Driving me Crazy

There are many ways to associate a country with biking.  The caricature (to the right) of the old French man riding along with a béret and baguette  is just that, a caricature.  In point of fact, this photo was the only image I could find easily on Google whether searching in French or in English,  which tells you something about how representative it actually is.  Except for occasional organized bike riders on small country roads, à la Tour de France, I do not see many bicyclists in my town.  And that’s not surprising: there are few official bike paths, and those that exist are often obstructed by pedestrians, parked cars, and delivery trucks.   Biking in town is not the norm.  And I am sorry, but I would not be the first to jump on one in Aix-en-Provence, either.

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Potatoes In the Mouth

I am in Sweden this week in order to visit my  brother Simon and his family, in Lund, and in order to attend a conference in Stockholm.  I do not speak Swedish.  We arrived in Copenhagen from Germany, and I do not speak Danish either. When I made comments to Simon about hearing and not understanding Danish, my brother muttered things about the people across the bridge and potatoes. This is a common critique: someone speaks a language closely related to yours, and you claim that they speak your language with potatoes in their mouth. I have heard Germans call Dutch “children’s German” and of course the British and the Americans exchange various digs about who speaks English with greater sophistication, or with less pretention, or what have you.  

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The Jekyll and Hyde of Language

There is a strong belief that people’s personalities change when they speak different languages, and there is probably something to this.  But it is not a simple something.  The feeling that we are “someone else” in Swedish versus Spanish is probably most accute during actual language acquisition, and when we have mastered the language (which in my estimation takes at least four years of constant effort when one is an adult),  it may be a different thing altogether. 

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Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

In the United States, people greet each other in literally thousands of ways.  I had been away on sabbatical from a university in the southern part of the Midwest.  When one of the shop technicians in my department saw me again after the year away he called out cheerfully, “Hey there, stranger!  Police know you’re out?” “What did he mean by that?” asked my German husband, Markus, worried.  “He meant ‘hi’,” I said.

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Weather Report

Back in “Clichés are the funnies things” I mentioned the movie “Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis.”  In this hilarious movie, as I said, a post office administrator is transferred from a post in the South of France to a position in the North.  Everyone around him in the South, including his wife, cannot even imagine what it is like all the way up there, so cold, so desolate.  Plus, in that environment, the people must be just awful, made drunken and perhaps dangerous by the hostile climate.  The inhabitants ofNord-Pas-de-Calais are wearing tee shirts and romping around outside when the guy from the South arrives wearing a down jacket, with a wool scarf that his wife has lovingly wrapped around his neck.  He keeps it there to keep the wife guessing about his life in the North.

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Bavarians in Paradise

We are in Munich, where my husband grew up,  for two weeks to see friends and family.  Most tourists to this town land right in the middle of Marienplatz and, after watching the figurines come out of the Glockenspiel (clock tower) to perform two stories from the 16th century, every hour on the hour, they head on over to the Hofbräuhaus.  They go to Hofbräuhaus ostensibly to get a stein -- or five steins -- of beer, although tourists of the hetero male persuasion are just kidding you about the beer (which they can drink elsewhere); they actually want to see just how high and crushed together a dirndl with appropriate bra can set a pair of huge breasts.  There the tourists may also eat not-particularly-good food, and then they can go home and say that Munich is full of big-breasted women serving beer and fatty sausages.  And they all feel like they know Bavaria.

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Ignorance is Bliss

You have been waiting for me to tell you  something insightful from psychology  about the use of stereotypes and the perpetuation of clichés.  You think that there are two motivations, though you might not have the data or the vocabulary for them, and your intuition is mostly right.  Psychologists who study social cognition (mental processes that support thinking about the social world) for years characterized humans as “cognitive misers.”  This means, of course, that people want to think as simply as possible so that they have time to do other stuff with their minds, like play computer games and figure out how to work their iPad (will someone please help me with this?).  It’s true.  There is so much to think about that reducing the need to think per se is a mental state desired by many.

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The Emperor’s New Clothes of Travel

My friends Seth and Jenny and family are living in Rome for the year and we get to see them this week in Munich.  It is fun to show them a city that we know well, although of course there is the pressure of wanting everything to be perfect, and it never is.  For example we took them to a “wonderful” Greek restaurant little knowing that the owners moved back to Greece two years ago and that the restaurant under the current owners bears no resemblance.  Ah well.  But we really want to hear about their initial experiences in Rome and see again what people look like when they are excited but also rested. 

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No Cheese? Pul-eeze!

