Saturday, February 19, 2005

When the going gets tough, the tough go skiing

The Kyoto treaty came into force this week and the French media are not painting a pretty picture of the Bush administration. Here’s my translation of the first paragraph of an article from Le Monde, entitled “Reluctantly, Washington is forced to change”:

“The first Bush administration’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol is one of the best examples of its indifference towards the US’s allies and partners. It took the president only three months after taking office in January 2001 to reject the treaty. The pretext – the same one that prompted Congress to refuse to ratify it in 1997 – was economic. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would cost five million jobs nationwide. Washington believed, even hoped, that without its support, Kyoto would be doomed. Under the influence of the oil industry, the hostility of the Bush administration to environmental constraints was total.”

The article goes on to say that the administration has dismantled existing regulations, received significant campaign contributions from energy companies and cast doubt on the validity of global warming theories themselves. But public opinion in the United States is forcing the administration to change its tune, the article says, and at least pay lip service to global warming. Many Republican senators are coming round to the idea, and industrial companies themselves are realizing that sooner or later they will have to get serious about it.

The New York Times article from the same day, entitled, “Mixed Feelings as Treaty on Greenhouse Gases Takes Effect”, also highlighted this aspect, but the emphasis was on how European companies were less than enthusiastic, and even a little resentful, about implementing Kyoto, because Europe has already done a lot of work that other countries haven’t even begun to do. I had heard these criticisms here from other people (it comes up in translations). People complain about the quota system, too, saying that it’s unreasonable for it to be on a strict per-country basis.

In other news, following the assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Condi Rice pointed out that the presence of foreign troops in the country was a destabilizing force. Hmmm. Both the US and France called for Syrian withdrawal. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Which reminds me, with the Syria-Iran link up, the axis of evil is indeed becoming an axis. Finally, John Negroponte’s new post is national intelligence czar. OK, I’m willing to give him a chance, he’s been a loyal servant of several presidents. But about his job selling the invasion of Iraq to the UN when he was the US ambassador there, his predecessor Richard Holbrooke said, “the only intelligence was bad”. In his new job, I hope he doesn’t make the mistake of thinking that “only the intelligence was bad”.

So many subjects, so little time. Almost makes me wish I weren’t going away skiing this week. But I am. Hey, this is France, and the snow-covered Alps are beckoning. See ya in a week or so.


Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Not all bilingualisms are equal

I received an e-mail a week or so ago about an alarming French government internal report. The subject of the report was juvenile delinquency, its causes and potential prevention, and it was submitted to the minister of the interior, Dominique de Villepin (that’s right, him again!) in October 2004 and recently published on the web. It suggested these problems have their roots in very early childhood. So far so good.

The report went on to say that the problems are often linked to children’s linguistic difficulties, i.e. that they don’t speak French well and are thus not well integrated at school, even in nursery school. Here’s the alarming bit: to make headway against this problem, the mothers of immigrant children aged 1 to 3 should take it upon themselves to speak only French at home, “so that the children get used to expressing themselves only in French”. It also suggests ways of getting round the father-obstacle, who, according to the report, often insists on speaking “patois” at home. How’s that for respect for cultural origins? If this doesn’t work, especially as the child gets a little older, the child should see a speech therapist. This is like saying that if I have trouble getting over the death of a close relative or friend, I should a doctor who can dry up my tear ducts. What follows is a series of escalating recommendations to snuff out the “causes” of “deviance”.

This part of the report is the antithesis, the negation of everything I have come to believe about bilingual education, or about how to motivate immigrant children to learn a new language. Specifically, for children to be motivated, the system must acknowledge the value, the worth of their own language. This is a basic sales rule. The salesman says, “You’re absolutely right. On the other hand....” Wow, France still has a way to go in accommodating bilingualism, I thought. Of course, an American reading this might be tempted to say it is simply a manifestation of France’s reluctance to admit that French is no longer the world’s primary international language.

French people are always saying that they are not good in languages and that languages are not taught well in French schools. So when they meet bilingual people, especially children, their reaction is a mixture of admiration, envy and embarrassment. They say, “How wonderful! They’ll have such an advantage in life.”

At the international school here in Lyon, language is a big part of the curriculum. Language sections include English, Spanish, German, Italian, Polish and Japanese. The one in Saint-Germain-en-Laye outside Paris also offers Scandinavian languages. Friendships between kids in these schools run right across cultural and language barriers. French is the common language, but most kids are also proud of their “other” culture, too. But if bilingualism is encouraged and nurtured for these and other “noble” languages, deemed important or useful, for all others, it’s considered a handicap.

