Notes From A Big Country. FRANCE. An Experiential Action Research Story By Interculturalist & Observer Daphne Laing

How did this wild adventure start?

The context

Having talked about a more authentic, shared life together during holidays walking the grand randonnees, in September 2017 we finally realised our dream, upped sticks and moved to Brittany, Western France to start a new adventure. The first thing to say is obvious: when dreams become reality they are no longer dreams; and this is where our story begins.

Watermill of Huelgoat, Brittany

 

The project: to set up and launch a residential centre for training courses, workshops and retreats in the peaceful and inspiring surroundings of rural France.

Daphne 1

Part 1 of the Story – Months 1 – 4

Starting as we meant to go on, and in my case with 30 years’ experience of giving intercultural integration advice, we were determined not to fall into the trap of relying on a support network offered by other Britanniques….no! We were going to integrate right from the beginning!!!! We set about asking for advice where the French go: at the mairie, the CCI (Chamber of Commerce) and of course in the bakery and tabac.

Observation 1: the advice and insights given by others who have done the same thing is invaluable, but especially in the form of person-to-person contact. There is very useful objective advice online, but internet forums are generally to be avoided!

Step 1: moving in….

Early indications: deliveries have to be guided in by phone. Mostly they have satnav but this is not to be trusted. We found that about 3 conversations were necessary for every delivery. Where does that figure on Hofstede?? Problem: I thought I spoke French, mais non! The phone was impossible. Every response was met with what seemed like a whole life story while I was still deconstructing the first greeting. I was also frankly out of the habit of answering the phone and talking to a person rather than a robot…

Daphne 2

“Please, what is the context??” I plead, trying to figure out yet again who this was and, even more challenging, where they were – since we didn’t know the geography any better than them!! In our area houses do not have names, so nobody knows where to direct a delivery if you have just moved here, because they don’t know you… Oh and dont’ worry about why that package arrives and leaves not from the post office but the coin fumeur (…..smokers’ corner) tabac in the next village….

Observation 2: so we need to be known!!!! …Start with the “weak ties”…neighbours, baker, newsagent…..

Step 2 Get registeredGrappling with bureaucracy, processes and “the system.” As we intend to be fully integrated into the community, working and living for the majority of the year in our little village, we need to set up our official support network. The problem is that when we ask the locals, they give us the answer but they don’t realise that we are the equivalent of David Bowie in the Man Who Fell to Earth…We don’t know the background, we haven’t grown up with the way the system is organised; so each meeting is positive, friendly and helpful, but we still come away with a feeling of mild panic that we still don’t really understand what is going on because we can’t put the “whys” with the “whats”. We feel as if we are getting almost nowhere fairly slowly, but I still have total faith that suddenly, like climbing a mountain, we will reach the top, having matriculated and received notification of our taxable status.

The result is that we go to all the offices we are directed to but often in the wrong order. After every meeting with another very helpful civil servant we come out encouraged and optimistic, but still not quite sure if anything has moved on. Problem: if you don’t know the system you can’t tell if we are progressing. Observation: wow it cannot be exaggerated how disorientating it feels to arrive in the new system. After 4 months we’re not yet registered with health and social care but we think we have managed to register the business and we have definitely managed to register the car…born in Italy, raised in UK and naturalised in Franc.

Daphne 3

We meet the mayor and get to know the staff at the mairie, which has lists and records of everything and everyone in the commune and is the go-to place for everything: getting planning permission; inviting international visitors who need visas; forming a club; contributing to the newsletter; picking up bin bags. Here you can’t be invisible and you are instantly accountable. Next, off to the bank to open an account – armed for the second meeting (the first meeting appeared to be relationship building) with proofs of address/ residence/birth/ proof of income. The application process is personal: “Madam has travelled a lot” and is all done with the utmost courtesy and friendliness despite the fact that our financial investment is minimal to tiny.

What a huge learning curve – fascinating, mentally tiring and baffling… but soooo interesting, frustrating – and sometimes bizarre. As an intercultural professional I am genuinely interested in the underlying, the abstract, the philosophy… how come everything is so different?….

