Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Garden and the Game, continued: Competition and Chance

The last few weeks, we’ve hung out with more than the usual number of American-born ex-pats. I believe I claimed a few months ago that we seemed to be all alone as Americans in this funny corner of France. This was because, during the first part of the year, the only Americans we saw were our own visitors, or the friends we knew before we got here – Zaro further west in Provence, and Jessica, Nick, and Hillary up in Paris. There were plenty of friendly British people we came to love, (as well as a select few who gave us the politest form of the cold shoulder) but in terms of American citizens, I assumed we were the only odd ducks of our kind for miles around.

So, to learn my way around, I spoke French when I could, observed situations as closely as possible, and quizzed my British friends for clues about the world we all had entered. But there were still so many aspects of our life here I still failed to understand.

In my effort to better understand what was right in front of me, I also turned to books. I read A Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi, the British author Charles Timony’s guide to quirky French habits. This very funny text comes complete with an index, and filled me in on “sounding, acting, and shrugging like the French.”

Believe it or not, before we arrived here, I had never read Peter Mayles’ book, A Year in Provence. I just carted it around from place to place all last year, thinking I might eventually find some relaxing moment to crack the spine. It was only after we moved into The Olive Mill, and I finally enjoyed that massive ten-year-long-overdue exhale that I poured over it – in part to figure out what the climate and the culture held in store for us here. So when the plumbing in this old house turned out to be a little quirky, and the wind started to howl in winter, I had been forewarned.

By mid-fall, I had already internalized Joie de Vivre, Robert Arbor’s useful-but-pretentious book on the rhythm of a French day, and was now on to real cookbooks in French. (Thanks, Jess!)

But I really wanted to find female role models, particularly for life outside of the kitchen. Specifically, I started to wonder how little old American me could encounter and understand the puzzles of French society. Over the winter, I read a lot of Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, smart American women from an earlier era who seemed almost instinctively to know how to negotiate France’s landscapes, and addressed any difficulty with masterful good humor, intellectual and personal flexibility, and a solid dose of confidence.

Then, all of a sudden, as the weather improved and we all started to trickle out of our houses, we met a whole bunch of new Americans. One was a couple we bumped into briefly and by chance during a stroll in a nearby town back in the fall. This spring they found me through this blog. We began corresponding, and had a drink together last week. And then, in a stroke of luck too happy to be believed, I bumped into a truly lovely American woman having lunch at the table next to us in Tourtour. She’s a chef, a Francophile, very cool and very fun. Plus, we both grew up in upstate New York, so we could instantly understand one another in terms of the true cultural distance between there and where we’ve ended up.

Like the nerd I have always been, I pumped these long-term expats for information and clarification. Most of them had been here for years and years – some of them had even become citizens. Certainly they could help me understand what France is, and why.

So last Thursday afternoon, over a few beers in our kitchen, I couldn’t stop asking questions of our guests, the couple from the nearby town. Both of them are those normal-seeming supergeniuses, successful professionals in challenging fields who had found work here in France and had raised children here. Lynn is an educator, a writer, and an expert translator. David is one of those people who can do impossibly hard thing with computers, things that leave the rest of us in the dust of age and time.

(You can probably guess why I would find Lynn’s writing, teaching, and French skills so impressive. But as far as I am concerned, anybody who can make a computer do something other than turn on and off, save, and print, is a kind of magician. A geek god, if that pun is not too awful. While I do OK managing the items on my computer desktop, don’t ask me to turn on the stereo, operate the DVD player, or even turn up the heat. Some of us work with words; we must rely on the rest of the world to find ways to help us to survive.)

Lynn and Bill got talking about just how different France is from the world we knew before. “It would almost be better,” she said, “if when tourists and travelers got here, the people were in mud huts or something. Then, they would really know just how foreign France truly is.” She explained further – there are so many surface similarities between France and the U.S., that most people who try to live or visit here just become frustrated by the inevitable and baffling differences.

