Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘metz’

Ubicomp and the Maginot Line

In computer science, discipline, European Union on September 19, 2011 at 10:32 am

When I moved to Metz to teach at GT-L for the Fall 2009 semester, I lived very close to the Maginot Line and consequently had an opportunity to learn more about it. The Maginot Line was a series of defensive fortifications built by the French after the first world war to protect themselves in the event of invasion by the Germans. What I had known about the Maginot Line was that it was not successful. The invasion of France occurred through the Ardenne forest, a place that had not been protected by the Maginot Line.

But, while in Metz I learnt far more about the Maginot Line. The Maginot Line had been a site of significant innovation as well as engineering. It had air conditioning for example. It had a communications infrastructure that was secure, connecting each of the fortifications to each other and to the national telecommunications network. It had underground railroads, used pressure differentials to avoid having gases enter the tunnels from outside, contained hospitals, and had its own power system even though each fort was connected to the national grid. Visiting the Maginot Line was something I’ll never forget.

There is going to be a panel at this year’s Ubicomp conference about the Vision of Ubiquitous Computing (Ubicomp) from the perspective of 20 years later. The panelists will reflect on the original vision that proposed a world of Ubiquitous Computing, what resulted, and whether (and if so what) role Ubicomp has going forward. I wish I could attend. This panel is another point in what has become a series of reflections by various people including Yvonne Rogers, Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell about the original vision and the world today.

I can’t help thinking that Ubicomp’s vision, like the vision that created the Maginot Line, inspired a lot of innovation and in that sense it was incredibly successful. But I agree with the advocates for moving on and away from that original vision. The Maginot Line despite its successes is widely understood as a product of an imagination (made manifest in the vision) that was shaped in the First World War and unprepared for what would happen in the Second one. That innovations in warfare would ultimately leave defensive structures designed for a war fought by soliders in trenches less ready and able to fight a war that would involve planes and tanks. So while the Maginot Line became a site for innovation, it was simultaneously one that was blind to the innovations all around it that would render it obsolete. And that I think is a lesson for Ubiquitous Computing.

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.

Commuting and Every Day life at the half way point

In European Union, France on September 30, 2009 at 9:22 am

Apparently we’re almost at the half way point. Wow, hard to believe it’s half way over.

So, I’m trying to reflect on things. Not unsurprisingly, I’ve lost some of the newness that made me aware of the mundane.

The flyers continue to show up at the house, and it no longer seems odd to me that they advertise uncooked meat. The continued desire to furnish your home with products that have the Union Jack on them does seem bizarre to me. Actually it caused me to notice that France like Italy flies a considerable number of flags. (Also like the United States). What’s nice to see in France and Italy is the national and the European Union flags together. It goes a long way to making me feel like I’m at home to see the EU flag. When we visited Veuve Cliqout, they flew their flag, and the flag of France and the EU. I feel very grateful to France that they’ve invited me to join in their Champagne heritage. The flags you fly say a lot about what you identify with, so perhaps it’s now more noticable to me how little a) Britain seems to fly the flag by comparison, and b) how you never see the EU flag when a flag is flown. While I actually like the relatively limited flag flying, I wish that the UK would embrace the EU. But I’ve spent my entire life wishing that, and I suspect that I will continue to spend the rest of my life wishing that.

Back to mail. We share our house with three other families. But our apartment is not numbered. Surnames and mail boxes outside with surnames on them, do the sort. Apartment numbers are irrelevant.

Surnames are capitalised here. I am not Beki Grinter, but Beki GRINTER. Mail is addressed to the sender on the front and the from address is on the back of the envelope rather than at the top left corner. I still do it the U.S. way, and no one’s told me off. By contrast I always wrote my seven’s the continental way, complete with the line through them, and so here I’m finally in the right script society. (The stroke through the seven is to distinguish it from the one, which if you see the continental way of writing it makes more sense).

I am also Madame here. The use of a prefix is far more prevelant here. It’s impossible to purchase tickets with my name, I need a form of address too. And it’s used. In those greeting cycles, it’s always with an address as well as my name, when the latter is known. Hello or Hi is not enough, it’s accompanied by my form of address.

