How to Vote (and help me win a stay at a swanky hotel!)

September 11, 2010

Okay, so I posted a fragment based on some of our travels in France to this writing contest at Trazzler.com . If you vote for me and my little bit of travel writing, I can win a nice little vacation! Here’s how to vote…
1. Sign up for an account here: http://www.trazzler.com/signup (No Facebook account? Click the “Trazzler” tab.)
2. Go to my brilliant entry page: http://www.trazzler.com/trips/grottes-de-gargas-in-aventignan-midi-pyrnes-fr
3. Click the “Save” button.

NOTE: Make sure to either Facebook Connect or create a full account with a username and password so your vote will register.

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Note on this Bloggy Thingy

June 9, 2010

Though we depart today (after a glorious week in Paris) for our return home to the U.S., I have a half-dozen or so more little essays in the works about our time in France. Stay tuned for more!

Pacing Life

June 9, 2010

One of the biggest adjustments Americans have to make when living in France is that of pacing. Even after nine months here, we must remind ourselves that almost everything will be closed from noon until around 2 or later and all day on Sunday. We work furiously on the four days of the week when the children are in school (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday) from 9:20-5:00 p.m., and we expect that a special meal like the annual hunter’s luncheon (wild boar and four or five other courses) in the village will last at least three or four hours (not counting the two-hour nap one needs to recover from the meal). To accomplish even the simplest tasks (closing a bank account; getting school-bus passes for the children; the H1N1 vaccination), we have learned to schedule in delays. Offices and businesses are often closed with no explanation, and several of the many holidays on the French calendar “float,” meaning that the actual date is often not scheduled until the last minute. The relationship to time is simply different in French culture. And, after nearly a year, I have become convinced that the French have got it right. It is healthy and sane to slow down, to change priorities; it is, quite simply, more civilized.

Eating is, of course, the prime example. Almost everything in France (except restaurants) really does close down from noon until 2 for a good long lunch. And two hours is really not so long at all for most people. The shortest lunch “out” I had in France was when I visited the local college (the school for kids aged 11 to 14, equivalent to a U.S. middle school). The teachers (and students) only had about an hour to eat, but even there, not a single person had a piece of paper, book or pen at the table. Lunch required conversation, relaxation, a time separated from work and studies. These were not “working lunches”; these were social opportunities. On the day of a recent snowstorm (unprecedented) in May, our friends went to the village of St. Andre to the very popular Bistro de Pays for lunch. As they arrived and sat, the power went out, as all over the region the heavy snow weighed down fragile branches already in full leaf. The restaurant staff scurry around in candlelight, cooking on gas, serving a full house of diners, when Voila! a half-dozen workmen from the EDF (Electricité de France) appear in the entry. All heads turn. And the EDF workmen sit down at a table and order their wine and lunches, which will last until 2, despite the urgent need for their services outdoors. Only the foreigners found this surprising, of course. For the French it makes perfect sense: lunch—and life—before work!

In 2000, the French passed legislation mandating a 35-hour work week. The goal then was to lower unemployment, and, with most people working four days instead of five, reduced commuter traffic and office heat and electricity use have also benefited the environment. Studies in years following the shift showed no significant reduction in productivity despite the reduction in work hours. In a 2008 study, the Romney Institute of Management at Brigham Young University found that a four-day work-week (and this was a study of a 40-hour work-week/four 10-hour days) increased job satisfaction and productivity. The French can begin collecting retirement benefits at age 60, and virtually everyone retires before age 65, many as early as 50. In the United States, 5% of people over 70 are still employed. I expect that I’ll be one of those people who can’t afford to retire; most of my generation in the U.S. understands now that Social Security will run out before we’re eligible. And what about vacation time? Every French worker, from the minute he or she starts the job, is guaranteed at least five weeks of paid vacation a year. In the U.S., we consider ourselves lucky to get two weeks off in a year, and it’s well-documented that many U.S. workers don’t even use all of their allotted vacation time, most because they’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs or simply fall farther behind. In an average year an American will work 1777 hours and a Frenchman will work 1346 (OECD in Figures, 2004, OECD, Paris). What would you do with another 400 or so hours (that’s about sixteen 24-hour days, a month of waking hours!) in a year? For the French, the answer is easy. Spend time in leisure activities. Spend time with family and friends. Spend time eating, reading, and socializing.

The fact is that it is simply healthier to slow down. France has one of the longest life span expectancies: currently 80.98 years, 9th highest in the world. Life expectancy in the US is now 78.11 years; 50th in the world (CIA World Factbook 2009). No one has yet satisfactorily explained the so-called “French paradox,” which is the fact that the French have one of the lowest rates of chronic heart disease in the world despite a diet high in cholesterol, fat, carbohydrates, salt, and alcohol, and more smokers than in many countries. I’d suggest that it might have something to do with the pace of life. A slow meal is a better meal. A life with more time for living and less time working is a better life. After almost a year in France, a life that emphasizes the joy of living (joie de vivre) rather than making more money or having more things than the next person seems to me a key to a longer, healthier and happier life.

As we prepare to return to the U.S., Susan (my partner) has suggested that I make a sign for my office door: “I’ve been to France on sabbatical; this office will be closed from noon until 2 every day!”

It won’t work, of course. American culture is not French culture. If it is only one college professor refusing to work during a long lunch, no one will accept it. Students will bang on my door. Colleagues will schedule lunch meetings. I will be seen as a “slacker.” In France, the whole country (except restaurants, which are only open for lunch) shuts down for all of Sunday and two hours at every lunchtime. Paris closes for all of August. You learn to accept it because everyone else does. There’s no fighting it. And it doesn’t take long to learn to love it. A leisurely meal of three courses with wine and a coffee afterwards is just about right to move into the long afternoon and evening shift. Remember, the French usually work later, so that long lunch makes sense. The French are not lazy; they’re just relaxed. They are simply placing the emphasis where it belongs: living before working.

