Friday, January 29, 2010

Hygiene – the final chapter?

Again – I am loving this debate – I learn so much more this way than when I just spout off my mouth and no one is there to hear!

So, it seems that I am arguing the French are not very worried about germs….

The fact is I am right.  But the thing I missed was the very good, extremely logical reason.  The French don't need to be germaphobic.  I can't believe I didn't see this before.  French people don't need to be as worried since they know (even if it is only on a subconscious level) that people who are really sick stay home.  They know this since that is what they also do, since they won't lose their jobs, their vacation days or even their pay if they need to be home.  They also don’t need to be worried since they know that everyone around them is generally healthy and not likely to be carrying deadly pathogens.  So why not give those kisses and share that food? 

It all makes sense to me now.  Another way to think about sharing food is also in the sense that this country really went through two World Wars – in a way we can’t possibly understand – people went hungry all the time back then.  Even now, the idea of throwing away food is just not acceptable.  You never see people using doggie bags in restaurants – they just eat it all up.  But that’s better for the environment right – not to have all those leftover cartons?  And, despite their out of fashion in the US ‘clean plate’ psyche, they are definitely NOT the people with an obesity issue.

As for the other stuff – boogers, stinky, stuff with kids…. I know that they are definitely not indicative of the entire culture or population of France (except perhaps the kids stuff).  I do live in one small corner of one small city in the giant country that is France – so maybe no one else would have these observations but me.  As I said at the close of an old blog full of generalizations.  “There is no such thing as typical.”  But I DO think the things I observe probably happen a lot more here than at home – and that’s why I notice.  I think that is one of the main reasons it is so cool to be in a different culture – to get a chance to notice these differences, appreciate them, see different cultures and learn from them.  I also like to write about them, poke fun at them – be my typical sarcastic self.  It’s a blog – not Encyclopedia Britannica.     

However, I think the US is right in it’s germophobic ways.  Since sick people are walking around all over the place all the time, since they don’t have good health care – it’s best to keep us as separate and with as little food sharing as possible. In fact, there is major room for improvements and additional things.  Like, how cool is it that French kids bring toothbrushes to school to brush every day after lunch?  We should do that!

And hey, I know there are plenty more things we do in the US that ain’t so perfect.  Lots of them drive me crazy.  I think my worst pet peeve is litter.  When André and I lived on Harper Street, people would drop trash, including things like chicken bones, on the street right in front of their door on a daily basis.  It was totally disgusting – and definitely not good for public health.  Litter is not much of an issue in super-environmental Mt. Airy – but that (again) is just one small corner of the wide wide world.

I guess I’m being defensive when what I mean to say is, that when it comes to my own life and observations – this is only my perspective – and I record it for myself so I don’t forget who I was and what I thought when I was 33, with 3 small kids, living the dream in Besancon. I don’t think I will ever be able to embrace all aspects of French culture – but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect them and am not thrilled to be a part of it all.

And that is it – this time – no matter what!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Meandering French observations…

As you all know, I roam the streets of Besancon – sort of like a superhero of kinds, searching for new and interesting facets of life here in France. I often think, while I compose, of WordGirl from PBS.  Perhaps I am her international cousin?  For whatever reason, I am always eager to hear what people think about one subject or another.  Fodder both for the blog and my information-hungry brain.  Now all I need is a really cool name…. and a cape.

I must, however, go back to a very recent blog in which I addressed French hygiene.  I was roundly reprimanded in comments by 2 real live French people (I love all of you and I hope more of you will give me comments).  It seems I am now “connu comme le loup blanc” (known like the white wolf).  This is a new idiom (thanks Marie) which means everyone knows who I am – and it is true that people seem to be friendlier to me recently – maybe it was since I implied they weren’t so friendly?   But, I digress as usual.  The noble representatives of France both defended in their comments the sterile purity of the French health system, especially as compared to the Americans.

First off, I agree with you on the indisputable fact that the people of your nation enjoy better health than those of my own.  You live longer and everyone can see a doctor (imagine that?).  I also would like to quell your worries about US nurses and other medical professionals wearing scrubs outside of medical environments.  The US definitely has practices to avoid contamination – especially in a surgical environment.