What do I love about France so far?…the focus on people; the fact that you can be neither unaccountable nor invisible – the close relationship with the commune . our mayor sees to that – you are acknowledged (“weak ties”) everywhere you go, and after around 4 months we are starting to get more than a “bonjour”……petit a petit…… I love the fact that everything is discussed before anything is done – then it is done with absolutely no nonsense, and the person who has done whatever it is, is automatically accountable for their actions… and there is a kindness and a sensitivity both to the human condition and to beauty and art.  Oh yes and although we are STILL finding the 2 hour lunch break annoying because for 30 years we have been programmed that that is when you pop out to get things…… I really appreciate that all working people have 2 hours a day where they mostly eat together, talk together and bond…….. And the space around us, and the lack of M6 motorway (or any) traffic.

What I don’t like? Probably all of the above on a bad day!!!!

Until the next time,

Daphne

About the Author – Daphne Laing is a language and intercultural training specialist now based in France with a long career in training and academia. During the 1990s she worked in Executive training at Regent Executive and Lydbury English Centre before joining Higher Education where she headed up the Centre for Language and Communication Training during the halcyon years of Internationalisation in UK. During that time she was involved in several EC funded projects to that end as well as partnership development activity in places as diverse as Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, Burma and China. Her practice is deeply rooted in observation and discovery and on encouraging personal reflection and growth. She is now working as an independent consultant and trainer and is setting up an inspirational residential centre for education and personal development events and courses in Pen Ar Bed (top/head/centre of the world in Breton) in Western France.

 

Eat Prey Grope Resign – No Love

When will Sexual Harassment stop?

Pandora’s Box is currently open and what is being released seems ugly yet disturbingly obvious. To an extent, we all share a common feeling of shame at semi – knowing the news coming out about sexual abuse already.

It has taken a while to emerge because we have collectively created a hostile environment of judgement and name calling, where the victims of abuse carried out by powerful men are made to feel afraid and hesitant about coming forward. There was nowhere to hide. Now there is #metoo. Before today, there was only the fear of public ridicule, of another close encounter in a lift or of suffering career aspiration damage.

Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes are up there. And now Kevin Spacey, Louis CK and a stream of unsavoury characters from British Parliament are emerging to upset us further. Again, it is less the shock, rather the confirmation of our collective semi-knowing of the on-going and systemic abuse of position, power and privilege.

Sexual Harassment

“Let’s talk”

No longer can we comfort ourselves that this was mostly just weird victimless perversion, the vice of old men with silk ropes and whips. Now with the #metoo campaign, the victims have found their collective voice. The people are now listening and this will be a day of reckoning for some.

Utopia

Can we dream of a better world now? Would it be that difficult for the elite to give up their political and financial dominance in order to quash a grotesque trade in requests for sexual access in return for career opportunity?

Obviously those holding the power seem to think so. Vast money and airtime are being spent perpetuating myths around the benefits of young women and powerful old men continuing to work together with all the associated side deals staying in place. Perhaps a simple and healthy alternative narrative is too terrifying and threatening for them to contemplate.

Imagine a world that is economically gender neutral and, in particularly, where jobs are deemed gender free – women can be plumbers, top chefs and physicists, men can be dancers and nurses and no one blinks.

That would take a big shift in our collective memory, overturning a vast vault made up of millions of exposures to belittling sentences, limiting judgements and gender stereotyping images coming at us via press, TV and film.

Imagine a world where the household chores are distributed evenly. A world where care work, domestic work or work traded for salaries were valued as equally significant, equally valid and equally worthy of acknowledgement.

Sweat Box

The flip side benefit of this would move beyond Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” where women are subtly asked to become more like men and fill the boardroom with mini – Margaret Thatchers. Instead the testosterone count would be replaced by a pleasant creative and innovating environment where thought based productivity replaced stressed robotic computer terminal template filling sitting silently in a soul destroying open plan office the size of half a football pitch.