I know I have been very lucky to have this year off from teaching and university responsibilities. I will admit that the promise of occasional sabbaticals was one of the reasons a position as a professor appealed to me. A writer needs time to write—a reality that is hard to justify on a grant proposal to academic-type folks. Yes, I do research, and this year in France has been very productive in that way too, but it’s mostly the time to write, to sit at a desk and type out the words in my head (which is work, I might add, a bit defensively), that I needed. I’ve worked hard this year. I’ve finished a novel and a collection of short stories, and I’ve started another novel and this collection of personal essays on the blog. A sabbatical is no more a “vacation” than summers off from teaching, at least not for me; as they say, a writer writes. And teaching time (with comments for sixty or a hundred essays, stories, journal, etc. a week, plus consulting with students) is not very conducive to writing time, especially if one actually wants some living time of the French version (family, friends, leisure activities) as well. I know I’m lucky to have been able to be away from interruptions and responsibilities to focus on my writing work. And it’s not that I dislike my work; indeed, I love both teaching and writing. But the reason I love both is that they connect me to other people, and how much better it is to make those human contacts outside of the work context. The unexpected benefit of this year abroad, I now see, is that I have also learned to understand work in another way. I understand that work—including both the writing work and the teaching and university work—is secondary to the rest of living. What I wish, as I return to the U.S., is that I could change my culture, that I could bring home a new attitude for my compatriots: we should all learn to place living rather than working at the top of our lists of priorities.

Sacrifices have to be made, of course, when a culture or one person makes joie de vivre more important than work. In France, customer service is generally lousy, especially when you want something at 11:45 in the morning. Lunch, after all, is near. No need to start a transaction you won’t have time to finish. The other day we were hustled out of the supermarket at noon on a Wednesday, and no one cared how much we had planned to spend. In the caisse (line) at the supermarket, everyone is greeted by and greets the cashier, often chatting and even—if known to each other—exchanging les bises and gossip. There are few “express” lanes and it’s rare that another register will be opened up if lines are long. The French are accustomed to waiting. Each customer takes his or her time, fumbling with money or writing out a check in careful script, and bagging his or her own groceries. No one complains or gets huffy. The social relationship supersedes the financial one. No one expects to meet a deadline or buy gas or get a liter of milk on a Sunday; Sunday is family time, leisure time, time off for life. On the other hand, if an American worker decides to close her office for an hour or two at lunchtime, well, she must not be very serious about her work. If he takes a vacation with his family instead of working to meet the deadline, he must not much want to get ahead. Do we really need to be able to buy food (or anything else) 24/7 (a term that I’m not sure even exists in France)? Is it really more important to accomplish work tasks during lunch than to have a real discussion with other humans?

In France, we learned early on, it’s not polite to even ask another person what they do for a living! In America, it’s the almost always the first question we ask in a social situation. Here, work is simply not to be mixed with real living. Truly, what does it say about us that our economic status or job title is assumed to be the most important identifier of our person? It’s a subtle but huge difference in cultures. Not being able to say what it is that you do for a living, or to ask the other person what they do, changes the dynamics of any conversation and any new relationship. It forces you to connect on other—non-economic—terms.

As I think about returning to the U.S., I’m trying to think about ways to keep this year’s lessons alive in my life. I’m not sure it is possible to make so huge a shift to a slower pace within the American context, but I aim to try in my own little way. I think my mental and physical health, and the relationships I’ve grown with my family this year, are worth it. I’d also like to think that by avoiding shopping on Sundays, for instance, to devote more time to social and family activities, we’ll make a small step toward freeing up more time for the families of others—all those store clerks and cashiers—in our culture. By taking time to simply say hello in the check-out line, perhaps we’ll change the emphasis in the transaction from economic to interpersonal. And maybe by taking a little time out to eat slowly and converse—and refusing to take our work home—we’ll all live a little longer and happier.

One of our American friends who now lives in France told us about her return to Nice—a big city, not “slow” at all, except in the French way—after a month of visiting family and friends back in the States. “I found myself rushing down the sidewalk, passing everyone as fast as I could,” she said, “even though I was just going to the market, nowhere very important.” She realized then just how fast American life makes us all. We hurry everywhere. We hurry to work, to home, to the kids’ soccer games, to the store, to school, to the next thing and the next thing, packing in as much as we can. I guess what I’ve discovered here in France is not very much is as urgent than it seems in the U.S. and that the really important parts of life—families, friends, other humans—need to take priority over the economic parts of life. We’ve lived on nearly nothing this year (a sabbatical means partial salary, and only one income for us), but we’ve lived very well indeed. We’ve certainly lived healthier and happier. For me, a pace-of-life adjustment means a slower pace. We’ll get to the grocery store tomorrow. Work that needs doing will get done, but not at the expense of my health and relationships. Life—all eighty years, more-or-less—need living, and that means living with joy.

On the voie romaine: Nîmes, Arles, and the Pont du Gard

May 26, 2010

On one of the many lanes across the farmland around Latour is a path marked with a guidepost for hikers: Voie Romaine (Roman road). Though not mapped on any of the general maps of the Roman Empire I’ve discovered thus far, this path is probably one of many in this area, just south of Toulouse (Tolosa), just east of Auch (Elimberris), and just west of the Garonne River, known in Roman times as the Garumuni. In the Roman era, this was Western Gaul, dotted with outposts, farms and extensive villas among the conquered barbarians. The Romans built more than 13,000 miles of roads in Gaul, now France, including, in this area, the Via Aquitania from what is now Narbonne on the Mediterranean Sea through Toulouse to Bordeaux on the Atlantic. From Narbonne, the Aurelian Way ran east to Italy and the Via Domitia south to Spain. In villages and cities along the way, parts of the original stones of the road have been uncovered, including in places the ruts worn by chariots 2000 years ago. Here in the Haute Garonne, smaller unpaved routes followed the river valleys or cut across the hills to connect Roman settlers and villages. Indeed, the site of Latour des Feuillants, built on the tallest point for miles around, was probably used in Roman times as a camp, or lookout, or way station. The voie Romaine probably passed through the valley just below the chateau, and a small spring in the hillside of the property was likely used by Roman travelers.

