Flophouse in Lockdown

The invisible enemy.  Yes, I have a passing familiarity with this one.  It has come for me twice in the form of cancer and Horton’s disease.

Coronavirus, however, is different; we are all now subjects of the Empire of the Sick.

A pandemic is a game changer for everybody.  In France we have been under lockdown, aka “shelter in place,” aka confinement for the past couple of days.  This has been horrendous for so many because the logic of disease containment now takes precedence over individual liberty.  Whatever the individual circumstances, the fact that one can no longer simply walk down the street whenever one wishes is a psychological blow to any member of a free society.

But it is necessary.  The new subjects of the Empire of the Sick must live for now under new rules.  To have the best chance of coming out of this healed and whole, we must respect them.

That is the lesson I have learned and learned again prior to this pandemic.  The doctors and other medical professionals are not talking to hear themselves talk. Nor are they bit actors in some national (or international) conspiracy to do you wrong.  They are on your side and they want you to live.

So if they say, “six months of chemo” then you damn well do it.  Think of “30 days of confinement” as the equivalent – a prescribed course of treatment necessary to saving your life and that of all the people around you.

However, some freedom remains in the Empire of the Sick. For example, the freedom to go above and beyond what the doctors have prescribed.  Right now the terms of our confinement allow for jogging and shopping which includes the daily walk to the bakery for bread.  How many of these trips are truly necessary? Is having a fresh baguette really more important than the risk of exposure? Yes, dogs must be walked and food must be procured but, for crying out loud, we can choose to keep those forays to a minimum.

Another important freedom is the right to control the amount of incoming information. When I was diagnosed with cancer my first impulse was to go read everything I could find on the Internet.  Terrible, terrible idea. Between the mortality statistics and the folks telling me that kale would cure my cancer if I just had enough faith and a positive attitude, all I had to show for my time was confusion and depression.  So I chose to stop listening to everyone and focused instead like a laser on my oncologist and the team at the clinic.

Limiting the input saved my sanity then and now.  A few trusted news sources, the French government, and the public health authorities in France and the US (Dr. Fauci!) are all that is getting through the filter right now.

And finally the “one day at a time” principle is applied, well, daily here at the Flophouse.

In the Empire of the Sick dwelling on what may be tomorrow, next month or next year leads to useless anxiety and a squandering of the now. We do not know what will happen in the near future and what the world will look like when we come out of this. But we do know that today we are (pick one or insert your own) warm, fed, well, not alone….

There are books to read, movies to watch, gardens to tend, and quilts to mend.  We have chickens, children, and cats to care for.  There are neighbors and people living far from us that we can check up on.  At 8 PM every evening here in France we can stand out on our balconies, at our windows or in our gardens and show our support by clapping for the doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers who are putting themselves in danger on our behalf.

Stay safe, everyone, and God bless.

Zéro déchet in Versailles

Versailles.  Known to most folks outside of France as the bit of earth upon which stands that gaudy monstrosity of a castle.  However within France it’s also known for being a very conservative community.  Churches and convents abound.  There are two that offer Mass in Latin.  The resident citizens tend to vote on the Right side of the political spectrum.

So should you park your progressive politics and take off your Birkenstocks before entering?

Not at all.  Versailles is a good example of how political labels are deceptive.  This is hands down the greenest city I’ve ever lived in, and that includes my hometown of Seattle.   The public servants in Versailles have done an amazing job of making it so.

There is a municipal recycling program, of course, with weekly home pickup.  And a municipal composting program with home pickup of garden waste that returns to the residents in the form of  free compost.  There is yet another city sponsored program to put backyard chickens in the yards of homeowners.  At ten euros for two healthy, vaccinated gallus gallus domesticus, any resident can afford them.

In the parks, gardens, and green spaces you can see the results of a rethinking by the city gardeners.  There are more drought resistant plants, more mulch, and more trees.  The grass in the green spaces is mowed less often and some areas are left alone to form small meadows.  In the Domaine de Madame Elizabeth (sister to Louis XVI) a flock of sheep trim the grass.