I’ve always been used to au revoir for goodbye. I have heard far more use of bon voyage since being here. Particularly when I am potentially leaving and the other person is not. Cora is a good example, it’s always bon voyage. Which used to stump me, it’s silly to say bon voyage to someone who is sat behind a check out counter, but now I feel comfortable saying au revoir and merci.

I’m used to the routine of seeing signage and for K&I to start deciphering what it means. At first, it was a combination of survival and novelty. Now it’s almost a form of French practice. What are they trying to tell you? Yesterday, again at Cora, we learnt that “Now at prices you’ve never seen before”.

Now that I live in Europe I have an actual car commute, and for the first time I can really complain about traffic. (ha ha ha, sorry, just think it’s funny I had to come to Europe to experience wretched commutes, at least some of the time). Metz is under construction, so commuting can be exceedingly tedious. Some days I commute in while K works from home, and when I drive alone I enjoy turning on the radio and singing along. Well I think I’m just turning on the radio, but it turns out that in fact also usually sing. It just happens. Here though it’s caused some amusement. Just today for example, I was listening to Virgin radio which plays a good mix of French and English language music. Lilly Allen’s Fuck You (yes, really) is huge here — and it’s frankly very weird to hear it being played in some places, like in the local sommalier’s shop while selecting wine . Anyway, this was an 80s tune, I can’t remember who and I was singing along (I am no great singer, but it turns out that singing along to an English language song, in English, with the windows open, really gets the attention of the person in the car next to you at the intersection. I got a compliment. I don’t sing along to the French songs.

I also don’t sing when I am being followed by a van full of Gendarmarie. I’ve noticed that the French police seem to hunt in bigger packs. I’ve seen van fulls of gendarmarie several times now. Then there’s the local Metz police (I actually don’t understand the categories of French police, but there are categories, like in the U.S. where every entity appears to have its own force, I still don’t understand that). So the local plod tends to hunt in packs of three. They drive peugeots and renaults with two in the front and one on the back seat. In the US this would not be possible because the backseat is where the felons travel. It makes you wonder where the French put their felons. In the boot (trunk)?

I also don’t sing on roundabouts. Roundabouts have a very unique place in my driving history. I learnt to drive in the UK. I probably drove about 200 miles in total in the UK. Then I moved to the United States. I’ve driven across the country once (3500 miles), around the West multiple times (10000) and so forth. The net result is that I have order of magnitudes of practice of driving on the right. Except for roundabouts. The US doesn’t have them (well there are a few, but you have to work to find them). So, now in France, the one thing that really has taken some practice is the French roundabout. I’m used to getting on from the left and proceeding in a clockwise direction, and instead I enter from the right and go counterclockwise. And then there’s the use of the two lanes, inner and outer, along side with understanding the entry and exit protocols. Some of the lane usage and the protocols are once learnt never forgotten, but flipping them around to cope with the different directionality is novel. And critically it comes for me at a time when I don’t think of driving on the right, or switching from a EU to a US system as being novel. So it’s like this blip, I notice that the degree of attention I have to pay at roundabouts is much higher than anywhere else.

Well this is already quite long so I’ll save how I confused the archeological dig outside the Maison d’arrete (the stopping house, aka prison) for large moles or possibly graves. And perhaps eventually I will do the appropriate length post on cheese. De Gaulle is famous for saying “how is it possible to run a nation that has 264 different types of cheese” to make the point about the challenge of being a nation when the local/regional is so well established in the cultural psyche, and he was right about everything but one thing, there are far more types of cheese than that. Over 300 I believe, perhaps as many as 350. France a nation of cheese.

Updates from France

In European Union, France on September 13, 2009 at 8:12 am

The amount of postings to the blog has definitely gone down in the last few weeks, I think there are several reasons for it.

