Archive for the ‘St. Andre’ Category

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.

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Bonne Anniversaire

December 15, 2009

On a Friday in November while in France, I celebrate my 51st birthday, the youth of old age, according to a French proverb. The children, who will be in school all day, tease me about being over fifty, but I cavalierly assert that fifty is only halfway to 100. “And I fully intend to live to 100,” I tell them as we drop them at school. Their sixth birthday comes one week after my birthday, so November usually becomes focused on the kids, as it should be. But there is something about a birthday, no matter one’s age, that wants celebrating somehow. It’s a marker, that moment that the sun returns to the same place it inhabited on the day you were born.

Back at the chateau, Susan’s mother, Sandra, and her friend, Eric, are visiting. Susan asks what I want, and, as always, I say that I’d like a nice meal in a restaurant. It’s the ultimate luxury for me—good food with friends, fellowship with other humans, and no dishes to do at the end of it all. So we review the list of recommendations that our hosts have left for us. At the top of Rosie and Pete’s favorites is Bistro de Pays (translated, plain and simple, “Country Bar”) in St. André, traditional French fare in a small village in the middle of nowhere. Rosie’s note about it reads: Phone ahead to reserve, show up, eat what you’re served! I know that Susan—a notoriously picky eater—will never make this place her first choice, so I play the birthday-me-first card: Bistro de Pays il est! We reserve a table for “dejeuner,” lock up the house and stable, get in the car and go.

It’s a gorgeous day, my birthday. Sunny and warm, probably about 70˚ F. The road to St. Andre from Saint Araille is curvy and narrow, up one hill and down the next, the snow-capped Pyrenees appearing at the crest of each rise. We zip in and out of villages, pass old women on old bicycles headed for somewhere, and slow for sheep and cows crossing. I think about the Haute Garonne region, the way the glaciers must have pushed up earth into these hills as they advanced and receded back to the mountains, the way the Mediterranean Sea must have swamped this area for awhile, and then the more recent history of Romans and Spaniards, knights and Crusaders, invaders and monks and pilgrims, traders and explorers and farmers—always farmers here—crossing and settling these fertile hills and valleys. It must have been a pleasant journey. The climate is perfect. The scenery changes with each mile. Something like aging, I think. I like this place, the youth of old age rather than the old age of youth, which, according to the proverb, is forty. I don’t feel old; I can still make the climb up the hill, and the view both behind and ahead is splendid.

About an hour later we arrive in St. André, one more small village in a chain of small villages. A Mairie. Maybe a maternelle or l’ecole. A church with a bell wall. A few houses. A farm with a cavernous stone barn. Perhaps a garage or small store. All of the towns we pass through are mostly deserted. In St. André, however, a half-dozen white delivery vans line the street next to and across from the church, a veritable traffic jam. A good sign, Rosie has said: Look for the delivery vans. Those guys always know the best places to eat. Is this the place? We don’t see a sign. Eric parks next to the church. I can see into the building behind us, a very small kitchen, steam rising from huge metal pots on a stove, two women wearing white aprons. It could be my own kitchen; it’s that small. On the street-side, a sign: Bistro de Pays.

We enter the screen door as the church bells begin to strike twelve. Halfway through the day, halfway through this life. I hope. On the left side of a small center hallway a windowed door reveals a tiny store. We open the door to the right. A well-stocked bar. Fifteen or so tables—six arranged in a row together, family-style—all set with cloths, old unmatched china and heavy silverware, wine bottles, and water pitchers. The only diners in the room are a group of delivery men at the first table, who all look up at us—the Americans—as we enter. Conversation stops. The four of us mumble to each other, begin to walk toward an empty table. A smiling woman in white apron comes from the back, takes our name, and gestures to a table. We sit.