We laughed over the tendency of French bureaucrats to use eighty-seven flowery words of elaborate well-wishing at the end of a letter, where “Cheers!” would do just fine. We smiled in recognition when they described just how off-putting their children’s school experience had been at times. One of their children had also been homeschooled, after realizing that if you don’t fit into the routines of French school, there is no other good way to get by. So despite the fact that every French bureaucrat we’ve met finds this homeschool thing totally bizarre, we’re not the only ones who have made this call for the sake of our kids’ sanity and educational success.

And then, over and over, we shared funny stories about the slow process by which we all had learned information, had overcome a particularly difficult immigration hurdle, or had found a better or more convenient way to get specific grocery ingredients we craved.

Then, near the end of our long, rambling chat about all these small and large victories, our conversation turned to voting. They would be voting the next day, in fact. Not just in their local elections (residents, not just citizens, get to vote for local officials) but in the national elections, for the very first time.

For both of them had very recently become French citizens. How cool is that?

When David pulled out his newly laminated identity card, our mouths hung open. Instantly Bill and I could both imagine the mountain of pointless paperwork they must have amassed. We keep all of our documents poorly filed in an enormous notebook that we have nicknamed “The Nondescript Notebook of Death,” in honor of its purposefully ho-hum appearance and its vital role in our lives. It is full of every important paper we have, usually copied in triplicate, and we take it everywhere we go. It took Bill almost all of his energy for several months just to create it. In comparison to our puny efforts to earn a year-long sabbatical visa with no permission to work, these stunning specimens had won citizenship. They had won France.

OK, so remember my friend Hillary from the last blog? The one who said that France is a game, and to like it here, you’ve got to like to play? Well, she also told me a little bit about game theory, a branch of mathematics that seeks to explain some of the more obscure truths about human behavior. People who study games have discovered patterns common to all of the games we humans play. Game theorists start with the most obvious games, like roulette and football, or Parcheesi and Clue, and have broken all games down into categories the various kinds of thrills that games provide.

Game theory is useful to those people who develop new games, of course, but it has also been used to explain economic decision-making, politics, social organization, and psychology. It seeks to explain otherwise invisible patterns in our interactions, the hidden ways in which our motivations become our actions, which in turn become our lives, our societies, and eventually our civilizations.

Recently, Hillary has been reading a lot of Roger Callois, a French philosopher who systematized and categorized different kinds of games. During our car ride from the train station, she told me about his theories, and how they apply to various kinds of human fun and human endeavor. (You know, like living here without any clue how.)

According to Callois, I later learned, any situation in which the outcome is known and there is no possibility for mistakes or surprises, can not be a game. To put it differently, the sort of certainty I have kept seeking for myself could not be fun. And it certainly was not what France, at its best, held out for me to grab and to master. To see something as a game is also to see it as separate from regular life, with rules that are different from those of everyday life. In this case, "everyday life" would be America. To be an ex-pat, playing someone else's game, it's awfully useful to keep all this in perspective.

Furthermore, Callois divided the pursuit of fun into four distinct kinds. Games could be categorized according to their relative measure of “competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo.” Callois calls these “agôn, alea, mimicry, and ilinx.” As he wrote: “One plays football, billiards, or chess (agôn); roulette or a lottery (alea); pirate, Nero or Hamlet (mimicry); or one produces in oneself, by rapid whirling or falling movement, a state of dizziness and disorder (ilinx).”

So that’s some of the background you will need to understand a little bit about how I’m starting to see France as a game, and how I’m gradually thinking-of-perhaps-maybe-someday learning actually to play.

And now, back to our afternoon discussion of immigration, bureaucracies, and grocery purchases.

Bill and I loved the stories about France that we were hearing from our new American (now French) friends. Only slowly did it dawn on me – these people people love France because they’ve figured out the game. And they not only figured it out - - David and Lynn had become citizens by mastering an obscure set of rules and laws that were never written for them. They like it here, and they figured out a way to get France to like them, too.

Like Hillary, who is a woman who can roll with life’s punches and never quite lose her balance, all good expats have to be great sports. When you see a foreign culture as a complicated game to be played, you are less likely to take your inevitable daily losses so personally. When – just for example – a great sport greets a fellow townsperson with a grin, and gets only a frown in return, that great sport has the gumption to try a different tactic later. A poor sport spends the rest of the day fretting over the grumpy interaction, which might or might not have meant a thing to the townsperson, but certainly ruined the bad sport’s day.

