Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Monday, February 28, 2011

Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue Between Cultures

The Anna Lindh Euro-Med Foundation is a relatively new organization (founded in 2005) that seeks to promote dialogue and cultural understanding between European and Mediterranean countries.  They have recently published this study, Euromed Intercultural Trends 2010.  A downloadable version of the report is available in both French and English.  The main site itself is available in Arabic, English and French.

The report takes a hard look at some tough subjects:  mutual perceptions, the role of religion, mobility, raising children, identity, the media, technology, and national culture.  The poll data are interesting but what I appreciated most are the articles written by people who are trying to work through some of these issues in their own lives.   Many of the authors are academics but the topics they talk about are not theoretical.  Depending on your background, you may find some of the interpretations and ideas a bit disturbing.  I personally think that is a good thing.  A multi-cultural dialogue is nothing if it does not provoke you into examining other ideas and perceptions even when it is psychologically difficult.

Professor Bachira Khader, in the introduction to his article, "A Nomadic Approach to Cultural Dialogue" writes:
Let us start with some facts: the Mediterranean is neither barrier nor borders, being at the same time the link and the centre.  Arabs call it the 'White Sea of the Centre' in that it unites more than it separates.  A sea rich in fertile memories, source of multiple identities, cradle of monotheist religions, and grave of pretentious empires who have dared claim making it their 'eternal sea'.
Such is the vocation of the Mediterranean, as is its peculiarity, constantly pulled apart between its existence, sense and power.  Being a cast of models aspiring towards universality, conjugating the synthesis of faith and reason, it has been – since Antiquity – the cradle of and yet innovating thought, blending philosophical wisdom, metaphysical interrogation and the art of living. This is the very vocation of the Mediterranean that is threatened by 'identity delirium' of some and 'killing sprees' of others. Ideological opposition follows intellectual confrontation:  in the past, monotheist religions and religious cores, colons and colonized populations and, today, the confrontation between 'identity' and 'otherness'. These numerous traumatizing polarities explain why cultural dialogue in the Mediterranean is so seriously affected and even broken.  Such a bitter conclusion is indeed painful for a man like me, bridging over the two shores.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Educating the Frenchlings - National or International?

Education is a subject that every bi-cultural family must manage carefully.  The choices are, I think, slightly less emotionally charged if the family is living in a Third Place, a country where neither parent is a citizen and neither has the home court advantage.  When the family lives in a place where one parent is a citizen and the other is a naturalized citizen or an immigrant, this topic can be a source of great conflict not only within the nuclear family but with the extended family on both sides who may have very strong opinions about it.

However, there is no escaping it, education being compulsory in many places, and, even where it isn't, there is still a decision to make when the children reach a certain age.  And the reason that we all care so much is because those decisions have enormous consequences for the future.  For the bi-cultural family the main options are the national school system or an international school.


National Public or Private School
The default, of course, is to send the child to whatever public or private school systems exists in the country where the family is residing.  There are distinct advantages to this and it looks like the obvious choice.  You are doing what everyone around you considers "normal".  The local system has established procedures for seamlessly welcoming your child into the system and in most modern countries public education is free.

If the family is not living in a Third Place,  this is a chance for the non-citizen or immigrant parent to deeply participate in the life of the citizen spouse's country.  The non-citizen parent will ideally meet teachers, administrators, other parents and their children, on common ground.  By accompanying the children through their schooling that parent learns (from the ground up)  one of the fundamental life experiences that makes, for example, a Frenchman, French.  This can help the non-citizen spouse gain important insights into the mentality and behaviour of the citizen spouse and his or her family.

Those are the advantages.  What are the disadvantages?  Usually (not always) the national school system is mono-lingual.  Second languages are introduced much later.  This means that the children are not learning to read and write in one of the home languages.  So the non-citizen parent is at a disadvantage and must make a special effort to reinforce his language at home.  This is not as easy as it sounds.  For one thing, the children may not be motivated to speak, read, or write a language that they don't hear at school and can't use with their friends.

The schools are another issue.  The teachers may agree in principle that is it a Good Thing to speak multiple languages but their priority is to encourage mastery of the national language.  Bi-lingualism may be discouraged in subtle ways.

