14 May 2009

Something You'll Never See in Paris: A Quick Primer on Dealing with the French

Living in Paris was an amazing experience, but not always an easy one. When people ask me how I felt about it - I often answer that it was "difficult, but really worthwhile". I tend to feel the same way about the French themselves.

The single most salient stereotype that French have of Americans is that of fatness (as in overweight and over-consuming) and that Americans have of French is of rudeness (as in impolite and superior). As with most stereotypes both of these have a good deal of basis both in reality and also in misunderstanding of the other. In fact after many months of having lived in Paris, I have many adjectives - both positive and negative - that I can use to roughly characterize its inhabitants as a group. But rude isn't in there (although of course, like people anywhere else in the world, the French are capable of being rude ;).

So on a whim (and at risk of making enemies) here's a short list of much more fitting adjectives:
warm-when-shown-respect, intolerant of difference, fashionable, proper, inconsistent, appreciative of life, entitled, passionate, pessimistic, generous, passive-aggressive, liberal (e.g., socialist, gay rights), conservative (e.g., keep-the-status-quo, anti-immigrant) and last-but-certainly-not-least, proud.

And it's this last that prompted me to write this post. You see, I've recently returned to New York, which has been a great shock to my system and I've been noticing everything around me all the more (it doesn't hurt that we are having a lovely late-spring in New York right now). So a couple of days ago, I was walking by Morningside park in Manhattan and I saw the following, completely ordinary sign (pictured above), instructing my fellow New Yorkers to clean up after their dogs on penalty of law.

What struck me so strongly about this, is that you'd never see anything remotely like it in Paris. You see the French in general love their dogs. Paris is a city filled with people walking their dogs. But the thing is, almost none of these dog walkers would be willing to clean up after their dog - from what I'm told (often by other French), the idea of cleaning up dog poop is an anathema to proud Frenchman. This was a bit difficult for me to swallow - and for a good many French. After all why should everyone have to get shit on their shoes, and have to pay tax levied on all to clean up, because some think that cleaning up after the mess their pet makes is somehow below them?

But that's the way things are and I can understand how it has come to pass, given how proud I've found the French can be. And the French really are that proud - of their culture, contributions to history, language, dignity, etc. The thing is that they have earned the right to be proud - it's not like they are wrong about how wonderful the things their people and country have done. But often (as a group) they take it a bit far and go from a genuine appreciation of what is so good about themselves, to a tunnel-vision of the world in which the contributions and quality of other places and cultures are marginalized. In this they are actually ironically similar to Americans - in fact from what I could tell from conversations, to other Europeans, the French are the "Americans" of Europe (insofar as "American" connotes domineering, superior, relatively ignorant of others).

To me this proudness was reflected in many facets of French life - from the trivial (dog walking, to the primary/secondary education system which appears to place French poetry and grammatical complexity on par with Science, Math, History, etc.; to international politics where Former President Chirac walked out of a UN session along with the entire French delegation because a French businessman had the temerity to address the session in English (which happened to be the working language of that particular session)!

Which brings me back to my previously unexplained assertion that the French are not, despite the overwhelming stereotype, rude. My feeling is that foreigners mistake the way in which French react to a variety of situation as rude, when the French are for the most part quite proper and polite. You see the French are very proud and can be quick and brittle to react when their pride is injured, which it easily is. Consequently, a small matter or comment that an American or other foreigner likely wouldn't even contemplate having been offensive, can turn out to be a major insult to a Frenchman or woman - with the obvious cross-cultural mal-effects - the response to the insult usually will be nasty, dismissive, or otherwise bad, although often mildly so. Of course the foreigner, not having realized that their action had been interpreted as being insulting in the first place, will mistake this response for unprompted rudeness - which in my observation it rarely is.

So how does one deal with this? Well as regards the dog crap, all you can do is step carefully. And it turns out the same strategy works with the French as well (although a good subset of people living in France aren't actually that touchy at all, it's just that many are ;-).

