Beki Grinter

Archive for the ‘France’ Category

Libraries and Possibilities

In European Union, France on August 16, 2011 at 12:21 pm

Richard Barke recently blogged about his experience of being in Oxford. In the libraries of Oxford he eloquently describes the experience of feeling connected to a set of possibilities. Libraries as temples of knowledge, places of possibilities.

I remember when I gained my resident pass to allow me to enter various buildings at Cambridge. One of the things I did, rather surprisingly, was attend a Sunday service in Kings College Chapel. I’m not religious. I went because I find that when I am in buildings like that I find my perspective altered. I was reminded of that same perspective altering in Richard’s post. His thoughts turned to education and learning. As I sat listening to the choir, mine turned to engineering. Kings College Chapel has the most amazing roof and walls that seem to breathelessly hold it up there. Cathedrals (include Abbeys, Royal Peculiars, Chapels etc…), particularly Norman-Gothic, also bring this sense of wonder to me. When I taught in Metz France, I would enjoy going into the city to do battle using my poor French to acquire those super nice shoes or boots I wanted. And then I would also go to the Cathedral and just wonder at the construction.

I am not religious but, beyond marveling at the engineering, if I have a moment of belief it is in those buildings. I like Cathedrals. I like their perpetual dampness. I like the retreat into their dark coolness on a warm day. In winter I like watching the muted winter sun attempting to project the colours of the stain glass windows onto the floor or pews. I like their silence outside of service. I like taking off my shoes and putting my feet on the floors and feeling the cool of the stones. I like the smell of hymnals and candles in combination with the mustiness of the old building.

All of these bring an inner peace in me. If I feel any inklings of religion its there and only there. It’s a place that I stop. And in that I was reminded of one of Genevieve Bell’s talks about boredom and about how stopping is a time for the brain to be creative, unfettered by the chains of the mobile nag that reminds you of the million unfinished things.

Large megachurches, an object of my research, just don’t invoke the same response in me. For me, megachurches don’t smell right, they don’t feel right, and their climate control while ideal isn’t as sensory as the experience of discovering that cooler damp air. There are lots of things I miss about Europe. But way up there on my list is the sensory experience of old buildings. Richard’s post reminded me of that. Actually it did better than that, it got me really thinking about this. And here it is, for what it’s worth.


Perspectives on Work Time

In France, HCI on May 31, 2011 at 10:50 am

I’ve just re-read Amy Bruckman’s, post about facebook and other social media. She’s arguing, at least in my reading, that the time it takes to check Facebook, twitter etc. during the day is taking up more of her time than she wants. Another colleague of mine, Phoebe Sengers, recently wrote an article in Interactions magazine about how her time spent on Change Islands, Newfoundland, Canada, made her reflect on the values that she brings to her work and life. In the face of very different methods and beliefs about how a day should be lived, she found herself reflecting on the values of efficiency and productivity in her life.

Perspectives on how we value the way in which time is spent.

And I keep pondering them both together. How should I balance my day, how to I prioritize my time. What does it meant to prioritize time? To feel guilt when the results of that prioritization can not be seen in accomplishments. And I admit that sometimes instead of working I just want to read the daily pulses that are the lives and interests of my friends.

Of course the very fact I am prioritizing my time, that I am viewing my day as consisting of chunks that need allocating is its own value system. This reminds me of French lunch time. Sometimes when I sit in my office eating a sandwich quickly in order that eating should not take up too much time, I think about how Metz shut down between 12-2 as people took lunch. Perhaps they also ate quickly, but they took a block of time, lunch time, and that was a different temporal space than the work day time.

More on an Academic Blog

In academia, academic management, C@tM, computer science, crafts and craftiness, discipline, empirical, European Union, France, HCI, ICT4D, research, social media, wellness informatics on September 14, 2010 at 9:27 pm

I’ve written about academic blogging before, but recently I was asked some questions.

1) How did you get into doing a blog?
It was quite by accident. A colleague of mine created a private blog to capture her experiences of conducting fieldwork. She was using her blog to create a forum where she could get feedback from others and reflect on what she was learning. So I received an invitation to create an account and I did, and then I thought it would be an interesting experiment. It’s turned out to be an interesting experiment indeed.

