In my attempts to complete a kinship map, I learned quite a bit about the structure and culture of family in France. Initially I was frustrated by the assignment because I knew early on that questioning people about their families was contrary to French culture. However, my inability to explain how I knew this sent me on a search that lasted my entire field study.
Ultimately, I didn’t ask any French people about their family. To do so would have been to completely miss the point about understanding the French and the relationship to family. Families are private, and you don’t ask about them in France. I was talking to a woman who was telling me that she had been working with another woman for five years and had never known she was married or had a daughter about the same age until knowing her for FIVE YEARS. Because you don’t talk about or ask about someone’s family. They’re private; they’re not you’re business. I was talking to another girl who said that you will never ever see pictures of a French person’s family on their desk at work. Ever. I thought that was odd, until remembering what the first woman said about never knowing.
I was talking to my landlady over coffee one day, telling her about how frustrated I was about this assignment because I had learned and understood that you just don’t ask people about their families in France (she’s American and married a French man). She confirmed my understanding, she said that she had been married for eight years and she just felt like being an outsider having married her husband that her mother-in-law was only just beginning to trust her. Now mother-in-laws are notorious for being difficult on their son’s wives. But she said that she wasn’t sure she could even get her husband to share with me about his family. And he was her HUSBAND. She told me about how French people will talk to you about almost anything, but asking about their families is a serious breach of privacy.
I had experienced this before, with a boy I met. My family is important to me, so I usually think of them often, and talk about them if given the chance. He didn’t, and when I was sitting with him talking to him for the third hour, I finally asked about his family, and though he had been speaking with me rather openly about all sorts of things, he closed up and was tight-fisted about his family. As soon as I moved away from the topic, he opened up again.
I knew that cutting corners and doing a kinship mapping with some American family at church was perhaps possible, but would kind of defeat and miss the purpose of the whole Field Study and learning about another culture. I can tell you that my landlord is French, that he has an Ameriacn wife, and a young daughter. He has a mother out in the country where he takes his daughter often, and a sister living in Paris, which I know because she had to collect my key from me when I left. But these are all things I deduced over three months, and by talking to his wife, an Amerian, who is much more open about family than he was.
It sounds like I just didn’t do an assignment, but I honestly tried for three months to find someone I felt I could ask about their family, but I just wasn’t willing to ruin a perfectly good conversation by asking them about their family when it was something that just wasn’t done. When in Rome, as they say. And so I gleaned my understanding of family by watching and paying attention to the people around me.
I learned children are very important. I learned that the family is the responsibility of mother and father, not just mother. There were children everywhere, much more a part of the streets of Paris than I’ve ever recognized in London, or Los Angeles or even Provo. In American cities and towns, children are hidden away at home; but Parisians live their lives and let their children be a part of them. They take them everywhere, in strollers, and on walks, and they listen to their every word, and take them to play afterschool in the park down the street. So attentive. Parisian children are so very loved and encouraged in that love.
I saw fathers in parks with their children always; children are not the woman’s responsibility, but a family responsibility. At home it seems you only see American fathers with their older sons—when their sons are old enough to play a sport, be taken to the park. This does not seem the case in Paris. Rather, fathers take their daughters and their very young children out into the city. Fathers have a place, even with babies. And they are attentive to their daughters as well as their sons. They really play with their children, too, which I hadn’t seen very often elsewhere.
On several occasions while sitting in the tube in London during the months I spent living in London, a child would call out to their parent (you rarely saw children on the tube, but when they were there, I had seen this happen) and the parent would entirely ignore them. The child wasn’t complaining, they just wanted to tell their parent something, and they were ignored leaving everyone in the carriage wondering why they’re not just answering the child so she’ll stop saying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” Children are on the metro in Paris often, and when they call after a parent, they are listened to and typically answered. Chances are I always saw the circumstances in London in which children were ignored, and always saw circumstances in Paris in which children were given some heed. But regardless, it shaped my idea of how children were regarded in Paris, in ways I hadn’t seen them regarded elsewhere.
Though the family is not typically spoken of, it is very apparently an important structure in Paris. Grandparents are just as important as they are in the closest families here. Weekend visits to Grandparents was a typical occurrence for my landlady’s husband and daughter. In a world where people are not let in very often, family members become necessary and indispensable parts of life.