Below are a couple of helpful rules for engendering productive interactions with the French:
  1. Smile warmly and speak gently
  2. Try to stutter something in French first, even if you can't speak much, before attempting English. At the very least, ask if they speak English es-koo-voo par-lay-le-francay? If you do this, you will find that most of the time, people who might had seemed distant or rude, will engage you warmly and try strenously to communicate with and help you. Under no circumstances should you abruptly start speaking to a Frenchman in English as if you expect to be understood! There are few ways more likely to keep you from getting anything out of the interaction. Most French have a little English and many actually speak quite well. But I've seen many times where a French person I knew could speak English reasonably well, pretended they couldn't understand even basic words like yes, no and tomorrow b/c they weren't treated respectfully (as per their understanding of respect).
  3. Don't rush them (insofar as possible) or get aggressive. The French aren't focused on service or speed. They believe in savoring life and get very aggitated by the brusque manners of foreigners. Be prepared to wait.
  4. Don't talk loudly, try not to cough in public, sneeze or be otherwise improper. Hard to avoid, but many French are very proper and hypersensitive (from my viewpoint) to this.
  5. Remember that it's their country not yours - don't tell them how to be, even if it strikes you as a bit ridiculous. Not worth the fight - you're a visitor, try to treat them how you'd like to be treated (viz-a-vis their own cultural mores and norms).
  6. Finally, avoid putting up any stickers (insofar as possible) on the mailslots or buzzers of an apartment you are renting. Parisians, at least, are irrationally sensitive (from my viewpoint at least) about this. We had a simple sticker listing our names on it placed on our mailbox, so we'd receive the mail. Sounds straightforward? Well it wasn't. First someone began ripping our sticker off periodically (but they didn't remove it cleanly so it looked much more messy than before). Never tried to contact us nor let us know who was doing it so we could discuss it (see what I mean about passive-aggressive?). Our landlady told us to just keep putting up new stickers. Eventually this started to get ridiculous as we were putting up a new sticker every day. Finally around this point, someone put up this note, written in illegible French on used, ripped paper, attached to the middle of the glass front door with scotch tape and a business card stapled to it. I had an idea of what this note might be, so I took a picture and asked a friend to translate. The gist is that 'no one should put stickers on the mailboxes or buzzers, because it is inappropriate and ruins the asthetic quality of our living space. Instead you must have a metal plaque made out with your name, business card attached. Thank you'. Of course it was signed by "Members of the Building Committee" (passive-aggressive again) and someone helpfully added to the corner (top-left) in a messy but legible scrawl "this is just normal, I did it when I moved in" (guess they weren't subletting for just a couple of month). So to summarize: the folks in my building were so aesthetically sensitive that they covered the beautiful glass front door of the building with a scrawled note on ripped, used paper, for two weeks to let me know I needed to buy a metal plaque in order to receive mail (notice any inconsistency here?) - My friend who translated (happens to be a Parisian told me that this apparently is characteristic, but also told me how stupid she thought it was, so did my landlady.
So this should help you get off on the right foot - although I admit the last point is a bit more of a rant than advice. But then again, most places the in world have some particularities that are bound to baffle anyone who wasn't born there (and possibly many who were). So take it with a grain of salt and enjoy - because there really is a lot to enjoy of the French and their country!

08 May 2009

Reverse Culture Shock

After 3 days of being back, I'm finally just starting to realize that I truly am here. And it's a bit strange, particularly the little details. One of the first things that struck me when I got back, the first morning in fact was how luxurious everything here is. My parents' house (where I'll be living until I head out to Seattle on June 22nd - a story for another time) is a nice, but not ostentious place. But I easily had the best shower of the last 11 months there. There was so much hot water and it was so hot, as hot as I could possible want it. And consistently so, no points where the temperature fluctuated - in most of the places I've been, while the hot water lasted (which often wasn't long) I'd spend half of the shower fiddling with the knobs as the water kept moving back and forth from too cold to scalding. There was just hot water, perfect temperature, and seemingly endless. Then I dried off and the towel was so soft. Softer by a good measure even then the towels at the resort in India where we stayed for a weekend so long ago.