All this made me sit up, not only because I make my living in a language profession (translation) but also because I was exposed to similar attitudes when I was growing up in the New York area. There, the “devalued” language was Spanish. Of course, there was no official government policy to stamp out Spanish in American schools – the United States has no official language, whereas France does –; on the contrary, there was “bilingual education”. When I was growing up this term meant something very different to me than it does now. Now it means developing parallel speaking, listening, reading and writing skills in two languages and two cultures. Then it meant help kids along a little in Spanish until they learn English well enough to do without Spanish. That was the prevailing attitude in my family circle about what the goals of the program should be. Here’s a personal account from another American about how foreign cultures can be devalued in childhood. This time the venue is South Texas. The timeframe is the same, i.e. the 1960s and 1970s.

Then I spoke to some friends who are primary school teachers. One of them taught last year in Vénissieux, one of Lyon’s “difficult” neighborhoods. There was only one child in her class whose parents were born in France. The others were all North African, Turkish, Eastern European, etc. The picture I got from her was completely different from the one painted by the government report. Immigrant children attend “initiation” classes to help them get up to speed in French (it’s not their foreign parents who are going to teach them). Parents, she said, are often receptive to the idea of speaking French, if they can, to their kids. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they (the parents) feel lost in the French educational system in general. In class when the kids speak Arabic or another language, the teacher might ask them (politely) to repeat it in French for the whole class. Or if the child is, say, counting in Spanish, she might ask him to count to ten for the whole class so that the others can learn it. The school she taught at even offered Arabic classes after school for kids who speak it at home but haven’t learned how to write it. The big difference between this school and the international schools, she said, besides the lack of a formal bilingual program, is that the French language doesn’t work as a federating force. At recreation, the Arab kids speak Arabic to each other, the Turkish kids speak Turkish, etc.

It was interesting to look at the people the commission members interviewed: technical advisors in various ministries (interior, education, etc.), a district attorney, a child psychiatrist, the president (recteur) of a school district in the Paris suburbs, two officials of a parents association and a representative of a risk-management consulting firm. Hmmm, maybe they should have interviewed actual teachers, or even the cafeteria workers. Could the report’s well-intentioned but overzealous and misguided recommendations about language reflect a police-and-security-oriented interior ministry, even if the report was supposedly “interministériel”, as opposed to what the ministry of education might have produced had it been running the show?

I hope so.


Sunday, February 13, 2005

Food glorious food

The Bush budget battle is raging enough already, so I won’t add to it ... except to say that we may yet get to see whose side the Bush administration is really on and what I meant by “hoodwinked” (see January 5 post). If you’re patient, I think you’ll see them get their comeuppance.

Also, Riverbend is back with a personal report on the Iraqi elections, another fascinating post. I don’t know how representative of Iraqi opinion her point of view is, but it’s so eloquently written that it’s hard to resist its pull (unless of course you think the whole blog is a hoax).

But this time I want to write about something entirely unconnected to Iraq, budget deficits, Social Security (back to them in future posts), something quintessentially French.

The Book Review section of last Sunday’s New York Times contained a review of French Women Don’t Get Fat, written by a French woman living in the US. The article stayed at the top of the “Most E-mailed Articles” list on the NYT website for a couple of days, so maybe my ramblings on the subject will interest a few people. Apparently the author thinks Americans don’t have the right attitude towards food and should exercise more rather than try to eat less.

Do books like this one, with all their sensible advice about how to enjoy food, about the importance of quality over quantity and balanced diets, make it over the horizon of mainstream American consciousness? I would tend to say no, but I’ve been out of the country for 15 years. A book inspired by a culture viewed as disdainful of everything American and convinced of how right it is about the way society should be would seem to have little chance for success in America. It might also fall into the not-invented-here category, too foreign, too worn-out, too inadaptable to today’s fast-paced, helter-skelter lifestyle.

It so happened I was already thinking about this topic when I read the article, because this week I signed up to attend my 25th college reunion. The class is conducting a survey about our careers and lifestyles, our beliefs and aspirations, in short, our lives since graduation. One of the questions asks us to provide a detailed breakdown of a typical week in our current lives, indicating the number of hours spent on each activity for a total of 168. Here are the possible categories:

Volunteer/Community service
Family care and activities
Time with spouse/partner/date
Exercise/sports/physical activity
Other time for self (hobbies, leisure)
Social with friends and colleagues
In the nation’s service

French classmates will probably be making heavy use of the “Other” category. There’s nowhere else to put “mealtimes”.

In France eating is a ritual, an important activity that cannot be circumvented. Eating takes place at set times, almost always at a table. The day is neatly compartmentalized in France: breakfast, morning activity, lunch, afternoon activity, dinner. (OK, so sometimes I also sneak pretzels into the office late at night for blogging inspiration after my wife and kids are asleep.) Activities rarely obliterate meal times. Meals rarely overlap with other activities. They’re an activity unto themselves.

