Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘France’

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.

Assumption Day, a day for consumption and adventure

In European Union, France on August 15, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Today is assumption day.

It is also a beautiful Saturday. Imagine the scene. We are sat at the kitchen table, it is a farmhouse style one, seats six. The windows are wide open, and the windows are at least 5ft high. There’s a cool, refreshing breeze drifting in, and in the distance we can hear bell peels, perhaps reminding folk that it is assumption day. We also hear voices of our neighbours engaged in conversations.

In France this day is celebrated on August 15th. Unfortunately it is a Saturday this year, otherwise we would have gotten a holiday. But of course for most people here that’s likely not a problem since all of August is a holiday!

And apparently the thing to do is to head into the country for a picnic, a feast, to celebrate. So how fortunate, we’ve only been here a week, and we’ve already got an excuse to eat even more bread, cheese, ham, fruits, etc… but instead Keith and I went to Nancy, the next big town south of Metz. We would later learn that when Stanislaus the former King of Poland, whose daughter married the King of France so consequently he became the Duke of Lorraine (and Bar I think) Stanislaus decided that he would make Nancy into a city, so it received a Cathedral.

We went on the train. We decided that we needed to master our train skills. Actually we’ve taken quite a few trains in France, but there’s always an adventure. The adventure on the way there was that we couldn’t find a machine that would stamp our tickets. But the conductor didn’t seem to mind, he was busy dealing with a customer who had a military ticket (very very cheap) but no military ID. When we arrived in Nancy, he was greeted by two armed policemen who weren’t smiling.

Nancy is beautiful. This Stanislaus person really put some money into building. It also has a beaux arts thing going on with lots of attractive buildings. But it was hot, and that made it tiring. So we walked around the square through the cathedral and then settled into a cafe for a white wine and Perrier. Then back to Metz. That was where we encountered an official who asked us about our unstamped ticket. He quickly started asking for our passports. He wasn’t happy when we had neither a stamped ticket or a passport, but eventually I think he decided that we should go on, and we were grateful. But, it took the edge off. In Nancy I had managed to crack my first French joke, nothing terribly brilliant, but it did the job, and then I was plunged back again into a world of “not being from here” and “getting it wrong.” There will be more of those, many more I am sure, but it is a bit dis-spriting in all honesty.

Ah well, back home, where dinner awaits. And then the Camembert taste off, which one will win, what will the criteria even be. All those questions and more, and alas dear reader, this is where I depart.

Settling in

In European Union, France on August 12, 2009 at 5:50 am

Last night I slept the classic sleep of someone who is adjusting to a European timezone after living in the U.S. which is to sleep very hard for the first few hours, exhaustion after the really long travel day, and then to wake up and be unable to sleep for a while because you’re trying to sleep at 6pm US time. Then finally to sleep again, only to need to wake up because well it is gone 9am and if you don’t you won’t break that habit.

This has now finally abated but the fact that our house has shutters means that the room is very dark, so this morning I accidentially slept until 11am. I love the shutters. Not only do they keep the light out, they also really fend off the heat of the hot day, keeping our place cool even while it is warm outside. I wonder why we do not have shutters in Atlanta. The shutters are fairly modern, they are automatic, little switches (Arret and Marche and up and down arrows) control them. Seems to me that shutters would help me in Atlanta keeping my AC bills down, and if I could get them I probably would. But, …

The apartment is in an old house, well not that old by French standards, but old enough. We have the entire ground floor, which may not sound like much, but three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and several sitting rooms seems pretty good to me. I think that’s probably larger than some of the other faculty apartments in Metz. It’s also quiet which is nice. This could partially be because we suspect our neighbours and most of Metz has gone on holiday. It’s August, it’s France, and not surprisingly only the Americans (and those affiliated with them) are working. As we walked home yesterday evening from the city several notices on shop doors let us know that people were on holiday and their shop would reopen the last week of August. And some of the brasseries were shut. And I realised two things. First, that I’ve never spent any time in a French town that doesn’t have a substantial tourist industry (like, for example, Paris, Bayeux, Avignon), which might keep things open more systematically during a month like August. Second, because the French still have many family owned businesses (which in its own way is a treat) how do they take holiday if they don’t just shut, so the nice thing is that everyone shuts at the same time. There are still supermarkets to rely on, but everyone knows that this is the time when local businesses shut. So I think it’s quite nice even though I’m rather disappointed that the speciality butcher is shut, but perhaps that’s good for my waistline.