And then there was the bed. I've always put a lot of weight on having a good bed - I mean the average person spends something like between 1/5th and 1/3rd of his or her life in bed. So I've always felt it was worth making the investment in a really good bed (I bought my first Tempurpedic when I was in college), even though I always sleep well as long as the surface is flat and not entirely hard. On our trip, we've slept in a lot of different places, and some of them actually were really comfortable (some weren't ;-) but nothing matched the feeling of lying down in the bed at my folks place.

After two showers (one in the evening and one the following morning) and a night's sleep at my folks, I told me day "you do realize that you live in the lap of luxury?". And I like the creature comforts - honestly I probably need them at this point: my health is a bit shot (I've had a cold on and off for over the last half-year), I lost a bunch of weight (was only 145 lbs when I got back - even after copious feeding by our friends in London), and I'm just generally worn out. But I've got mixed feelings about how nice things are in the States.

I think it's great to have a creature comforts, but some of them really cost - socially, environmentally, etc. Thankfully for the first time in almost a decade, I'm really feeling like Americans are starting to think about what the right balance for our society is - Costco apparently had a sale on composters just this last week, my mom went to pick one up, but the entire batch had already sold out!

In any case, returning to more of my observations, it really was the little things that got me. The money in the US is like nowhere else. I use a really neat plastic wallet called the JimiX it's a great alternative to the traditional leather wallet, with a small sliding cardholder case and an external money clip. But everywhere else I travelled I couldn't use the money clip because the currency was so slippery - Rupees, Euros, Shekels, Dirham, Pounds. Only the US bills which are apparently made out of cotten and linen rag paper don't slide around.

I took a drive today to do a couple of local errands, and again it hit me - after driving small manual transmission vehicles in France and Austria, my mom's Impala (a smaller car by American standards) felt both ridiculously easy to operate. It was silent, smooth, powerful, you can't tell the gears are even changing - I felt like I was driving a mountain. And as I said it's not a big or expensive car. It was nice, but if this is the simple car, what are the fancy, big cars? Before I left, US-style vehicles had struck me as wasteful in my rational mind. But coming back I experienced this same feeling in a much more viceral way. Not so much regards my mom's car, which is perhaps more than necessary, but a pretty conservative vehicle (and safe on the US roadways which are filled with hulking monster cars), but more by the idea that this is what passes for a conservative vehicle here. I have to say, it was nice to drive something so comparitively luxurious, and super easy - but I also missed the fun of interacting with the manual transmission.

Yup I'm having reverse culture shock.

05 May 2009

Argan Oil Touring

I don't remember when it was I first read about Argan oil. Must have been at least a year ago, probably longer. The story I read told how a rare and ancient tree grew at the edge of the Sahara. This tree, called the Argan tree, was a relict of Earth's Tertiary period - a living anachronism (although only 1.6 million years out of date - compare that to the California Redwoods which are something like 200 million). These shrubby, thorny trees grew stubbornly in the most dry and difficult climate, able to hang on for 200 years or so, but only viable in this small sliver of land so

far away.

Now the Argan tree bears a small green-yellow fruit. Not something humans would eat, but goats love it. And people have figured out a way to make use of this: The goats climb the Argan trees, nibbling on the leaves and eating the fruit. After ingesting the fruit the goats either (a) spit it back out or (b) poop it out (I've heard differing accounts). The core of the fruit and its seednut are not digested by the goat - much like the reknowned "catshit coffee". Locals then take this partially digested fruit, remove the seednut, crack it, roast it, and grind it. Once ground they knead and mix it with water until it forms cakes. They then squeeze the cakes and out comes the reward for this lengthy process - pure Argan oil. After tasting it, I can tell you that it is nutty and delicious. From what scientists are claiming it has more natural vitaman E then almost any other ingestible substance and all sorts of other healthful properties to boot. Because of these properties Argan oil has become all the rage with foreign companies buying up supply and using it for food, medicine, and beauty care products.

