22 August 2010

Lightning storms and rowdy lunches

At first I thought it was car headlights from out in the vineyard. There was no sound. The lights flashed twice. A few seconds later, they flashed twice again. And then a third time. Must be a car on the dirt road, and its headlights are lighting up the room every time it hits one of the deep ruts cut across the road to let rainwater drain off. However, it's rare to see a car out there at night.

No, it was lightning. It was far off to the southwest. At first I thought the storm would pass by south of us. Instead, it came right over. It was 5:10 a.m. I got up and started closing the windows upstairs, and then I came downstairs to see if everything was closed up down here. Callie was nervous.

Then there were 8 or 10 bolts of lightning pretty close to the house. Some of them were big streaks going up almost vertically from the ground to a point high in the sky. I was standing at the window, watching, when one bolt shot up, and it left its image on my retina for a second or so. The thunder was the kind you not only see but feel. The wind picked up and a hard rain fell. It didn't last long. By 5:35, it was pretty much over. The « barnum » didn't blow away.

So much for sleeping late on a Sunday morning. It was hot yesterday afternoon, and the storms were predicted by MétéoFrance. They say some more will probably pass through during the day today, with temperatures near 30ºC. That's the mid-80s F.

Yesterday we were invited to lunch by our neighbors — the ones who have their summer/country house across the street and who spend July and August here every year. Two of their daughters (in their mid-40s, I'd say), one son-in-law, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and two couples we hadn't met before were the other guests.

One of the M. and B.'s granddaughters is enormously pregnant and just got married in July. She having her third baby. Another must be about 20 and just got her baccalauréat. She's kind of plump and very sassy, in a good way. There were a couple of great-grandkids running around too.

Walt decided not to wear his collier cervical, the neck brace, to lunch. When he took it off to take his shower before we went over there, he noticed that he has a rash on his neck. It's been hot, and our sweaty necks are not used to being bound up in such weather.

At lunch — a big salad of fresh local tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, and slices of mozzarella to start, along with some concombres à la crème, followed by a very impressive cooked brochet (a river fish called a perch-pike) served cold, plus cheeses and desserts — the discussion was lively and hard to follow. We were inside — it was too hot outside, with the sun was beating down — and there were about 15 of us around a big rectangular table.

The discussion turned to the current controversies surrounding the Roms (gypsies who are from Romania and Bulgaria, mostly) and the gens du voyage (nomadic people who have lived in France for centuries and who have French nationality). It's a very confusing subject because there are so many groups concerned — gitans, Romanichels (called Roms), Manouches, and other travelers and tinkers.

It was obvious that the French people were upset about the Roms, who are being expelled from France by the Sarkozy government. "They'll take a payment and a plane ticket from the French government, fly back to Romania, and then they'll be back in France before long, maybe using a different name, and the whole process will start over again," one person said. "And who pays? WE DO!" Meaning "ordinary" French citizens and taxpayers.

The Roms (foreigners but European) have the right to enter France without a visa and to look for work. They aren't allowed to stay, it seems, if after three months they haven't found a job. At that point, they are illegal. A lot of them live in camps, shanty towns, on the northern fringes of the Paris area. Some are beggars. Others collect trash and recyle or try to resell it. I'm sure many are legitimately employed. They are seen as parasites and troublemakers.

The gens du voyage or "traveling people" are upset that the government doesn't provide them with adequate campgrounds where they can park their trailers and RVs and hook up to electricity and water. The law says that local authorities must provide such facilities. The travelers pay a nominal amount for the services. They've always lived that way, in their trailers.

The "travelers" have been demonstrating for better facilities down in Bordeaux over the past few days. They don't like the campground the authorities want them to use there. The other day, they parked all their vehicles and trailers on a major highway bridge outside Bordeaux, causing traffic chaos. Les gens du voyage don't want to be put in the same category as the foreign Roms. Most people don't understand the differences.

As I said, it's complicated. I sure don't understand it all.

At lunch, the discussion was loud and vigorous, with people talking over each other to express their outrage and emotion. Those kinds of discussions are hard for Walt and me to follow, much less participate in. It doesn't help that we sometimes feel the people with the most sharply expressed opinions don't really know what they are talking about. You hear people saying: "I'm not racist, but..." And then you hear the racist, or ethnically insensitive, remark. Those are the kinds of free-for-alls that I prefer to avoid.

Meanwhile, Walt took his anti-inflammatory medication in the middle of the meal, as per doctor's orders. After a few minutes, I realized he was fading. He looked pale and a little confused. Our neighbor M. also noticed and asked him to come sit on a sofa with her and rest for a minute or two. I was tired and confused by all the loud arguing.