Early on, my blog was unread and largely just a private (although entirely public) experiment. When I started pushing my posts to facebook and twitter it got more public. Another way I acquired audience was through timely posts where I just happened to have an early hit in Google searches. Another way, and this turns on my research interests, was to prepare a commentary on a Facebook meme. Using my research expertise I commented on the importance of this.

2) What is your blog about?
My blog is a mixture of topics. I’m aware that this is rather different from other blogs and I wonder whether it affects the readership. On the other hand, it’s a creative outlet and also within the scope of my research, so exploration is important.

Two persistent non-work themes:

  • Cross cultural adventures, for example, being British in the U.S. and encounters with my accent and living in France and coping with culture shock.
  • My family from whom I learnt skills that have morphed into my off-script crafting hobbies and a passion for family history and the way it transforms history from monarchy and war into ones of poverty and survival.

Work-related topics fall into four categories.

3) How much work is doing a blog?
As much as you want it to be!

When I’m writing about non-work related topics, the posts come pretty quickly and the only thing they do is share something with colleagues and friends. Although, like facebook, they start very interesting conversations. For example, the one about the convict in my family started discussions with several work colleagues at Georgia Tech and beyond. I’d written about it partially to document the journey of discovery and detective work that is genealogy, but by sharing it broadly I got not just advice on how to learn more, but also on literature that would help set context.

The work related ones take longer. Some of them do double duty, for example, I needed to synthesize the literature in ICT4D, and I was going to give a report about the workshop so I needed to have some means to collect all that information together. My blog helps me think about making arguments, it complements and extends my two decades of research experience. It’s not just a set of notes I draw on, but because it’s simultaneously unreviewed but read by scholars it improves my arguments.

4) What impact has it had on your professional life?
My colleagues in Computer Science and beyond have enthusiastically responded to my blog. The strength in diversity of topics has been that people have asked me to write on a variety of issues. I’ve been asked to discuss the disciplinary devolution, and asked to review manuscripts on this topic. I’ve written posts on writing for conferences and had others not explicitly invited picked up by the conference organization. I’ve been tweeted and retweeted. While I have not been asked to write about my cross-cultural experiences, I’ve had face to face conversations about them. This is also true of the sexual harassment post, it generated lots of community support.

5) How would you advise a student concerning the advantages and disadvantages of academic blogging?
I tried to answer this, and then decided that I would answer it in the form of some different questions.

What do I write about?
Things you’d feel comfortable with an audience of a) your Dad whose an academic b) your Mum who started her own business (intelligent layman with interest in “application”) c) your community of practice and d) anyone else reading. Perhaps you could explain a paper in your field? Assume that the authors are in your audience and as its been published the members of your community have not deemed to be serious.

Perhaps you could write about the related work in your area. Synthesis is a challenge in academic writing. Related work is not a stream of text that describes each paper in turn. It synthesizes the results from multiple papers, groupings form pro and con arguments that help make your case. The case is a) the aggregate findings that your research builds on and extends b) the novelty of your approach and c) the contribution of your research. Synthesis is also an exercise in being inclusive and humble, how do you engage and invest a community in your results otherwise/

What about your experiences in graduate school? What are your time management strategies? What do you know about the Ph.D. program at various points in the program.

Anonymous versus known?
There are good reasons to write an anonymous blog. Anonymity supports candor. Career experiences can fit into this category. The downside of anonymity is that no-one knows you. When it comes to your research, it’s good to be associated with it! Academic branding requires being able to associate a name to the research brand.

Confessions of an ex-academic administrator

In academia, academic management, European Union, France, research on March 19, 2010 at 10:24 am

I’ve been an ex-academic administrator for about nine months. This has given me time to reflect on the pros and cons of returning to the faculty ranks.

Where to start?

The end was very abrupt, and somewhat unplanned. Crucially there was no transition plan. It was an end, not a moving up. More about why that matters later.

It was initially very hard, while also feeling like a real relief. The volume of email I received dropped substantially, which was nice. I was no longer on anyone’s critical path. But simultaneously I was not in the “people who know” loop either. Perhaps it shouldn’t be the case that administrators know about some things earlier than the rest, but I think there’s a good reason. Organizations are political and symbolic entities (for a great treatment of what I mean, Morgan’s Images of Organizations), not just rational entities (and here I am referring more to Simon’s version of organizational rationality). Information can be used to position not just individuals, but organizational entities, strategically. Of course some individuals do tend to use information for personal rather than institutional good, but organizations are also human. And I am accepting of some people having a “heads up” in such a way that they can act on behalf of me and the organizations I am in.