Vous aiment un apéritif? she asks. An aperitif? Why not? It’s my birthday. I’m in the youth of old age. Susan’s mother and I nod. Oui! She serves us an amber liqueur in petit crystal glasses from the bar, Paloumbas de _?_. It’s sweet and strong, flavored with peach or plum, I think. A local favorite, she says. As we drink, another group arrives—two couples, one English-speaking—and they are seated at the table next to ours. One of the women passes her astrological birth chart to her friends. She is celebrating her birthday too. Her friends toast her: Bon aniversaire! It is as if a strange twin has appeared, and I can’t help but look closely at her. Are we alike for sharing the same day of birth? She looks about my age. Do her stars predict a similar path? What did bring us both to Bistro de Pays in the tiny village of St. André from some distant place on this particular day?

More truck drivers—male and female—arrive and are seated, some at the long table, though they do not seem to know one another. The woman in the apron brings bread. We pour the wine, a local red, and break the bread. I am a little fuzzy from the drink and warmth of the room. Another couple arrives. The restaurant is full within the hour. Only the woman in the apron waits tables, but she serves the same things to each table, one after another, in some cases moving the same plate of one dish from one table to the next.

I am not a restaurant critic, neither a chef nor food connoisseur, but I know that this food is wonderful. The soup arrives in a huge tureen just for our table, and we all serve ourselves. Pale brown, potatoes and carrots and big pale beans; it fills the belly and heart, and steams the windows. I am happy. The whole restaurant is happy. People laugh. I watch the delivery drivers share bottles of wine from table to table. The woman in the white apron brings the next course: a white mayonnaise-like sauce over thinly sliced celery root, oily black olives on the side. Then the patê, rich and smooth, arrives, and we cut thick slabs to eat with our bread—more bread—before the loaf is whisked off to the next table. I watch my birthday twin cut herself a slab from the loaf. The meal and the day stretch on.

Just before 2, the main course arrives. We’re in luck, because today’s meal includes cassoulet, the specialty of this region of France. Named for the pot in which it is prepared, the cassole, cassoulet is a very slow-cooked bean stew that has a particular mix of meats depending on the individual (or regional) recipe used by the cook. In ours there are sausages and chunks of duck and goose, as well as some roast beef, I think. Originally a peasant dish from medieval times, I’ve been told that a proper cassoulet is cooked sometimes for days, with more and more water added as it reduces, hence the thickness. It is also traditional to use the base from one cassoulet to start the next, leading to legends that some cassoulets are hundreds of years old in origin. The perfect dish for a fifty-first birthday. Even older than me!

As we scoop up seconds from the pot of cassoulet on our table, the woman in the white apron returns with a platter and serves us slices of pale tender pork roast, a hint of apple in the flavor. We eat. We eat. Everyone eats. Virginia Woolf once wrote, “One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them.” For me, in this moment at the Bistro de Pays in St. André, I feel at one with all humanity. When we eat good food, though we are strangers, we return to some kind of essential common existence. And there will be no dishes to wash at the end!

At last, we sit back. Sated. Satisfied. The woman in the white apron returns. Dessert? Of course. It’s my birthday, after all. There are choices: Chocolate mousse; flan; yogurt and fresh fruit; ice cream. We choose one each, and all are delicious. The chocolate mousse—my choice—is like eating chocolate clouds, a satiny richness that is perfect with the rich coffee that ends every French lunch. The truck drivers depart, and then my birthday twin with her friends from the next table. We decide that we have just enough time to drive over to see a little church we’ve heard about, and stand to pay our bill at the bar. The tab for this luxury, this long afternoon of life lived fully in gustatory glory? €12 each. About $15.

We walk out into sunshine, church bells ringing again, stretching and yawning. This is the youth of old age, that hour of the early afternoon when life feels rich and full of promise, when the view stretches to white-capped mountains in the distance and back across the hills toward home. We visit the little church painted with intricate stories, and the little well outside that is known for miracles, and we return to fetch the children from school under a painted sunset sky. C’est un bon anniversaire, indeed.