Tuesday, October 23, 2012

... and on the flip side...

After sharing some of the confusing behaviors we sometimes observe in Americans who live in Paris, I started thinking about how a few Parisians we've met view the USA.

In French literature, there is a rich and varied body of work devoted to cowboys and indians.  The books of le petit Nicholas (by Sempe-Goscinny) have several chapters devoted to the wild west.  French radio (FM105.1, in particular) plays a lot of American music.  Department stores and supermarkets pipe in all manner of music that was generated in the US.  American cinema fills the city.  Reading through the weekly l'officiel des spectacles, nearly half the publication is given to listing cinema events throughout the city.  Much of that has also been created in the US.

Moyen Age

Many of the upper middle class working Parisians we have talked with have visited the US.  And of those who have visited, a surprising number of them have children who live and work in America.  All of them (so far) seem surprised that anyone from the US would choose to live in Paris.  They wonder what we see about living here that they don't.

In my worst possible French, I tell them that is appears la pelouse est toujours plus verte la.  Something about the greenness of grass and it being not where you are.

Some Parisians have a very clear, strong impression of America that we, as former residents, could only feel.  And that, from a remote, distant kind of sensation.

For example, someone observed that Americans are continually divided against themselves.  That person could not believe how racial minority Americans constantly "put each other down".  They were shocked they did not support each other, as they do in France.  Instead, they said, these groups seemed to express nothing but anger within the communities they live.

In another example, someone observed that American politics is more circus than reality.  They noted how moronic the whole play of position, power, and governance seems when viewed against the much more serious political backdrop of Europe.  Berlusconi not withstanding (a little inside joke, this).

Vrbain Constant

In general, what the French seem to like about America are the wide open spaces.  More than a few people we've talked with have noted the same liking of American open space.  Some French appear to like working in the US more than in France.  Apparently, working for a corporation in France can be hell.  I don't say much about certain rollup or private equity companies in America.  I figure if they found a great job in the US and if it's better than what they could find here, more power to them.

It's increasingly obvious to me that the world we live in is not simply black and white, good and bad, right or wrong.  As Jean Paul Sartre's author of the forward to his "Being and Nothingness" says, there are as many valid points of view as there are viewers.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Luck and opportunity...

My wife trades emails with a childhood friend who also lives here in Europe.  When  Jude told her she felt lucky to be here, her friend pointed out that being able to live here actually comes as a result of hard work and dedication to following dreams.

Jude and I are working hard to integrate into French life and culture.  We are taking language lessons.  We shop the local open-air market three days a week.  We enjoy using exercising our limited communication skills to find out what's on the minds of people who were born and raised in Paris.  We visit places of interest and see things with wondering eye.  We can't imagine living our lives any other way.

le musee de Cluny

As Jude says, if you don't by your lottery ticket, you stand no chance of being lucky enough to win.  "Luck" is expressed to those who put themselves in a position to take advantage of it.

I naively thought that if you were fortunate enough to live in Paris, that we must be of similar minds.  Boy, have I ever been wrong!

It is from this perspective that we can begin to see why the French roll their eyes when people begin the Standard American Pontification.  With feet set firm, and jaw clenched just so, the American Judgements On How Things Really Are And Need To Be all too often begin.  This does not work as a broad generalization.  Not every American ex-pat we meet Pontificates in the manner, but those who do certainly stand out.

le musee de Cluny

Why would anyone carry arrogant assumptions about how "right" they are while coming from a place where the food system is broken?  Coming from a money milking health care system provides third-world class services?  Coming from a circus-style political system that diverts any reasonable discussion of what might actually benefit We The People?  Coming from a place where a financial system is so clearly slanted to making more money for the already rich?

We watch as the French become uneasy when people start to Explain Just How Wrong the French Way Of Doing Things is.  Could you imagine how these same Americans might feel if someone back home started to explain how much better things are in, say, Thailand, or Germany, or, heaven forefend, Mexico?  I'm sure they would be asked why they didn't just turn around and go back to where they come from.  You can almost read this response in the eyes of the French when confronted with Americans who have all the answers to all the world's, and most certainly, France's problems.

Museum national d'Histoire naturelle

Such behavior leaves us, frankly, scratching our heads.  The certitude of being "right" has to be covering something.  Right?  Perhaps it covers incredible insecurities about the "rightness" of a failing system that people have no idea how to escape from?  Maybe it's that some ex-pats want a proscribed predefined Disney-esque fantasy of what it's like to live here?

The confused contrasts are sometimes startling.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Un anniversaire

This week, we celebrate six months of living in Paris, France.  In two weeks, we will celebrate the first year of my being laid off from work in the USA.

I was hoping to be able to retire gracefully out of my job as a software engineering program manager.  I had contributed in several important areas to the company's ability to generate $3BILLION over ten years.  I had helped build the foundation that enabled another $500MILLION over ten years.  I was good at what I did.

Alas, locking horns with the president of the company (quite inadvertently on my part, I can assure you) put paid to any hope of a graceful retirement.  Instead, I was invited to endure the worst week of my professional career in an all too public manner.  The president's complete mis-use of the Toyota Way made his real intentions clear.

To receive any severance (which itself was severely reduced from a layoff just a few months prior) I was to sign a document that said I would not criticize the company, nor would I ever apply for a job with that company in the future.  The president of the company had a huge axe to grind and used it to reduce head-count that sent a message that no one was to disagree with him ever again.  Such is the nature of working for asset stripping roll-up companies or private equity firms.

A colleague had talked for years about stockpiling "go to hell" money.  We preferred to think of it as prudent savings against the day I would no longer work.  Either way, Jude and I did our best to save what we could.

To make the move to France we needed to sell the house.  So coming up with enough "go to hell" money was not an easy task.  Or so it seemed.  It was then that our home sold in a week.   In the middle of a severely "down" market.  In the middle of winter.  To close in 30 days.  We needed to rent-back our former home to ensure our French visas arrived in time for our departure.

So many pieces of our move fell effortlessly into place that we began to think our leaving was somehow pre-ordained.

When we look back at our last years in the US, we can see how our lifestyle had evolved.  We lived "close to the earth" and voted continually to express what was valuable to us in the way we spent our money, in the topics we researched and shared with others, and in the way we "walked our talk".

We drove a Prius.  Jude volunteered at the local organic food coop.  I rode public transportation to-from work.  During spring/summer/fall, I would ride my bike downtown to catch the train out to work, and then reverse this coming home.  We frequented local restaurants (not fast food, nor any food-chain type of places).  We put our money in a credit union.  We lived simply (by US standards).

Coming to Paris, I see our values have changed only slightly.

We no longer own an automobile.  We walk all over town and use public transportation to get around when we don't want to alk.  We use the rail system to visit the countryside and the high-speed TGV to visit other countries.  We buy our food from local markets.  We research which bistros, brasseries, and restaurants still run a real kitchen (as opposed to places that nuke prepackaged meals from Rungis).  We enjoy visiting with merchants in our open-air marche.   We enjoy taking language lessons at a local small privately run school.  We drink organic wines and beer.  We buy our art from local artists (and not that stuff that is cranked out in China, but sold in Paris as if it were painted here).  We live in a very small (by US standards) apartment.  Our alarm clock is sometimes a loud singing black bird instead of an alarm clock.  We watch as doves raise their young just outside our back window.

We don't take up much space.  We continue to live simply.  We are incredibly happy.

It's time for a bit of champagne.