Another priority of the national school system is to form citizens - to make Americans, Americans, for example.  This can be done in a positive way or it can descend into teaching children about the national culture by explaining, in fairly gross terms and by making ugly comparisons, what they are not.  For a bi-cultural child and the non-citizen parent this can be painful.  We had an experience in one school where the Frenchling's teacher explained to the class (she did not know that she was teaching at least one Franco-American) that Americans were fat and stupid from watching all that television and eating at McDonald's.  This is not, I think, a unique experience and similar stories could be told by immigrant parents in almost any country.


International Schools
If the bi-cultural family lives in an urban area, there are usually international schools.  The advantages are multiple:  multi-lingual/multi-cultural education and no home court advantage for the citizen parent.  Almost all of the children's  friends are "just like them" with one or both parents being from another culture.  They live the advantage of speaking multiple languages because their friends do. Many of the children have lived in multiple countries and they and their parents consider themselves global or international citizens and not just French or American or Japanese.  Some of the schools teach to one system in particular (American with an eye toward future SATs, for example, or French with the goal being the French baccalaureate).  Others have a broader scope and teach to multiple systems (International baccalaureate, National baccalaureate, SAT, O Levels...)

All of the above sounds wonderful but I genuinely think there are disadvantages.  The first is certainly financial.  If you wish to opt out of the national school system, then you must pay your own way.  For those of us who are not expatriates and do not have funding from a company, this can be expensive.  If you are not living in a Third Place, the non-citizen parent does not have the same opportunity to learn about the spouse's culture through the national school system.  The citizen parent and the extended family may have a very strong attachment to the national culture and may resent or be very ambivalent about an attempt to opt out for something more neutral.

Also, in an international school, the children will be surrounded by people who are predominantly global and have a similar socio-economic status, but is that always a good thing?  Thomas Friedman in his book "The World is Flat," talks about the difference between the "Flat" (Global) and the "Unflat" (Local) worlds and he fears that the first is a kind of limousine that glides through Unflat neighborhoods without ever stepping out and breathing the local air.

To me the international schools have always felt a little like Friedman's limousine.

That said, my experience with international schools is very limited, and some readers of this blog may have a different view.   I invite you to share your experiences here.

The Franco-American Flophouse Experience
Our choice was the national French public school system.  The Frenchlings went straight to maternelle (nursery school) and into elementary school,  first in a suburb of Paris and then in Paris itself.  Their first experience with an international school was at the French-Japanese high school in Tokyo which was very much oriented toward the French Baccalaureate but offered English and Japanese classes and had a very diverse student population with many expatriate families from France and North Africa.  When we moved back to France, they went to the local college (middle school or junior high school) here in Versailles.   The elder Frenchling opted for a French high school and will graduate with her French baccalaureate at the end of the year.  The younger chose an international high school run by the French public school system which has instruction in English, French and German.  She is opting for an International baccalaureate.

Overall, I have been very happy with French public school system which has high academic standards, is blessed with (in my experience) dedicated teachers and is well-funded.  As the non-citizen parent I have learned a lot about French national culture, history and language through the school system and by following my Frenchlings' progress.  Some of the teaching methods (which are very different from my home country) have had me swallowing hard and struggling to keep my temper but the Frenchlings seem to have survived.

The hardest part has been keeping my culture and language alive in my house and in my children's lives. There was a period when they were younger when they did not wish to speak, read or write English.   They were sometimes embarrassed when I went to the school, met other parents or talked to the teachers because I had an accent, because I made the occasional grammatical error, because I asked a lot of questions about things that were "evident" and because I was not French (I am sure other immigrant parents can relate to this).  It took a great deal of persistence to get past that and many other challenges but today I think I can safely say that they are bi-lingual, fully grounded in two cultures and proud to be both French and American.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Drinking Around the World



Every culture, every country has its own particularities and traditions around alcohol.  Most of us associate France with wine, the UK with ale, Japan with sake and the US with....

Well, I wasn't sure about the last but I found an excellent World Health Organization report here that had the answer.