For the children’s two-week April vacances, we take off for a few days, following the A62 east along the old route of the Via Aquitania to Narbonne and the Mediterranean Sea, then on along the old Via Domitia—marked on the expressway with roadsigns showing a Roman in a chariot—toward Nimes and Arles in the department of the Gard.

Our first stop is the spectacular Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct built over the River Gard between the villages of Uzes and Remoulins about 20 kilometers north of Nimes. The day is gorgeous and green, and after we park the car on the west side of the river, we follow the trail upstream to where the huge bridge-like structure—more than two thousand years old, fifty meters high and 275 meters long—spans the beautiful river. A World Heritage Site, the Pont du Gard provided water to the city of Nimes, which the Emperor Augustus made the capital of Narbonne province around 28 BC. We walk across the lower part of the bridge under the arches, and explore the museum and Ludo, an interactive kids’ exhibition. We experiment with the model system of canals, dams, and aqueducts; the kids dig and map their “finds” like archeologists; and we learn about life in Roman times in model classrooms, market stalls, and baths. In the museum we talk about the lives of the slaves used to build these huge structures, and the machines invented for construction, transport and warfare. The whole 50-kilometer aqueduct system—and the lives of the people who made it—are explained in models and videos and dioramas. We end with ice creams and a climb to the top to see the view before returning to the car.

The water ran through the top part in a covered trough.

We drive back to Nimes and find our hotel, check in and change, and drive into the center of the small city to eat. The old town is lovely, centered around the elliptical Arena of Nimes, dating from the end of the 2nd century AD (another World Heritage site). This amphitheater, modeled on the Colosseum in Rome (built at about the same time) is the best preserved in the world and is still used for bullfights, concerts and other events. We wander the quiet narrow cobblestoned alleys of the old town, stopping for a look at the Maison Carrée, a Roman temple from 16 BC, which has also served as an early Christian church, a meeting house, a stable and a storehouse. On the tiny Rue de Grand Couvent, we found Au Flan Coco, a wonderful restaurant housed in a former abbey with high arched and vaulted ceilings. The specialty of the house was stuffed tart-like puffed pastries; Susan had one with onion and I tried the fish. Both were excellent and both came with huge fresh salads. The kids shared a steak, and finished with sorbet. All, including wine, for less than €60. Exhausted and happily sated, we returned to our hotel on the outskirts of town for a good night’s sleep.

Amphitheatre in Arles

The following day, we drove the half hour to Arles, where we breakfasted in a small café, visited the tourist information center, then walked through the lovely streets to the Romanesque Church of St. Trophimus to see the Last Judgment sculpture on its portal and the columns in the cloister. Susan’s new series of drawings here in France is about human misperceptions of animals and incorporates imagery from gargoyles and sculptures, so we wandered around looking for lions and monkeys and donkeys and the like in the facades. On up the hill, we circled the ruins of the Roman theater on our way to the arena, in which we imagined ourselves turning thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the gladiators in the ring below. The view from the top of the river and valley was stunning, and it was easy to understand how this town—so close to the Mediterranean that the Romans built a canal to it—became an important Roman city. As we strolled the streets back down to the Roman Theater (both the theater and arena of Arles are World Heritage Sites), we watched for the sign-post reproductions of paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in front of the actual places he painted. At the theater, James and Izzy “performed” songs from the repertoire they have memorized at school this year on the remains of the stage before the semi-circular seating area. We ended our day with a stop at the Musée de l’Arles Antiques, which contains a wonderful collection of Roman sarcophagi and full reconstructions of mosaic tile floors so intricate and colorful that they seem like carpets.

Roman columns just lying around in Arles...

With some sandwiches for a late lunch, we loaded up in the car and headed east on the A8 to visit our friends in Nice, following the ancient path of Romans returning home to Italy, almost in the ruts of the chariots some 2000 years ago, along the voie Romaine.

Health Care, Part 2: The Fickle Finger of Fate

May 25, 2010

On a rainy Sunday in late March, I open the refrigerator door and a jar of applesauce falls out and breaks on the tile floor. “Drat.” I clean it up, dump the broken glass into the garbage, and continue on about my cleaning of the kitchen and our tower apartment. An hour later—applesauce forgotten, I open the garbage can to empty a dustpan full of dog hair, dirt and dust swept from the floor. The garbage bag is nearly full, so I put my hand on top of the garbage to smush it down… and slice my right index finger open behind the second knuckle on the broken applesauce jar.

“Drat!” My hand under cold running water, I call Susan to help. The finger keeps bleeding. We wrap it in a clean paper towel, and I sit at the table while Susan runs downstairs to get Rosie for a second opinion. Rosie and Susan agree that it might need a stitch or two, and so the kids pack up some toys and snacks for the waiting room, and we head off to Rangueil, about forty minutes away on the outskirts of Toulouse, to the emergency room. The hospital itself is easy to find—atop a hill above a large city park and recreation area—but the emergency room is mysteriously hidden, with the parking some distance away once we find it. Through a maze of dim and empty hallways—me with my finger still wrapped in the paper towel, feeling a little queasy, and James and Izzy disgusted that they have to sacrifice a day off from school for a trip to the hospital waiting room—we wind our way to the E.R., where we stand in line in a room about the size of a small living room, surrounded by a half-dozen gurneys on which lie clearly sicker folk than I.

