Tuesday, April 19, 2005
Busy DayYesterday was an interesting day. I had coffee with a friend and then went back home to pick up my father. He wanted to go grocery shopping to buy everything we needed to make a birthday dinner that night for his wife.
After shopping, we headed straight for the school to pick up my daughter. My daughter had a field trip planned for yesterday and all the previous week she'd been crying about it and working herself up because she didn't want to go without me. She made me ask her teacher if I could go. The teacher said 'no.' She woke up yesterday asking if this was the day of the trip and when I told her it was, she started crying and saying she didn't want to go. We were supposed to get back to school 15 minutes early for the trip, but we were a couple of minutes late. We arrived at school as the kids were climbing on to the bus and I literally handed her straight to another mother who was going on the trip and that was it. I waved to her from the street and she seemed fine. No crying. When I asked the monitor mothers how she was on the trip they all reported she was fine, no crying. I tell you, this parenting thing is really tough to figure out. In the end, I am glad she went on the trip without me -- for both of us.
Her trip was to the Tuileries Garden. She learned how to plant flowers. I didn't get a lot of details other than the gardening teacher's name was Laurent and that you use a spade not a shovel to plant flowers. She seemed to have a good time.
After I dropped off my daughter at lunch time I was able to head over to a going away party for a friend who is moving to Amsterdam. I only stayed a short time and I realized, I never stay for these kinds of parties... where the women all dress up and bring expensive gifts. These parties seem to happen montly... a shower, a going away party, a birthday party and I feel very uncomfortable. I like all the women, but I hate dressing up and buying expensive gifts and as a result I really, really feel out of place... even though all the women are very nice and I enjoy talking to them. It's just me. Forgive me for talking so long about this, but it was a realization for me yesterday because I was really wondering what was wrong with me and why I never stay long at these parties.
After the party I rushed off to a friend's house. He was hosting a cooking demonstration for chicken gumbo. Unfortunately, I missed the demonstration, but I was in time to eat some delicious gumbo and drink some chilled white wine. I must learn how to make gumbo.
When I brought the kids to the park after school the boys were playing soccer in their usual place... the strip of grass on the side of the park. Yesterday was different. A guard was there and told the boys to get off the grass. We (me and the babysitters of the other boys) see this happening and see the boys all point over to our bench. Here comes the guard and he isn't happy. He asks if we are responsible for the boys and that it's forbidden for the boys to play on the grass. So I ask him if it is a park for children and he says yes, but not that part of the park. That part is "interdit to the children." He asks if I understand and I say "No, je ne comprends pas, c'est fou!" No, I don't understand, that is crazy. So he threatens me that the next time he sees the boys play there, I will receive a ticket that will cost me money. The other women and I ponder if this is a true possibility. L'Amerloque, is it?
So the boys play near the street and when we walk past the guard later he tries to explain himself. There are flower patches here and that is why the boys can't play on the grass. I tell him we don't need flower patches at a kid's park. He laughs and says I should send a petition to the Mairie/Town Hall and start a revolution. Ah, the French sense of humor.
This brings me to a point (thank goodness, I know) about cultural differences that I still haven't mastered. This past example... where there is nothing written stating that running on the grass is forbidden...the guard came over to yell at us. I often feel like I'm being punished in France for things I don't know I'm not supposed to do. Last time something like this happened the guard told me that although there is no sign, the guard is there because he knows what conduct is forbidden and that is why I should listen to him. A sign here and there could really help, I think. In the US, if there is no sign and a guard has to tell you something, I think generally, he will do so apologetically... I know there is no sign, but we are trying to grow the grass here or there is a hole over there that is dangerous or whatever, but he would explain why something couldn't be used. Here it is this flat out "it's forbidden, don't ask questions" kind of thing. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that.
-- said Auntie M in Paris
# posted by mrsmogul : 1:50 PM
# posted by : 3:36 PM
# posted by Becca : 4:26 PM
# posted by Lisa : 4:51 PM
# posted by irene : 5:13 PM
>>L'Amerloque, is it?
