Monday, May 29, 2017

Reflections on Technology in France

My wife and I recently had the privilege of spending a week in southern France, at a conference in the small town of Aurillac (pronounced "AW-ree-ack").  I say small—27,000 people is about the size of Cleburne, Texas, which is a town I'm somewhat familiar with.  Based on my admittedly very limited and undoubtedly biased observations of what we saw and experienced, I'd like to make some comparisons between the different ways that the French citizens we encountered and Texans have dealt with technology, broadly defined.

First, transportation.  In Texas, if you don't have access to a car, you are automatically placed in a category that is inhabited largely by very poor people, eccentrics, and the homeless.  There are some folks who don't drive and who also don't meet any of those descriptions, but the great majority of able-bodied adults in Texas drive nearly everywhere.

Not in Aurillac.  We flew into town and landed at the single airport, which is basically one building in a field, by a parking lot.  And we took a taxi into town, about a seven-minute ride.  But from that point onward for the next week we didn't set foot in any motorized transport, and frankly didn't miss it a bit.  At the end of our visit, we walked twenty minutes or so to the train station and rode the train to Paris.

A lot of people appear either to walk to work in Aurillac or ride bicycles.  There are cars, but the main parking in the center of town is an underground garage.  This allows the Aurillacans (Aurillacois?—I don't know enough French to say) to avoid cluttering up their thousand-year-old town with ugly parking garages, or knocking down a 15th-century church to pave the land over for Renaults or Audis.  I can't imagine how much it cost to excavate the garage without disturbing the quaint 19th-century plaza park above it—many millions, I suppose.  But it was done, somehow, and consequently, much of downtown Aurillac would still be familiar to a peasant who knew the town as it was in 1600 A. D. 

In Cleburne, they have old stuff too—the county courthouse, for instance, which dates all the way back to 1913 A. D., and was recently restored.  But for parking, you just have to find a lot somewhere or park on the street.  There is no commercial airport, and although there are train yards and an Amtrak station, getting anywhere on the train is really complicated and inconvenient.  Nearly everybody who wants to go to Cleburne drives there along U. S. 67, or takes the new tollway that connects it to downtown Fort Worth nearby via the highway loop around the city for those who are just passing through.

Next, the pattern of daily life.  When my sister lived in Cleburne, she would get up early, get in her car at maybe 7:30, and drive 45 minutes or so to her job in Fort Worth, where she runs a nursing department that uses very high-tech stuff, computers, and so on.  Then she'd drive back in the evening around 5 or 6 and have supper, and while she lived in Cleburne for close to a decade, I'm not aware that she developed any serious connections with other people in the town.

In doing this routine, my sister follows a pattern laid down by the Industrial Revolution, which requires the close scheduling of large numbers of people doing coordinated things in institutions such as factories, schools, and hospitals. 

Things are different in Aurillac.  Yes, the little tobacco and newspaper shop across the street from our hotel opened up every day about 6 AM.  But for the next three hours, there wasn't much else going on in the way of business.  Around 9 or 10, most places were open, but at noon, a lot of them closed for two hours—lunch, you see.  Then at 2, they would open up again, sometimes, and then again maybe not.  The Museum of Volcanoes we visited had such hours, and stayed open till 7 PM. 

Then, and only then, the typical Aurillac resident starts thinking about supper.  The restaurants we went to typically didn't even open in the evening until 7.  In the afternoons and evenings especially, the outdoor cafes would fill with people of all ages, sitting around talking about—well, I mostly couldn't tell what they were talking about, because I don't understand French.  But they seemed to be content to jaw for hours on end, either in person or on their mobile phones.  We did see a lot of people using mobile phones there, and I suppose that's one way in which the French and the Americans are pretty much alike:  the near-universality of the smart phone.  But the French folks we saw haven't allowed it to put an end to the practice of polite conversation at the supper table, which smartphones have nearly succeeded in doing in many U. S. households and public places.

There were bars in Aurillac, but they weren't crammed with people seemingly desperate to unwind from a tense day.  People there seemed content to sit at a table with a glass of beer and just look around, or think, and not have a phone or a paper in their hand.  You don't see that much in Cleburne.

As I say, this is a completely unscientific sample of life in France.  I'm aware of many of the negatives cited by some Americans about life there:  the excessive government regulation and intervention in the economy, the high taxes, the paucity of religious influence.  But somehow, the citizens of Aurillac have made it to 2017 without letting modern technological society homogenize them into looking like any mid-size town in the U. S. with multinational-corporation logos plastered everywhere.  They do have a McDonald's in Aurillac, but they also have butcher shops that have been in the same place, with the same tile on the floor, since 1925.  And that isn't unusual there. 

I liked Aurillac a lot, and our week there was a sample of life in a slower, more meditative lane that I hope to keep with me, at least in thought, now that I'm back in Texas.  It wasn't better or worse than Cleburne, it was just different.  But different in some ways that were very appealing.

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