French people snack at designated times, too. Four o’clock in the afternoon is snack time throughout France. This applies primarily to kids, but it is so ingrained, it applies to adults as well. Have you ever been to Chamonix? Aside from Mont Blanc, there are a few other notable mountain peaks. One is called “L’aiguille du Midi” (literally, “the noon peak”), because the sun is over it at noon. Another is called “L’aiguille du Goûter”, because the sun is over it at 4PM. “Goûter” means “snack”.

Pan back to North America, where my (French) wife remembers a summer morning on a beach in Cape Cod a few years ago. It was around 10:30 AM. The sky was overcast, and not many people were swimming or sunbathing. But people were sitting in beach chairs, enjoying the warmth and the sound of the waves. My wife noticed that of the dozen or so people seated in a row, facing the water, every single one of them had something to eat or drink in his or her hands. In France at 10:30 AM, breakfast is long over and lunch is still an hour and a half away.

People don't eat in French movie theaters. French high school students don’t eat in class (if they do they might be asked to leave). French people don’t like eating contests or all-you-can-eat specials. Vendors don't prowl the aisles at French sporting events. Strollers for children in France don't have cup holders.

Now, I like to snack, I’ve actually been laughed at for eating, say, French fries at 5 PM, and this goes against my grain. But when I do manage to forget about food and not eat anything all afternoon, dinner is so much more enjoyable. It’s easier to forget about food all afternoon in France, though, because it isn’t so omnipresent.

For me, French Women Don’t Get Fat seems right on target about a lot of things I’ve noticed in France and that my wife has noticed in the US, regarding the two countries’ respective attitudes towards food. Problem is, it’s hard to change it all by yourself; it’s a lot easier when society helps. Alcoholics on the wagon don’t go into bars. Similarly, an American who wants to follow French eating habits amid America’s constant opportunities to pig out, is fighting an uphill battle. (My wife has cousins in America who could tell you all about it!)

Notwithstanding all this, believe it or not, French people, discerning epicures that they are, actually like American foods once they try them. They adore our breakfasts, for example. My wife has her own list of favorites: pancakes, bagels, Caesar salads, thick juicy hamburgers, clam chowder soup, New York deli sandwiches and my aunt’s sweet and savory chicken (recipe available on request!).

Finally, lest you think that France is some immutable, timeless ideal in this realm, France is changing. Fast food restaurants are proliferating, not only American chains, but French snack foods too. Doctors and school officials are bemoaning the increasing rate of child obesity, which a recent study found was correlated with TV-watching. Parents want soft drink machines banned from schools.

In Paris and other big cities, the 2-hour lunch break is only a distant memory. It still exists in rural areas and in French schools, where it seems safely entrenched, but I sometimes wonder if even there its days aren’t numbered. Because of it, primary school doesn’t end until 4:30 PM, seriously limiting time for homework and extracurricular activities, which are expanding.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each country could just take the best from the other’s food culture and leave over the rest?

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Iraqi blogging scene

With a new major news item coming out every day, it’s hard to stick to one’s blogging ideas. Was Bush père Deep Throat? That question was asked on a French radio station yesterday morning during the 8-10am slot. Or how about this one: Peace in the Middle East! What won’t they think of next? I must say, if the pictures and videos I saw yesterday are anything to go by, Condi Rice has an uncanny ability to bring a smile to the face of even the most hardened Middle Eastern politician. But I digress. I’ve only just started this blog, and already I’m getting sexist. Back to my original topic: blogging in Iraq.

In the course of setting up my blog, I came across lots of others. Including – you guessed it – blogs about Iraq, and in particular, blogs from Iraq. The first one I saw I found truly amazing for its description, in beautiful English, of everyday life in “post-war” Iraq. Beautiful English because, as the blogger, pseudonym Riverbend, explains in an early post, she lived abroad for several years as a youngster.

But if I forward this link to you, I thought to myself, the CIA, FBI, CPA, INC and OIF will all be at my front door, noose in hand, within the hour. Then I looked around, and I found that Riverbend is not the only Iraqi blogger. (I also saw no agents in dark glasses.) Not only that, but the viewpoints expressed in these blogs cover the entire political spectrum. Here is one, called Iraq the model and written by two dentists if I remember correctly, that is far to the “right” of Riverbend, so much so that another blogger, Winter Soldier, has done an amusing comparison of the two. Some are much more to the “left” than Riverbend – I’ve put “right” and “left” in quotes because it’s hard to apply essentially Western labels to Iraqi politics – or maybe I’m just influenced by how well Riverbend writes, so I (incorrectly) think she’s more knowledgeable, reasonable and middle of the road. Many of these blogs list still other prominent blogs (e.g. Iraqi Bloggers Roundup, itself now inactive, but with a good list in the right-hand sidebar). Finally, A Family in Baghdad is similar in viewpoint to Riverbend, but arguably with more local color, even though one contributor has actually been writing from Amman, Jordan.

