Cheesy Lessons

Photo by MaxStraeten at Morguefile.com

The Good Life France is a great blog about all things French. They also do a quarterly magazine – check out the current issue for my article on what I’ve learned about French cheese (page 88.)  You can also enter your name to win a copy of my book (page 86.)

You can check out the magazine here

Can the Radical Centrists Win in France?

A wave of populism has been washing over the political world – first Brexit, then Trump, and soon perhaps the Netherlands.

But the big country to watch is France, which has long had a strong populist party in the National Front. Its leader, Marine Le Pen, currently leads in polls for the upcoming French presidential election. France was one of the founding members of the European Union and today is arguably the lynchpin. If Le Pen wins, it could signal the end of the European project.

Most people are focused on the French presidential election. But the legislative election, which happens right after it, could be even more important. Let’s look at both.

The Presidential Election

To start, it helps understand how the two-round French electoral system works. Phineas Rueckert recently wrote an excellent article about this in Frenchly, which you can find here.

There are four candidates who could plausibly win the presidency. Arrayed across the political spectrum from left to right, they are: Benoit Hamon of the Socialist party, Emmanuel Macron of En Marche !, François Fillon of the Republican Party and Marine Le Pen of the National Front.

Normally, the election would feature a runoff between the candidates of the two main political parties, the Socialists and the Republicans. But this is no normal year.

The Socialists are the party of current French president François Hollande. He is widely considered a failure, with the lowest ratings of any French president, and is not standing for reelection.

This has thrown his party into disarray and led to the election of a candidate who represents the left of the left. Hamon campaigned on a platform of a universal minimum income and a 32-hour workweek. While this thrills the activist base of the Socialist party, it marginalizes him with the larger electorate. Hamon will be lucky to get 15% of the vote.

The Republicans would normally be expected to profit from this turmoil in the Socialist party. Their candidate, Fillon, is a respected former prime minister. He is deeply conservative and moved even further to the right in the Republican primary.

Fillon was positioning himself to appeal to supporters of the extreme-right National Front in the general election. It was a reasonable strategy when he was the favorite to win the presidency. But then the Pénélopegate scandal engulfed his campaign.

Pénélope is Fillon’s wife. Fillon has presented himself as a kind of Mr. Clean, but then evidence emerged that Pénélope and two of their sons have been paid over $1 million in government funds for possibly fictitious jobs. The ensuing scandal has tarred Fillon as “just another corrupt politician” and he has plummeted in the polls.

With both major parties in bad shape, this should be Le Pen’s moment. She is an outsider at a time when conventional candidates are disdained. She is a populist at a time when populism is ascendant. Her party has been gaining in strength over the last several national elections and she currently leads in the polls. But three things will probably cause the presidency to elude her grasp.

First, while she has a solid base of support – approximately one third of the electorate – the opposing parties tend to team up against National Front candidates in the second round of elections. This has cost her party victories in the past and is expected to do so again in the presidential election.

Second, Le Pen is facing her own fake job scandal. Her party has a history of corruption and has been the target of numerous government investigations. Le Pen has been able to shrug these off in the past by arguing that it’s just “the system” out to get her.

But that tactic won’t work this time because of Pénélopegate, which has entrapped a leading member of “the system.” The more news coverage Pénélopegate gets, the more it reminds voters that Le Pen, as well as Fillon, is just another corrupt politician.

Third, Le Pen is no longer the new new thing. Since taking over her party in 2011, she has benefited from being the fresh face in French politics. But that role is now being played by our last presidential contender, Emmanuel Macron.

At 39, Macron is young for a presidential candidate. He has had a limited political career, serving as Economy Minister for just two years under Hollande. He has never held elective office.

While this thin resume would normally disqualify Macron, it is helping him in this year of outsiders. He is independently wealthy and does not seem to have been touched by the usual political corruption. And the French find his personal life fascinating, as he is married to his former high school teacher – who is 24 years his senior.

Most importantly, Macron benefits from the political space left vacant by his opponents. The leftist party has moved to the left and the rightist party has moved to the right, leaving a gaping hole in the political center. Macron is a classic centrist, a pro-business former banker who served in a Socialist government. He doesn’t have to contort himself in order to stake out a position between the major parties.