Wow … I'll start with the easy part (smile):
France is not the USA. The country is designed by adults for adults, not for children. Parks in France are meant to be visited and appreciated for their beauty, not to be played in. Grass in the parks is meant to be admired - not played on, sat on, picnicked on, barbecued on, defecated on, slept on or camped on. In some parts of a given city, in some parks, at (perhaps) certain hours of the day, in certain designated areas, children are allowed to play. Sometimes – but quite rarely - they are allowed to play on the grass. (There are also what can loosely be termed "kid's parks", but there doesn't seem to be a precise definition anywhere for a pure "kids' park", as far as I can find out. Frequently what appears to be a "kids' park" is just a set-aside portion of a larger park or square or green area, as explained above. There may be some kind of sign reservé aux enfants ("reserved for children") on the edges of a putative "kids' park", but apparently the rules governing parks generally apply to "kids' parks" as well).
All this is known to French people. Basically, the law says "keep off the grass", unless there are special dispositions to the contrary. People living here – whether European, North American or South American or Central American, Asian, African, or whatever – are expected to conform to French tradition and, more appositely, to French law.
Until recently this playing-on-the-grass issue and the people-sunning-themselves-on-the-grass issue weren't really a problem in Paris. One did not walk or sit on the grass, let alone "play" on it. However, to garner political support, the current (Socialist) mayor of Paris decided that "the people" could sit and suntan on the grass in some parks and that in some places children could even "play" on the grass.
That's partially why you're having trouble with all this. It's no longer clear where and when kids can play on which grass, if at all. In addition, French culture is not American culture.
>>So he threatens me that the next time he sees
>>the boys play there, I will receive a ticket that
>>will cost me money. The other women and I ponder
>>if this is a true possibility. L'Amerloque, is it?
Of course. It's a very real, genuine, authentic possibility. He can ticket an accompanying adult as many times as he wants on the same day (not the kids if they're under 13 – under-thirteens are not legally responsible for their actions, in general). He can do this every time he finds you, day after day. It could cost you a significant amount of money, not to mention time and legal hassle. If you start an argument – or keep arguing with the guard(s) in a given park - you might be ticketed for refus d'obtemperer (refusal to comply). You will then have more money to pay. Note that you are not French, and hence not a voter (although citizens of EU countries can vote in some local elections). So this park guard will have no political compunction in ticketing you. It's at his discretion. If he's having a bad day, he'll call the real police. Then you'll have even more trouble. (sigh) (I'll come back to other, associated issues in a moment.)
Generally, people in Paris who want to do "sports" – including flipping frisbees for their unleashed dogs and allowing their kids to play soccer, can do all this a) in the nearest stadium if it's open; b) in the Bois de Vincennes; or c) in the Bois de Boulogne. That's why all the (heavy) taxes are paid by "the people".
>>He asks if I understand and I say "No, je ne comprends pas,
>>c'est fou!" No, I don't understand, that is crazy.
You. are. insulting. him. By saying c'est fou, you are saying that what he is doing (his job, his raison d'etre) is "crazy". Forgive me, but you won't make much progress that way.
>>So he threatens me
Well, sure – whatever did you expect him to do ? You. just. insulted. him. to. his. face. No French man or woman would react any differently. (smile)
>>that the next time he sees the boys play there,
>>I will receive a ticket that will cost me money.
>>The other women and I ponder if this is a true possibility.
>>L'Amerloque, is it?
Yes, as explained above. We are back to where we began. (smile) Let's continue …
>>So the boys play near the street and when we walk
>>past the guard later he tries to explain himself.
>>There are flower patches here and that is why
>>the boys can't play on the grass.
Sure, it's obvious. Flowers in parks are more important than kids playing on the grass. Parks here are made to be admired by adults (and so forth and so on - see above) – even in what might be considered a "kids' park".
>>I tell him we don't need flower patches
>>at a kid's park. He laughs and says I should
>>send a petition to the Mairie/Town Hall and
>>start a revolution. Ah, the French sense of humor.
Auntie – what in the world makes you think he was being humorous ?! I would go so far as to say there's a very good chance that he was agreeing with you. In his position as a city park guard he can't tell you "I agree with you, Madame, but I'm just doing my job." As a Frenchman, he definitely won't say that, because that whole "just doing my job" phrase has been quite out of fashion since the Nazi occupation. He might, however, come out with je ne fais que mon devoir, which is another kettle of fish entirely. (smile) He has given you the benefit of the doubt, for the moment.
