I’ve spent the past week in France, with a family I first met several years ago in Guinea, west Africa. It’s really been a great time, spent mostly lazing around, eating, watching World Cup football, exchanging thoughts, and taking some little tours. The trip was largely to get my daughter a little immersion in French life and language: she did very well, including leading the way for a day eating waffles and crèpes, finished off by a long bike ride through the old town centre.
She got the chance to see how French people spend their Sundays in the summer: lazing on the beach, sitting in the park, playing in the park and at little squares, walking and talking.
I am always looking around at how life is lived. In France, it is hard to avoid seeing how orderly life seems to be. France is laid out very carefully, and villages and towns tend to feel much the same because many elements are controlled at the national level. Each town may have its own flair but there is a certain conformity that exists. You take a trip and road signs guide you clearly to small towns or larger towns and cities. You arrive at a place and you get a sign for centre ville (town centre), and you can then find your bearings to parking, or commercial areas, or open space. I contrasted that with Jamaica, where you may get no signs at all for long distances and may miss the town centre for want of any signs.
Our ride in from the semi-rural suburb to the town centre was eye-opening in terms of how a town can be laid out to make it easy to move around on foot or by vehicle or on a bike. There are paved pathways everywhere, and we could take several and meander our way into the town centre. We took a route that brought us through a park, where people were lazing on the grass, playing pick-up football, playing boules, walking dogs and children. It was all very clean and well-kept, even in a wild, rustic way because areas were left that way for ‘bio diversity’ (a sign told me); Contrast that with Jamaica. We let people create pathways by the sheer numbers who walk a route and wear out the grass so that a dirt trail is visible and becomes the route of choice. We tend not to have open space for lazing around and simple recreation. The space around Devon House and Hope Gardens, in Kingston, are rare exceptions. People tend to just hang around on a road or on a street corner.
Jamaicans do not seem to take great pride in keeping their spaces clean. I often see people sweeping streets early in the morning, but piles of garbage, especially with discarded plastic items, are part of the Jamaica scene. Even in so-called ‘upscale’ communities, we would not be surprised to see the small piles. Sometimes, they are worse and include items such as discarded household appliances.
Social order in France is different. It is not always clearly visible. French public sector workers, for example, love to exercise their rights to withdraw labour. So, French railway workers were on strike when we arrived. We had concerns about getting from Paris to our destination further south, but our train ran on time, as did many others that day. The ticket inspectors on the trains did nothing, however, to check that passengers had paid. So, I then felt aggrieved that I had bothered to order tickets online from Jamaica and print them off at the airport. My friend had to go to Paris one day during our visit, and he had the same experience, but he and most passengers travelled for free because they could not buy tickets at the stations. The railway workers are public servants. My friend complains that there are too many fonctionaires, and they are a public burden for all of their working lives and retirement. But, they are part of France’s broad state coverage.
I’ve not seen any major strike during the past year in Jamaica. I’ve read about and heard stories of public workers taking money from the bus company and running all manner of schemes to line their pockets. I’ve seen a few, scattered protests. (Just to complete the context, I’m headed to London today and read that British airways cabin staff will strike from tomorrow, so the private sector worker flexing her/his muscle may grab me in England.) I have suffered, however, by a public sector that does not seem to be very effective or efficient. Services in Jamaica suffer from decades of neglect and underinvestment.
We reap that now with uncertain water supplies, for example. That’s life critical; train travel is not. I see the mess that is public road repairs. Dig up; patch up; wash away; dig up again; patch up again. Only a hard-headed idiot would think this is anything but rank stupidity or the effect of a permanent piece of bandoolism taking money out of the public’s collective pocket.
Go to almost any French town and you will find municipal camping; it’s now less than it was. But, you could arrive almost anywhere, up to about 9pm at night, and find a camp site. True, you needed a tent to pitch, but you could bathe, and sleep easily for a small amount. That’s not a part of our life style. Period. We stop on the roadside and sleep in the car or van, if needed. Our country is small enough that we can complete most trips easily within a day. France is huge, by contrast.
France has a massive tourism market. It is based largely on French life and history, of which there is very much to see and share. Town that have survived for over a thousand years are common. Physical structures that have long history are part of the national treasure.
Jamaica has very little history, and for many, it reflects aspects that create discomfort because it reflects our past slavery. But, attractive buildings should not be discarded, in my view: we can tell the stories for our future generations to better understand. I’m one who would work hard to see restored our many old great houses or parts of sugar plantations or our mundane-looking railway stations. We would get a better-looking country in the bargain. French people tour their own country to sample its history; foreigners do the same. It helps to have land borders to ease the movement.
France shows the results of having national visions and putting the pieces in place to achieve them. France has nuclear energy as a major pillar of its power generation. Popular or not, it’s there: France, therefore, focuses on threats to its supplies or uranium. France has grasped the importance of energy conservation and environmental protection. You see many reminders of how to save energy. You see many places to dispose of items so that they can be recycled: elegant shells placed on corners to take glass, plastic, or paper recyclable material. In the home, people dispose of their rubbish with an eye to where it will go next. We have Riverton dump. We pile garbage up in racks or bins, all items mixed together, in shiny plastic bags. Our streets are littered with those bags, and styrofoam boxes, mainly because we just do not have enough places for trash and then do not clear them regularly. I have not seen one styrofoam box on a road, or a plastic bag flying around. The French use plastic bags; I went to the supermarket, and used them. Food to take away is served also in styrofoam boxes, sometimes. But, the French are better at disposing of their rubbish and clearing the places used for that. It was not always so; progress from lessons learned and provisions made to help change habits. Suffice to say, the French do not now have the same eyesores as Jamaicans.