This whole story completely intrigued me - these ancient relicts living at the edge of the habitable world, the complicated procedure, and of course the goats. I dreamed of someday going to Africa and seeing it - but I figured it would happen one day in the indefinite and far future. What I didn't realize was that the main place in Africa where Argan trees grow is actually in Morocco, outside of Essaouria, at the northern edge of the Sahara desert. So when I found I, I was so excited and resolved that if Linda and I only saw one thing there, we'd make sure that we went to an Argan oil co-ops, see the trees, and hopefully see the goats as well.

On our second day in Essaouria we made arrangements through our hotel - the Riad Nakhala - to have a driver take us to one of th

e co-ops to see how the oil is made and purchase some. After that the driver would show us some local sights and hopefully help us find trees (lots of these) and goats (harder to find). We spent a bit on the half-day journey (400 MAD ~ 50 USD) but we definitely got our money's worth.

Our driver was Mohamed Elkhadir of La Arbah Rent A Car and he showed us a great time.

First we left town and stop at an overlook where we could see Essaouria and the surrounding areas stretched out before us in panorama. Then we took a drive to the Coopérative D'Argan Marjana. Now there are about a million co-ops selling Argan oil that have opened in the last decade. Most employ women (widows, divorcees, etc.), but Mohamed told us that this one was probably the best, owned and operated solely by the women for their benefit and that of the surrounding community. While there we met the women, who made the oil in the traditional way, by hand and got to taste the nuts (both roasted and unroasted( - boy were they strong and bitter (particularly the unroasted ones). I really enjoyed the zing the taste gave me. After learning a bit about the oil we went to the co-op store where they gave us moroccan mint tea (a bit lukewarm) and tastes of both the oil and Ambo - a delicious mix of Argan oil, local honey, and almonds. Both were delicious, but I liked the oil better and we ended up buying a whole liter of the stuff (cost us 450 MAD which was probably 150 to 200 above the market rate - but it was clearly highest quality and we felt like we were contributing to the community).

We left the co-op and went off in search of Argan trees and goats. Finding the trees was easy. They are all over the place - completely dominating the area. In many places all that grew was Argan trees, a bit of dried grass, and dirt. It's amazing to think that the population of trees is actually only half what it was two decades ago. The trees themselves are finicky - getting them to reproduce is something people are just starting to understand. Additionally, given how sensitive they are, climate change doesn't appear to have been good for them. Finally the people in this area are very poor. Argan trees were previously cut down to use for food, or overgrazed and killed by the goat herders. But know everyone realizes what a lucrative treasure these trees are and both the locals have become very protective as well as the government (it's a really big fine if you chop one down). So we stopped a couple of times to look at the trees, and look for their fruit (there was a drought the previous two years, this year finally raining, so few of the trees were fruiting). It was wonderful to see them up close.

But the real treat came when we found the goats. To do this, Mohamed drove us around for an hour or so, continually scanning the countryside as he drove. He took our request to see the goats really seriously. And finally perserverence paid off - we found two teenage shepherd boys with a flock of goats, 3 camels and some sheep. The goats were all over - different sizes, males, females, kids. All of them from the oldest to the youngest were climbing the trees (the little ones were really cute - being more tentative and less stable on the branches than their elders). Mohamed spoke with the boys and got their okay for us to

wander and watch to our hearts content.

And we did. Linda and I probably spent about half and hour just

watching the goats antics. They would place themselves in the most precarious positions. One goat had three feet perched practically on the same place on thin branch while reaching with its mouth for an even higher and significantly thinner branch. It tried several times to brace its fourth foot against what essentially was a twig, but eventually thought the better of it (goats aren't stupid, at least not terribly so ;).

I even got in on the action climbing into the tree with the goats - although the first time I did this I spooked them, which led me to be more cautious and less noisy on my second more successful attempt (the first one had ended with me sitting in a tree alone, all the goats having abandoned ship)!