On the other hand,I maintain you have some  habits that are less than ideal. Some French people pick their noses, all the time, in public (in my opinion a little private nose picking is nobody’s business but your own – I follow a don’t ask, don’t tell rule on that one)  But standing on line next to me in a store?  Frankly, it’s gross – and it happens a lot.

Secondly, there is the food sharing thing.  I mentioned licked cupcakes but it doesn’t stop there. People will, on a regular basis, finish off the half eaten plate of another person.  I’m not talking a mom eating junior’s carrot sticks.  I’m talking about sitting around a table at a restaurant with co-workers and passing a half eaten meal over to someone who wants it.  And if there is only one piece of cake left they might bite it in half and then offer the other half to a co-worker who just walked in.  And they take it!  One time at a party people couldn’t get my brownies out of the pan so they literally started clawing at them and scraping them out with their bare hands – diving in over and over until they got a good bit.  This went on with various clawers until all that was left in the bottom were a few crumbs and some broken fingernails. (ok, you got me, no fingernails)  Yes – they were adults….

How about the fact that, in Griffin’s preschool every time he had an accident last year they just left him stinking up the bathroom until I showed up to clean him up. I guess that means the germs don’t spread to the other people?  And how, even though they knew he had a gluten allergy, they fed him baguette?  And then there is how, if a student pukes in Zander or Callie’s school, it is the teacher who is down on the floor cleaning up the mess – and no one even leaves the room. There is some kind of janitorial staff.  I don’t think puke is in their contract.  And the kid that just puked waits in the classroom with the others until someone can come pick them up, hanging around for half an hour or so spreading those germs.  I’m pretty sure the concept of a school nurse does not exist here. Not sure what the health implications of this all is – but it somehow seems relevant.

OK – and they also wear their clothes over and over and some of them don’t shower very often and are (sad but true) stinky.  I think, in fact, in the US we waste far too much water with over showering and throwing perfectly clean clothes in the laundry – but sometimes the French take it a bit too far.  That ‘homeless guy’ smell is something I now experience on a daily basis in the streets of town.  OK, OK enough on hygiene!  By the way, I hope you are all not deeply offended. I don’t think French people are gross or anything.  I just think they have some different practices than us – that can be hard to get used to!

We must now move on to hiccups.  That’s right, hiccups or hoquet in French.  I ended up, for whatever reason, discussing hiccup cures in my English class and I found out that a. They believe nothing really works to cure them and b. There are a few tried and true remedies.  The French remedies they mentioned are listed below:

1. Scare/shock/surprise someone

2. Hold your breath

3. Eat a spoonful of sugar

4. Drink a glass of water (maybe also while holding nose and ears shut)

Guess what?  Those are exactly the same as the remedies (American of course) that I know to cure hiccups.  I got really excited at this point.  How is it possible, I wondered, that two disparate cultures can have identical cure traditions and also believe honestly that they don’t work?  Would this hold true over any culture?  Is hiccup cure the last remaining fragment of verbal tradition carried over from the Tower of Babel?  Sadly, as soon as I began my research I found out I was utterly wrong.  There are hundreds and hundreds of cures for hiccups.  They are amazingly diverse.  I also read that someone had hiccups once for 64 years and is in the Guinness book of World Records.  That sounds awful – how could he sleep?  

Then there is coup.  The only US adoptions of coup I know of are coup de grace – the blow that kills (usually merciful).  Then there is coup d’etat – which is what we use to mean the violent overthrow of government – although usually we are lazy and just call it a coup, or military coup.  But in English coup can also be very positive.  If you say “What a coup!” it’s a compliment – sort of like saying you did something really difficult.  But back to the French who use coup for all sorts of phrases and most of them are idioms no non-French speaker would ever get. To make a phone call they sometimes say coup du fil.  If you want to take a quick look you might do a coup d'oeil.  How about if something is a piece of cake?  That would be a coup d'aile.  Then there are the more violent uses of coup which include coup d’etat (explained above) as well as kicking (coup de pied), jabbing (coup d’arret), slapping (coup de main), and hitting with a broom (coup de balai).  That last one came from Zander and he insists French kids use it – but I’m not so sure.   The reason this all came to mind was thanks to none other than good old Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who, in season 5 claims her father has run off to Barcelona with his secretary.  Giles responds by calling this ‘le coup classique’ which, according to wordreference, means the same old story. I think this is probably right, but I also found out that, according to backgammon (a game I loved to play with my Aunt Pat as a kid) a coup classique is a win from a nearly unwinnable position, or a great comeback. I just made one of these last night when André and I finished up a game of canasta.  I was over 1000 points behind, twice, and I came back to win it all.  Why is it that winning, when you think there is no chance you possibly can, is so much sweeter?  