A friend of mine, who is American, lives in France and is married to a Frenchman.  Her husband says that if he ever hears one more French person living in the U.S. complain that they cannot find good cheese to eat, so they’ll have to fly home, he might have to hurt someone.  Or at least say very nasty things.

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Welcome Home

I just moved my family from France to the United States.  A motivation for writing this blog in the first place was to prepare myself for what I thought would be the inevitable: lots of questions about our reasons for leaving France after all of this time, and especially for moving to the United States.  If you read the newspapers in France, you would quite frankly never move.  But I don’t only read French papers; I read other ones too.  And I think that the motivations for anyone’s moving “home” should never really come into question.

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Dog Poop

Among other topics in social psychology, my husband studies uncivil behavior and the factors that lead people in the street to express disagreement with, and even attempt to prevent, such behavior.  This intervention by a by-stander is usually called “Social Control.”  Recently it is also called “Civil Courage.”  This second label recalls the fact that such intervention can actually be dangerous (which is one reason it does not always occur).  Last year a man who stepped in when a small group of thugs stole a cell phone from another kid on an U-Bahn in Munich was murdered by those very thugs at the next U-Bahn stop.  Uncivil behaviors are not always as dramatic as theft, and include tagging, littering, cutting in line and … failing to pick up poop after ones best friend.  By the way, the term for dog poop in French is déjections canines.  Love it.

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Speaking in Tongues

The Americans, the French, and the English, are criticized regularly for their overall mastery of foreign languages.  The very low level of mastery, that is.  There is plenty of self-criticism around this failing, as well.  It is indeed likely that if you consider the educational resources of these countries (compared to the poorer countries of southern Europe, for instance) and correct for size of country, the expected level of second language acquisition is low.  But I have not seen any data.  Regardless, each country has its own explanation for this presumed fact.  They range from the biological through the geographical to the ideological.

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The 30 Rock of America or: Wanting Bob Dole Back?

When I lived in France, there were certain scary and unexpected political moments involving the rise of the Front National, Le Pen’s party.  I protested in the streets of Paris against Haider’s reign in Austria.  And now I am back in the US and have to confront the Tea Party.  I do not have much to say about it yet.  There is a lot to learn, if I can even stand to do it.

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Boot Scootin' Boogie

Here is a little secret: there are university professors in the social sciences in the United States who sometimes listen to country music.  Country music divides people in some ways (along the lines of my last post).  So don’t tell anyone about this.  Except you can tell people about me.  I am okay with that. 

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That Midwestern Smile

The students in my honors course here at UW-Madison, mostly from the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, were shocked and hurt by some things they learned in the class recently.  The focus of this honors section of my Psychology of Human Emotions course is “the smile.”  We are reading a textbook that summarizes very well psychological research on the topic.  But there is a twist.  The author is Polish, and he does not hold back when writing in English about what some Europeans believe is God’s truth – raw reality – about the American smile.  Here is what the (late) French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, has to say, for instance: 

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Some Regional Cliches, or What is it about "Friday Night Lights"?

I used to wonder how or why people in New York City could (or would) listen to the National Public Radio show “A Prairie Home Companion,” and then bust a gut laughing at the jokes.  I was less surprised when my friend Jennie, from California, told me that she found the show unbearably cloying.  Why should anyone other than the inhabitants of New Ulm, Minnesota and Stoughton, Wisconsin, understand and enjoy Norwegian-and-German-Lutheran-Great-Lake-States-type humor?  Garrison Keillor whispering about the fact that right around the middle of July the vegetables in the garden get so thick and demanding that “in the bathroom, you reach for your toothbrush ... it’s a zucchini.”   There are two reasons to laugh at this: the “my life exactly” reason (Minnesota) and the “cool, a self-propelled vegetable!” reason (New York City).

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Happy Halloween

A girlfriend of mine told me that when her teenage boy says things that are just unfounded or based on random stuff passing through his (otherwise very intelligent) head, she tells him, “When you say that, it makes you sound stupid.”  She provides this feedback with parental concern in her voice, not surliness.

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Speed Stick

Let’s face it, olfaction is an important sense.  Olfaction is strongly linked to emotion and emotional memories.  The smell of some cookies reminds you of one grandmother, and the smell of “White Shoulders” perfume reminds you of the other grandmother.  

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Looking for Beauty

When I first visited Warsaw, in 1985, I learned to mock the Ministry of Culture.  I listened and tried to understand the Poles at that time, and I gathered that the building consolidated in one huge structure everything that the Poles felt about communist rule.  Double lives, underground feelings, ironic paranoia.

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