Posted by: Jon | 25/10/2009

My French friend…and separate realities.

Development Meeting - copyright Yosef Hadar/World BankMy very good Breton friend – and sometimes neighbour – leads a globe-trotting life that is far from ‘green’. I say sometimes neighbour because his job and home and family are actually in Washington DC where he works for the world’s largest lending bank. Right next door to the world’s largest monetary fund.  (I won’t name names because both institutions have their critics and I don’t want to cause unnecessary embarrassment).

Each summer he travels with his lovely American wife and children to his house in Finistere for a long vacation. Which he thoroughly deserves because his job takes him from the long office hours of the most affluent part of the world to the unsettling sights and sounds of the most deprived  – and is therefore very demanding.

So my friend lives on three different planes of geographical consciousness; metropolitan USA, rural France and the world’s most troubled places – his current responsibilities being in drought stricken Madagascar and the Comoros. Which existence he says he manages by compartmentalising his life. 

Gone fishingWe know when he’s switched into French mode because the mackerel start arriving. For his birthright has now become his rest and recreation and he spends long hours bobbing around on a little fishing boat below his cliff top home, keeping the region’s summer barbeques well supplied. He doesn’t enjoy US city living but has nonetheless been spoiled by his exposure to the Anglo-Saxon world. His feigned frustration at French bureaucracy is endlessly entertaining; even a simple trip to the local bank has him close to apoplexy. “I can’t beleeeve ziz place! I go to take out zee money, zay ask what you want eet for? What do zay zink, a drogue deeel? I can’t beleeeve eet!!”

To be fair our little corner of France is quite old-fashioned and parochial and not a true reflection of modern life in the banlieu or across the city in the Hauts-de-Seine. But even for us Anglo-Saxons who originate from only a short hop over the Channel, the cultural differences are astonishing. And for his wife, an unashamed city-girl, two or three summer months deprived of Starbucks and the internet and well-stocked bookstores are more than enough. “What d’ya’ll do in win’er?” she asks in disbelief. “All that sittin’ round the table with the extended fam’ly! How d’ya’ll stan’ it?”

But la France profonde is lodged deep in my friend’s soul and he keeps coming back, even for odd weekends, diverting flights between his site visits and the office. So with all those air-miles of course he can’t be green. Although he is the treasurer of our local preservation association. But actually that is also a bit inward-looking and protests the nitrogen that runs off from intensive local farming and our leaking septic tanks to turn our beaches a vivid toxic green. But climate change and wider global eco-crises are seldom discussed here because indigenous lives remain insularly local and the swollen summer population arrives seeking to get away from it all.    

On the beach in Southern Madagascar - copyright Yosef Hadar/World BankSo there he is, my friend, one foot in the centre of world influence and the other in rural parochialism. But what of his third life, his site visits, previously to Haiti and Afghanistan, and now to the Indian Ocean? Well, his current projects, already badly undermined by local corruption on the ground, are on hold. A coup d’etat last March brought infrastructural collapse and international sanctions to an already troubled country that relies on foreign aid for half  its budget. His employers report that ‘in the past half century Madagascar has seen a 10% increase in temperature and 10% decrease in rainfall’. Southern Madagascar is currently in food crisis with tens of thousands of families suffering chronic hunger following crop failure in three out of the past five years. It’s salutary to realise how much we construct and frame our climate change beliefs on where we happen to live out our lives.    

He’s a good man, my friend, and he does an onerous and important job as he balances his three separate realities. “Pouf!” I can imagine him saying, as he dismisses my admiration with a Gallic shrug. “We can only do our best? We cannot carry all zee burdens of zee world on our shoulders.” And he would be right of course, but wouldn’t it be fine to think that we actually are all doing our best now to see beyond our parochial parameters  – and working to lessen the ecological burdens we place on other peoples’ lives.



  1. Your thought-provoking article jumps between a number of scales. You argue that Breton environmental interests are parochial, yet all that makes the problems of Madagascar international is the presence of international development organisations. As long as we are dealing with crises in these locations we don’t need to see beyond these parochialisms.

    However, what connects these two sites to the third – the suburban United States – is precisely the bigger picture. It is here that we can make sense of the crises in each location, and it is the lifestyles and expectations here that lie at the root of the crises elsewhere.

    Whilst compartmentalising certainly seems to be a survival strategy, your writing also draws attention to a strategic value to retaining a sense of “parochialism”. As long as these three sites present separable issues, our behaviours need not be implicated directly.

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