I guess I missed knowing, and I also missed feeling the type of usefulness that’s abundant in making progress in academic administration. You still have students of course, but that’s a different type of usefulness. Administration, in the very short time I was there, was a new set of skills to learn, a new type of utility, a new personal/professional growth.

About two weeks after the abrupt departure, I took another interesting step. I left the country to go to France to teach for a semester.

So, I was always bound to feel cut off, it would have been the same if I’d been a faculty member. Any organization, and perhaps especially an academic organization, is a fast changing target. But that was a profound disconnect. Initially that exacerbated the feeling of feeling so very isolated and cut off.

However, now I would recommend it. The separation was ultimately far more beneficial than the initial shock of separation. I used that time to do three essential things. First, come to a peace with my departure. Second, get used to the new place I was in. Not just being in France, although that was fantastic as a distraction and provided another set of journeys in personal development. Third, with the first and second completed I could now begin to see a way forward. And France was very good for that. I read, and I thought, and I made some career decisions that I’m starting to implement.

My final thought, some people leave an administrative position and have somewhere to go. I didn’t, as I said. I suspect that having a place to go helps, and sometimes it’ll be a promotion. But, I am reminded of Bryant’s observation that no-one should have an academic administrative position because they want it. He has a variety of reasons, but I’ll add one, which is that wanting one makes it so much harder to give it up, particularly without an obvious transition plan. And as he does point out, academic administration is absolutely unforgiving, it has no memory, and it can change suddenly.

In the academy where tenure and faculty governance tend to promote very stable organizational structures, academic administration presents an interesting contrast.

When Global Networks met Nation States: France’s approach to Digital Living

In empirical, European Union, France, research, social media on January 9, 2010 at 4:11 pm

BBC news ran a piece on France’s approach to digital life.

The following seem like take aways to me.

First, that different countries approach the same technologies differently. Frequently, when we read about the power of the Internet and so forth it is as if it is a technology that spans national boundaries, a truly global phenomenon. And of course it is. But simultaneously it is also a technology that is worked into the laws and rules of each land it touches. China and Singapore’s filtering and barring of certain content are two well-known examples. And while we can spend some time arguing whether that is “right” or “wrong” (or perhaps good vs. bad), many of those arguments turn on our own values about things like, for example, the freedom of information, the right to free speech and so forth.

France is deciding whether internet firms such as Google, Yahoo and Facebook should pay a tax on their online ad revenues. What they make, in the sale of their online space, France views as taxable revenue and tax law is as idiosyncratic as the country from which it comes (I think wikipedia does a nice job of pointing out some of the more bizarre features of U.S. tax law). Interestingly Google’s response is one that turns on innovation. Google might be right, but I can’t help thinking that innovation, particularly the importance of technological innovation is a very American response. I’ve been here 20 years and I’ve never lived in a society that values technology, seems so culturally aligned with technology, as much as the United States. I think David Nye would agree, although he puts it so much better than I, perhaps especially in American Technological Sublime.

The fact that France has decided, as a State, to go head to head with Google to digitize books also seems very French. When I think of large state projects I think of France’s nuclear power program, of its high speed trains, of the launch and rapid uptake of the Minitel. So, apparently many people think that the Internet was the first network that connected a “network nation” together. Actually it was Minitel, and it connected France together by the mid 1980s, when the French were already doing online banking, stock purchases, and making reservations. Yes, the WWW, which made its appearance in the early 1990s, despite allowing a lot of people to conduct business online was not the first… So, instead the French are going to create their own digital library, and pay £700m to do it.