Macron has recently joined forces with François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist MoDem party, further cementing his position in the political center. Macron has been climbing in the polls and is pulling close to Le Pen. The combination of his political positioning, his clean record and his status as the shiny new face of French politics make him the current favorite to win the presidency.

Then What? The Legislative Election

France has a political system that is kind of a cross between those of the US and UK. Like the US, it elects its president directly. Like the UK, it has a prime minister who is elected by the legislature. Together they run the country, with the president playing the role of CEO and the prime minister the COO. The prime minister runs the government and the cabinet reports to him or her.

French parliamentary elections take place a few weeks after the presidential election. Normally, the party that wins the presidency also wins a majority in the parliament. When this happens, the president nominates a prime minister, who is then approved by parliament. The prime minister then names a cabinet, in consultation with the president.

But sometimes the president and the prime minister come from different parties, creating “cohabitation.” Cohabitation is usually a recipe for conflict and inaction, as our own experience in the US shows.

What is interesting about Macron is that he is an independent candidate. There is no party behind him. He has created what he calls a “movement,” En Marche !, that functions like a party. But it is still immature and is not yet organized enough to win a national legislative election with hundreds of seats in play.

While Macron is actively recruiting candidates and will win some seats, it is hard to see En Marche ! gaining a majority in parliament. And given the state of the other parties, it is hard to see one of them winning a majority, either. This opens the path to a functioning parliamentary coalition.

Macron is uniquely qualified to make this happen. Running as a centrist, with relatively weak ties to the Socialist party, he can make deals without fear of treading on party orthodoxy. Together with Bayrou, I expect him to build a cabinet with members from multiple parties. This team would then drive a legislative agenda with support from centrists from all parties.

This will require both skill and luck. With his limited government experience, Macron will need to team up with someone who is skilled in the dark arts of legislative sausage making. And there is always the risk that a fractured legislature falls into bickering and stasis.

But the people of France, like those in the US and other countries, are tired of division and extremes. People want to see policies enacted that are reasonable and are not driven by ideology. There is a real chance that France will be the country where the populist wave dissipates and a radically centrist government shows a new way forward.

Provence Starter Kit

Thinking of visiting Provence, the land of glorious lavender fields and charming hilltop villages?  Good for you!

But planning a trip to a new destination can be challenging. Where do you begin?

What you need is a Provence Starter Kit!  And here it is.

A Week in Provence

Provence has so much to see and do that you can be overwhelmed with choices. I’ve put together a one-week itinerary that hits many of the top spots. It allows you to stay in one town the entire time, rather than moving from place to place. You can savor Provençal life in lovely St.-Rémy-de-Provence while taking short trips to enjoy the wide range of what Provence has to offer. Here’s the link.

 

Favorite Restaurants

Want to try traditional Provençal dishes? Or maybe have a big, delicious salad for lunch? Perhaps you’d like something exotic, like Moroccan food. Peruse my list of favorite restaurants and pick whatever strikes your fancy. Here’s the link.

 

 

Informative Blogs

There are a number of excellent bloggers who cover all aspects of life in Provence – things to see, places to eat, special events that are going on, and more. These blogs give you a way to find out what’s going on in Provence from people who are in the know. I’ve put together a list of my favorites. Here’s the link.

 

Parlez-Vous Français ?

Even a little French can help you get around and connect with the locals. I’ve put together some of my favorite language websites. Here’s the link.  At a minimum, you should definitely put the Larousse dictionary app on your phone!

Book Review – But you are in France, Madame

Catherine Berry has a dream, to live in France with her family. And it is no small endeavor, as this family of 5 start out half way around the world, in Australia.

It is inspiring to share their story as she and her husband put work on hold and organize the family move. We feel part of the adventure and of overcoming many obstacles, such as finding a place to live, getting proper driving permits, and dealing with the French school system for the 3 children. And, somehow, the one-year stay turns into four.

Berry provides a realistic view of the ups and downs of daily life and trying to navigate in a foreign culture. And while sharing these difficulties, she does so with a healthy perspective and an eye for appreciating cultural differences.