I can’t possibly reproduce here even a fraction of the wealth of information contained in these blogs. You’ll just have to read them. Spend a few hours with them. They’re poignant, wrenching, personal and insightful. I hadn’t seen anything remotely like them in any American (or British, French, German, Canadian, etc.) newspaper, magazine or TV program … until last week, when an article by an Iraqi woman appeared in Le Monde. (Pssst, I can translate it for you if you’re interested.)

I don’t know what this means for reality. The more I read about this war, the less I think I know. Everyone seems to have his or her own reality.

Answers to Saturday’s “quiz”. Country: South Vietnam. Date: Sept. 4, 1967.

Next post: “Food, glorious food” (unless it’s about something else).

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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Post-election views on Iraq

On Tuesday, The French daily Le Monde ran an article entitled, “The Iraqi Vote Accelerates the Thaw in European-American Relations” (my translation). The newspaper seemed very happy to report that George Bush had phoned Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder on Monday and that when their conversation ended, the USA and “Old Europe” had moved closer together. Interestingly, Le Monde also reported it as if it was primarily the Bush administration that was taking a step in Europe’s direction, not the reverse. It said President Bush emphasized the importance of including all Iraqis in Iraq’s political future, not only those who voted, and that all Iraqis, including Sunnis for example, must be represented in the Constitution-drafting process.

On the face of it, this seemed logical and harmless enough. Then Le Monde said something extraordinary. Condensed and paraphrased, it went like this: “France has been saying this since well before the election, but when she did, she was more or less openly accused of supporting terrorism.” The take-home message: after being arrogant and intolerant, America is finally, magnanimously, coming round to the European view.

Meanwhile, the New York Times article from the same day, entitled "Europe welcomes vote, but with usual split", seemed to cast an embarrassing light on Europeans, who now had to reconcile the obvious success of the voting process with their opposition to the war and subsequent American methods for installing democracy in Iraq. The message was: It’s up to the Europeans to make a move, and they haven’t yet. I'm not claiming that one viewpoint or the other is "right" or "accurate", just that they are very different. Business as usual, right?

Click here for the Le Monde article (in French) and here for the New York Times article.

OK, so the message really depends on the source. Amid all the official and journalistic euphoria about the Iraq elections, then, I’m not sure what to think. Until a week ago, I was reading that journalists were hardly able to leave the Green Zone, or, for the more intrepid, their outside-the-Green-Zone hotels. Here’s an example of what I mean.

Now nearly everyone’s reporting they were a rousing success. Indeed, I was surprised at the number of sources that seem to agree on the prevailing “party” atmosphere in the streets of Baghdad, the courage of the voters, their determination to vote despite all the threats and so on. But at least three dozen Iraqis lost their lives that day. Had it been any other day, the press would have reported that as alarming. But on Election Day, it seemed simply the price of freedom. Something seemed wrong, and I reserved judgment.

There are strong indications the Sunni turnout was very low, with all the ominous possibilities that implies for the ultimate credibility of the elected legislature. I don’t want to be a party pooper, but it just might be too early to cry victory over the insurgents and terrorists. It’s OK to be optimistic, but there’s still a long road ahead. It’s certainly too early for chest thumping. In fact, it almost always is. Adolf Hitler came to power through a democratic process. A flawed one, but aren’t they all?

For some historical perspective (a recurrent theme here), an article has been making the rounds in blogs about and from Iraq since the election. I’ve reproduced part of it here, except that I’ve taken out all the date and place references. Can you guess the country and the year? (Answers in my next post!)
WASHINGTON, Sept. 3– United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in [country]’s presidential election despite a [insurgent group] terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.
According to reports from [capital city], 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the [insurgent group].
The size of the popular vote and the inability of the [insurgent group] to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.
Pending more detailed reports, neither the State Department nor the White House would comment on the balloting or the victory of the military candidates, Lieut. Gen. [name], who was running for president, and Premier [name], the candidate for vice president.
A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President […]’s policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in [country]. The election was the culmination of a constitutional development that began in January, [year], to which President […] gave his personal commitment when he met Premier [name] and General [name], the chief of state, in Honolulu in February.
The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the [capital city] Government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, [year], when President [name] was overthrown by a military junta.
Few members of that junta are still around, most having been ousted or exiled in subsequent shifts of power.

NYT. [date]: p. 2.

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Next post: The Iraqi blogging scene.