Eric Besson in the News

Versailles, July 2009

For once, it isn't the US taking heat for its immigration practices.  French Immigration Minister, Eric Besson, is making waves.  Mr. Besson argues for enforcing French identity and history on immigrants, which to him, according to the news reports, seems to mean Christianity, the French language, and the lack of burkas.  The issues of diversity and freedom versus homogeneity and integration are, indeed, a hotbed of debate in many countries, as we hammer out what it means to be a nation, and what individual expression and cultural identity are, in a transnational world.

Defining ourselves, individually and collectively, is perhaps not so simple.  Taking a long-term, objective look at humans, we see that as a species, we are not quite as heterogeneous as we would think and that as "nations," we are not quite as unique as we would like to believe! We all share the same gene sequences which make us Homo sapiens sapiens, yet those sequences that make up individual traits have done a heck of a lot of traveling through the millenia.

Human history consists of groups branching out all over the globe, with some populations invading other populations to control their resources.  Gene pools were separated enough for characteristics to differentiate between regions, but also intermixed enough to keep gene pools fresh. In Europe, there are quite a few shared lineages -- the Romans were everywhere!  And the reach of the Normans and the Moors was nothing to sneeze at, either.

In any given region, people develop not just genetic traits, but also cultural ones.  As "outsiders" migrated in and out and administrative rule changed hands, some customs were lost in the shuffle, while new ones were created.  But many have persisted for generations and evolved with the influx of new ideas, regardless of who was in charge and what those rulers chose to call their territory.  Even in a country as young as the US, we have developed regional customs and traditions, separate from those of the nation as a whole.
My First Quiche, June 2009
Within the current borders of France, where Besson is attempting to define a singular identity, there are still localized languages, customs and cuisines (granted, most of those languages are dying quickly) that existed before France was France, or before those regions were part of France.  Take quiche.  We think of it as French, but some have argued that it is German:  Lorraine (née Lotharingia) was a part of Germany, or what we now consider Germany, when it was developed; and the word quiche has a Germanic (as opposed to Latin) derivation -- from Küche, a diminutive of Kuchen (cake).  And populations in the Alps, Pyrenees and along the Mediterranean share more cultural heritage with others in their respective areas that happen to be across modern day borders than they do with current countrymen from other départements.

It would be difficult to justify banning an article of clothing based on it not being a part of a culture without likewise banning others.  If France bans burkas based on that reasoning, they'd also have to ban caftans, kimonos, kilts, hula skirts, cowboy hats, Bermuda shorts...  Granted, kimonos wouldn't be a problem, since Japanese women have replaced them with Chanel and Vuitton.

Speaking of kimonos, 50 years after women in my family burned theirs attempting to fit in and be more American, the soon-to-be stepmother of the man I was dating shelled out a fortune for a Japanese wedding kimono to wear at her own wedding because it was unique and exotic for her, a fashion statement.  I wonder if women will be doing the same with burkas 50 years from now.

Kidding aside, how far should a government go in suppressing personal choices and compelling uniformity, particularly one that spans so many subcultures?  I think we all agree that actions that adversely affect others, such as stealing or physically harming someone, should be controlled, although there is often disagreement with regard to the how, but beyond that, I'm interested in knowing what you think...


Au Marché

Ah, nuts!
Francesca's Organic/Bio Nuts

Now that I'm home, I buy produce at the farmers' market on Saturday mornings (there are others on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as well) something I rarely did in the past. I miss Metz much more than I missed Bristol, perhaps because I met more people in France than in England (go figure, my spoken French is horrible and English is my mother tongue). This ritual is similar to my Saturday mornings there, maybe that is why I have latched onto it.
The mushroom lady...
Sorry, I don't have a business name for her!

American farmers' markets are different than French braderies. They are almost exclusively produce, agricultural products, and food, while the marchés also have household and personal care items and clothing. I outfitted my apartment in Metz during one frantic morning at the marché. I had the bad sense to move into town on Easter weekend, and as I found out, unfortunately for me, Europeans actually take holidays off, they don't use them as opportunities to shop (or hold) holiday sales!

Free samples from Swank Farms,
Organic/Bio produce

Then there are the samples.  Many vendors here set out sample plates.  French vendors will give you a sample taste if you ask, but they don't generally set out a whole spread. I think there are actually people who come to the farmers' market with the intent of making a meal of the freebies!

This week, I picked up some chanterelles to put in a crème sauce I saw on Les Cuisines de Garance, except I added a dash of the pasta water, which contained vegetable stock. Crème sauces tend to be a little heavy for my taste, and the stock lightened it up and added a subtle complexity without overpowering the mushrooms.

Bon weekend!

More Information: Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association


Of Virtue and Vice

Japanese Tea Garden
San Mateo, CA USA

No one is perfect.  But people seem to be judged based on what seems to be one-sided recognition of either one's improprieties or virtues.  As I scroll through the blogs and news stories in my feed reader, I see people either completely condemning others for their faults or idolizing them for their proprieties:

- the Dalai Lama associated with Nazis and is a potential despot and therefore lacks all credibility;

- the Dalai Lama brings messages of peace and hope and should be put on a pedestal as a perfect example of wisdom and compassion;

- Mother Theresa brought health care to thousands in need and should be put on a pedestal as an example of selflessness;

- Mother Theresa inflated her numbers to make herself look better and flew first class on interviews, so none of her achievements should count.