Berry and her family exude a joy for life and for trying new things. They hike many trails in mountains of the Haute-Savoie region where they live. They learn to water ski on the lake and become good friends with the instructor. They come to appreciate the joy of cooking and eating local specialties, and they use the school holidays to explore the many, diverse regions of France.

From participating in local festivals and shopping in nearby “garage” sales, the family demonstrates how one can have meaningful experiences without them being expensive.

They come to appreciate their lifestyle in France and are enriched by it. And so are we, by reading this book.

Products from Amazon.com

A Great Way to Travel

Why the big hurry?

Photo by lauramusikanski at Morguefile.com

When I first started traveling, it was rush, rush, rush to see all the sights. I wouldn’t stay more than a couple of days in any city before I was off to the next. So much to see! Go go go!

But while I saw a lot, I didn’t fully enjoy it. Over time, I figured out what many people do – slower is better. It isn’t just about the sights; it’s about savoring the place. Sometimes less really is more.

Now my wife and I try to stay in a place for about a week. We rent an apartment if we can, so that we can shop at the local markets and eat some of our meals at home. It’s fun to go to the bakery every morning for fresh bread, eventually being recognized by the baker when you walk in.

We linger in the cafés, people watch, and get a sense of the rhythm of a place. We chat with the locals and get their perspective on life. We do less but experience our destination more fully.

Of course, we still like to see things. So we try to stay in a town with some interesting sights, and from which we can take short day trips. That way we only have to unpack and pack our suitcases once – heaven!

A favorite destination is Provence, where we now live part of the year. For those of you thinking of spending a week there, I’ve written a short article on how to experience Provence in seven days. It’s centered on the lovely town of St.-Rémy-de-Provence, with plenty of beautiful and interesting things to see and do within an hour’s drive.

Here’s the link.

Bon voyage !

Photo by lauramusikanski at Morguefile.com

Learning a New Language at Age 40+

You Can Do It!

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual

How about two languages? Bilingual

Just one? American

This old joke has more than a grain of truth to it. Unless you are an immigrant or a child of immigrants, chances are you only speak English.

There are lots of reasons for this. Like…we’re a big country and don’t need to speak anyone else’s darned language. Or…English is already the “international language” so other languages are unnecessary.

It’s also true that foreign languages are not emphasized in school. Plus they are hard to learn! And if you didn’t do it when you were young and had a nice elastic brain, it is even harder.

So what if you are over 40 and want to learn a second language?

The good news is, it can be done. I learned French in my 50s.

Here’s the approach I recommend.

Decide on Your Goals

There are lots of reasons to learn a new language. Your work may require it. Or you may want to travel abroad and be able to communicate. Or maybe you want to dive into another country’s literature.

Each of these paths is different – for example, one emphasizes written rather than spoken language. And one needs a business vocabulary instead of a tourist vocabulary. The level of language mastery required varies as well.

So start by knowing where you want to go. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.

Finally, be reasonable. Fluency sounds great, but even a basic level of language competence can have a big impact on your life.

Build a Foundation

You need some rudimentary knowledge to get started, like the fundamentals of grammar and pronunciation.   You don’t need a lot but you do need some. So take a beginner’s course – you can easily find one online or at a local college or community center. Start by building that foundation.

Talk Talk Talk

It is fascinating to talk to foreigners in their own language. And by far the best way to learn a new language is to speak it.

You are probably thinking, who wants to talk to a newbie, someone who can barely string three words together and makes lots of mistakes?

The answer is – another newbie. A language partner.

There are websites, like www.mylanguageexchange.com, that help you find language partners. Let’s say that you speak English and want to learn French. You can search this site and find French speakers who want to learn English. AND you can find someone whose level (beginner, intermediate, etc.) is the same as yours.

This other person faces the same challenges you do – they are trying to learn a new language and they need someone to talk to. So they will be patient as you struggle with their language because they know exactly what you are going through. You are helping them and they are helping you.

Once you find a potential language partner you can invite them to connect. If they accept then you are ready to go! I have found that Skype calls once or twice a week have really accelerated my language learning. I do them for about an hour at a time, the first half in French and the second in English.

A couple of pro tips:

– Video calls are better than voice, especially when you need to pantomime (and you will.)