If you don't agree with the current local park policy, draft a petition and have the other adult babysitters sign it legibly. Print up a separate, larger, more colorful petition, and have the children sign it legibly. Liaise with other parents in other parks, if necessary, to involve as many people as possible. Pick a nice date agreeable to all and shepherd everyone along (including the kids, with noisemakers and fanions and whatnot) over to the local arrondissement City Hall to present the petition. Call the media first to make maximum impact. Warn the relevant local maire-adjoint so he/she can be there to accept the petition (and be shown to care about "the people") in a suitably decorous fashion. Then the whole affair would escalate to the main Hotel de Ville (since neither the local maire-adjoint nor the maire will want to juggle the potential political hot potato alone) for a concertation ("compromise", in US politicalspeak).
That's what a Frenchman/woman would do if he/she felt strongly about this. Given the current political situation with the referendum on May 29th, of course, he/she would plot carefully throughout the remainder of Spring and Summer and wait until the rentrée, after school began in the autumn. Three weeks after school begins: voilà. (smile)
>> about cultural differences that I still haven't
>>where there is nothing written stating that
>>running on the grass is forbidden
>>Here it is this flat out "it's forbidden, don't ask questions"
>>kind of thing. I'm not sure I'll ever get used to that.
The default position here in France is "prohibited". With all due respect, that's the way it is. (smile) It bothered me at the beginning, but after a while I realized that people have more "freedom" on a daily basis here than in the USA, and that "prohibited" default is part of the reason (note, too, that the definition of "freedom" might not be quite the same, either). Among the reasons I was able to understand and accept it was my learning French and French traditions from my French family. (Again, with all due respect, the language should be one of your priorities if you're planning to stay. It's certainly explains in part why you're encountering frustration with the French society.)
Being familiar with proverbs and sayings in the foreign language is undoubtedly one of the immediate ways to reduce this cultural frustration (and this goes for any country, not just France). So let's take a quick look at how the French view the world, via some sayings:
Nul n'est censé ignorer la loi.
"No one should be unaware of the law" or, alternatively, "Everyone should know the law."
This simply means that when you say "I often feel like I'm being punished in France for things I don't know I'm not supposed to do." you are not thinking the French way nor are you acting like a French person. Here, it's your responsibility as an adult individual to make yourself aware of the relevant law before you act, not afterwards. The catch is that you shouldn't expect anyone to tell you. You are an adult, not a child. Unless one is under 13 or over 70, when "100% adult" behavior is not necessarily possible, desirable or expected, this generally holds true in France, period.
Tout ce qui n'est pas permis est interdit.
"Everything that is not authorized is prohibited."
Again, when you say "A sign here and there could really help, I think" you're not thinking like a French person. No one would ever expect to see a sign saying "Keep off the grass" because here, as I pointed out above, the default is "no" (although one sees more and more jeu interdit signs around town: just another manifestation of "the Americanization of French culture", of course) and people are aware of it. What a Frenchman would expect to see (what I would expect to see, since I have been here so long !) is a sign saying "Playing on the grass is OK". If you think like an American (the default is "yes") you're sure to put a foot wrong. (Moreover, there's the whole general issue in France of putting up signs: when a French person sees a sign saying "don't do suchandsuch", her/his instinct is to do it. We'll leave that for another time. (smile))
La liberté des uns s'arrête où commence celle des autres.
"The freedom of one set of people stops where the freedom of a second set of people begins." (or, more cavalierly and a bit inaccurately because of the wide meaning of "some" in English) "Some people's freedom stops where other people's freedom begins."
Understanding this – and putting this into practice - is crucial. Look at the playing-on-the-grass problem. Think the French way. Succinctly:
a) the purpose of a "park", a public space, is visual pleasure and esthetics, not sports;
b) the benches have been placed at strategic places for people to sit and enjoy the visual and esthetic effects;
c) the flowers as well as grass and statues are there for their visual and esthetic effects;
d) the earth has been plowed, turned, planted in grass, fertilized, rolled and watered for the visual and esthetic effects, at some effort and expense;
d) the flowers have been planted and nurtured in a greenhouse, then transplanted at the appropriate time for the visual and aesthetic effects - again, involving some effort and expense;
e) the people are free to come into the park, a public space, during opening hours and admire it.