I feel a little ridiculous. The ambulance drivers glance curiously at us, and the desk clerk ignores us for a long time. It’s a Sunday, remember. A number of senior citizens seem to be sleeping on their stretchers, a girl hobbles in with a Sunday sports injury, the medics wheel in a young man who appears to have been in an auto accident. We send the kids into the adjacent waiting room, and stand behind the red line, Susan to act as my interpreter.

After about five minutes, the clerk summons us to the desk, where Susan explains my injury and our status as Americans abroad. I unwrap my finger and bleed a little on the ER floor. He explains that we will have to pay for the visit, and that the consult will cost at least €100. “Fine, fine,” we say. We’re here; we might as well have someone look at it, though I do have half a mind to forget it and go home. The desk clerk makes copies of my insurance card and passport, and gives Susan a form to complete, after which we are directed to wait. One of the kids needs to go to the potty, so Susan takes both of them off to find a restroom and the snack bar we passed on the way in. A half-hour later, a nurse or aide comes and takes me into a consulting room, where I explain again what happened. She is very nice, but she doesn’t speak much English, and, of course, my French is terrible. She tells me to wait and returns in a few minutes with another nurse, who speaks English well. They look at my finger on an examining table, soon joined by a young man who tells me that he is a medical student in his fourth year. His English is good, and he and the nurse clean the wound carefully, look into it, and wrap it lightly in gauze. A supervising doctor will be in soon, they say. Other patients are brought into the room—a young man with a gash on his head, a woman in athletic shorts with a hurt ankle. Each is treated by a rotating group of nurses and medical students and residents. I’ve been at the hospital for about two hours now, and I haven’t seen Susan and the kids for an hour. I wonder at how they are getting on. I’m still thinking that eventually someone will just put a stitch or two into my finger, give me a bill and send me on my way. I feel like a dope for not being able to speak French. A woman doctor returns with the medical student, unwraps my finger and opens the wound a little to look inside. She frowns, shows something to the student, and then tells me—in English—that the tendon might be damaged. A surgeon will need to see it. My medical student escorts me to be x-rayed to make sure there’s no glass in the wound. I add another hundred Euros to the bill in my head. I am returned to my table in the examining room where I sit and try to understand the French conversation between the guy with the gash in his head and the young woman who is stitching it up. Fifteen minutes later, the med student, the woman resident and a nurse return with the surgeon, a nice officious man of about forty-five, who takes a quick look at my finger and tells me that they will need to cut it open and fix the tendon.

There’s no consultation with me—the patient—no questions, no second opinions, no hesitations. This is what needs to be done, and I shall take his word for it and follow directions. They ask me when and what I last ate. A Diet Pepsi in the waiting room, nothing else since breakfast, pancakes. It’s now about three o’clock. Have I ever had surgery before? Tonsillectomy when I was twelve—the only night in my life I’ve spent in a hospital—and colonoscopy (as an outpatient) last summer. Have I any allergies? Any problems with anesthesia? Is there someone here with me?

Susan and the kids come in. Izzy and James are crying, worried now, and Susan’s eyes are wide and amazed, which is basically how I feel. For goodness sake, it’s just a little cut on my finger from a broken jar of applesauce!

The nurses have told Susan that it’s unlikely that I’ll be released until morning and that she should go home. I put on a brave face for the kids, laugh and say, “I’ll be fine! It’s nothing. They’ll take good care of me here, and I’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about. They just need to fix my finger,” I tell the kids. “I’ll be home tomorrow, no problem.”

I kiss each of the three goodbye and send them on their way, despite Susan’s worries. “I feel like I’m abandoning you here,” she says. I ask her to write our telephone number on my hand, since all my clothes and belongings have, by this time, been taken away. There’s nothing else to be done. The kids need to get home. The surgeon will be waiting in the O.R. I’m alone with almost no language skills in a French hospital, about to go under the knife! I can’t believe it.

Suffice to say that it was, indeed, all fine. I was wheeled through the endless dim hallways in the weekend-empty hospital to the orthopedics wing, where the anesthesiologist and O.R. nurses—one of whom spoke English—asked me all the same questions again and prepped me for the surgery. They all sympathized about the stupidity of the injury—accidents happen to everyone. Clearly, they thought, any of them might have forgotten the broken jar and tried to smush the garbage down as I had.

It was decided that I would not have a general anesthesia because of the Diet Pepsi, but they gave me something to relax me and then numbed my right arm from the shoulder down. We chatted about why I was in France, my job as a writer—and the necessity of being able to move the index finger to type—and the book on which I was working. Eventually I zoned out, and the surgeon arrived and set to work on the lump of lead behind the drape that was my arm and injured finger. I tried not to think about the cutting, tried not to listen, and eventually heard, “Voila!” from the surgeon.

Soon thereafter, he left me to the care of the nurses, who sent me on to the recovery room, and then, after I was more awake, on to a room, where a kind and funny English-speaking fellow took down all my details and called Susan on his cell phone, using the inked number on my palm. I assured her and the kids that I was just fine and told Susan to just come in the morning after she’d dropped the kids at school.

So I’ve experienced French health care from the inside now. The hospital—like any city hospital—was a little frayed at the edges, but clean and relatively efficient. The quality of the staff was excellent. Every nurse and aide I met—from the gurney-pusher to the food-service staff to the O.R. nurses to the night nurses and nurses’ aides—were intelligent, kind and friendly. Everyone went out of his or her way to find a way to communicate with me. I genuinely felt safe in their hands in what might have been a terrifying situation.