France is beginning to take on an air of familiarity. I don’t think my French has improved any, but I’m finding the rhythms of what to expect here easier. I have gotten better about making sure, for example, that I do a complete set of greetings with the lady at the supermarket checkout. A greeting, an exchange of information (in which she discovers that I don’t have a chip and pin based credit card, sigh… it appears that the rest of the world has gone that way, but as AMEX “the traveller’s card” told me, we’re American express, so we don’t do that, wow, thank you Amex how globally oriented of you, how thoughtful in your treatment of foreign relations… )… but back to that supermarket transaction: a greeting, an exchange of cards and information and then the goodbyes.

Work is also beginning to build up. It’s important to note that while Metz is a wonderful change of pace, it’s not quite the same as a complete escape. You make up for some of the escape by going far away, it’s more of an escape because you’re six time zones away, a continent away, etc… but it’s not like sabbatical, and so teaching remains in place (and all the preparation that that requires) and connections to Atlanta remain in place. And then of course, there’s a sense that if one is going to come back after only being away for a semester then it’s going to be hard to retain the production that’s required for moving the old Associate to Full case. So you stay connected anyway. And of course there are your students, the one thing I would have elected to stay close to being away. My students are all very independent, which is good for them as well as me, …

I think that explains why there have been less updates.

So recently what has happened.

1) I’ve been enjoying the fact that when people discuss socialism here they actually mean a discussion of socialism. Socialism is used in the U.S. as a catch all term. It’s most frequently evoked by people who use it to potentially mean a whole variety of political possibilities, only some of which Socialists would likely identify with. In France there is more care in the discussion of socialism and not all things that are not socialist are right wing. I like the nuance. More generally, I like politics that’s argued by people who talk in detail about a particular policy, and how it meets or fails to meet the goals of a party. I’m so tired of discussions that involve ludicrous analogies and examples (like Stephen Hawking who would have died in the UK, and the death panels of the NHS). I increasingly think that political discussions are a reflection of a country’s values, I don’t mean the sides, I mean the rhetoric of the debates themselves, and well it says a lot doesn’t it.

2) Reims, say “Rance” with a hard a, is home to many champaign houses. It is also home to St Remi, who crowned some of the early Kings, including Clovis, in Reims cathedral. Reims is an ancient city that was sadly largely flattened during the Second World War. So it has an amazing old cathedral, a old Basilica, and then not so much else. It reminds me of Ely a bit, seems to be about the same size, with the Cathedral dominating the view. (It’s bigger actually, there’s few places quite as strange as Ely in terms of the size of the cathedral and the size of the city).

3) We visited Auchan. Auchan is a different hypermarket store, although I think it and Cora are owned by the Auchan company. Auchan was doing a special, 500 good wines. So Keith and I went to broaden our horizons. We’ve developed an interest in Lussac St Emilion, which is an appellation in the Bordeaux region. We’re now working on the appellations a cote (next to) it to see whether we like their wines too. To help us we have purchased a Hachette, which is the French guide to French wine (they have a section on foreign wine, but that appears to only include wines from countries, and parts of countries very close to France).

4) We went to St Avold, home of the largest WWII American cemetery in France. On the way there we saw a small fort in the Maignot Line. I can’t help thinking that the Maignot line was an example of just how much war changed between WWI and WWII. It might have protected against a war that was like the first, but built after it, it had little imagination for the tanks, weaponry, and so forth that would be a product of WWII. And St Avold is the result of a different set of causalities, those of the American allies as they slowly retook France and ultimately Germany. While those who died during the D-Day battles are buried in Normandy (a cemetery which sees 1.5 million visitors per year), St. Avold where those who fought for the Rhine (another very significant battle) are buried. It is larger than the cemetery in Normandy, but only 70,000 people come per year.

5) More generally, it’s impossible to escape from the two wars, not to mention the war of 1870, around here. Metz changed hands multiple times. For example, Robert Schuman, who grew up around here, was born French, became German (not by moving, but by this area changing hands), and then later became French again. No wonder he was such an advocate for the European Coal and Steel Community. I’m glad to be here, glad for Robert Schuman, and for his vision. Without him, who knows what would have happened, and all I know is that I like being European. I am glad for its citizenship.

