Thursday, December 20, 2007
Uh-Oh Spaghetti-o (Franco-American)
Any American who has had a profound contact with French culture knows that beneath the appearance of similarity that comes from belonging to the same Western intellectual tradition lie some very fundamental cultural differences. In fact, those differences are sometimes magnified by the very assumption of similarity that we begin with. If America and England are two countries separated by a common language, America and France are two countries separated by a mutual misunderstanding.
Take for instance the question of keeping religion out of the public schools. When France outlawed Islamic veils -- along with yarmulkes and ostentatious crosses -- from its public schools, what was intended in France as a defense of the state's role to guarantee a secular education to all students was perceived Stateside as an interference by the state in an individual's expression of faith. The protection from religion on one hand versus the protection of religion on the other.
So how does France reconcile its stance on secular education with the fact that all of its public school vacations are named after the Catholic holidays that accompany them? All Saint's in November, Christmas in December, Easter in April, etc. How, too, to explain the Christmas tree I found in my 6 year-old son's first grade class today when I arrived for the end of semester parents visit? Well, as many in the States on both sides of the issue might be surprised to learn, Christmas apparently isn't a religious holiday. It's a national one. A cultural one. Much as it might disappoint Mike Huckabee to find out, the Christmas tree is not even a Christian symbol.
Some other things that jumped out at this American father in Paris? When the teacher at first proposed to distribute the chocolate cakes and sugary goodies we'd been asked to bring to the skinny kids first and then the fat ones who needed the food less, but then changed his mind and suggested the pretty kids should go first. Then there was the kid who got up in front of the class to do a little comic presentation with a classmate but instead shoved his partner twice in the head, the second time with some mustard. He was told simply to sit back down. Case closed.
The approach is different, but is it wrong? Kids will be kids, and here in France the tendency is to leave them to their own devices to determine the pecking order. Strength and beauty, as well as intelligence and talent all play a role in society and one's place in it. Rather than deny that obvious fact or try to handicap the field, in France the approach seems to be to accept it and learn how to use it to one's advantage.
As a parent, of course, I have very little to worry about either way, because the Lil' Feller happens to be a good looking kid, no slouch when it comes to the grey matter, and a natural born charmer to boot. But as a cultural observer it gave me some pause.