Sunday, December 9, 2007

Culture Shocked

I have spent my entire life living between different cultures; as a product of French-Canadian/Catholic heritage living in a town where everyone was either Italian or Jewish, the only daughter surrounded by brothers, the youngest amongst my siblings and friends due to a birthday late in the year, growing up in a city and spending summers in an extremely rural area, growing up middle class in a upper middle class milieu, living as a foreigner abroad, working as a foreigner in my own country but for foreign governments... and the list goes on and on. I have always been too other for the one that I was with. What has happened is that this is where I am most comfortable.

What I have learned from all this is to stop (to the best of my ability) being shocked by differences, other cultures - this is the direct result of always having had to explain differences/nuances to others - to ease their shock.

I went to a premier of a French movie recently and at the event afterwards I was with a French friend - at the bar when someone who worked on the film festival came up to us and asked my friend - so were the Americans shocked? To which I said, well I wasnt and cant understand why people found the film shocking but I cant speak for my fellow countrymen. The response to this was a "mais bien sur vous ne pouvez pas" well if it is so obvious that I cant speak for a country of multiple millions of citizens - why did you just ask me to?

Then I found myself trying to explain why I am American and wasnt shocked - as this seemed odd since a lot of audience members left looking shell-shocked and hadnt applauded. Could there be an age difference? It depends on what you have done and seen in your life - I have lived most of my life in major cities - so seemingly "alternative" lifestyles dont really shock me.

I left frustrated at having been put on the spot and then somewhat disregarded since my opinions didnt measure up to someone else's expectations. I was brushed off as being different since I didnt agree.

Since I am often on the receiving end of these conversations - I really try to the best of my ability to relativise things - while it may look "bizarre", "etrange", or shocking to you - it is perfectly normal or maybe there are reasons for it in another place and time. Isnt it more interesting to look into that?

I think I take offense as I find the word shocking to be very violent. It is a violent reaction to something the clearly isnt understood by the "other".

I say this but everyone has things that shock them - prejudice shocks me. I just wish that before judging we could ask questions instead of seeing the "other" as bizarre or shocking. I find that that means you really dont understand something and you dont care to look inside.

Saturday, December 8, 2007


During the cumulative time over my life spent living in, working in and/or with, and traveling to France - I have had beaucoup d' experience in France with strikes (les greves).

I applaud the right and courage of anyone to stand up for their rights, for wrongdoings - as this has normally been a harbinger for needed and impending societal change. When and where this has been executed, if it has been hard to do then it was much, much needed.

Last month, there was a series of crippling strikes that lasted almost 8 days in France and were only stopped so that negotiations could take place - but the talk has already begun for the next set of strikes to begin soon.

As someone who has spent the majority of my life in the U.S., our collective experience with strikes in wholly different than that of France. They are FEW and far between and they do not paralyze cities, not regions, nor sometimes the entire country (depends on how you measure this) here.

A few comments:

1. My first and most important lesson about French strikes was learned during a year of studies in Paris. There was a strike one day that I had been unaware of so when I set out for my normal commute to school and realized that no bus or metro would take me there and that I now had to walk, I arrived for a three hour lecture probably two hours late. After the lecture (a room filled with at least 300 students), I approached the teacher to apologise and expected punishment in return. The teacher 1) had no idea who I was and 2) said something to the likes of mais bien sur you were late there was a strike today - no problem.

I was utterly surprised - as normally in the US schools I attended, lateness bore no valid excuses, ever. That day, I realised that strikes in France work in part because the country allows them to, they are part and parcel of life in France. Explained by small signs posted on banks the day before notifying clients that they will be on strike the next day, by and elderly lady driving past a bus stop where she saw two young Americans with loads of baggage - the lady not only stops to tell them but offers a ride to the airport as the bus is on strike that day (true story), and that teachers freely and wholly except students' missing 2/3 of class due to strikes.

They dont work to the same effect in the US as this country does not accept them nor work together to maintain life during them as selflessly.

Where I disagree with les greves is here - normally the dialogue is between the striker and their big boss - e.g. the president of Air France, the head of the RATP... peu importe. Yet those who strike are normally people like myself - making a decent living, but not the highest paid. En bref, they send an indirect message to their big boss by directly affecting those just like them - people trying to live their daily life - but who have NOTHING to do with the issue.

For example, when stewardesses or pilots or whomever at Air France go on strike, plane service is disrupted. Who does this hurt? People like myself, or even worse people who save up for years to take a trip to France only to have their flight cancelled (while the last time Air France refunded those whom they could not re accommodate) but what about hotels? Should hotels in a third country reimburse because stewardesses at Air France decided to strike and therefore someone couldnt make it to their destination? No and they dont generally. Does this affect the big boss - well first off, he - I am betting doesnt fly on Air France commercial flights.
And while it affects the bottom line - isnt this just always passed on to the consumer, again the people like you and me who might have also just lost $$ on their booked hotels - as well as having had to re arrange their vacations, business plans - whatever it is.

For those people, - this seems unfair. Doesnt it?