I shouldn’t dwell on economic policy, but I will just glide over it. France is a large, open economy, within a common currency area, the European Union. It is not a new thing and took decades to reach where it is. One aspect of that is the existence of a common currency, the Euro, which is used in the whole area. It is a freely traded currency and is relatively stable in value. France is not under an IMF programme and can borrow freely from private financial markets, if it wishes. People in France or the wider EU area do not obsess about the level of the exchange rate. Jamaica is an economy that has suffered decades of mismanagement and has an exchange rate that is now reflecting that accumulated effect–it’s sliding constantly. It’s never a good idea to try to pick a bottom for an exchange rate, so more slide is likely than less. We depend heavily on foreign assistance, in part because we became dependent on foreign goods but could not produce enough to pay for them. French people wander the world with pockets and bank accounts full of Euros, using cash freely if they travel within the EU, or checks and credit cards within the area or further abroad. Money, in that sense, is no problem. I have about JD 1000 in my wallet because I know it’s of no value outside Jamaica and despite the high denominations of our money, it is worth very little.
But, both countries are full of silly people. Jamaicans love to stand up for indefensible idiocy in the name of following rules. France, too, has that condition, but with a nice accent. I went to the supermarket the other evening to get some French food items to carry to a friend in London. I went to the self-service cashier and started to scan my items. The laser beeped and the register showed my purchases. I got my total and popped out my credit card to use. The machine only accepted cards with a little chip in them–a security feature that has been in Europe for a few years, now. No go. The machine had a slot for swiping a card, though. I tried that. No go. A supervisor came over and looked at the card. No go. We asked about swiping. “I’m not allowed to do that,” she said. We all looked puzzled. We guessed she did not know how to make that work, or had missed the training session. She shrugged her shoulders and walked way. My friends and I rustled together some cash and I paid. I could have just bundled the items into our bags and walked out, there was no checker. We scratched our heads. Jamaica’s “that’s how we do it” would not be out-of-place.
I’ve loved being in a totally different language and thinking space for a few days.
You get to think about your own cultural biases well when they are not around you, but seen from afar. By comparison to Jamaica, France is much more tolerant of different life styles; that need not be limited to sexual preferences (one of Jamaica’s current hobby horses). French people greet each other with kisses, as well as handshakes; everyone kisses on the cheek, despite gender or age. It’s the French way, and is seen in French-speaking countries over the world. French men kissing each other are not homosexuals; they’re French. French men kissing young girls are not pedophiles; they’re French. It’s not a big deal.
I discussed with my friends what their children (two in their 20s and one still a teenager) were doing. One had graduated as an engineer, but did not want to pursue that as a career; he was working at a KFC and trying to figure out what to do next; his girlfriend is a biology graduate and working in another field. Another, went to university for a year but was not liking it, so went into the fire service and is happily training in that field, focusing on first-aid and ancillary services: according to local rules, her fire station does not allow her to drive fire engines, so she’s on a path that avoids that. The youngest is studying law at university, working in a restaurant part-time. Like most young people, they enjoy their fun and going out, within limits. They are all close to their parents, the two youngest still living at home, happily. We talked about graffiti–a feature of French urban spaces. We talked not much about politics, except about the shared curse of corruption. We talked a lot about travel to Jamaica–they had planned to visit earlier this year, but things had not worked out. We talked a lot about our languages: my daughter understands French quite well, and was getting braver and speaking more. She went shopping and managed well in the store; she’s only 10, and has to deal with language difference and age differences. I helped my hosts through many minefields in English, which they may be able to remember when I’m gone but maybe not. We had fun learning the differences between English words that sound alike but have different meanings, such as bubble, bobble, babble and bauble; as well as the chestnuts, there, their, they’re. We had fun with “ice cream” and “I scream”. French has its prickly language patches, too: my daughter played with sens (smell), sans (without), cent (100), s’en (within).
We had a great time Sunday afternoon, watching some people play boules, a form of bowling, played outdoors on a gravelly dirt space. They were having a few drinks (beers, pastis, sodas with syrup) and smoking the obligatory cigarettes. They wanted to let us pass on our bikes, but we explained that we had come to watch. “It’s a major championship, you know,” one man slurred. A young lady came to ask my daughter if she was American; my French disguised my origins well enough. We joked about her staying in France to go to school. We watched the throwing of metal balls and the ribald jockeying for about 15 minutes. It was a nice slice of life: simple, inclusive, happy. Jamaicans would be playing dominoes and having their glasses of rum or a beer. My daughter covered her nose as the smoke of cigarettes hit her. Jamaica has taken a step forward that France has not yet taken, with its ban on smoking in public spaces. We can learn much from France, but we have a few lessons to offer.
I left my friends a jar of jerk seasoning; it’s been at the dining table every day as a dipping sauce; it’s very popular. I showed the fire fighter how to cook porridge: she normally ate her oats with cold milk.
Life’s not really that complicated, sometimes, if you are open to what others have to offer.