Georgia Tech Lorraine

In European Union, France on August 24, 2009 at 11:06 am

It’s the start of week 2, and we’ve been here exactly a fortnight (week 1 and the previous week getting settled in). For much of this blog that’s been focused on cultural adventures away from the office. This one is focused on the office itself.

Georgia Tech Lorraine is located on the edge of the city of Metz. It’s in something called the Technopole, which appears to be a concentration of Universities and high tech businesses. What I also suspect is that it’s an investment by the French government. I know that some of the support for GT-L comes from the French government, but I don’t understand the full history, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this investment is in the entire area. In fact, I think there was a celebration including information about this particular investment at the local Hypermarket, that would be Cora. Interesting that the hypermarket is also celebrating the government’s investment in the development of the Technopole. I struggle to imagine WalMart having a similar display about the State of Georgia’s investment in a particular development near to the store, for example.

Students at Georgia Tech Lorraine frequently have affiliations with other Universities around here, most notably the Engineering Schools of Superlec and ENSAM. On top of this, these two schools start at a different time (not surprising really since GT-L starts in the middle of the French holiday of August, perhaps that’s one way you can tell that its really an American organization?). So, scheduling classes involves finding times that work with the other schools around here so that the students can actually go to all of their classes. Not surprisingly, there are two times that seem to work really well.  Lunch time and evening. And I take from this two things. First, that the schools and the people in them observe the 2 hour lunch time, so GT-L can take advantage of that and schedule the students for that time. Note that neither GT-L or GT-A observe lunch. I’ve taught over lunch in the past, this is no different, but I wonder whether it is for the students who are from the Metz locations.

Evening is also an interesting one. Dinner begins at 7pm here, and GT-L also seems to have slots between 5:30 and 7. I see people working in retail at that time, so clearly it’s possible to consider this as the end of the work day, rather than beyond the end of the working day. But the Schools don’t have classes, or more accurately, they don’t seem to have enough that our ability to schedule is affected, since we’ve gone ahead and added classes then. So I am curious about the “normal” parameters of the French University student’s day. Are they shorter than the average working day of the French person, are they moved in some way (perhaps students begin earlier in the morning than the shops of Metz).

Time is cultural, and I am trying to deduce some things about the structure of the day here.

Another thing that is cultural is not planning for air conditioning. In the North of France I guess you could argue that it doesn’t really get hot for a super long period of time, so why bother. Although of course, given that France produces much of its electricity from nuclear power (and for some reason I’m under the impression that it’s quite cheap here). So, airconditioning which is quite expensive, would be potentially cheaper here. I don’t think it’s terribly common in the South of France where I think it’s use would be far more popular given that it gets a lot hotter there and stays hotter for longer continuous periods. I’m very curious about airconditioning. I know that it would be expensive to retrofit houses for central AC, but there’s a noticable absence of the room based ones too, which do not have the same impact on the infrastructure.

A final question I have is where are the women? I’m teaching two classes in which I am the only woman. I’m sad about that. I don’t know why it’s the case here, and I’m not going to speculate. It’s a loaded question and it’s not my intention to provide answers to these sorts of questions speculatively and incorrectly. But it is a fact, and I’ll just say I miss the ladies.

This week in the Moselle

In European Union, France on August 23, 2009 at 11:51 am

This week in the Moselle I am pleased to report that I taught. After all that’s what I am here to do.

So, what’s new this week, well teaching that’s what. But a few other important things too.

My computer knows I’m in France, in several ways. For example, when I update things on Facebook I always get French adverts. And apparently Weight Watchers is paying Facebook heavily for adverts. At least that’s what I hope it is, if they’re scraping my status lines I’ll be ticked 🙂

What was also new this week was the French summer. Three days all over 30C, and the last one at 35C (that’s between the high 80s and mid 90s for you F degree people). Yeah, Atlanta’s like that all the time. Atlanta also has air conditioning. Metz does not. Not our home. Not the building we work in. Not nowhere (yes I know, its for added drama). Actually the frozen foods section of Cora was pleasant to spend an hour in.

