Writing this, I am surrounded by cartons half-filled with my family’s worldly goods. By the time you read it, we’ll be back in Montreal, a one-year sabbatical in France’s Haute-Savoie département (south and west of Switzerland) consigned to the souvenir boxes of family history.
We’ll bring lots of good memories home with us from our year in Savoie.
Of a last-minute, game-winning goal by our 10-year-old son, after a dramatic end-to-end rush at a hockey tournament in Dijon. As a Canadian he naturally came here expecting to be the best play- er on his team, but soon discovered that those few French kids who do play our game take it very seriously. French coach- ing, sad to say, was better than we’ve experienced at home, even if the idea of cré‚pes between tournament games took a little getting used to.
Of our seven-year-old son’s embarrassment with what, as the year went on, he found to be his parents’ increasingly inadequate French accents. He started the year in ”œC.P.,” for nonreaders, gradu- ated to ”œC.E.1” at Christmas and now reads Astérix and Obélix, those indomitable BD (bandes dessinées) heroes of Gaul’s Roman era, all on his own. This we attribute to a back-to-basics style of teaching reading that had him rhythmi- cally chanting his vowel sounds like a Jew at the Wailing Wall, and which, as phonetics always does ”” why will our own educators never realize this? ”” has empowered him wonderfully to sound out any unfamiliar word, however long and at first glance apparently undeci- pherable. His own accent, like his broth- er’s, is now as rich and thick as the Camemberts you can get here.
Of, now that I mention it, non- pasteurized cheese bought directly from farmers; of the strange and exotic provisions offered in almost any grocery store; of rabbit, sanglier (wild boar, Obélix’s favourite), shark, salted legs of ham (the one we won at a hockey tour- nament tombola, or raffle, lasted most of the year), of jams and yogourts made of muÌ‚re sauvage (a local blackberry), of cré€me de marrons (chestnut spread); of wine, stacked on the supermarket shelves, not just by region, but by region within region ”” ”œWhich part of Bordeaux do you favour, monsieur?” ”” and left free enough of tax that you can have a glass or two at every meal.
Of the great civility of the Savoyards. When a man enters a room here, even when people are already chatting in groups, he shakes every man’s hand and gives every woman bisoux, that is, presses cheeks with her. These are not the hurried air kisses we give in Quebec but full-fledged cheek- pressings, and everybody does it. My wife was taken aback the first time a neighbour’s child stepped forward to offer his bisoux, as I was at my first sem- inar when attractive women I’d never met came forward to press their cheeks warmly against mine. (”œWhat a coun- try!” I thought.)
But enough of life, it’s time to say a word or two on policy.
In one sense, I already have. Part of my purpose in coming here was to see whether globalization has made France North American. Evidence of conver- gence is easy enough to find. English is everywhere, as I wrote here a few months back, France has great superhighways now, and you meet people who work for Sun Microsystems, Gillette and other multinationals. But in many other ways the French remain particular ”” even, to North American eyes, peculiar.
It’s true that some nights on French TV all you can get are dubbed Hollywood movies, but just about everything else on offer involves a large cadre of French stars who, though wide- ly known and loved here, are utterly unknown outside France (a hypothesis I confirmed on a recent trip to Germany). This is quite apart from the fact that children go to school Saturday morn- ings, getting Wednesdays off; that out- side Paris most businesses still close for lunch; that even gas is hard to buy on Sundays; and that minor Christian holi- days like Pentecost and All Saints’ Day are major public holidays. French Moslems might reasonably complain that until Ramadan becomes a journée rouge on the highways, France will not be as laiÌˆque as its Christian politicians like to boast.
But policy-wise, the most distinctive thing of all about France is that much of the time large parts of it are on strike. National elections are held, it seems, mainly to choose which party will have the privilege of asking France’s unions whether (please, sirs!) changes in public policy might possibly be considered. And not even all the unions, nor even all the railway unions but the railway engineers’ unions. The French train system, with its TGVs, is a marvel when it operates and a great example of the rationality of public transit, rationality being a cardinal virtue in the land that gave the world Descartes. But centralizing transportation so much gives immense political power to anyone who can shut down the system, and that is hardly raisonnable.
As we prepare to leave, the great debate here is whether France is still governable. In most people’s minds, that is an open question ”” though, after a glass or two of chilled Apremont, some fresh bread and strong cheese, not always a compelling one.