I never saw a doctor after the surgeon’s Voila! in the O.R. It’s clear that doctors have a kind of authority in France that is different from their authority in the U.S. Maybe it’s a kind of trust for their expertise, or maybe it’s just a more traditional patriarchal attitude toward medical authority. Part of me wonders if this is partially the result of having the element of expense and payment removed from the equation? Do we Americans demand more options, more information, and more control in a situation such as mine because we suspect that the doctor might be padding his paycheck with an unnecessary surgery? Do the French, on the other hand, assume more readily that the medical professional is their employee, paid with their tax dollars to attend to their well-being with nothing to gain from giving different care? It’s an interesting question, and one for which I have no answer.

In the morning, I was released with a prescription for pain-killers and a wound-care kit, and extensive instructions for the visiting nurses. Visiting nurses? we asked. What a concept. These wonderful women came to the chateau every other day for two weeks to clean my wound and change the bandage. I had an appointment for follow-up with the doctor, but as it quickly became clear that United Healthcare—my U.S. insurance company, who had sworn they would cover all emergency care abroad after the deductible—were going to make it as difficult as possible for me to collect on my claim, we decided that I could wait until I returned to the States. The hospital bill came to €1600, about $2000 at the current exchange rate, the prescriptions to about $80, and the visiting nurses to about $100. Had we been French, of course, all of this would have been covered. As it is, United Healthcare “might” reimburse me for about a third of the cost three or four months from now, and we are surely going to have to spend a lot of time fighting them for it. The bill itself, for instance, must be translated from French into English by “expert translators” at our insurance company, an expense that we will, no doubt, have to foot ourselves.

And my finger? It works fine. It bends most of the way at both knuckles, though it seems a little stiff. It occasionally gets sore after I’ve been working with my right hand (hammering, gardening, etc.). And, as one of the nurses pointed out, I’ve also got an excellent mark-of-Zorro scar.

Accidents happen: anyone can cut a finger on a broken jar of applesauce on any rainy Sunday morning. In the U.S., the emergency surgery to repair it will likely depend, in part, on your ability to pay. After all, do you really need to bend your index finger if you’re not a concert pianist? In the old comedy sketch on Rowen and Martin‘s Laugh-In, the “fickle finger of fate” was awarded to government boondoggles or famous people for dubious achievements. This year, I win the literal fickle finger of fate, but the winner of the prize should be those U.S. politicians determined to let insurance companies control the debate over whether that index-finger surgery is really necessary regardless of your ability to pay.

LÉcole, Part Three

May 21, 2010

At mid-term, just before the two-week April school vacances, James and Isabelle receive their first report cards. These are not the typical U.S. kindergarten report cards noting such things as “plays well with others” or “satisfactory progress.” French report cards, even in CP (the equivalent of kindergarten) students are given letter grades of A, B, C, D, and F in about twenty-five different categories. These are serious scholastic assessments, and the kids are doing serious academic work. We are delighted, of course, and James and Izzy extremely proud to discover that they have both earned nearly all A’s and B’s.

By this point, school has become for the kids better than being at home with the mothers. When we pull into the parking lot in the morning, the other kids rush the fence, waving and shouting “Bonjour, Isabelle!” and “James! James!” At the end of the day, they march out two by two with the other children, holding hands with their best friends, laughing and smiling. They all call “à demain” to Madame P. as they file through the gate, and James and his pal, Pablo, burp “au revoir” to each other as Pablo heads for the bus. Madame P. herself tells us that James and Isabelle’s reading and math and language skills are excellent. “They are just like my other French students now,” she says. “No difference.”

Primary education in France is much more rigorous, we think, than the equivalent grade level in most U.S. schools. Certainly, different skills are emphasized, and the methods of instruction are different.

Math work

We are particularly impressed with the mathematics work that James and Isabelle are accomplishing, including (as we near the end of the school year) the addition of four or more three-digit numbers in a column, basic geometry, and measurements and weights. They will, of course, have to learn inches and feet and quarts and gallons and pounds and ounces when we return to the States, but they’ve got the metric system down. According to “Trends in International Math and Science Study, 1995,” France ranks 13th in the world in math education (U.S. is 28th), and we believe that the primary school foundations we’ve seen have a lot to do with that achievement.

Cursive cahier

Both children have learned to write in cursive, which they call “French writing,” and which is hardly taught at all in American schools these days. They are allowed to play educational computer games when their work is done, so they have also learned some basic keyboarding skills.

Vocabulary instruction is a phonics-based program, and we’ve all learned a lot of new words from the worksheets of sounds and words that are our homework nearly every night. There is also an emphasis on memorization, both of poems and songs, which the children then recite in front of the class.

The reading curriculum is where we find the only flaw in French education for our kids, though it is certain that both James and Isabelle have developed excellent French accents and pronunciation, and that they can sound out almost any word. The whole class goes to the school library every Friday, where each child can check out one book for the week to take home, but the class reader is a Xeroxed text from which we read about two pages every night, repeated in school over and over again. It takes an eternity to finish one book, long enough that we’re all completely bored by the time we finish it. Of course, we’re book people, and we’ve been taking the kids to the library (including the public library over in Samatan here in France) weekly to check out a stack of books heavy enough to require a shopping bag almost since they were born. The kids certainly know those three or four books they have read in class, and those books do include some difficult vocabulary. At home, we’ve continued to read books in English as well. We can’t complain too much since now James and Isabelle can read in two languages at only six years old!

One of the many poems we have all memorized...