So, other things I wanted to tell you. Toilets. I have a book about toilets of the world. Toilets are, not surprisingly, cultural. In France they have two sorts. The sort you’d recognise if you came from the United States, and then the ones on the motorway… (OK, I should have said this is ladies toilets of course, men’s are a mystery to me, thankfully). The ones on the motorway have a hole and two foot places… it’s pretty obvious… what I like about these is that there’s no mystery seat … but what I don’t like is the flush… at least my experience is that it can be quite vigorous, to the point… well shoes…  anyway the other type are mostly as you would expect… so all I’m going to say about those ones is that the ones they have in Cora come complete with ashtrays. I think it was just a couple of years ago, at most, that smoking was banned in public places in France (like bars), and I’ve not seen anyone smoking in the ladies at Cora, but I like the fact that if you were, and if you needed to put it down, ashtray is provided.

OK, what is different about French “like US toilets” toilets is that they are actually completely contained in a room. I do not know what, or why, American’s prefer to put minimal doors and walls around their toilets, preferably leaving large gaps in all sorts of places that I want to know nothing about.

OK, moving on from toilets.

We have a drier that I like too. Our dryer in the U.S. has a hose attachment, and somehow the air that comes out of the drier (along with some of the fluff) is mysteriously blown through the infrastructure of our house… the hose connects into an outlet that is directed to a wall outside. What I don’t like about this hose system is that first, the hose pipe does not always stay on. And it’s really difficult to put back on. I also assume at some point we’ll have to pay someone to come out and clean this particular piece of the house infrastructure as lint slowly makes its way into it.

By contrast our French dryer is completely self-contained. It dries the clothes and interestingly collects the water that it gets out of the clothes into a separate container… at the end of the drying cycle you pour the water out. I dont know whether it pushes any hot air out into the apartment, it certainly gets a little warmer, but it’s not terribly significant (a good thing since we don’t have air conditioning). This appliance impresses me, clearly French engineering has got it right on the dryer side.

But, then there’s the washer. Washers in the U.S. have been reduced to the simplest working interface (which I feel certain must be an HCI guideline of some sort, but K’s teaching that class). You can specify water temperature, hot, warm and cold. You can specify speed, fast, normal and slow (this is my front loading washing machine I am talking about because thankfully and finally the U.S. is on the front loader program, yay). Here in France the situation is different. Fortunately my Mum came and helped me debug the interface. So we have temperatures specified in C units (and we have four modes of those, and two lots of those four modes… dunno really why you need two ways to tell the machine you want it at 40C, but that’s for another day). Then there’s the speed of rotation of the final speed, and there are six choices there in rpms, actually I have no idea what unit they are in, but we can go as high as 1000 and as low as 500. Handy tip, my Mum recommends 900, so that’s what I’m going with (apparently her machine moves around at 1000 so I figured that I didn’t want some mad washing machine chasing me around the apartment).

Then there are some other buttons. Who knows what they do. I’m avoiding pressing those.

And speaking of buttons, let me conclude with the phone. I was the source of much amusement this week to my faculty colleagues. Why because someone asked me to press the mute button on my phone during a conference call. Yeah, that’s easy… easy when youve got a phone with a mute button. I have a phone which has many buttons (in addition to the numbers of course), but none are marked mute. Secret. Bis, and several M# buttons, but no mute button. Oh well. Time to use the computer to dial in.


In European Union, France on August 18, 2009 at 4:33 pm

So, today the mailman delivered our flyers. Flyers have made it to France. I don’t know why but I always thought that some how the French would avoid them, and yet today flyers for all sorts of stores showed up in the mail box.

In Atlanta I throw them all away immediately. But, here in France, I figure that this might be the way to learn about more of the stores whose names mean othing to me… Atac, Match, Simply Market (OK, good guess), FNAC, Cora, Tati, Auchan, Carrefour (yes, big presence), Gemo, Tati, Fly, etc… So today I decide to read them. And I suppose as mundane as they are, we see a glimpse of the culture. What do our flyers say about us?