Symptoms

How do we know we have not got it right? Sexist banter, prejudice, Christmas party transgressions, the trade in career enhancement for sexual favours, the casting couch, the old propositioning the young simply because the job market is tight and competitive and they can, and the concept of allowing groping hands in the company lift continuing to be justified with, “That is how you get ahead.”

And there is man-splaining (Rebecca Solnit), man-spreading, the hostile work environment – interruptions, dominance and deafness, and something I frequently witness in offices – the small number of women in a team being expected to make the coffee, print out documents and show visitors to meeting rooms.

Hope

Before we jump off a collective cliff of hopelessness, let us remember that school leavers, are the future of work and many of them seem to be getting it. No longer is casual sexism or homophobia acceptable or cool. When my son pointed out that some epithets would not longer go unchallenged amongst his peer group, I was mildly surprised as well as being heartened and encouraged.

Cause

Our collective parenting has yet to change from bringing up boys to be the little tough guy, overtly manly (& praying that they turn out straight.) And bringing up girls to be pink princesses groomed to lead a fairy tale life of motherhood within wedded bliss with wedding day planning lasting for all of their remembered childhood. And, all this flying in the face of data, our own repeated disappointment, and the cumulative evidence of life experience.

Who benefits from women cleaning and caring? Who benefits from white middle class males dominating the corporate world as well as the higher echelons of education, medicine, all religions and local and national Government?

The bastion of white male privilege is holding fast and shows no signs of being swayed by equality laws, the moral outrage of oppressed group’s or the findings of employment tribunals (recently put out of reach for the majority with the introduction of a £1,200 starter fee in the UK.)

The Current Narrative

Do we know just how 1950’s our current gender story is? When we see Mad Men / Stepford Wives, we laugh at the simpering simplicity of their lot. But have modern TV, film and social media characters really changed that much in the last 65 years? Screenwriter for When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron often spoke of the paucity of female character definition in the majority of successful mainstream films with the oft repeated phrases, “What is going on?”, “You don’t understand me” and, “We don’t seem to talk any more.”

One Million Images

One Million Images

Geena Davis is commissioning research and making a documentary to point out the staggering gender imbalance in modern films (Men have twice the airtime and talking time of women in mainstream Hollywood film releases.) And 96% of the biggest films where directed by men.

If you believe TV (please don’t), the life choices women are asked to make are between nurse, beauty queen, tough and sacrificing executive or home maker / baby maker.

And, the gritty reality of suburbia is actually worse! multi-generational nappy changing and taxi driving are moving up the job description.

Status Quo

Males are dominant in the economy and make the majority of the decisions that have the power to either maintain the current set up or exchange it for a more inclusive and profitable gender balanced economic future.

But there seems little or no incentive for them to do so.

It is like the Swiss Canton referendum in Appenzell, where it took until 1971 to enfranchise local women because…ONLY MEN COULD VOTE.

You can't hurry equality

You can’t hurry equality!

A Future Worth Having

Nothing will change until the narrative moves up. We need to see thousands and thousands and thousands of positive images of women in work, women in politics and women in the community portrayed on TV, in film and over Social Media. And those 3 D and robust characters need to be played by women, drawn by women and directed by women.

And let us have merit and not the casting couch as the door opener to career success.

Importantly, in literature this gender rebalancing is already happening. The majority of hit authors are now female – Think of Margaret Attwood, Zadie Smith, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, Jodi Picoult and JK Rowling.

And more growth is needed. Isolated collections of intelligent women working in smaller communities is not going to be enough. This is a mass project requiring serious mobilisation. And this means and includes YOU. The necessary amplification of a healthy gender narrative needs to be significant.

A final thought.

And whilst we have your attention, can I ask you a challenging question? And, it won’t make you feel great. Sorry.

What subtle choices have you made today that, as you review them now – make you realise that you have helped contribute to the continued suppression of women in the home, the media and in the workplace?

That question is for everybody.

We can take 3 more generations to get the necessary shift to occur or we can start today. It is up to me and it is up to you.

Author Profile – Matthew Hill works with diverse groups of corporate executives in more than 30 countries to raise awareness of positive difference and to support inclusion in the workplace.