  • According to this report American drinkers prefer beer (53%) over wine (16%) and spirits (31%). 
  • The French, true to the stereotype, largely prefer wine (62%) over beer (17%) and spirits (20%).  
  • The UK is somewhere in between with beer leading (43%) but wine quite close behind (30%).  
  • In Japan spirits lead the pack (42%) with beer a distant second (22%).   

In all four countries the WHO predicts that consumption will remain stable over the next five years.

There is also some very interesting information (by country) about consumptions patterns, official alcohol policy and health consequences.

Concerning France, I have often had the impression over the last twenty years that consumption patterns have changed in important ways.  I still remember extended family lunches and dinners where wine was always served and everyone drank moderately but continuously.  When I first started working here back in 1990 there were a lot more "pots" (after work cocktails) and a lot of 2-hour lunches.  Today (at least in my circle of friends, colleagues and family)  people drink much less at lunch, the after-work cocktails are much less common and many of my younger staff prefer a Coke to a Kir.   The WHO data seems to support that - check out the drop in consumption that starts in the 1960's and steadily decreases until it stabilizes around the mid-1990's.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Flophouse in Scotland - A Good Time Was Had by All

Sometimes you just have to pack up and get out of town for an unknown destination.  Finland or Scotland, we thought.  Scotland it was.  Four days in Edinburgh sounded just about right.  And it was.

Playing Tourist:  The New Parliment Building, Holyrood, The Royal Mile,  University of EdinburghEdinburgh Castle


I highly recommend our Bed and Breakfast:  No. 53 Frederick Street.

Only one disappointment - one of us wanted to get a tattoo.  We found three promising places but they were all booked up for the weekend.  Who would have known that Edinburgh was such a hot spot for body art.....


Pub crawling:   The Queen's ArmsThe White Hart,  Rick's Bar and a really sleazy looking place near the train station (in all fairness we were looking pretty disreputable too) which turned out to have very good wine and a friendly owner.
Drinking IPA (India Pale Ale)


Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Flophouse in Scotland - Elderly Man Reading a Newspaper

The Flophouse will be spending the next few days in Edinburgh.

This trip has no other purpose then the pure pleasure of discovering a city for the first time.  I am also curious about the provenance of this painting which made its way from Edinburgh to Seattle sometime in the early 20th century.  It was brought back across the Atlantic to Versailles a few years ago as a gift from my family.   I look at it often and wonder who the old man reading the newspaper was and what inspired the artist to paint him.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Playing for Change - connecting the world through music



Playing for Change

I like these folks so much and their mission is one that really resonates with me.   When words in any language are not enough, music takes us higher to a place where we can achieve something very close to perfect harmony.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Promenade

Any time is a good time to read poetry but there is something about doing it while sitting in front of the fire on a lazy Saturday afternoon that just makes it all the more pleasurable.  Another poem from our guest poet, Corinne Texier.


Promenade...

Sur le chemin des ombres libertines,

Mes yeux scintillent toujours émerveillés,

Le sautillement fringant de mes bottines,

Résonnent sur ces trottoirs glacés.


La pluie s’éteint en larmes fluettes,

En harmonieux concert sur ma peau,

S’offrant à moi comme une fête,

Balayant l’âme de ses oripeaux.


En vous voyant, d’un air moqueur,

Taquine, repoussant les regards moroses,

Divine et coquette, elle ouvre son cœur,

Devant vos yeux comme un rayon de rose,


Fouettant au sang les croquemitaines,

Heureusement que je les voie,

Les regardant de façon hautaine,

Je les laisse errer ainsi sans voix.


Abandonnant au passage les yeux noirs,

Au hasard, sans tambour ni trompette,

Ils oublieront l’espace d’un soir,

Ces soupirs qu’un faible écho répète.


Spectacle heureux et d’effet hardi,

L’amour s’envolant à tire d’aile,

Animant les démons de midi,

Pour aller éteindre les chandelles.


Corinne Texier
Fevrier 2011

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Turbulence of Migration

I stumbled across the work of Nikos Papastergiadis a few years ago.  The title of the book, The Turbulence of Migration, intrigued me and I purchased it hoping to find some original ideas on the topic.  I was not disappointed - this book is an attempt to rethink migration in the context of the late 20th century modern world and globalization.