Now, thinking the American way, by allowing or encouraging the children to play soccer on the grass near the flowers, you, as the responsible adult, are:
1) refusing the French definition of a park, a public space;
2) endangering the flowers that have been transplanted at some expense to provide beauty to parkgoers;
3) wrecking the ground on which the grass has been planted - ground which has not been prepared for children running, falling, and sliding on a relatively thin topsoil chosen and maintained to be beneficial to grass; and
4) trampling on the freedom of those who have come into the park, a public space, to admire that grass and those flowers.
Needless to say, it's number 4 above which is important on a daily basis in France.
Saying Three holds true in all aspects of French life - including the controversial "no wearing the Muslim veil in school" law recently passed by the French government. (The majority of French people, whatever their religious feelings and/or beliefs, feels the same about the law: it guarantees freedom, not abridges it, because it sets out just where and when the freedom of one set of people comes into conflict and tramples on the freedom of another set of people in the public sphere (italics mine). Another example: as a parent wanting to input at (public) school with, say, a Valentine's Party, you are trampling on the freedom of the teachers to teach in a public school. Anyway … passons. ).
Les américains sont de grands enfants.
"Americans are big children."
The French frequently say this when they are exasperated with Americans, who seem in French eyes to reason like children: impulsively, with immediate personal gratification required. In my humble opinion, it's because Americans don't deal with the issues (law and freedom) raised in Sayings One, Two and Three in the same manner as the French.
Two other comments (I seem to have been working on this for far too much time (sigh)):
>>Last time something like this happened the guard
>>and a guard has to tell you something
First, the park guard has warned you and you are now on his "watch" list. In his eyes you received his message and are aware of the consequences for continuing to allow the children to play on the grass. You might very well receive one or more tickets. If you continue, he will think that you are calling what you assume is his "bluff". Should you see the same guard coming over to you along with other guards, prepare yourself for a ticket: they've ganged up on you. (Park guards are assermenté ("sworn") , so their word is accepted in court. Several guards testifying to the same thing leaves you without a leg to stand on, if push comes to shove). Other things could happen, though, so don't be surprised. Forewarned is forearmed: a) a jeu interdit or interdit sign might appear on the grass; b) the park bench may undergo sanding and repainting, which will leave you nowhere to sit and watch the kids; c) the park bench may simply be removed, which would have the same effect (but which would conflict relatively quickly with Saying Three above); or d) the whole area might be fenced off for travaux ("works"). My bet is on b, which is a neat solution which solves the immediate problem (your kids playing on the grass) while sending a soothing message to the voters ("we're working for you"). Option d is frequent, too, but doesn't send a reassuring message.
Second, when you say … je ne comprends pas, c'est fou!, you are using incendiary language ("fou" is generally applied to people, not policies or actions).You can attenuate this simply by smilingly saying something on the order of Ah, Monsieur, j'en suis désoléé, je n'en ai pas l'habitude, c'est inattendu. Qu'est-ce que vous me conseillez de faire ? Vous savez, avec des enfants de cet age-là … ils ont tant d'energie … ("I'm terribly sorry, Sir, I'm not used to it, it's unexpected. What do you advise me to do ? You know, with children of that age … they have so much energy … ").
It's all about communication, eh ? From comminication comes understanding. (smile)
# posted by L'Amerloque : 5:25 PM
>>I've noticed the guards in Paris really have that
>>superiority thing that comes from being a civil
>>servant and knowing you can never be fired no
>>matter how big a putz you really are, and they
>>love to strut their self-important attitudes for
>>the world to see. My attitude?
Well, only partially. The guards are French. They are adults. They scream at people who act like children. The default in France is "no". It is well known here. "No flash" is the default. The guards are frustrated by the zillions of adults in the world who don't act as the French adults do: informing themselves before acting, and not afterwards. It is not the reponsibility of the museum to tell you not to use a flash: it is your responsibility to find out beforehand.
That's one reason they scream. Another reason is certainly the reason you point out: factotums in positions of temporary authority are wont to abuse that authority. (smile)
>>Get a job as a REAL gendarme, buddy.