When we look back at the first days of l’école in Saint Araille, it’s almost impossible to believe the adjustment James and Isabelle have made. Their teachers and support staff at the school have been amazing and wonderful, very supportive and just tough enough. Both of our children adore Madame P. and work hard to please her. If we were able to stay on here, she’s already said that they are ready for the next level. School is both fun and challenging in France (and in French), and we hope this experience has given James and Isabelle even more important lessons in living, making them open to adventure, ready to take risks and confident in their abilities to make new friends and learn in new ways (including speaking in burps!). We hope they have learned to be brave and a little excited in the face of the new and different… even—back in the U.S. next fall—first grade!

Les Fantômes

May 21, 2010

When you move into a house that has been around since 1100, sitting on a patch of the Earth inhabited for about 25,000 years, you assume there might be a few ghosts about. Plenty of people have lived in the château Latour; it’s likely that some of those inhabitants or visitors died here. And just perhaps some of that matter or energy that made up those humans has hung around.

It’s not so much that I believe in ghosts, but more that I try hard not to succumb to the all-too-human arrogance that asserts absolute understanding. The universe is mysterious. We simply do not know everything. Galileo is a great example, denounced to the Roman Inquisition, tried, convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest in the 1600s for the mere suggestion that the Earth was not the center of the universe. We’ve been wrong before. I try to keep a mind open to possibilities. This, of course, is both helpful and problematic when you’re a writer. Too many possibilities leads to writer’s block or a prose so scattered no one can follow, but a mind closed to possibility can never be the mind of a fictionist. My characters and stories grow from my imagination, often in a way that seems mysterious. Sometimes I almost hear voices. Sometimes I can see a whole scene or character, or hear a conversation, that exists—I think, but am not certain—only in my head. Sometimes the words and stories come with so little effort that it seems like magic. Explain it with psychology or biology or history. Call it madness or divine inspiration or demonic possession. Call it mystery or magic. I can’t explain it, but sometimes the fiction seems a kind of haunting.

We moved up to the tower apartment on October 21, Halloween Day, so I asked Pete and Rosie for a good ghost story. They told me about the phantoms with whom they share Latour des Feuilllants.

First is the white-robed man with the square hat who is most often encountered on the fifty wooden steps in ten flights up to a tower that originally served as a look-out across the hills and valleys for marauders, invaders and other dangers on one of the many Roman roads that cross this part of France. Both Pete and Rosie have seen him numerous times, Pete most clearly in an evening encounter at the first floor landing. Some time later, in his reading of the history of the monks who were the original inhabitants of the chateau, Pete discovered an illustration that matched the costume he had observed in his encounter: a man in a square white hat with robes nearly to the floor, identified as a “first visitor” or cleric who would have been sent out from the Vatican to check up on country estates like this one, owned by the Church and manned by the monks from monastery outposts. This spirit is not malicious, Pete says, but a gentle watchman who drops by to check up on things from time to time.

Chained outside the front door...

Chained outside the front door is a couple from around the 1400s, more traditional sorts of ghosts. The gruesome story goes like this. The master of the house, as was common in those days, exercising his “droit de seigneur,” got a serving girl pregnant. When she gave birth, the master and mistress—the couple chained outside—threw the girl and her newborn into the big fireplace in the formal dining room. These evil-doers, the story goes, are condemned to a long tenure stuck on earth. But they are outside, we’re assured, not permitted to enter.

Thrown into the fireplace...

There are often unexplained smells—of baking, often—and sounds in the château. Occasionally something like a piece of paper will move, just slightly, without explanation. The monks buried their own on the property, just outside the wall, so some of those fellows may be wandering about as well. Pete says he feels he’s being watched quite often as he works about the garden and orchard. Sometimes he talks to the ghosts. Maybe that’s a little like me when I write. Talking to ghosts.

How do Pete and Rosie know these details about the ghosts? Early on in their ownership of the house, a guest—a French garage mechanic—came down to breakfast after his first night having slept terribly. He explained. “There was this terrible heavy weight on my chest all night.” He slept in the same room in which Susan and I slept when we first arrived in Saint Araille. Susan—a sponge for feelings and emotions in the ordinary world—suffered a week of disturbing dreams there, “bloody” and violent dreams, as she described them. Izzy too, sleeping in the bedroom at the other end of that apartment, had bad dreams those first weeks. We had chalked it all up to the newness of the situation. The change in our lives. Now we reconsidered our psychological explanation.

In addition to being a mechanic, the Frenchman was a psychic—apparently a quite well-known one—and he offered to exorcise the chateâu for Rosie and Pete. They agreed, and followed along as he performed the task. As the mechanic/psychic and his friend (another psychic) moved from room to room and floor to floor in the château, he told them what he saw, who he encountered, a little of the ghost’s history. His friend kept asking questions like, “who is that?” Or “why do I hear a baby crying?” As they proceeded, stable to breakfast room to dining room, salon and up through the building, he sprinkled holy water, prayed, and, finally, gathered the spirits together and then released them to rise to heaven. At that point, Pete became suddenly so cold that he had to leave and go sit by the fire. The psychics left soon after, to go to Lourdes to replenish their supply of holy water, and the woman said that as they looked back at the château on the hill, they could see a mist rising toward the sky. All the drive to Lourdes, their car was under a bright patch of sun, “illuminated” though it was a cloudy day.

I’ve never seen a ghost, never experienced the things Rosie and Pete describe, exactly. But I kept my eyes open all winter, all those long trips up and down the stairs to take the dogs out in the darkness, ready for an encounter with the white-robed first visitor. I never saw him. I did feel nervous, spooked even, quite a few times. The château was huge for our little family of four and the two dogs, and because we kept ourselves primarily up in our tower apartment, the rest of the house was cold, dim and dusty. If ever there were a place for ghosts, this is it.

In March, Pete and Rosie returned from New Zealand, and Spring arrived. Doors and windows and shutters were flung open, the daylight hours lengthened, and the house became more lively. More filled with life. Anything ghost-like seemed to fade back into the few shadows.