The other day, I asked Callie to promise to be nice to Griffin while I was in the shower since they had been arguing.  In our house, we take promises pretty seriously and try never to break them.  I realized, however, that I’d never taught her the classic maxim. “Cross your heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye.”  After explaining this she said that sometimes French kids cross their hearts but usually they do another thing which involves bumping closed fists, holding hands and then slapping 5.  I looked it up as well and it seems there is a French equivalent that kids say (although mine don’t know it).  It goes like this: “"Croix de bois, croix de fer, si je ments, j'irai en enfer”.  I love that both versions include dire threats of violence to those who break their word.  Sometimes people also say “sur la tête de ma mère” or "sur la tête de mes enfants” which is like we would say “I swear on my mother’s life!”  Adults are more likely to say “Je te donnes ma parole d'honneur.'' which means something like “I give you my word of honor.”   

Until next time, I’ll be out there. Fighting bad accents, looking for idioms, warding off germs and seeking hiccup cures that work.  It won’t be a coup d’aile, but I’ll do my best.  Je te donnes ma parole d’honneur.…ch…. changes!!!

My life lately is so full of changes. 

First, Callie turns 7.  This doesn’t seem like much but it does mean that Griffin is going to turn 5 (soon), which means I will officially be a mom of a 5-, a 7- and an 8-year old.  My baby/toddler/little-one days are drawing to a close after almost 9 years. CHANGE!

I have been up and down for years, emotionally, been through counseling, blah blah blah.  At one point I was diagnosed with dysthemia and, recently a bunch of online friends told me I was severely depressed.  Really?  I just thought this was normal?  That’s how you know you are depressed was their reply.  Well, it is true I hadn’t been sleeping well, or eating right, or enjoying the things I normally do as much – and sometimes I just don’t want to get out of bed…  So, I finally took action and two weeks ago I started taking Seroplex.  This SSRI (gotten quite easily in France by simply asking the doctor) will change my brain chemicals so that, sometime in the next 4-6 weeks, I will begin to feel something… happier, more stable, lose 50 pounds and find the will to exercise regularly????   He also gave me sleeping pills and I am sleeping better than I have since…. maybe….hmm.. before I was pregnant with Zander?  I have never tried anything like this before. Who will I be?   Will I still be me???  CHANGE!

I haven’t worked for monetary rewards for about 9 years now.  As many of you know from previous blogs, we were promised a monthly stipend from the government before we agreed to come to France.  It seems, however that I had the wrong type of carte de sejour (kind of like green card) to be eligible for the benefits. This week was our chance to renew my carte and fix that error.  Except for the fact that the employee of the prefecture won’t renew a damn thing differently unless I have a contract for work. (The fact that I wasn’t allowed to even look for work under my old carte doesn’t seem to matter a bit).  So, even though my advisors keep telling me over and over that my French simply isn’t good enough for me to find a job, this week I sent out blind resumes to 3 institutions that teach English – and I already have 2 interviews. One tomorrow and one next Wednes

day.  Have I mentioned I haven’t interviewed for a position in about 13 years?  CHANGE!

My family is changing.  My sister had a baby.  My mom is sick.  My nieces are growing.  I am turning 34 next week. The kids of my close friends (who are like my family as well) are being born and growing but I can’t help or be there.  And how about how

everything is going to hell in a handbasket for American politics?  Lately we’ve got the health care debacle, troop increases in Afghanistan, Ted Kennedy’s replacement, the psychotic Supreme Court ruling, pro-life ads allowed during Super Bowl time – what is going on??  OK, I admit this one is a long running theme of my life in far away France – but quite a few things have happened that are extra heavy lately so I still say I can call CHANGE!

I feel like I am trying to walk across quicksand as of late.  My life has lost stability – and so have my emotions. Is this the drugs kicking in?  Am I just able to have more energy and do all this extra stuff because I am sleeping at night or my chemicals are more in alignment?   Can someone please slow this whole changing stuff down a slight bit?