Oh, come on (smile). Gendarmes are military personnel, museum guards are civil service, as you rightly point out. Gendarmes are badly paid, work over 80 hours per week, and are on call permanently. Museum guards work a 35-hour week and are paid reasonably well. It's not even close. (smile)
# posted by L'Amerloque : 5:49 PM
# posted by Sophie : 11:14 PM
# posted by BohemianMama : 11:27 PM
On further note, I work with two top civil servants, both of whom were quick to tell me that the upper eschelon of this structure gets paid no more than 3000eu/month. Now, you can imagine that guards are on the bottom of this pyramid. Obviously they don't get paid enough, and they won't take anymore abuse from anyone else...
Ever been to the prefecture for a carte de sejour? There you get an excellent idea of how underpaid civil servants translates to frustrated and irritable civil servants.
If you want to gambol in the grass, ? You can do it in the Buttes Chaumont and Place des Vosges, aside from the two previous Bois already mentioned.
# posted by NARDAC : 2:44 AM
But I have two comments: The first time we lived in Paris, ten years ago, we lived near Parc Monceau, where all the grass was off limits and there were signs all over the place that said "Pelouse Interdite." (Imagine our shock to find people picnicking on those lawns when we moved back to Paris in 2003!)
Also, I find the behavior of the guards to be quite arbitrary. Last spring, a bunch of anglophone families were setting up a picnic on the grass at the Place des Etats Unis in the 16th. A guard came by and shooed us all off the grass. Ten minutes later, the grass was covered with other picnickers, and no one bothered them the entire afternoon.
BTW, there are two Lisas who comment on this site now. I'm the one who lives in Paris.
# posted by Lisa : 8:58 AM
>>But I have two comments: The first time we lived
>>in Paris, ten years ago, we lived near Parc Monceau,
>>where all the grass was off limits and there were signs
>>all over the place that said "Pelouse Interdite."
>>(Imagine our shock to find people picnicking on those
>>lawns when we moved back to Paris in 2003!)
Ah, the Parc Monceau (smile). This was – and is – the subject of an "international incident" (see below) which was the luncheon topic of tout Paris for a while and has now faded from sight, but not from mind.
Basically what had happened in the late 1970s and all through the 1980s was that immensely rich Middle-Easterners had purchased huge, beautiful apartments on the Parc Monceau. The prices were extremely high since, justement, the flats overlooked the Parc and its wonderful lawns. (smile) The grass was off limits and, to keep the owners happy after they had allegedly complained through official channels (about the fact that once in a blue moon a) some kids had played on the grass and b) once in another blue moon a noisy dog or two had romped on the grass) the Quai d'Orsay reportedly asked the local authorities to a) request that the local guards to be "very vigilant"; b) put up signs saying Pelouse Interdite; and c) rigorously enforce the rules. The Parc Monceau was a great place.
So, a few years back, the Socialists were "elected" to the City Hall (I put "elected" in parentheses because no satisfactory answer has ever been supplied by the relevant local authorities as to why approximately 180,000 voters (!) were removed from the electoral rolls in Paris intra muros just prior to the election. Watch the runup to the next mayoral elections: the answer will be there, somewhere.) In keeping with the allegedly Socialist policy of nivellement par le bas ("dragging everything down to the lowest common denominator"), the Mayor decided to allow people to sit on certain lawns, in certain parks, and so on. One of those places was the Parc Monceau, which rapidly became a rallying point for "certain elements". Crime in the park (muggings and robberies) skyrocketed and certain Middle-Eastern apartment owners felt to necessary and desirable, reportedly, to send in their own goon squads (!) to clean up the mess, since the local authorities were unable and/or unwilling to do so.
Overnight, at any rate, the Parc became safe, a crime-free zone, as it used to be. The Middle-Eastern owners, pushing their luck, then supposedly requested via official channels that the lawns in the Parc be placed off-limits once again, as they used to be. The city authorities responded that they were unwilling to do that, and allegedly pointed out that such armed private police forces (milice) are prohibited in France (but not private security forces: there is a difference). The authorities supposedly hinted that if the M-E owners kept up the pressure, there might be repercussions concerning the goon squads. The M-E owners backed off: the compromise was that the M-E owners would not object to picnicking and so forth, and the local authorities would hold off on looking too hard at the M-E goons. The local authorities promised to assign more real police to the Parc to keep crime down. A modus vivendi was reached.
That's where the situation at the Parc Monceau stands at present.
