them all day while you figure out which direction is southwest. It's one of the best measures of culture shock that I know, going from being able not only to read and interpret the road signs but also being able to stop at any service station for directions if you lose your way, to not being able to connect what the road signs say with the way that they are pronounced, much less being able to ask a local for directions.

The locals know the directions, of course. So did their parents, and grandparents, and back before that. The road to Maintenon has been the road to Maintenon since well before the Marquise de Maintenon used to travel it from Versailles in the days of Louis XIV. The road to Chartres from Maintenon: it's led people to the cathedral for 800 years. The mecs from Paris who thought up the system of road numbering came along only within the last century, and these roads, which have outlasted the Bourbons, the Bonapartes, and the Boches during the Occupation will, God willing, outlast the numbering system, too.

That's what High Context is: knowing that Louis XIV travelled this road to visit his (secret) wife, the Marquise. It was the route de Maintenon long before anyone who travelled it had ever heard of the cardinal points of the compass. And that's the difference between French and American roads. When the customs of American roads were being thought up, the roads were cutting through vast, mysterious, awesome wilderness. Cardinal points, north, south, east, west, mattered. They were the only way that the young Americans had of imposing order and meaning. And, too, they were comfortably devoid of context: a road north does not carry the cultural freight of a road to the castle or the church.

Order and meaning in the old world, though: they're just laying around in heaps. Meaning is there for the taking, as long as you know how to spell it and pronounce it. A doctorate in French history doesn't hurt, either.

After the first day, Madame Mère drove and I took charge of the map.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Of man and citizen

To acquire our first carte de séjour, the laminated identity card that states your name and justification for being in France for longer than three months, which is how long a tourist can stay--to acquire one of these, we needed, besides the ream of paperwork, a clean bill of health. The French state needed to know that we were not going to be hanging out in the hospitals getting cheap medical care. And the state needed assurance that we did not have tuberculosis. Really. How to assure the fonctionnaires of that? A chest x-ray. Not just any chest x-ray would do: C had actually had a chest x-ray six months before we moved to France, and he even had the films with him (see, doc? I'm not tubercular)--but those films were pas suffisantes. Nothing but a trip to the medecin du travail, the work doctor, would do.

Madame Tie took this all in hand. Medical exams were part of the carte de séjour process and she was the queen of the carte de séjour. We met up at C's office and climbed into her Peugeot minivan. The medecin du travail's office was in a complex at the edge of Nice, just off the autoroute. It was concrete and bleak in the way that the designers of government buildings have perfected: a few struggling agaves clustered around the front door, which was hidden on the back side of the parking lot. Small drifts of trash leaned against the curb. Inside, the foyer was practically nonexistent, just space enough to stand and wait for the elevator. It smelled like cigarette smoke and stale person, with a faint, very faint, undertone of Monsieur Propre, the French version of Mister Clean.

The elevator deposited us outside a set of glass doors that led to a narrow corridor lined with molded plastic chairs. Not only expats from America were there to have their chests checked: people from all over the world, Asia, North Africa, Eastern Europe, were there, sitting in the plastic chairs clutching their files, eager to prove their health so that they could be let in to stay. There was the same air of desperation that as in the carte de séjour waiting room at the Préfecture, although here it was a little less intense. We sat down with Madame Tie to await our turn in front of the government of France.

I looked around at the people, and then, so as not to be rude, at the walls above their heads. They were decorated with posters from various musées nationaux: a Monet poppy field from the Musée d'Orsay, a Winged Victory from the Louvre, a cow and a couple floating above Paris from the local Musée Chagall. At chair-level, we had all the officiousness and muddle of bureaucratic France, and at wall-level, we had La Belle France, the France of guidebooks, the France whose patrimoine, whose national heritage, made the paperwork worthwhile.

The appointment had two parts: first came the chest x-ray. In turn, we went through a door across the corridor into a small room with a changing booth. We removed our shirts and hung them on a peg, and then walked two steps across the room into the radiation booth. The technician snapped a photo of our chests, we put our shirts back on, and went out another door into the corridor as the next supplicant entered through the first door. Government efficiency at its finest.

The next part of the exam involved an interview with the actual medecin du travail. C and I were summoned together into a room with a copy of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the founding document of modern France, like the American Declaration of Independence, framed on the wall. The doctor cast an eye over the summary of medical records that we had provided and asked us a series of perfunctory questions: were we carrying any dread diseases (no); did we have our own health insurance (yes); were we addicted to any non-prescription medications (not yet, but how many more government offices were we going to have to visit?). Interview over, the doctor weighed and measured us. She knocked five kilos off my weight in a show, I suppose, of female solidarity.

The last item was the vision test: cover an eye, read the fine print, switch. It wasn't the A E X M P method of eye exam, though, but the read a paragraph variety, the variety that, in the States, tends to run along the lines of a brief discourse on cats that drink milk and dogs that bark. So when I covered my eye and looked, imagine my surprise. The passage was not from a children's primer but from Diderot himself, one of French culture's proudest exports, the one who, with his buddy d'Alembert, thought up the Encyclopédie, the 21-volume collection of knowledge that rocked the very foundations of the French Ancien Régime. I waited til the doctor left the room for a moment, and then I copied the passage into my date book: The only lasting beauties are those found in our relations with the natural world.

The natural world seemed in pretty short supply there in the office of the medecin du travail. Diderot, Monet, Chagall, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be based only on public utility): abstract France, the France all of us in the molded plastic chairs that afternoon had come looking for. The x-ray machine, the questionnaires, the dossiers and paperwork: the France that we all had to wade through in order to get there. Or at least to have a shot at it.