Then Susan strained her back, leaving her in agonizing pain for several weeks. The best mattress in the apartment is on a small twin-sized cot up in the loft at the very top of the tower, next to the double bed in which Izzy sleeps. Susan began sleeping on that firm bed in the loft, which is windowless except for one skylight and the glass door that opens onto the porch overlooking the countryside. The weather changed around then. Cold, wet winds blew in from the west and the Atlantic Ocean. We tucked in around the wood stove in the evenings until bedtime.

One morning after the kids were delivered to school, Susan said, “I almost forgot to tell you. I saw ghosts last night.” Very late she had woken and seen several reddish glowing figures around the loft. At least four and maybe as many as a half-dozen. “I was plenty awake enough to know that what I was seeing wasn’t a dream,” she said. “I tried to think of what it might be. A plane going over? No. It was dark out, overcast. There were no lights on in the house.” The figures were just there, presences, wavering a little. “It was really weird,” she said. “Definitely something there.” Eventually they went away, but she was spooked and didn’t sleep well the rest of the night. Two nights later, she had a much more intense experience. She woke to find a reddish light form right next to her bed. A sound like static or a humming. In the middle of the form, she saw a sepia-toned series of scenes, like a silent movie on fast-forward. She saw women wearing long dresses and scarves and men, peasants she thought, harvesting hay or grain and throwing it onto a wagon. Scenes from a life, she thought, a long time ago. There didn’t seem to be any malice in the ghost, but intensity, she said, as if the ghost really needed her to see this. A witness to a life, perhaps. Again, it eventually disappeared. After that, until her back healed, Susan willed the spirits to stay away, telling them before going to sleep that she wasn’t willing to see them now. We have had no ghostly encounters since then.

Are we haunted? Who knows?

This is what I do know. Ghosts have crept into almost everything I’ve written since Susan’s encounter—a long short story, this essay, a whole new novel for teens set here in the château. I am fascinated by the idea (though not the actual experience; I’d just as soon not see any ghosts). Why do we see or imagine ghosts? What do these fantasies or fantômes or fears have to tell us? Are our unconscious minds communicating something we need to recognize or know or learn about our own lives? Do we simply frighten ourselves by contemplating the vast unknown in the universe? Is some matter or energy or spiritual being trying to lead us astray or toward some celestial epiphany? Or is it merely that we humans live consumed by the importance of our individual lives, which, it turns out, are relatively insignificant.

Here in Latour des Feuillants, I am conscious, daily, of the fact that in this very spot have likely lived and died thousands of other individuals: prehistoric cave painters, Roman soldiers and travelers, monks and peasants, wealthy lords of the manor, extended farming families, World War II resistance fighters and twentieth century bed and breakfast owners. Twenty-five thousand years of single all-consuming human lives. As I consider Susan’s haunting, the intensity of that ghost who needed to have his or her life witnessed, remembered, counted, I think I better understand my own fictional hauntings. These lives and stories and people who appear—apparitions—in my mind and become physical on the page, whether they are subconscious parts of myself or some mysterious others, are a most important magic. The writing, for me, is a kind of manifestation of existence. With the words, I try to witness the vitality and mystery and humble reality of a single, simple human life. And in the end, I suppose, this too becomes a kind of ghost.

Daily Bread

May 18, 2010

When I was a child, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer, Christ’s response to his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. The only request for a tangible thing in the entire prayer is “give us this day our daily bread.” Not for tomorrow, just for today, because we must remember to let the future take care of itself. We must eat today. And it’s not a six-course dinner we need, or even a full meal or meat or vegetables. Just bread. Just for today. Simple, plain, everything one really needs.
The French understand the centrality of bread to life. Remember that one of the causes of the French revolution was rising bread prices. When Marie Antionette cavalierly said, “Let them eat cake,” she not only dismissed the plight of the common people, she forgot that here, bread is an essential. Bread is life. According to de l’Institut national de la boulangerie-pâtisserie, in 2004, there were more than 34,000 artisan boulangers in France, accounting for more than 70% of bread production in the country. A “boulanger” (baker) and “boulangerie” (bakery) must adhere to strict regulations, including the choosing of the raw materials, kneading the paste, controlling the fermentation, and cooking the bread in its place of sale. None of the products used or produced may ever be frozen. This is by law, the “décret pain,” or “bread decree” of 1993. Bread is serious business here.

Bread in France is also ubiquitous and simple and delicious. Even when everything is closed for one or another of the many holidays, you can almost always find a boulangerie open for an hour or two with loaves still warm from the ovens. At any time of almost any day, we pass Frenchmen on the street with a loaf or two—no bag or wrapping—tucked under their arms. Most buy it daily. Even the shops in the aires (rest-areas) on the expressways sell baguettes, and I’ve often seen travelers grab a loaf and a package of ham to dine at a picnic table outside. Rip the baguette open, stuff in the ham, eat. Absolute satisfaction. Indeed, the bread is often a meal in itself. The truth is that a good bread really is all you need.

In Saint Araille, Monseiur Marty Chantal, boulanger, arrives at about noon every Monday, Wednesday and Friday—not daily—but to my door, which is even better. We can hear the beeping of his little white delivery van across the hills, the dogs barking hysterically as he starts up the driveway to the château. He came during the snow-storms; he brings special cakes on holidays; he has chocolate croissants to lure the children clamoring down the stairs on cold mornings. If we’re not home or don’t happen to come when he beeps, he leaves the bread, au natural, tucked into the front door handle, in a bag only if it happens to be raining. If we’re in the mood for something special, he has a variety of extra treats in his packed van, baked fresh by his own hand during the night. When we arrived in October, we placed a standing order with M. Chantal for two baguettes (literally, “sticks”) every delivery day, and we often supplemented by baking in the bread machine in the tower apartment or stopping at the boulangerie on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. In mid-winter, we changed our order from baguettes to pain aux céréales (cereal bread), which is so good that we often lurk around at the window and delay lunchtime, waiting for the sound of M. Chantal’s horn. I’ve been known to eat a third of a loaf for my lunch.