Why does Papastergiadis say that migration has become “turbulent”?  Not too long ago, he says, one could trace the recent mass movements of people in fairly well-defined patterns:  the slave trade, guest workers, colonization.  (A quick look at my photo at the top of this blog reveals a product of several centuries of European immigration to North America.) 

While some vestiges of those old patterns remain (there are still many North Africans in France, for example), “The diversity of paths, and the complexity of forms of migration, have meant that it is now almost impossible to map movement with a series of arrows, on a flat two-dimensional representation of the world.”  There would be so many arrows flowing in so many different directions from north to south, east to west, across borders, across oceans and continents that one would be hard pressed to assemble some order in the chaos. 

Capital today flows at the speed of light and people follow in spite of all the barriers that nation-states still put in their way.  And opportunity or advantage may be just next door, not halfway across the world.  A quick look at the migration patterns in Africa reveal that many more people move within Africa than ever end up in the United States or the European Union.

For the person who fears the competition from immigrant labour or the nation-state that sees its national borders have become permeable (and the raison d’être of the nation-state is to protect its borders), this is a very frightening state of affairs.  Mass uncontrolled movements of people also strike fear in the hearts of well-meaning people who believe that a rational design of the social map and “sedentarization” are pre-requisites for institutions that improve people’s lives, the very foundations of social progress. How do you build national health programs or school systems for people who refuse to stay in one place?

As sympathetic as I am to these arguments, I am firmly on the side of the “people who move around”.  Every migrant sets off on his journey with trépidation and ambivalence.  Economic advantage may be one factor in his decision but it is never the whole story.  He must be willing to face a life far from family, to learn another language, to be a cultural novice and to face hostility and violence.  That people are willing to do this in greater and greater numbers says to me that there is something so fundamentally human in this desire to move, it is virtually unstoppable. 

We must force the government to stop the bird migration. We must shoot all birds, field all our men and troops... and force migratory birds to stay where they are. 
Vladimir Zhirinovsky 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Elder Frenchling - photo


The elder Frenchling in the garden of the "Blue House" in Seattle, USA (1996)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Choosing a Place - Update

Yesterday the elder Frenchling received her first acceptance letters from two universities in….

Canada.  Québec, to be precise.

Her choice is made.  French-speaking North America is her Third Place.

And this seemed the right moment to relate some family history. 

In the late 17th (or early 18th) century, one of our ancestors left Normandy for La Nouvelle France.  His descendants settled in the region around Trois Rivières.

After some years in Québec, part of the family left Canada for Wisconsin in the United States.  My great-grandmother, Celestine, was born in Rice Lake to a French-speaking family. 

When Celestine married, she moved West with her husband to farm near the small village of  Naches in the state of Washington.  She had one child, a daughter named Rachel, who moved with her husband across the Cascade mountains to the city of Seattle where she had a daughter named Mary Lou. 

Then, sometime in the last century, Mary Lou had her own daughter (the author of this blog).   This daughter, when she grew up, married a man from France, moved back across the Atlantic and made her home in Paris.  

And now her Frenchling, this child of the 21st century, will cross the ocean and walk in a place where one of her French ancestors once came looking for a new life in a new world.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flophouse Favorite #5 - Le Botak Café

I no longer remember when I discovered this little restaurant in the shadow of Montmartre but I've eaten there several times over the years with colleagues.


Photo source:  Internet

For the life of me I can't remember who I was with all the times I went there but they were all Frenchman and I’m sure none of them would appreciate the fact that they were so easily dismissed from my memory. Well, we all have our priorities and, for me, a great dining experience trumps an intelligent good-looking dining companion any day.

All I really remember is the food. Mouth-watering, semi-orgasmic, delicious food. And a lovely location. Go in summer so you can sit in the courtyard.


Le Botak Café
1 Rue Paul Albert
75018 Paris France
Tel : 01 46 06 98 30
Métro Château-Rouge

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Flophouse Fun

I think it's time we all took a quick break away from serious subjects.  
To that end, I invite you to take just 10 minutes to savour:


(in English, French and Spanish) 


from the site, Do More Great Work (Michael Bungay Stanier)