David and Lynn knew what they wanted. They mobilized their resources (useful skills, dogged persistence, personal organization, the careful application of charm, and all those extra IQ points.) They launched their campaign. They learned to write their letters in the high French style, with extra flourishes at the end. And they won. I hope that there was a whole cheering section there at the Mairie when they showed up to vote.

Hillary told me that this aspect of games is known by the Greek term of “Agon,” meaning competition. And our new friends certainly seemed to relish this aspect of the ex-patriot life. Typically, “agon” refers to more obviously competitive sports, where the thrill is smashing one’s opponent into oblivion. But in France, where grown men spend most of their waking summertime hours playing petanque, a handball version of croquet in which the object is to knock the other players out of the way to take your place, agonistic games can clearly take subtler forms.

(But don’t let me fool you: the French can also really kick butt and take names in a physical sense. The weekend Hillary was visiting, we all went together to a sort of European Superbowl Party, and watched the finals of the Rugby tournament among France, England, Scotland, Wales, Italy and Ireland. At this level, Rugby is NFL football crossed with wrestling, and played with no pads. The French National Rugby Equipe beat the stuffing out of the British team. Literally. Although I had promised Jessica I would root for England, I had to be a pretty good sport myself while watching the long-haired cro-magnon French rugby monster known as “Le Cheval” make paté out of his opponents.)

Hillary also told me about Alea, which is the Latin term for a roll of the dice. In games dominated by the spirit of Alea, it is destiny, rather than skill, that wins the day. You see Alea at work here in every shrug, in every casual smile when the way things aught to be suddenly isn’t.

In the U.S., if something goes wrong (the power goes out, your kid gets a rotten teacher at school, or you drive suddenly off a cliff with no guard-rail) you don’t take it lying down. You complain, at the very least. Perhaps you write a letter. Or, in plenty of cases that would be interpreted as the workings of the fickle finger of fate, you sue. Americans buy a ton of lottery tickets, and they might like to go to Monhegan Sun now and then, but they don’t really appreciate destiny showing up – or showing them up – in their real lives.

Typical Americans seem to expect life to accord with a totally nonsensical creed that extends back to the Puritan John Winthrop’s “City on the Hill” sermon in 1630: bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good Americans.

Here, there is a much greater acceptance of the actual fact of life: Stuff Happens. A poor sport living here might react to the vagaries of French life as though they were a personal affront to him or her. (And, as I am writing this, I know that this has been me on more than one occasion.) However, seen from a wider, cosmic view – or even from the view that France is a game to be played and ideally enjoyed – this is not the case.

When I think of the master players in this aspect of French Culture, I think of M.F.K. Fisher. She found herself high and low at different points in her life. Emotionally, she was alternately bereft and flush, seeing both states as equally likely and equally reasonable. More importantly, Fisher revealed herself, at least in Two Towns in Provence, her book about Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, to be supremely aware of and open to the various forms of chaos. She seemed to truly appreciate the endless parade of characters and events that sprawled her way, and rolled and laughed with the punches. She seemed to wake up every single day ready for what the new game of France would bring her.

The pleasures of Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence were of a similar sort. While at first he would find himself dismayed and irritated by the endless chaos of actually living in Provence (as opposed to merely visiting, just for the summer) he gradually become a whole lot happier – and more successful, as he recognized and welcomed the aspect of Alea in his new French life.

(Of course, now that I think of it, just about anybody who wishes to survive a major renovation with their sanity and/or marriage intact might do well to develop an in-depth appreciation for Alea, as all of one’s best-laid plans inevitably go awry in the face of the real people who must turn those plans into solid wood and sheetrock.)

So these are two kinds of games played here by the most successful and well-adjusted expats I have met. I will write more in the next few days on the other two types of games that our man Callois defined. Stay tuned for diverting explanations of Ilinx (“whirlpool” or vertigo) and – of course -- mimicry and imitation, the domain of Julia Child and the other brilliant English-speaking chefs who have made French cooking accessible to the rest of us.

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