A few minutes later, I excused us and we walked across the street to our house. I'm sure some of the people thought our exit was abrupt, and they probably think it was strange that we didn't join in all the arguments and rants. One man in particular kept looking at me, almost challenging me to say what I thought about the gypsies and the travelers. I wasn't going to be sucked in.

I'm sure M. made apologies for us, in a good way. She seems to be kind of a peacekeeper. She has seven children, after all. Sometimes she gets hot under the collar — about cat poop, for example — but not too often. When we got home, Walt stretched out on the couch and slept for about two hours. That was the drugs talking.


  1. French people are not racists, they're xenophobes which is much more inclusive than being merely racist and encompasses everything from color to religion and whatever you have in between. They use to say: "Qu'est ce que ces sales étrangers viennent faire chez nous !"

  2. People kept telling me yesterday that black people won't work. You can't expect them to work. It's their culture, people say. That's racist to me. You can't judge individuals on the basis of a stereotype you might hold about their race or ethnic group.

    They also say the Roms and the Manouches and the "travelers" — they are all the same. That's not exactly racist, but it's what they call « faire l'amalgame » — putting them all in the same basket. Wikipedia calls « l'almagame » « une technique de désinformation simple et efficace ».

    Back in the 1970s and early '80s, I used to think French people weren't racist but that was before there was a real race problem in France. People here just hadn't yet had to confront the problem.

    I think that the French people have become more racist, and that they remain as xenophobic as ever. Tout pour plaire ! Still, I love it here. People are people, everywhere.

  3. This stuff comes out when people feel threatened. I'm in Japan this month, I've lived in Poland, my permanent residence is in the US and I spend a considerable amount of time in France every year. It's the same everywhere. Most people are kind and welcoming. Some are afraid and they become insular distrustful.

    Like you, I don't like to hear these kinds of statements. But I haven't found a country free of them. France is full of good, open minded people. Obviously not everyone is that way. That's to be expected.

    You're wise not to engage in this stuff. Not when it's all at the level of theory and no one is being hurt before your eyes. Still, I surely understand how unpleasant it can get to hear it.

  4. funnily enough I have a romanian couple painting my house now...they are delightful & have been in the us for 30 yrs.....still have an accent...and he mentioned the other day that his house here in western NC is on the market for a million $...I should be painting their house....lol

  5. Interesting. I did not know there was such a thing as "gens du voyage" in France. It sounds like you met some fans of Jean Marie Le Pen.

    When we were in Italy recently, we tried to go to a well-reviewed restaurant in the Trastevere section of Rome. At 8:00 pm, their doors were locked. The host just looked at me repeatedly trying to pull the door open. I could see through the windows it was full of people inside, so I knocked several times. He finally answered, opening the door a tiny crack and asked what we wanted. "To eat, and why is your door locked during business hours?' I asked. "Gypsies, he said. "we have a BIG problem with them." This surprised me to no end - and I think I was wearing a suit.

    I have to say, I like diversity. I think it makes us all a little richer to have different people, languages and cultures around us. And of course, different foods. Parts of Canada are very open minded - Toronto, Vancouver. In the US, the coasts and Chicago. I would have steered clear of that conversation as well.

  6. Love your comments, chm!

    I was 15 when I visited France for the first time and was surprised to get racist comments when I told people I was from Louisville, Ky. They knew this was a Southern state because of our KY Derby. I didn't say anything, but lucky in that I was bien elevée, ouf!

    Glad you were able to keep your tongue, Ken. There are times to speak out, but this wasn't one of them.

  7. Well, it's great that you had a good excuse to leave early, then :)

    Diogenes, what did this mean?:
    Parts of Canada are very open minded - Toronto, Vancouver. In the US, the coasts and Chicago.

    You can't seriously be saying that you'll find predominantly open-minded people largely in Chicago and the US coasts, and mostly just there... really? You really think that? If I've interpreted your comment correctly, then I will add that yours is an amazingly small-minded and incorrect statement. If I've misinterpreted, please correct me.

    One thing that I always try to impress upon people I meet from other countries, is that here in the U.S., we have EVERY possible kind of person and attitude. While it's very easy to make sweeping generalizations, they're always wrong. No matter in what area you go, you will find a mix of open-minded, intelligent people, and closed-minded idiots, and everything in between. We aren't all the same, anywhere.


  8. The hardest thing is to keep your mouth shut, especially when you have an opinion. I keep trying to learn this. That, and patience. Good for you, Ken. I hope Walt is feeling better.

  9. Hi Ginny, I know what you mean about biting your tongue. But when you are speaking a foreign language in a crowd of people who are really on a rant, you learn to do it. It's hard to keep up with the arguments and assertions flying every which way, and even harder to contribute anything articulate and reasonable in the middle of the melee.