Finally, there is the recognition that people are reading my blog more.  2 weeks running I’ve got higher statistics – I’ve got readers coming on and staying for an average of 7 or more minutes – in internet world that’s an eternity. I want to keep them all suitably entertained but in the end I am just me and this blog just is what it is.  I guess at least I can take some comfort that, at the very least, this is not a CHANGE!.


We headed towards Bern passing Lake Thunasee on the way.  I put this video in (which was tak

en by accident) since, often, this is the way we experience the things we see – out of the window of the car.


Why Bern? Well, it was kind of on our way home and we hadn’t seen it yet.  Actually it is the capital of Switzerland and, most exciting of all – they keep bears in pits!

We didn’t really have many plans, just sort of parked downtown and looked for maps.  I’d say, in general, that Bern is a very tourist friendly town. It is also situated (like Besancon) on a peninsula formed by a river (in this case, the river Aare).   And there are lots and lots of bear symbols here. Like, everywhere.

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First we walked to the main cathedral (spire above left), the Munster. It is the highest church tower in all of SwitzeResized_HPIM4489rland, and though a church existed in this spot from around 1100, the larger construction was started in 1423 and it was not completed until 1893.  Here are shots of it, inside and out!  I loved the sculptures and woodworkResized_HPIM4496.  They just take so much time to make every pew a work of art. Does anyone recognize the mythological beast shown right?  It seems to be part weasel, part bird and perhaps part snake???  The seats along the side all featured initials and symbols Resized_HPIM4494indicating whose seats they were.  I thought it was great, the way that so many of them had obviously changed hands over the years and new layers of carvings had to be attached.  I really liked the moon and star shown left.  Also check out the ancient alms box!  It is a heavy metal box literally carved into a niche in the wall and locked with two large padlocks.  I guess even back then, you could never be too careful.  So much for the good old days!

It is a gothic cathedral – and since Switzerland has remained neutral through two World Wars, it is amazingly intact – the best part was the lacy artwork all over the ceiling!    Thanks to André for the shot of that – it is hard for me to take good cathedral interiors!Resized_HPIM4484Resized_HPIM4482Resized_HPIM4493 Resized_HPIM4497 Resized_HPIM4504Resized_HPIM4499Resized_HPIM4488     

We wandered off stopping for a pee break.  If you are ever in Bern, make sure you pee in the bathrooms right next to Munster Cathedral.  I felt like I was in a space ship – they were awesome.  There is also a small park there with a whole bunch of people engaged in spirited ping pong contests. We continued in the direction of the bear pits seeing lots of interesting things along the way.  The center of the city is largely medieval and there are tons and tons of running fountains all over the city.

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Resized_HPIM4518Finally the Barengraben!   This city has had some version of a pit filled with bears (the symbol of Bern) since at least 1441.  That’s almost 600 years of bears in pits!  This is obviously the draw of Bern and the place was crowded with tourists. We only got to see one bear (guess the rest of them are hibernating) and there was some debate over whether it was a brown bear or a grizzly.  Random stranger on the street (who claimed he worked at Yellowstone) insisted it was a grizzly but all the literature and signs referred to them as brown bears.  I looked it up and I was right – they are European brown bears and are apparently occupying new and improved digs after years of protests (used to be able to see about 10-15 and toss scraps of food down – now that Resized_HPIM4535would have been cool…) The kids loved to see a real bear – even if only from afar. I also looked up the symbolism of bears.  Apparently they represent calm, stoic strength.  Well – who doesn’t need more of that?  

We wandered back through the town center.  On this street (Kramgrasse), water flows through a channel in the middle.  Periodically there are statue/fountains, including the giant armored bear pictured below.  Finally we saw an ancient clock with an absolutely fascinating history. It is called the Zytglogge  and it was built in the early 1200’s.  At one point it housed “a women's prison, notably housing Pfaffendirnen – "priests' whores", women convicted of sexual relations with clerics.” Nice – wonder where the priests got sent to jail??? Here are some last photos –it's off to home and the end of this adventure….