And finally, I found the law which would allow net users to have old data about themselves deleted fascinating. Recently I blogged about the ongoing tensions between the personal and professional. But they do not just play out in the now, in the real-time, but also over the course of a history of network use. For example, if you type my name into Google along with the words hot tub, you used to land on a picture and explanation of an event at a conference. Initially, I was not too excited about the picture, particularly when I was recruiting for jobs (which I have done rather more often than some of my colleagues…) but then I think I decided that taking the picture away was some how worse, since it wasn’t entirely clear that I was not in the hot tub (some who were were naked if I recall correctly). ANyway, so it goes on. There’s also the brief experiment I had with feminism, which I am not personally embarrassed by (not really sure I’m embarrassed by the hot tub either, just wouldn’t be my first choice)… but I am convinced that some of the ideas I left on the net would be better refined with my increased readings. Perhaps not, but we can hope. But, there are digital traces of me, a digital legacy, which is now something that others can explore and potentially make decisions about (not just the content but also me), but I don’t have a way to remove it. If I was French I might though. ANd can you imagine what this is going to mean, if a French person can ask, under the auspices of this law, to have something removed. The web has always struck me as a place where people create but far less frequently remove. The web is not tidy like that.

My bigger point here was that this news item reminded me that the network is not a global phenomenon, it is actually a more complicated experiment in marrying a technology that does not readily or always recognise international boundaries, with nation states that can and do recognise their own sovereignty and their ability to enact laws that reflect their own values and beliefs about digital life.

Shopping in France

In European Union, France on December 2, 2009 at 11:06 am

Just proving that this blog is a mixture, this is my recommendations for shopping in France.

  1. The sales in France are serious, there are two one in January and the other in July. That said, I found in Metz (dunno about Paris) that there were several other sales too. I signed up for some information about a particular shoe vendor, and when they were having a sale, frequently so were other places. Including Galleries Lafayette.
  2. Galleries Lafayette is well worth the experience, especially in Paris where the store is amazing. But it’s expensive, really expensive. It’s just the stuff you imagine French women (and men) wearing, but you leave with the impression that the French are well off … the sales are a must here then. I got cashmere for 30 euros, and a wool skirt for 15 for example. I also got a beautiful silk scarf (with a bizarre unnecessary tassel — which I promptly removed) for 10 euros and a pair of suede boots for 20. Bargain time.
  3. Shoes. I have to say I think the French know shoes, but especially boots. They are a nation of boot wearers and I can see why. I recommend Minnelli, JB Martin, San Marina. All very good stuff.
  4. Carroll make beautiful clothes, I wish I could afford more of them.
  5. M&S brand, not to be confused by the British for Marks and Sparks, are a discount retailer. Hunting through the racks I found a few gems, wool skirts, but it’s very hit and miss. The good thing is that when you find something it’s cheap. And in France, and with the euro to dollar exchange rate that makes a good difference.
  6. Auchan seems to own: Simply Markets, Cora, as well as Auchan. This makes it harder in Metz to get away from their suppliers and preferred brands than you might imagine. Not really sure what to do about that… we did not shop at the Intermarche.
  7. At Cora we recommend Patrimoine Gourmand. It’s their food heritage series and it’s pretty good. You pay a little extra, but not much (all food is more expensive, but the quality is better). This seems especially true of Patrimoine Gourmand. We did not find anything we didn’t like. For example, their Cassoulet in a can is reasonable, and I’ve heard mixed reports about canned Cassoulet.
  8. The key phrase for window shopping is “I am looking only” which translates into something that resembles browsing. Other phrases and words I found useful were my shoe size, to try (essayer I think, which is also the word for changing rooms).
  9. Greetings. I’ve mentioned this before: the French seem to be really into greetings. So, if you see someone say hello. It’s especially important in small shops. But also I found it useful at check out in the hypermarket. Greet the cashier.
  10. Goodbyes. Thank you and goodbye is essential if you don’t want to never be able to shop there again (well smaller shops I think). No of course you can, but it goes better if you do the complete exchange for leaving. I think it especially matters in stores like Galleries Lafayette, where there are a) a lot of people to help you (which for me meant a lot of opportunities to have French exchanges that for some time were pretty bumpy, but after I’d shopped enough progressed to useful things like being able to ask whether that cashmere sweater was really in the 10 euro bucket, no sadly it was not). Also, they, like their cashier friends at Cora also don’t want to be “shop assistants” — I think it was Napoleon who said that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers — so engaging them in conversation, particularly one that makes them your equal is useful.

I think that’s about it. I’m going to miss shopping in France. I was just getting to the point where it was flowing… and for me that’s really good because sometimes I use shopping as an escape from the world of academia.