M. Chantal himself has retired during our year here, turning deliveries at least over to his daughter, Mademoiselle Chantal, a lovely smiling young woman in her twenties. In one of our early chats with M. Chantal, we learned that he hoped to travel to the United States in retirement—to see the Rocky Mountains, he said—and we’ve been wondering if he’s on his way to Colorado now. This, as we gaze at the Pyrénées white-caps an hour to the south. Like these mountains, bread, too, has its cousins across the sea. And we discover that this desire—to go, to see, to adventure in the world where the unfamiliar becomes familiar—is a shared desire. A simple bread, different and sometimes better.

In the nearby villages, the bread baking is often an event, a community gathering with lines out the doors of the boulangeries. When we visit La Couvertoirade, a beautifully preserved bastide village in a remote corner of the Aveyron, we see the communal ovens such as once existed in every town. In the Middle Ages, citizens paid a tax for which everyone gained the right to bake their daily loaves. As we wait with the others for Sunday loaves to emerge from the heat, the community of the event—the sharing and visiting of the people—seems as important as the sustenance of the bread itself. Is not that too a kind of daily bread?

As a treat, I buy “American” bread for James and Isabelle at the Intermarché supermarket. The brand is “Sam’s,” but, despite the name, it’s actually French cereal bread baked in the regulation rectangle and pre-sliced. True “American bread” tastes like paste compared to this bread, rich and nutty and fresh. With a little Nutella and fresh kiwi jam from the abbey, this sandwich makes more than a complete meal. Even plain, Sam’s surpasses Uncle Sam’s. Why is this bread so much better?

I read the label. Seven kinds of farine (flour), plus fiber, water, grains, and some of the usual suspects, including ascorbic acid, diglycerides, and sirop de glutcose-fructose. In my research, however, I find these differences. Bread flour in France is rarely bleached. Flour used in the U.S. has a higher gluten level. Potassium bromate, which U.S. bakers use to strengthen bread, is banned in the European Union. French bread is legally controlled and may not contain anything but flour, water, yeast and salt. Traditionally, it should be baked on a hearth. It doesn’t keep for more than a day. Sam’s, I suspect, is not cooked on a hearth, certainly not in an official boulangerie, so maybe it is the flour or the water that make it so good. I used to know a very old New York bagel shop owner who swore that New York bagels get their wonderful flavor from New York City water. “You can’t get New York bagels anywhere but New York!” he’d shout. Maybe you can’t get French bread anywhere but France because of the wheat grown here on the hillsides all around us in the Haute Garonne. Maybe it’s the soil or the air. Maybe it’s just that Frenchmen have appreciated bread for a very long time.

At the Grottes de Gargas, we see hundreds of images of hands printed on the walls from the Stone Age, and it comes as no surprise to learn that these same hands might have worked the first breads. Neolithic peoples baked bread in this same part of the world before 10,000 BC. Bread—the stuff of life, the symbol of our only real necessity this day—was born here, raised on the very yeasts in the air, and has been perfected and become essential to everyday life over the 12,000 years since. Every culture has a bread that is born of its own history and land, and the bread in a contemporary culture reflects not only that history, but some of the modern values of that culture.

When I think about the relationship of Americans to bread, what seems different is that we have forgotten to appreciate bread. We have neglected the simplicity of this one essential need. We want more and more and more. We live in excess, like the bread shelf at the Safeway supermarket. We do not have time to stop for daily bread, much less bake it ourselves. Can you imagine Americans lined up and waiting for a loaf of bread fresh from the oven? We do not want to wait for our bread to be baked, but we expect our bread to wait—preserved with whatever additives are available—for us. We have valued the new, the next thing, that which might make life more efficient, faster, or better, and in our rush and cry and looking always so far ahead, we have lost something very simple and essential to a healthy life. This day, this bread.

It is not that the French are a simple people—far from it. This a land that values complexity, theory, thought and philosophy. Consider Sartre, Montagne, Irigaray and de Beauvoir. Nor is the difference that the French are not busy, hurrying from home to work and school just as contemporary Americans do. The difference, it seems to me, is one of priorities. And bread is a good example of this.

Daily bread is a priority in my life here in Saint Araille. Fresh, simple, a reminder of the only thing a human really needs. It provides a place of community and of intercultural exchange. Bread is a creation of earth and air and fire and water, worked by human hands, as straightforward and innovative as the stone wheel on a log axle. We make bread from the materials at hand, the materials of this Earth. We might pray for this one essential sustenance, but for what do we truly ask? To be able to create sustenance from the materials at hand, the things of the earth. To share with a community of people. To value this day, fresh and warm and simple. All we really need. The breadboard on our table in the tower here in France is carved with these words by which to live: Donnez-nous ce jour notre pain quotidian. This day. This bread. Enough.

News

May 5, 2010

Two pieces from this blog have achieved some small fame!

“Latour/The Tower” was a finalist for the Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction. An excerpt is published at the AROHO website (http://www.aroho.org/Orlando_Winning_Submissions.php?doc=Finalists).

“The Mayor Meets an American Princess” will be published in the next issue of the Literary Bohemian (http://www.literarybohemian.com/).

Updates Coming!

May 5, 2010

Hello world! I’ve been silent for awhile, but we’re still in France, and I’ve been writing (though not posting) the whole time. I’ll start putting up our “new” adventures (actually dating back several months) this week, so stay tuned….