France is “back to school” not perhaps in quite the same way that the U.S does back to school, one doesn’t feel the full force of discounts, or read the command back to school. But, the markers are cheaper, and there are lots of notebooks to choose from. As I mentioned and photographed, some of these have mixed messages, I’m still unable to decide what to do about the Blow Jack Tatoo stationery products for example. Perhaps it’s just best to walk away, which I largely did, except I purchased a school diary with a nice rabbit on it, that informs me that today is St. Helene’s day. No problem with a planner designed for those taking classes to include the Saint’s Days.

So, back to the flyers. There were surprises in store.

<Vegetarians, this is the worst of meat, jump>

I have to say I was grateful that découpe gratuite was offered for the lamb on sale. Découpe is head removal, and its free if you buy half a lamb (or more presumably). More generally, as K pointed out, the French are far more into pictures of raw meat. Not wrapped, just raw meat. In U.S. flyers you see a variety of meats advertised, but most are cooked or wrapped in some way that the full rawness of them is somehow not quite as visually apparent. And it’s also true in the stores. I don’t think either K or I will forget quickly the canard (duck) we saw that was completely plucked, and de-beaked, but bizarrely the head, complete with eyes, was still attached. This was in the store front window… not hidden, but a lure into the shop, it was centre place in the window. Now I know the phrase, I am almost tempted to go back to the store and ask them whether they could découpe the heads, frankly I’ll pay.

<Vegetarians, resume>

So, many of the French grocery magazines made reference to Ramadan. This was either explicit, with adverts for foods that would help those observing have energy and/or stay healthy during the fasting times, or more implicit, but frequently picking up Middle Eastern foods and decorative motifs in their typographic illustration and photographic presentation. All also had profiles of Halal foods. This is not surprising given the Muslim population in France, but what I’m trying to say is that seeing the foods advertised in the flyers made me more aware of the fact that Ramadan was coming, but it’s not how I expected to be reminded of Ramadan.

Another theme this year for back to school seems to be British. Well it’s some version of British, although it’s not the one I grew up with. A doormat that has the union jack, but replacing the red with light blue and the blue with grey. Well that was confusing. I ask my American reader(s), how would the US cope with a Star Spangled Banner as a doormat, and then to add to the fun, change all the colours …  A couple of other things I learnt about my home country through France back to school, Tati is selling a t-shirt under their British branding that says on it “strong brands” I’m not sure whether to be alarmed or in agreement. I’m not sure which brands are strong, Triumph, a British car, has more enthusiasts than British Leyland (yes, my parents were Maxi owners and my great Uncle had a Marina) but even the best of the cars were still pretty bad. BP is a pretty strong brand, but that seems easier in the petroleum markets… So anyway, still working through that one.

By contrast, Fly sells pillows with “My tailor is rich” in their British back to school collection. My tailor is non-existent, but I think you, dear reader, already knew that (I suppose I could start a rumour that my tailor is seriously ill after the years of abuse I’ve given him, perhaps I will in France, since apparently the odds that I might have a tailor are perceived to be higher?).

I know, I promise, that adverts do not constitute a full description of what the French think of the British, but I find them an interesting pulse. What I mean is that this likely wouldn’t sell if it didn’t some how connect, and it’s that connection I’m trying to understand.

And now onto rules and regulations.

I’m not a too frequent visitor in Home Depot, which is what we in Britain call a Do-It-Yourself shop, like B&Q, but at least the times I have been there I am not aware that we let the average citizen alone with staircases. K has a theory that staircases are regulated, that perhaps someone would care that people didn’t self-assemble stairs that killed them, although the worst offenders are the few that don’t have hand rails (page 8). But, stop and pause, and think about what it might mean to put a new staircase in your home. Ripping out the old, but then there’s the question about the large hole, and it’s support… oh, the mind boggles. And some percentage of French housing is actually really old.

Finally, there’s the store called Vet Affaires. That was the store that made me pause and remember, no this is France. Vet Affairs conjures up other images in the United States.