– Try to find language partners with similar interests or you will run out of things to talk about.

Listen, Too

 When I first started learning French and would hear people speak it, it seemed like all the words ran together. Where did one word end and the next one begin? Until I could learn to distinguish individual words, I had a hard time understanding what people said.

I found that I had to “tune my ear” by listening to a lot of French. Happily, there are podcasts available on just about any subject and in just about any language. Do you like cooking and want to learn Spanish? There are plenty of Spanish-language cooking podcasts. Do you enjoy history and want to learn Chinese?   There are podcasts for you. Do you love baseball and want to learn Ukrainian? Ok, well, you might be out of luck there.

Listen to these podcasts as you drive or walk the dog or work in the garden. At first it will be a blur, but slowly your brain will adapt and you’ll be able to hear the different words. That’s a big step to learning your second language.

You Don’t Have to be Perfect

No one likes to make mistakes, especially in public, so there is a natural tendency to avoid talking until you are really good. But you need to talk to get really good, so this is self-defeating. Just stop worrying about feeling stupid. Learn to laugh at yourself.

Most people appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language. Yes, I’ve had the occasional rude French waiter. But I’ve had rude waiters everywhere, including my hometown.

I have found that French people (or Italians, or Japanese, or whomever) smile and nod and encourage me when I try to speak their language. It shows respect for them and their culture. Who doesn’t appreciate that?

And sometimes when you make a mistake, you get a funny story out of it.

French and English share a lot of words, like nation and pause. If I don’t know a word in French I sometimes fake it by using the English word with a French accent.  It usually works, but not always.

I once served some French friends a cheese with edible ash on it. As I brought out the plate I announced it in French as a cheese with ash. My friends, after recovering from their shock, explained to me that this meant hashish. Oops.

Anticipate a Few Ups and Downs

Language learning is a funny thing – it happens in spurts. It seems like you are making no progress at all, sometimes for weeks, and then suddenly you take a big leap forward. I don’t know why it happens but it does, so don’t be discouraged when you feel like you are working hard and not getting anywhere. And enjoy the leaps when they happen.

 Have Fun!

This is going to take a while and you need to have fun to stick with it. So find ways to enjoy the language as you are learning.   Maybe take a vacation to try out your new skills. Or watch movies in your new language. Or go to a restaurant where they speak the language and chat with the waiters.

I subscribe to a US newspaper and a French one. I look for stories that both papers have covered and read them in English and then in French (I read English first because that helps me understand what the story is about.)   It can be fascinating to see two perspectives on the same subject.

 

After studying French and traveling there often, I can now hold meaningful conversations in my second language. I have friends in France and even read French books. It still surprises me because I was terrible with languages as a kid.

Learning a new language as an adult is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

I hope it will be for you, too.

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com

France and the “Right to Disconnect”

The French are at it again

Photo by xpiswv at Morguefile.com

First it was all that vacation time.

Then it was the 35-hour workweek.

Now the French have established the “right to disconnect.” (http://tinyurl.com/h8y85lb)

Yes, a new law requires employers to negotiate with their employees on when they can send them work-related emails. After 7pm? No, that’s too late! I’ve already started my aperitif!

Coming from Silicon Valley as I do, at first this sounded crazy. After all, around here we joke that “flexible working hours” means “you can put in your 18-hour day whenever you’d like.” We’re inventing the future! We don’t have time for vacations!

But then I reflected on the years I spent as an expat working in Switzerland.

Work there was confined to the regular workweek and only rarely spilled over to the weekend. More than that, stores in Switzerland closed at noon on Saturday and didn’t open again until Monday.

This was really annoying at first. My wife and I worked all week, which meant we had to cram our shopping into Saturday morning. What a pain!

But eventually we came to appreciate everything being closed. We couldn’t shop, we couldn’t run errands. We had to take a break.

Over time we settled in and learned to do what everyone else did – enjoyed the weekend as a time for family and friends, a time for hikes in the mountains and lunches in the garden.

Living in Switzerland was wildly different from what we were used to in Silicon Valley. People worked hard just like at home, but life was somehow less hectic.