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PS –The last two pictures above are of a fountain located right outside the building for a government official.  It seems it must be a nice place to give speeches since there is a platform above the fountain and benches below. There is also a pig in a nearby window.  I can only assume this is political commentary.  Do Swiss refer to government excess as pork?  On a totally different note, see below.  Isn’t it neat how this fountain is kind of like this ice sculpture???  I think the ice is a bit more intricate….


Ice Sculptures, Ice Sledding, Ice Caves – must be the Alpine Winter!

Well, very much out of character, we decided to return to a place we have (get ready for a shock) already seen!  It was time for the 28th annual international snow sculpture contest in Grindelwald, Switzerland.  How could I not visit? Of course, such trips are not budgeted for and I scrimped all month. I did a lot of budget planning, and our total, including gas, tolls, hotel and food for the weekend was just under 200 Euros.  Go us!

We got there by around 11am on Saturday morning and the first thing we did was wander around the sculptures.  They were absolutely amazing.  My favorite was the second one below – of the fire.  It was done by the Americans—but this had nothing to do with the fact it was my favorite.  There were also representatives from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Canada, France and Switzerland.  They were so huge – I hope you can get a sense of the scale by seeing how dwarfed the kids are.  (The last photo is of some kind of ice bike, we think.  Anyone know what it is??)

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We headed up the hill and had lunch in a local tearoom.  The views were nice, the food was decent, but I hated the prices!  Why is Switzerland so expensive???  Then we headed off to try to find a hill to sled down. It turned out the best sledding area would have required us to take a ride up the ski lift, which costs 100 Euros—so we settled for a random hill.


That’s when the bells began to ring.  I’m absolutely certain this is some sort of hallowed Swiss cultural tradi

tion.   Here was this group of burly men, dressed in uniform and marching in unison down the street.  They carried what I hesitate to call cow bells, since no cow, even one on steroids, could possibly have carried one of these monsters around their neck!  These men managed to handle the weight, though.  They marched, down the hill, faces expressionless, while the bells whacked rhythmically against their thighs.  The music was deafening.  We were all interested, Griffin in particular was fascinated, and followed them.  I did some research and I couldn’t figure out why these guys were doing this.  I did find a few links that referenced cow bell rituals.

  The one that seemed closest implied that the noise purified the town or village, chasing away evil spirits. Many villages also celebrate a ritual on the first of March where children run around carrying cowbells and clanging them madly to chase away winter and welcome spring.    Whatever the reason, it was cool.  Here are some photos.

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We discovered that the procession led back to the judging of the ice sculptures.  We didn’t stay to see the winners but the Argentinean sculpture grew on me as we waited for our bus back to the cars.  It was amazing with the light going through it.  We ended the day by driving over to our sleeping base at Camping Jungfrau, a picnic dinner and some play in a winter playground.  We got to see the mighty Stubbach waterfall which still trickled creating an immense wall of icicles!  If you want to see it in full glory – in my opinion, at least – go in the spring.  You can see photos of that from when we last visited.

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It was off to bed.  André and I fell asleep before the kids did!  The next morning we had breakfast (included in the hotel price).  There was tons of food and the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had.  I actually purchased 2 cans to take back home.  Swiss Miss, you’ve got nothing on Caotina!


We loaded up the car and headed over for some more sledding fun.  We wanted to use the free ski lift they had for Jungfrau visitors – but it turned out we weren’t allowed to use it for sleds.  So we labored up the hill (30 minutes) and slid down a few time

s. Then we found a smaller hill they could slide down on their butts. That worked out better!

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We drove up the valley a bit, looking for an accessible waterfall where we could appreciate huge icicles.  We did find one that was a bit reachable and emptied the cooler to put a huge chunk of ice inside.  This is currently still sitting on my back porch!

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Then we were lucky to find, on the way out, a much better place for icicles.  This was behind a fenced off area but we never let little snags like that stop us and headed up to explore ice caves.  I know this is going to sound inane – but man they are slippery!  I was grateful no one ended up falling down and getting hurt – we carried Mr. G.  The photos here are sooooooooooooooo cool!

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And this may be the best picture I’ve ever taken of Zander.  I just love it!!!


We headed out of the Alps and toward an afternoon in Bern.  All in all it was a fun trip but I’d say that if you don’t ski and you are on a budget of any kind – stick with the Alpine summer!


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