In European Union, France on November 22, 2009 at 1:46 pm

A week tomorrow and we will set foot on U.S. soil again.

We’re excited to be returning. But, it’s just gotten to the point where we have even more understanding … well it feels like that. I’ve felt my French has been through two step changes. The first was when I got numbers. The second was when less stuff just started going wrong in conversation. The second took me a while to realise, but it’s started.

It’s compounded by a third change, which is that we’ve just started to develop people with whom we can have conversations. Our epicer is one. The other day we went into his shop to get some pain industriel and a bottle of wine (what more do you need for a meal when you have cheese and meat at home?). We paid the 8 euros, actually we paid the 8.04 euros but he only asked for 8 which was kind of him. And then I said that I didn’t like the little 1 euro cent coins.

So, in response he asked me “when is England going to join the Euro” which wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind for a conversation. I understood that was what he asked. Then I started thinking about all the things I would like to be able to say (this is a political conversation of course, but the French like to have political conversations… and why not, it does have the nice property that then politics gets discussed as opposed to being reduced and processed down to trite positions). But somehow, and together, we managed to keep the conversation going. We learnt that despite the inconvenience of the currency, our epicer liked London (and Sandwich and Cantebury), enjoyed the global diversity of restaurants, and didn’t find it as expensive as he’d be told it would be. He bought his daughter over to join in the conversation. Luckily she was shy, I still find it a little embarrassing when an 8 year old can very soon outstrip me in terms of my language skills.

Then a customer, we think, also joined in. He walked into the shop and helped himself to a coffee behind the counter. I’m not really sure what type of relationship our epicer has with that person, customer, store help, friend, probably all of those and some more that I don’t know. He too had been to England, and so it was a trip around the Isles all from the warmth of the epicerie.

In addition to the newly talkative epicer, I think it takes the French a while to warm up to etrangers, the two ladies in the post office are now getting more friendly… (and of course they know where our mail goes and that we’re not from these parts…). One loves to use English words (I won’t call it conversation, that she prefers to do with us in French), but she recently wished K “a very very good day” and told us that she would give us “beautiful” stamps (for England, unfortunately it was the usual Marianne for the U.S.). The other one, who I have had more interaction with smiles now when she sees me. This is because I am well trained to say bonjour to everyone and au revoir on the way out. Shopping is not an exchange, it’s a social activity. And not social in that “store greeter” manufactured way, it’s actually really social. Authentic social, before the chains drove civility out of business.

We have a few bar/restaurants that we like. One that takes courage is run by a man who is passionate about wine. He also offers just one plat du jour. The plat du jour is of course in French and frequently not written down, so you have to get it by comprehension. He also happens to like game birds, (when I learnt French meats in the UK curiously we did not focus on them, opting for the four-legged meats over the two winged ones). So, it’s an adventure every time we’re in there… but one that’s getting easier. A good thing since the menu is 9euros, very reasonable, and the man pours a generous serving of wine. I’d tell you what the name of the place was if I knew it, the sign just says Vins. Very reasonable indeed.

Then there’s Autour du Zinc. It’s a husband and wife operation if I had to guess, perhaps with the help of one of their parents in the kitchen. The lady knows we’re Engligh speaking… We went there for the nouveau Beaujolais tasting. I think we discovered that that is always accompanied by free plates of food… so she told us about the buffet, and then so did her husband, so she told him that she’d already told us and that we understood. I understood that. It’s nice to have people watching out for you.

Next door but one there’s another small place that serves wine by the glass and free snacks to customers. There’s a lady in there who has dealt with us a couple of times. I decided to order a Haut Cote du Nuit, which I wanted to try and pronounce properly. Unfortunately it’s either pronounce it in real-time badly or pronounce it better and take as much time as a table of 8 ordering a 4 course meal. I made another joke. I explained. I had two types of French. Fast and not good. And not fast and not good. She laughed, and not in that pained way when someone makes a joke. I think she genuinely thought it was funny. And I was glad. Sharing a joke, even if it is at your own expense, is part of what makes connections.

I will miss Metz. It’s not the buildings but the people. Good people, and very very generous. I can’t really think of a bad experience I have had people wise. A few embarrassing moments, but not anything intentional.