A month or so ago I watched workers tear off the concrete on a traffic divider on one of our busiest streets in order to plant a very pretty, low-growing ground cover.  Last week I visited a relatively new park and shopping area called the Cour des Senteurs which has lovely gardens and a communal compost area for the nearby apartment dwellers.

What is the next frontier?   According to a recent mailing from the city, we now aspire to become a Territoire Zéro Déchet Zéro Gaspillage, known in anglophone world as “zero waste.”  You can download their handy guide here.

This initiative tackles the issue of waste, especially food waste.  It builds on existing programs like recycling, compost, and chickens, but takes it a step further with ecogestes to conserve water, reduce pollution, and minimize purchases and packaging.

Will people actually do any of these things?  Yes, they will for a number of reasons.  Zero waste is the perfect marriage between old and new ways of thinking – between old ideas about frugality and modern ones about “going green.”

Again, political labels are useless here.  Aside from any of the benefits to the environment, just the idea of saving a few bucks is very appealing even for the relatively affluent conservative voter.  I saw this with my grandmother in Seattle many years ago. Grandma became an avid recycler because she was able to trade in her big garbage bin for a smaller one that had lower pickup fees.

Zero waste also values an mentality still possessed by older residents who remember times of relative deprivation.  For someone who has vivid memories of World War II like my mother-in-law, all of this is very familiar and it’s stuff that she has always done:  reuse plastic bags, freeze leftover baguettes, save leftovers for the next meal, and so on.

So, if you want time-honored tips for going zero waste,  talk to your grandparents or anyone you know from that generation.  The act of asking your elders for advice is one of the best, concrete expressions of “family values” that I can think of.  And doing it is not likely to start a fight at the Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table.

If you are interested in knowing more about zero waste in France, there is a podcast I enjoy called Mouvements Zéro which is in French.  For you anglophones, give  Practical(ly) Zero Waste a listen.

In Your Country

As my health improves so does my sense of humor.  This is a good thing in so many ways but it served me particularly well recently when I went to fill a prescription at my local pharmacy.

The ladies at the local apothecary and I are in a long term relationship.  They have seen me through cancer, heart problems, and now an autoimmune disorder. Unlike some other healthcare providers here, they have never made mention of my being a foreigner.

Until last week.

Here’s what happened and it’s a howler.

I left my house in mid-morning, walked down to the commercial heart of the neighborhood, walked in to the pharmacy, and walked up to the counter.  One of the lovely ladies was right there – the usual efficient and friendly service.  After the Bonjours the pharmacist took the script and went to the back to fill it.

When she came back with my medicine she told me that I should consider getting a month’s worth next time.  There seems to be a production problem, she said, and the medicine is not always available right now in the quantities I need.

And then for some reason she said three little words that caused my body to stiffen up and my mind to prepare for the psychological slam:  In your country

Apparently in your country, Madame, drugs are always available, and there are never shortages at the local pharmacies. This is a result of the pharmaceutical companies in your country charging ridiculous amounts of money for basic medicine…  And so on and so forth.  She was on a roll and nothing short of rudeness on my part was going to stop her.

It was quite an education for me.  All of the things she said about the US might be true, but I wouldn’t know.  Any deep personal experience of healthcare in my country is decades out of date.  Something that she and the other pharmacists are aware of because I have been filling prescriptions in their shop for over 10 years now.

In fact, the last time I dealt with the American healthcare system was a few years back when I was visiting family in Seattle and had to go to the emergency room. I was basically a medical tourist. The hospital filled the prescriptions.

As I said it is a testament to the fine care I’m getting that my sense of humor is returning along with my health.  Because this was just too damn funny for words.  For some inexplicable reason my French pharmacist decided that day to inform me about the price and availability of pharmaceuticals in my country of origin.  Worthy of a chuckle or two, but not worth resenting and risking our relationship.