Work wasn’t the be-all and end-all: my wife was once eating a sandwich at her desk when a colleague came by and lectured her on the importance of taking a proper lunch break. And everyone took all of their vacation days; not to do so was considered unhealthy.

Yet the Swiss economy is the envy of the world. And productivity, a key measure of economic health, is higher in France than in Germany or Japan.

So maybe those lazy French are actually on to something – time away from work can actually be good for you and good for the economy.

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com

Note: this story was picked up by National Public Radio and broadcast on 1/11/17: 

http://tinyurl.com/hxuha7m

The Craziest Hotel Sign I Ever Saw

It’s different in Europe.

baby-by-greyerbaby-morguefile

My wife and I once stayed at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, one of Italy’s grandest hotels. We don’t usually stay in a place like that but it was our anniversary so we splurged.

We got into our room, put our suitcase down and admired the view over Lake Como. Nice!

Then my wife noticed a card lying on the nightstand. It was like a “Do Not Disturb” sign, but different. Really different.

“Take a look at this,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

The card was in four languages and it took me a minute to find one I understood. Then I saw it. It was an instruction to the guest: “If you leave your baby alone in the room in the evening, please hang up this sign on the door (outside).”

I flipped the card over. This was the side that would be visible when you hung it on your doorknob.

At the top was, “Silence, baby is sleeping.” And below, “I’m alone. If I cry, please tell the concierge.”

“Do you think this is for real?” I asked. “You just leave your baby in the room by itself?”

“I guess,” said my wife. “But I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.”

I can’t say if anyone actually used the card. We kept our ears open but didn’t hear any abandoned babies crying in their room. Nor did we see the concierge scurrying around with a wailing infant in his arms. But still.

Definitely a WTF moment.

baby-sign-2baby-sign-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com

Remembrance of Truthiness Past

Myth and Memory in France

soldier-by-cyblor

A French friend gave me the book 1940 by Max Gallo, a fine writer and historian. It’s the story of the first year of World War II.

I liked 1940 so much that I read the following volumes, covering the rest of the war and the immediate post-war period. The books take a French perspective and concentrate on things like the Vichy government and the liberation of Paris.

I was struck by how Charles de Gaulle, immediately after victory, went about rewriting history. French society had been deeply split before and during WWII and there was a real risk of civil war.

So de Gaulle created the enduring myth that it was only a few bad apples that had collaborated with the Nazis. The vast majority of the population had instead been part of the glorious Résistance. This wasn’t true, of course, but it helped French society hold together and move forward after the war.

I was also struck by the gigantic role that the Soviet Union had played. It was Stalin who stopped Hitler’s main advance. It was the Red Army that inflicted the majority of German casualties. The war would not have been won without the Soviets.

But that’s not what I learned in school. I grew up during the Cold War, when the Soviets were our enemies. No way those darned Russkies were going to get the glory!

So while their role was minimized, ours was magnified. I was taught that the war in Europe pretty much started with D-Day and we were the heroes. Yay, USA!

This made me wonder: if France and the United States had created our own national myths about the war, what about other countries? What did they think really happened? So I sought out three friends – one British, one Italian and one who had grown up in Armenia, in the Soviet Union.

My British friend told me, “Well you know, old chap, the Battle of Britain is what really stopped Hitler. And we English bravely held on for years until you Yanks figured things out and finally showed up. Pity that you weren’t a bit quicker on the uptake, old boy.”

My Armenian friend was more nuanced. “What I learned in school is that the Red Army was welcomed as a great liberator as it marched west to Berlin. In fact, it was so welcome that all the countries it liberated asked us to stay and run them. It was only after I moved to America that I learned that last part wasn’t true.”

The best response came from my Italian friend. She had once asked her grandmother, who lived near Genoa, what had happened in the war. “We won, of course!” replied her grandmother.

“But wait, Nonna,” said my friend, “I thought Mussolini was Hitler’s ally!”

“Well yes, yes, there is that,” said the grandmother, “but we got rid of him. And after we surrendered to the Allies, we changed sides.”

“So we won!”

While Stephen Colbert may have coined the word “truthiness” in 2005, playing with the truth goes back a long way.

Read more at www.keithvansickle.com