It was an amazing and fun experience. When we left we gave each boy a 10 Dirham piece (about 1.25 USD) which was apparently a great gift for them. We then headed home, stopping for soda at Mohamed's house (he invited us for dinner, but we already had plans so we declined). Mohamed did offer as well to get Linda tagines for cooking and CDs of music we had heard in the car. So the next day we stopped by and went shopping (got two tagines for 50 Dihram which is basically nothing - 7 bucks). While we had been watching the goats, Mohamed also showed me the type of foodwear that the hearders use. They make sandals out of pieces of old tires, cobbled together with short nails. When he mentioned that he used to teach poor children, I asked him if he could find someone to use the pair of old shoes I was wearing and he told me that he definitely could and thanked me for my generosity. This was a bit humbling for me - I was going to throw these shoes out, they weren't worth shlepping around anymore, it wasn't any sacrifice for me - rather I was glad to have the opportunity to see they did something more beneficial than end up in the wastebin. So in addition to a great time, big help shopping, and hospitality, I also got to get rid of an old pair of shoes and bluejeans in a useful manner. The whole business made me really happy.

03 May 2009

Touring in Morocco

We've spent the last couple of days in London, resting and relaxing at the house of our wonderful friends Erica and Mike. This will be my last stop before returning to NY (I get in Tuesday evening) and I still haven't processed that fully. Probably won't until after I've gotten back home.

Our time here has just been so lovely. Particularly, Erica and Mike's warm hospitality has really been exactly what we needed after our recent journeys in Morocco. Last weekend we spent the Shabbos in Fez. After davening with the community (which we just barely found) we went back to our rather dank hotel and I made kiddush on a bottle of Leben (a type of middle eastern yogurt drink) and had that and an orange for dinner. This week Mike made a gourmet meal which we ate in their warm and comfy home, then retired to an airy, comfy guest room ;-)

But while our travels in Morocco were a bit rough, we did have a fantastic time there! We started our trip by traveling from Paris to Tangiers (we stayed overnight in Paris at our friend Marianna and Ana-Kaisa's). But as I've written previously we ended up spending most of that day in transit. I'll be writing (hopefully) at greater length on each of the spots we visited in Morocco, but this post is mostly about giving the overall scope and timeline of our trip.

We got to Tangiers on Wednesday evening and settled in, seeing a couple of sights in the evening. Thursday we took a tour of Tangiers and the surrounding areas in the morning and spent most of the late afternoon in an unsuccessful and incredibly frustrating negotiation. Friday morning we headed out to Fez on long-distance train ride. After about 5 hours or so we reached Fez, settled into a (not terribly nice) hotel (Linda was ill and we weren't able to shop around). In a bit she recovered some and we went out and managed to find the Fez Jewish community just as evening was coming in (okay we were late, but we did make it to services). On shabbos I went to shul in the morning, and we went on a walking tour of the medina in the afternoon. Sunday morning was rainy. We went to see the Jewish cemetery and then took a train to Marrakech. We ended up just missing the 10:50AM and had to wait until 12:50PM to go, but it was a really pleasant wait in the end (we sat in a cafe, drank tea, and I pick up some food for the ride).

The trip was supposed to be 7 hours, but it took 8 and a half. We were tired, and I was taking ill (finally succumbed to exposure to Linda's germs). Next day we did a half-day tour of Marrakech - I think I started running a fever towards the end of that. So we just hopped on a bus to Essaouria, a relaxed tourist town by the sea and decided to spend the remainder of our trip there. Really good call on that by Linda!

We got into Essaouria and spent a lovely couple of days seeing sights, recuperating a little, and generally having our most vacation-like times of the trip. Thursday midday we headed back to Marrakech. But of course our bus broke down and after much trial and travail I managed to get our hotel to send us a cab to take us to Marrakech. There were some other problems with the cab (a story for another time), but we finally arrived at 9PM. Made some friends along the way, including Alan, a North Irish trader of Moroccan goods, operating out of London. Ended up going to the Marrakech night market with him, having some great food, drinks, and fun times. Midnight we got back to a really low-budget hotel, got to sleep at 1AM for 4 hours and change, then met our (second) driver from the previous night, who took us to the airport. From there forward everything was smooth going and has been since. Looking forward to filling in all of the stories when I've recovered a bit more ;-)