There is one more element to add here and I do so because the irony is delicious.  The pharmacist is herself a product of immigration.  Her accent says first generation and her appearance says that her roots are in East Asia.  In other words, she has her own country of origin that is not France.

So I have to wonder what would have happened if I had simply asked her the question, “So tell me, Madame, how does it work in your country?”


Hierarchy and Dominance Challenges

I just finished a very good book which I recommend to you.  It’s called Meditations on Violence by Sgt. Rory Miller, an American law enforcement officer.  A popular book with high on-line ratings, you can read the many positive comments about it from French and American readers on Amazon.  The bonus is that you can read it for free if you have Kindle Unlimited.

Miller’s purpose in writing this book is to bridge the gap between reality and fantasy when it comes to violence and self-defense. If you practice a martial art, you’ll find his comments on their usefulness for self-defense very interesting.  If, like me, you are interested in human behavior such as migration, you will find his remarks illuminating.  Some of what he says, it seems to me, is useful in better understanding the migrant/expat experience.

Hierarchy and dominance challenges are two words we do not usually associate in our minds with our lives abroad.  And yet, in moving from one country to another we are taking ourselves out of one social hierarchy and trying to insert ourselves into another with the goal of being accepted. In other words, we’ve changed packs.

Human are animals with very real animal needs plugged in to a living, primal animal world,” Miller says.  If we forget this and treat our migration experience as just another self-driven intellectual exercise, we miss not only an opportunity to understand our experience but we ignore our intuition, the signals our animal self is sending us.  Signals that can tell us that we are in a safe place or, more importantly, that we are in danger and need to take measures to protect ourselves.

The very act of identifying these feelings can make us very uncomfortable.  We think of ourselves as open, tolerant, cosmopolitan people.  Surely a “good migrant” has nothing to fear and if we just spur ourselves to ever more heroic efforts at integration, we will be rewarded, or, in other words, we will be safe. More and more I’ve come to view it is as our trying desperately to feel safe in a strange, new world and not so much about our being virtuous people who want to make the natives feel better about our kind of migrant.

For let us make no mistake about it, our new world has an existing hierarchy and unless we are very special and famous, we as migrants are not high in the ranks.  Let me give you the most obvious example.  Citizens whose families have been in the territory for generations are at the top, second or third-generation citizens are one level down, and new citizens are yet another level down. That’s three ranks above you when you arrive and the only level you can ever aspire to as a migrant is the third one – the one where citizenship is the most tenuous because it is the one that can be most easily taken away.

Citizens are the aristocrats of the nation-state. Not only do they have more rights than non-citizens, the social hierarchy places some citizens above others based on things no one can do anything about like where you or your parents were born.

Now I am not arguing that we should all be paranoid about this but I would suggest that we accept that this inequality exists for all migrants and can punch us in the face when we least expect it.   A good example of this is a story I was very recently by a French friend who has an American friend who just married a French.  This person has not received a residency card yet because the authorities are investigating whether or not this is a mariage blanc (fake marriage).  Somehow it did not surprise me to learn that the French citizen this American married is himself a naturalized French citizen and is not of European origin.

Welcome to the real world consequences of inequality.

Hierarchy is the structure within which human beings as animals+++ seek status and fight each other for a better place in the ranks.  One way of looking at migrant integration is to think of it as a series of dominance challenges on the part of the natives in defense of territory/identity (Miller thinks that the two are essentially the same), a reinforcement of their own place as being above yours, and a pressure on the migrant to acknowledge the hierarchy and submit.

When I look at integration though this lens, I see a lot of things I’ve missed.  These challenges happen all the time.  It can be something as silly as ridiculing someone’s accent or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the foreign-born as a fellow citizen.  It’s any situation where the native uses his position in the hierarchy and his self-appointed role as representative of the local culture to put you in your place. And it works.  Time and time again, it works.  It is really something to see a mature, independent adult lower his or her eyes and mumble an apology for a foreign accent.  Confrontation, in my experience, is extremely rare.  Evasion and submission are the norm.