Notes from a Larger Country: A goodbye to France, for now

In European Union, France on November 18, 2009 at 7:42 am

This is likely one of my last posts from France. I prepare now for an imminent return to the United States, to my home and life in Atlanta Georgia. There are things I am looking forward too, my house, my colleagues, some of my stuff, etc… but I am going to miss France. Here in no particular order are some things.

International Travel: Highly Recommended.

I’ve done quite a bit of international travel, and lived abroad for the majority of my life. International travel, and especially time living abroad I would be the first to claim is mind-opening, and also a test of one’s character. It takes a type of courage, an ability to feel OK with failure (not an academic’s natural skill set I sometimes think 🙂 But, I already thought I knew those lessons, I’d done them both at least once, going to the United States. But France is another new place, and each one teaches me more… I know, for example, that my French is not good enough to live here without the considerable scaffolding that Georgia Tech provides here. At the same time I’ve learnt that my French is functional enough for me to manage in shops, restaurants, and other settings. I also know that over time it has improved.

And then there’s France itself.

The French care about food and regionality. I understand that De Gaulle once asked “how you manage a nation of 264 cheeses” (people think the number of different types cheeses made in France is higher than that: current favourite Tomme Brebis, although Rocamadour is hard to beat, and then there’s Camembert). And I now understand why a person credited with the establishment of the 5th Republic said that. Probably not in entirety, but food is a window into how much the French care about the regions of France. France, I now think, is a delicate balance of centralized nation state, and highly individualistic regional cultures. And how they pull that balance off is something I can imagine a foreigner spending a life time finding out. Food is also a great lens for understanding French agricultural business, as a family business and not always agro-business. I like that supermarkets have two Bread sections, Pain (i.e., Bread) and then Pain Industriel (Industrial Bread). There’s local made and then their’s argo-business bread (which as best we can tell is used for Croque Monsieurs). Food not only tastes good, it’s a wonderful lens through which to explore France.

As a Brit.

It’s easy to see the history of France and Britain as one of conflict over considerable periods of time. And that is one very reasonable take. But, it took me living here to also see that same history as one that makes perhaps us more similar than I had really thought about before. I’m not sure I can point to particular examples (shared affinity for cheese perhaps 😉 but it’s not as different as I expected.

And France is beautiful.

The American West is beautiful. I’ve been lucky to see much of it, and wow, it’s an amazing natural landscape. France is also a stunningly beautiful country. Not perhaps in quite the diversity of geological beauty, although it’s hard to argue that the sight of the Pyrennes from the A61 around Carcassonne, while looking out over a deep flat valley (with the Mastif Central to the other side) is not spectacular. France has a lot of beauty. And its villages frequently add to that beauty, rather than being located within it. We travelled during the Fall break, so we also got to see a country whose countryside was turning a myriad of shades of yellow and red. So, I understand why so many French families vacation here, we’ve just scratched the surface and it’s a country that screams come back and visit me again. France has endless beauty it feels, from the winding rivers and streams of the Dordogne, to the flat river shores of the Loire, dotted with Chateaux, the rolling fields of the East, the mountains of the Southeast, and the valley of the Rhone.

And then there’s France within Europe.

Metz is a unique place from which to begin to think about Europe as a vision and now a reality. It is just across the river that one of the architects of the European Union, Robert Schuman, lived and is now buried. It’s easy to drive in 4 countries within a couple hours from Metz. Now passing deserted checkpoints and customs stops because they’re all members of the Schengen countries.

We were here for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It happened on Nov 9 1989, and interestingly France commemorates Armistice Day on Nov 11, remembering the huge loss of life that was the result of a war often on French soil between Germany and France (and others of course), World War 1. Two countries share a boundary near here, and a history of warfare. Metz itself has switched hands 3 times since 1870. Here then on a contested edge, it seems clearer what a stable peaceful Europe means. It means that Metz, a place where German language, food culture, and names (many people here have French-German name combinations) are a part of what makes the city and people French, and proud to be so. France and Germany had such a history and out of this they have crafted and frequently lead the architecture of a stable Europe. And here that makes so much sense.

And then there’s France for the French.

