Dispatch from Toulouse, July 22, 1997

David G. Novick

July 26th will mark the anniversary our of move to France. Despite having long ago settled into our apartment and picked up the freewheeling characteristics of French driving, it feels like we're still moving. This is in part because we're heading back to the U.S. for a while to deal with all the stuff we have stored there and to sell the house; in part because we're going through renewal of our cartes de sejour; and a great deal because we're continually learning new things about how life is supposed to be lived here.

Oddly enough, virtually everyone we've encountered here is genuinely pro-American in their own way, from an African-immigrant store security man who wants to learn English with an American accent, to the proprietor of the Arab butchershop nearby (open Sundays!), to the financial director here who routinely buys his lunch at McDonalds, which has adapted its menus to French tastes (with the "Salade Crudites value meal," for example). American popular culture is hugely influential, although trends are always about three months later here than in the U.S. and different things get emphasized. For what it's worth, the Jim Carey movie "Liar liar" is bombing at the box office here (the local paper's rating is "Ah, non") while the Woody Allen movie "Everybody says 'I love you'" earned more in France than in America.

My guess is that in the same way that Lynne and I miss much of the social overtones of French life, the French don't perceive many aspects of American life that we find cloying or grating. There was a big country music festival in a nearby city over the Bastille-Day weekend, featuring music, American cars, and one of the stars of "Dallas." A French acquaintance asked if we were going and seemed surprised when I explained to her the side of the cultural divide that country music represented to me--rednecks, gunracks, sham morality, etc. Similarly, a highly educated French friend who had lived in the U.S. in the 1980's was surprised to find out that the term "politically correct" was a term of derision now used almost exclusively by the radical right to belittle efforts to fight racism and sexism in everyday life. He thought that "political correctness" was supposed to be the right thing to do and that the term reflected popular acceptance of the idea of non-sexist, non-racist language.

One of the unexpected differences between French and American ways is that in the U.S. if you suggest going out to dinner together it is generally understood that each party pays their own costs, whereas in France it is expected that the inviting party will pick up the whole tab. This applies to invitations in general- coffee, drinks and the whole gamut of entertainment. Ironically, another difference is that many French do not understand guilelessness. There has to be a catch, they think. Presumably this is because there actually is a catch, but we must be slow to catch on. I don't see how these two themes square, though. In a similar vein, a European rider in the Tour de France commented on the radio this morning that the American riders were "too nice:" they hadn't yet picked up the habit of shoving back. Another controversy with more popular social currency has to do with curfews for children under the age of 12. A number of conservative mayors have enacted or proposed rules that would have unaccompanied children below the age of 12 on public streets between midnight and six a.m. be picked up by the police and, although this differs by community, returned to their house or taken to the police station. The argument of the mayors is basically child welfare. At first I found it hard to see how one could argue against policies indended to keep small children out of harm's way in the middle of the night. But the new rules have stirred up a lot public comment in opposition. Some of the arguments are along the lines of human dignity: children are not animals to be rounded up like stray dogs. Other arguments are more pragmatic: if a small child is wandering around during the wee hours this indicates a failure of parental responsibility that police escort is unlikely to cure. I'm pretty sure that this issue is the visible part of more fundamental social divisions of which I'm not yet aware.

For us, more tourists than social historians, the pragmatic problem here is that there is too much to see and do. We recently purchased the Blue Guide to the Midi Pyrenees region, which has an order of magnitude more detail than the Michelin green guide. There's been over 2,000 years (lots over; see below) of human activity here and we obviously don't have that much time in which to see it. Last weekend we went to a concert in the enormous medieval cathedral at St. Bertrand de Comminges; confusingly, St. Bertrand is the name of the town and the cathedral is named for St. Mary. In any event, the concert largely involved a remarkable, vast (32-foot pipes!) 16th-century organ, and featured the premiere of a commissioned work for organ, soprano, and synthesizer involving organ-synthesizer semi-tones that sent vibrations bouncing around the cathedral. Some weeks back we went to the Grotte de Niaux, in the foothills of the Pyrenees near Foix. Small groups of visitors with hand-held electric lanterns follow a guide 1.5 km underground to the "Salon Noir" to view wonderful cave paintings dating from 15-12,000 bce. Carbon dating indicates that some adjacent paintings of, say, bison were created a thousand years apart. Along the path to the paintings are graffiti of earlier visitors, dating back merely to the early 17th century.

So with all the sights and sounds, we tend to tire early. This may be a good thing, as we are unlikely to be caught up by mistake in the nightly round-up of stray children.


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DGN, July 22, 1997
Copyright 1997 David G. Novick