I like to think the truth lies somewhere between these extremes, that we all have our vices as well as our virtues and that too much or too little of either is not a good thing.  I have found at least one person who agrees.  In a recent blog entry, writer Isabel Chalumeau opines that rather than being completely blackballed for fleeing his statutory rape sentence or having his crime completely forgiven because of his cinematographic genius, Roman Polansky's work as a filmmaker should continue to be respected while he is still held responsible for his crime.  Sounds reasonable to me, but it seems like most people seem to fall on the extremes with regard to their opinions of him.

In my current bathroom read, The Book of Vices:  A Collection of Classic Immoral Tales, editor Robert Hutchinson argues that vice and virtue are both important, and that Aristotle had stressed the importance of moderation, not too much of one or the other.  But in this day and age, we are pressured to at least seem perfect, and he points out that the world has only seemingly become too virtuous, when, in fact, we have become the opposite.  Humans "have a singular talent for elevating their basest impulses into lofty virtues; and the most craven acts of self-interest are almost always cloaked in the silken robes of noble intentions."  We do nice things not out of kindness, but because we are forced to do them.  I would add that we also attempt to justify our misdeeds by turning them into acts of selflessness or by reasoning that we were forced into them by others.

The majority of us are spared the burden of having our whole being judged on the sum of our good deeds or our misdeeds, but many of us are.  I wonder ... at what point do one's transgressions make one irredeemable, and at what point do one's good deeds make one untouchable?  And why do so many in the spotlight seem to fall into both categories?  Is it really all about sensationalism and ratings?



This past spring, I bought a book from a young author while browsing through a book fair in Metz. At the time, he mentioned the possibility of attending a workshop in Iowa this summer.  By chance, I asked him last week if he had attended the workshop.  He told me that he had, indeed, made it to Iowa, was in fact, still there, and would be making a side trip to San Francisco the next day.  He would have one day free, during which we planned to pass some time together.

Early (for me) last Friday morning, I hopped into my midlife crisis convertible and drove up to Union Square. I parked, walked down the street and saw the Saint Francis, and the Sir Francis Drake hotels ... and realized that all I remembered about his hotel was that "Francis" was one of the words in it!  I sort of recalled when I first found out where he was staying that I pictured a beefeater-style doorman, so I took a chance on Sir Francis.  Luckily, my recollection was correct!  A minute or two after I sat down in the lobby, Mabrouck walked out.

This spider was obviously on acid.  Sutro Baths, San Francisco.

Mabrouck is fascinating.  He gave up the (relative) security of a  career in finance to pursue his passion as a writer.  He didn't just continue his day job while he wrote in his spare time, he completely quit his job to write.  He has since published one essay and two novels, one of which was in the works for filming when budget cuts in French public television ended production.

I'm in the process of reading his second novel, le Petit Malik.  It is a funny story about a boy growing up in a banlieu, but there are also bittersweet elements to it.  Mabrouck himself grew up in a banlieu (the French equivalent of an American inner city area, except they tend to be on the outskirts of the city -- the term can be confusing, because the literal translation is suburb), and when his first novel, le Poids d'une Âme (the Weight of a Soul) was published, he was asked if someone had ghost written the book for him.  Ouch!  I can say that in my communications with him that he is well-spoken, well-written and sharp as a tack.  Plus, he not only understands, but puts up with, my horrible French.

Above:  a long exposure on the dish of the Giant Camera Obscura, a giant pinhole camera.
The camera sports a rotating lens that gives a 360 degree view of the area.
The image is projected onto a concave dish. 

I am always in awe of people who are so focused, so sure of what they want.  My best friend in Metz was similarly captivated by his work.  He had dropped out of University to work to support his family when his daughter was born and began working as a vendor, traveling to the braderies around northern France.  I asked if he planned to return to the University.  He said no, that he had found happiness in what he was doing.  And there was a contentment in his stature, a certain indescribable fire in his eyes when he was spinning his pitch.  On the Saturdays he worked the braderie in Metz, I would pass by just to watch him work.  To watch someone with such ardor for what he or she does is intoxicating to the observer as well.

I do not recall ever being so enraptured by my work or hobbies.  Most of my decisions have been logic-driven, rather than those of the heart.  Perhaps that is one reason why I am so fascinated by people with such strong passion.

 Above:  sunset over the Pacific Ocean, Ocean Beach, San Francisco

EDIT:  I spelled Mabrouck's last name wrong in my comment.  It is Rachedi, not Rached.
His blog address ...


Ten Days

Ten days of sponge baths, washing a sink full of dishes with a liter and a half of water (it can be done, if you do it in the right order), and carting drinking water in my miniscule Mazda MX-5 from my father's house, which I admit, is better than having to walk with buckets of water from the town well.  I realize now just how much I have taken indoor plumbing for granted.

The plumber who said "no job is too small!" was supposed to drill a hole under the sidewalk for us so we could upgrade our water service to a larger diameter. He never showed up and never returned our calls.  I'm writing a bad review for him on Yelp!  I helped dig the trenches a little, but mostly I sat around whining pitifully while my housemate did everything.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, we held our breath as he turned the water back on, and ... no water spurted from anywhere it wasn't supposed to be spurting!  He went through the house opening all the taps, and everything worked fine.  After ten days of dreaming about being able to launder my clothes and take a luxurious, steamy shower, I was so relieved and happy that I took a two hour nap!

We are still waiting for the city's inspector to come out tomorrow and sign off, and there is a chance he will make us sink everything down deeper (we're short a few inches in spots), but the hard work is essentially done, and my housemate saved me a few thousand dollars by doing the entire job himself.  I don't know what I would have done without him.

Photo:  The labrador retriever in Piglet comes out when I turn on the hose. She loves to jump in the stream and stick her face in it!