So, for those of you who know me, I’d like to think that you know that I’m pretty punctual. When it says 10 o’clock, I tend to show up roughly at 10 o’clock. I know where this comes from, and yet again, I do not. It comes from my parents, but fortunately I don’t have their version of punctuality. It began with their arrival, which they thought would be 11am. Of course not, it was closer to 10am. And this morning they told me that they would leave at 9am, of course they were out of the house by 8:06am. And I have the sneaking suspicion that if they didn’t need the gate opening key they might have not even woken me up to say goodbye. But they’ve told me that they’ll be back (I wish I’d written down the date), but like the French they are away on their two-three week holiday, so I’ll expect them back when the speciality butcher opens, and roughly an hour before they told us that they’d arrive.

Laissez les bon temps roules

In European Union, France on July 20, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Not quite sure whether that’s how it’s spelt, and I suppose there’s some plural singular issues going on, but y’all get the drift.

My blog is taking a new turn.  Metz has just started to “get real.”

Metz is the short-hand for I’m going to be leaving the United States for over 3 months to teach classes at Georgia Tech’s Lorraine campus, located on the outskirts of Metz (although Metz is small enough that you could probably describe it as a campus located in a field outside of town).  Metz is in eastern France, in the Lorraine area, close to Alsace and the borders of Germany and Luxembourg. It is also close to two TGV lines.

And I am now preparing to leave. This means that I’m having some cultural encounters.

The first is with myself.  I’ve spent most of my adult life dealing with visas in order to be able to work in a country.  So, now I’m told that as a European Union national I can just go to France and work. I find it hard to believe that that’s even true. This is compounded by the fact that I have little experience with the European Union.  I left for the United States and for the life I would ultimately build there, before the EU really shifted into high gear.  I struggle with the idea that the England I left is now a part of an EU in which I can just show up and start working, France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Belgium, …

Part of this struggle is also experienced watching my husband go through the immigration process. Immigration tells you a lot about a place. Immigration systems are an expression of values I always think.  My own experience is with the immigration system of the United States. I believe that the United States has more categories of visa than most other countries (possibly combined).  I have had a reasonably good selection, a B, an F, a J, an H, done most of the paperwork for an O, and then had some temporary ones to get me through the time when the H expired and before the greencard showed up. The U.S. values diversity, I was never eligible for the greencard lottery because too many British people emigrate here in other categories (and this is one of the reasons I think I had some of the visas that I did). The idea that they do country based balancing is interesting though. I think it’s also fair to say that the U.S. values paperwork, I keep my visa paperwork and I have several feet of it (you think I’m kidding, I’m not…) I am convinced that the U.S. is a very bureaucratic nation. I think that’s potentially at odds with the appearance it gives…

So what do I learn about France. They care about their language and their culture. The test of language. The desire to extract a commitment to learn the language. They care about their culture. The 10 hours of cultural films are a hint here. I hope they’ll let me go, even though I don’t need to see them (I don’t need the certificate that says I sat through them, but I want one–consider it taking one for the spirit of improved Anglo-French relations).

But it’s not all about immigration even though it is about a temporary emigration. I also notice that the pacing and rhythms are different. There’s a part of me that thinks wow–35 hour work week, about 8 weeks of vacation minimum, what a civilized society. And there’s a truth in that. But, I’m also used to a place where the shops are open 24/7, where the sales are not an annual event but a weekly affair, where Sunday is not different from Friday or Saturday. And I am sure that I am used to that. And I am sure that I am going to spend some period of time adjusting to the new planning. I can’t go out and get something just because I need it. I have to plan. And 35 hour work weeks are going to mean that people are not around as much as I expect them to be (not because I demand it, but because I’m just not used to a 35 hour work week).

People ask me if I’m prepared. Truthfully you can’t prepare. That’s the upside and downside of emigration. You can’t prepare because you simply don’t know enough. It’s a leap of faith. That leads to incredible highs and lows. The smallest successes lead to feels of incredible accomplishment. The frustrations are beyond the worst at home because they don’t make sense.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about immigration it is that you have to ask for help. You have to be unafraid of asking people for all sorts of support that perhaps at home would put you into reciprocal relationships with high return obligations. But there’s no other way. So I’d like to close by thanking Val, Rob, and Ian who have already helped me more than I can ever return.