I can’t claim to understand the French. But, I’ve enjoyed living among them and learning from them. The French make me want to know more French, so that I can learn more. When I encounter French people who don’t switch to English even when my French gets pretty rough, I know it’s not because they’re trying to be difficult (I’m not sure I ever thought that, although I understand it’s a common interpretation, I was just perplexed) it’s because they want to encourage people to try their language. They’re proud of it, and it’s a nice language, and it sounds great when spoken by the natives (and rougher when someone with a mid-atlantic accent, and a lack of command of the genders and tenses speaks it). So give it a whirl! There’s very little to lose except that feeling that it ought to be better, and maybe that’s quite a reasonable feeling to have.

For me then.

I’m European. And very proud to be so. But, I knew my Europeanness as a political reaction to England’s lack of interest. I now understand it as something that’s not a reaction, but as a place, a people, an entity in its own right. I learnt that in Metz.

I learnt that should keep practicing my French, despite all its flaws, I need to keep just trying. And I wish I had longer because I’m just beginning to see signs of improvement. And I shan’t forget the feeling that it ought to be better, that’s accurate, and that’s a part of understanding the limitations of my Anglophone world. (I leave with a lucky surprise, that learning German young I have a working knowledge that I can’t explain but doesn’t seem to let me down in quite the ways that my French does).

And I’ve learnt that France is a country I want to explore in more detail. I want to understand the regions better, I would like to better understand the whole made from these proudly different parts, and continue to learn about how this country leads in Europe. How for example, did the French decide to leave their Franc (a very old currency) for the Euro?

I suppose that what I’ve really learned is how much more there is to learn. But I have better questions, thank you France.


In European Union, France on October 16, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Today I decided to go to Metz city centre, well I needed a baguette for dinner and after two months here I’m feeling more comfortable cycling through the city with sticks of bread. In fact I feel like a local when I do this.

But today was the day when the cereal and meat farmers joined the milk farmers to complain about an EU Agricultural policies. The complaint took the form of a nation wide strike in which people drove their tractors to places and set things on fire, or in the case of Metz drove their tractors around the city in a very effective attempt to prevent all car drivers from entering the city. And the city centre was very quiet.

I encountered the strike on my cycle route into the city. I was glad to be cycling. I stopped to watch. I took pictures. A kind French man told me that today in Metz there were 1003 tractors who had formed a long line and they would drive around Metz. And I watched at least 200 of them drive by.

Several things struck me. France is not a place of agri-business, it can’t be. I wonder if the same strike was to take place in Georgia, USA or Norfolk UK, whether they could find 1003 tractors in the local area. I don’t think so, because I think there’s been a move towards agri-business. By contrast France is a nation of agricultural families and small, local, businesses. They care about their food. Food is more expensive in France, but it’s better tasting. Even Cora, which is like Walmart has food that tastes like food, food that has appellations (i.e. is regional specific and has to work hard to be given a certification — this came from wine regions, but it is applied to food). This orientation to food requires a style of farming that agribusiness does not readily support.

France is also a nation of young farmers. In the protest I noticed signs from the Jeunes Farmers union, (between you and I have trouble with young and yellow–jeunes and jaune–but I figured that it would be odd to have a yellow farmers union). And looking at the people driving the tractors I saw so many young people. And this struck me as odd. I don’t think of farming as a career for the young.

What I think is at stake is a way of life that still exists here, not exactly because of the marketplace, I suspect that there are subsidies involved. But a change in whether those subsidies occur, whether farming practices are local farmer friendly has huge consequences for France, and for the region I’m in if the number of tractors, the number of people who are young enough that they would be out of a job and have to retrain, implies.

On the other hand, I wonder whether some consolidation may have to occur. I’m not quite sure why, but again I was reflecting on how such a small place could find 1003 tractors worth of people to protest. That’s a lot of people.

The other thing that struck me while I stood there watching the tractors go past (well in addition to marvelling at the sheer variety of makes and models, I thought John Deere was a virtual monopoly, today I was reeducated about the state of tractor machinery) was that they care. What has happened to the strike culture? In a way, it doesn’t matter to me whose right and whose wrong, the point is that they care about what they do and are willing to tell people that they care. Perhaps you can have to much of a strike culture, but I’ve lived in the U.S.A for 20 years, and I’ve yet to see a reasonable strike. Do we not care about the work we do? Faced with change do we just go, oh well, never mind. I can’t help feeling that a strike is a way of saying, no this is not acceptable and I want you to know that. And, today I saw a lot of young farmers, and some older ones, who all told me quite clearly that these policies are a threat to their livelihoods, and they may have to deal with that, but they are not happy. And most importantly they care enough to fight.

a confession about stationery products

In European Union, France on October 5, 2009 at 12:13 pm

OK, this is probably not going to be a surprise to you, but I have to confess to a huge enthusiasm for stationery. Actually it’s a set of biases for stationery. This has only been rekindled in France which is a country of all new stationery products for me to explore.