    The woman sitting next to me at lunch, who was one of the most outspoken, not to say bigoted, on the Rom/gypsy/traveler issue, at one point asked me, one-on-one, what I think of President Obama. I told her I was impressed by what he has accomplished and wish he could push the country even faster in direction he is taking it. She then said she thought Obama was so much better than GW Bush. He was a disaster, she said, and I said I agreed. And then I told her that I think President Sarkozy is pushing France in the same direction Bush tried (successfully, unfortunately) to push the U.S., and that we all should realize that. She didn't really respond, but I think it made her think about what she was saying.

    I think it's interesting and more effective to talk to people one-on-one, calmly, rather than get in the middle of a shouting match.

  10. Hi Seine Judeet,

    I am sorry if I offended you. That is NEVER my intention in any comment I make here, ever. I only want to make positive contributions and I enjoy both Walt and Ken's blogs very much, especially as my partner and I would like to retire in France - if the stock market ever comes back to life.

    I made my comment based on my personal experiences, without thinking much about it. Yes, there are wonderful people in every place, large and small, all over the US. I agree.

    However, I am a gay man. Some context: I grew up in Texas, then went to undergraguate and graduate school in NY and the UK. I have lived in Tehran, NY, DC, LA, Montreal, Philadelphia, Dallas, and now Phoenix.

    I know first hand what discrimination feels like and in my experience, I feel its sting far less often in places like NY and LA, than in Dallas, Phoenix and other parts of the US. So, I guess I'm referring to percentages. Honestly, not a week goes by without me being called a name by someone here in Phoenix - and I won't even delve into the new AZ immigration law. 12 years in LA, 7 years in NY and never once do I recall this happening. Perhaps your experiences are different.

    I apologize if my candor here offended anyone. I'll avoid politics and religion in future comments. Best to all. :-)

  11. Thanks, Diogenes. I'm absolutely not trying to stifle your comments on any topic, just wanting to give you some food for thought in the hope that you'll avoid those kinds of generalizations. Please don't let my taking issue with your comments make you feel that you can't be yourself.

    I think we all know that some families and religions encourage the kind of open-mindedness we all need to be around, and others don't. I think those issues-- along with education and opportunities and exposure-- affect people's attitudes, not what part of the country they are in.

    Big cities like LA and NY tend to have perhaps more people who (maybe for financial reasons) have had the opportunity to have experiences necessary to open their minds, so it would follow that you might find more open-minded folks there. But, we exist everywhere.

    Of course, part of the irony of your comment is that the biggest state on the West Coast is struggling once again with a large force who want to discriminate against gay marriage. So we're surely not able to say that those folks on that coast are all full of acceptance and understanding. And, the city of St. Louis has a very thriving and open gay culture, smack dab in the good old midwest.

    Another irony to your comment, is that I find that many New Yorkers, for example, are horrendously closed-minded about people who even live in neighboring states, like New Jersey (where I grew up for my first 16 years), let alone the midwest or the south. I've encountered New Yorkers who have been the rudest and most obnoxious, self-centered, closed-minded people imaginable.They don't represent everyone from NY, or from the East Coast, but they sure do exist.

  12. Hi Ken! I saw this issue on the news and was wondering if there were any "goings on." I remembered the trouble there a few weeks ago. I'm guessing things will start to get interesting there before long.

    I laughed when you said that Walt was starting to fade - I've taken those kind of drugs and I would have been face down in my salad..and wouldn't that have been a sight!

    Sorry about all your green tomatoes - did you remember you can batter and fry them? Thats some mid-west for you. We are in the middle of county fair season - all things are deep fried. Nothing is sacred!

  13. One interesting thing about this whole lunch experience and the heated discussion about Roms and travellers is that the July incidents in Saint-Aignan and the surrounding village never came up. I guess that's old news now; it happened more than a month ago now.

    Ohiofarmgirl, I hope the tomatoes still have time to ripen. They are starting to look better. It's not even September yet, and we often have a warm September.

    Nina, thanks for your comment. I agree with you.

    Melinda, that's interesting. In North Carolina? Small world.

    Diogenes and Judy, I understand, I think and hope, what both of you are talking about. It's better not to generalize, but at the same time there are different outlooks in different parts of the country, parts of the city, and so on. Here around Saint-Aignan, attitudes we encounter are different from what I remember in Paris. At the same time, we are very comfortable here in Saint-Aignan and the Loire Valley. No problems.

    Evelyn, I had comments from French people about being a racist way back then, in the early 70s too, not because I was a Southerner but just because I was Americans. I too was bien élevé about it.

  14. I was not familiar with the term "bien eleve" so after seeing it appear twice today in your "comments" section I had to look it up. Now I know. Learning things like that in your blog is what I like, Ken. Glad Walt is feeling better! Oh! And I think we had lightning storms at the same time yesterday - 9 P.M. Arizona time would be around 5 A.M. your time....funny, huh? Apparently Diogenes can verify....


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