Because while dominance challenges in the human or animal world are, Miller says, usually “non-lethal”  that doesn’t mean they don’t do harm or can’t escalate into something dangerous.  People make mistakes.  They can be unpredictable.  Within a culture people misunderstand each other all the time with tragic consequences.  When cultures collide, it’s even worse.

Someone who is heavily invested (often unconsciously) in his or her social rank based  on “I was born here” and “I’m a citizen,” and who truly believes that these things make him a superior human being, and who expects deference from those he perceives as lower-ranking because of their foreignness is someone any migrant should be very wary of.  Even if that person is a friend, because the day you decide not to submit or let something go might be the day that friendship ends.

None of the above should be taken as an argument not to integrate.  There is some measure of safety that you can achieve though learning the language and knowing the culture.  There is joy, too, in these things and a feeling of accomplishment.

What I am suggesting is that we as migrants cultivate our “situational awareness.”  Be a little more conscious of the hierarchy in your adopted country and your place in it as a migrant/expat.  Beware, this is almost always a blow to the ego.  But I wouldn’t dwell on it too much.  The human world is rife with inequality and neither you nor I is named “Gates” or “Macron.”

That’s the easy part.  The harder one is how to deal with dominance challenges.  As a general principle I don’t think it’s right to treat anyone as “less than.”  But it happens all the time.  Being foreign just means that you’re set up for the easy shot, and on the native side anyone in the top three citizenship ranks can make that move and get a quick “hierarchy fix.”

And then what do you do?  Be a good girl and submit?  Push back and escalate the conflict?  If possible, I would go for “evade” but I’m not sure what that would look like.

So if anyone has any ideas for how to gracefully extract oneself from a native versus foreigner dominance challenge without submitting or confronting, I would love to hear it.  Miller’s first rule for avoiding conflict in any form is “not to be there in the first place” and I just don’t see how that would work in this context.

Let’s You and Him Fight

It’s late in the day and I’m tired.  Normally, at this hour I have two goals: dinner and sleep.  I will be thrilled if the cortisone allows me to sleep a solid five hours.

But all day long I’ve been thinking about something that was brought to my attention:  an interesting graphic that is circulating on social media.   It has the logos of the main Americans’ abroad organizations (ACA, AARO, FAWCO, Dems Abroad) and two text boxes.

Reading from the top the first text box calls these organizations “silent” and “disconnected,” and says this is “unacceptable.”

The author tells us more in a second text box further down and to the left.  It  cites “continued attacks on Americans abroad” and claims that Elizabeth Warren wants to “strengthen FATCA in her ‘Medicare for all’ proposal…”   And where, the author asks, are the voice(s) of the main American migrant/expat organizations in all this?

My initial reaction was a giggle.  Not a great example of effective political communication.  I actually know what all those actors and acronyms mean and I still had to puzzle out what the author was getting at.  For a moment there I wondered if the Russians had written it.

Yes, my skepticism about stuff on social media is at an all time high because manipulative monkeys with keyboards abound.  And that is where it finally clicked for me – why it was on my mind.  The graphic and text made me feel like a not very nice someone was trying to play games with my head.  A someone trying to get me angry and then clumsily trying to direct my fire against their targets to his/her own ends.  A version of “Let’s you and Him Fight” (but without the romance.)

Now that I have that off my mind, I am shaking the whole thing off and moving on.  This past year has reminded me that life is short.  I will, health willing and at my convenience, check out the Warren allegation and I will make up my own mind as to whether or not this is something I should be concerned about.  And while I will happily read any statement put out by any advocacy organization, I don’t need them to tell me how to think or who to be pissed at.  In all the years I’ve been associated with them, they have never tried to do that with me.  Strong point in their favor.

Back to the evening’s regular programming.  Tacos for dinner and I made the shells myself.