So, let me begin by discussing my ongoing commitment to A4. I use the black and red A4 notebook series. My favourite in this series is the hardback narrowline A4 book. Narrowline seems to only exist in the UK (I can’t find it in France, where there’s an abundance of graph paper and squared paper). Narrowline is ruled, but unlike regular ruled, it’s narrower so there are more lines per page. In my world this is perfect.

The hardback book is also perfect because I can carry things on it. Frequently I go to meetings and I like to bring a cup of coffee with me. And along with my notebook, there’s pens, my iphone and so on, soon it becomes easier to carry everything on the notebook (using it like a tray). I also like the fact that in the land of letterhead extra pieces of paper I accumulate and add into the notebook stick out, which means I can easily find them again if I need to refer to them in a different meeting.

But most of all I just find the shape of A4 more asthetically appealing than letterhead. Letterhead is short and dumpy, A4 is longer and sleeker. It’s an easy choice. Although it does mean that I have to incur international shipping costs for my stationery needs. But, it’s a small sacrifice for good stationery.

So, now in France, I have been experimenting with French products. First let me say hooray for French Staplers. Actually, after last week let me say it’s a mixed bag. But, beginning with the thing I like it’s the form factor. It’s just a very satisfying to be able to hold the stapler in this way. And you know it’s just good to have one’s expectations about staplers mixed up everynow and again. I am very used to the traditional desk style of stapler, and don’t get me wrong, I love my red stapler, but it’s fun to use French staplers.

But, I said that I had a mixed experience. Last week I experienced stapler fail. It began when my favourite one was out of staples. French staple sizes appear to be different than US ones just FYI, and joy joy joy (since I have purchased a French stapler to bring back to the US… my imports of stationery are only going to increase now). Anyway they have a smaller size here, one that staples with pointlessly small staples. It’s this size, mine is even called bebe (French for baby) that is utterly useless. It doesn’t staple and it jams simultaneously. Bloody marvelous.

So, notebooks and staplers aside.

Cheap waterman fountain pens. The French are huge into fountain pens. I can’t be sure but I think that they might be required in school. LAMY seems to make a training fountain pen, one for younger users. And other information seems to suggest to me that learning to write with a fountain pen is important enough that it changes the fountain pen industry a bit. Fountain pens, in my experience, in the United States seem to be a “high end” pen business. You can buy them if you want them, but they are not abundant, and companies like Bic don’t retail fountain pens in the US, whereas they do in France. Parker is one brand that does do cheaper fountain pens in the US but it’s not like Target would carry them (they would carry the ballpoints). By contrast Cora does sell, both the Parker and the Bic brands. But even better it carries Waterman.

Waterman only sell very expensive fountain pens in the US. The kind that make you laugh, wonder, consider remortgaging your house… but here in France Waterman make discount pens of which I now own two (this one and that one). I bought them because I wanted to try out Waterman pens without the cost, be able to say that I owned Waterman pens, and because I wanted to embrace and participate in the fountain pen culture. Especially here where you can also buy cartridges cheaply and in a variety of colours, including my favourite, Havana which is brown (like the Cuban cigars) … guessing they don’t call it that in the United States.

Finally let me close by saying that Metz is Stabilo country, something I’ve said before, but I’m really a fan of all things Staedtler related. I’ll be in Trier soon, and I am hoping that Trier being in Germany and all will offer me enough downtime so that I can go load up on Staedtler products. Of course it’s a new country, which means all new stationery options. What things I do not yet know about (like the fact that there are certain pens you can only buy in certain countries, who knew that Steadtler biros came in purple, well they do in Kuwait, just not in the UK, and you can’t even get those biros in the US.) Germany, new stationery opportunities, please send me recommendations.