No prizes for guessing one of the upcoming local electoral issues. (smile)
More generally, quite a few influential people and organizations (not the least those who appreciate French parks and those property owners who are fed up with seeing park lawns defaced, as well as a) urban preservationists in general and b) people tired of the car-hating "enviromental ayatollahs", the mandatory pedestrian streets, the tree-cutting, the tramway(s), the destructive scorched-earth urban renewal, and the enormous buslanes which have destroyed the traffic flow for everyone, including taxis) are lining up to throw out the current city hall team. Joining the dissenters are those unhappy about the tax policy, about Paris bond issues (surprise, surprise), about the "social policy" (109 million euros per year for hotel rooms to house the needy, apparently) and about businesses and populations fleeing Paris. Should be an interesting campaign. (smile)
>>Also, I find the behavior of the guards to be quite
>>arbitrary. Last spring, a bunch of anglophone
>>families were setting up a picnic on the grass
>>at the Place des Etats Unis in the 16th. A guard
>>came by and shooed us all off the grass. Ten minutes
>>later, the grass was covered with other picnickers,
>>and no one bothered them the entire afternoon.
There's no denying it: there is abuse, of course. I'm afraid I'm frequently at a loss when I hear a story like this. It has never happened to me, even when my French was rudimentary and heavily-accented. A thought strikes me: is it because I'm usually with French people, perhaps ?
A question: what do you mean by "setting up" ? (smile) Laying out a baseball diamond or building a barbecue pit ? Planting a tent or unshipping a twelve-person picnic table ? Or just spreading out a throw blanket on the grass with some paté, wine, cheese and a baguette ?
# posted by L'Amerloque : 12:54 PM
>>I know what you mean...
>>I live near the Georges Brassens park –
>>if that isn't a children's park what is –
>>and while they do rope off sections that are
>>clearly not to be walked on, there are all kinds
>>of weird patches where they don't want you.
The weird patches are explainable. The park used to be the slaughterhouse on the Left Bank for all the beeves, cows and horses, providing the meat for Paris butcher shops. The animals were walked in daily along the streets from the outskirts of Paris to the slaughterhouse(s). It was pretty depressing, actually. The structures were razed some years ago and what remains on the edge is used for the weekly book market, which used to be over at the Porte de Vanves before that outdoor market was invaded by the repro, bitsa and knockoff antiquaires and brocanteurs.
As far as I am aware, nowadays the only animals that walk into Paris every day over that same route or nearby are the burros/donkeys for the kids in the Jardin de Luxembourg, during the season.
I have heard that there are problems underground at Brassens (sous le sol du parc) which is why certain parts are fenced off or undergoing what seem to be endless travaux. If I were bringing my kids to Brassens, I wouldn't allow them to go onto/into those fenced-off parts of the park, just on general principles.
Note that if there were a real question about safety, the authorities would've closed down the entire place (le principe de precaution).
# posted by L'Amerloque : 1:28 PM
# posted by Anji : 4:17 PM
Magillicuddy, Based on L'A response I guess you don't want to go near those roped off areas!
Becca, Thank you for your kind comment.
Lisa, I've definitely felt that attitude!
Irene, I've had so many run ins with the guards! I feel like telling them to go chase the dogs off the grass instead.
L'A, Thank you for always giving me the French perspective. It really is helpful to me.
# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 9:45 PM
BM, I'm sure it makes sense to the French, but not to me!
NARDAC, I know, I know...my common sense is another person's cultural bias. You're right. Regarding parks.. if you have a kid, you can't bring him to a park 20 minutes away every day. We have a park 5 minutes from school and that's where we go. We go to the Bois on Wednesdays and weekends.. but it's not really a viable option the other days.
Anji, La Rochelle is a place I've heard wonderful things about but haven't yet visited. I do want to go there and not just to play ball!
# posted by Auntie M in Paris : 9:56 PM
As for the picnic, it was definitely the simple blanket, baguette, cheese, a few salads, and some Badoit variety. I can't even imagine setting up a picnic table or a baseball diamond in the Place des Etats Unis--for one thing, it's much too small.
I should say that although we complained (to each other) that we were discriminated against, we really just felt it was bad timing. We happened to be there when the guard walked through; then he left and didn't come back to shoo away subsequent picnickers.
# posted by Lisa : 9:46 PM