Cultural evolution: Lessons NZ can learn from France

Opinion by Alan Duff
Cultural evolution: Lessons NZ can learn from France

You know there’s something good about a town’s cultural outlook when the municipal cops walk down the street shaking hands and double-cheek kissing the shop proprietors, and the postie greets the residents and stops for coffee and a chat.

The same town that has just finished hosting 1 million revellers over five days and we didn’t see a single act or even a look of aggression, despite the drinking starting each day around 1 o’clock and went on till 3am. Yet no fights. This would be impossible in New Zealand with our male hang up about manhood. As a young man I had that same stupid outlook. A pity we weren’t given another behavioural model.

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Back to here in Bayonne, France, we call it the town of music, as living in an apartment on a main street that restricts traffic access, not a week goes by when we don’t hear singing or instruments playing. The Basque people have wonderful voices and choir groups come in from surrounding villages in the Pyrenees to not only show off their practiced harmonies, but to exude joie de vivre.

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I’m in the lucky position of getting to visit primary schools in low socio-economic areas and have done so for the last 22 years and I have yet to tire of it. The children’s un-self-conscious joy and vigour and fact that we’re giving them books and, hopefully, passing on a love of reading is what keeps me motivated.

Contrast this with a certain type of adult too typical of New Zealand all over, with that sullen stare, the curling lips, the simmering aggression which become violent encounters. Something I have never experienced, anywhere, in France.

On the other hand, rugby in the lower grades here is far more violent and the spectators get themselves into a feverish pitch of near fury. Though after the game there is never a sign of the same anger and violence. And they can equally be singing and cheering with the same fervour – if their team is winning.

I consider myself twice lucky in being a Kiwi living here with the advantage of another perception and coming back several times a year to visit schools; culturally adjusting to life in two countries comes more easily to someone of mixed race origins.

In friendliness stakes the Kiwis beat near everyone hands-down. The French are rather reserved with strangers – not shirty. Just takes a while to get to know them. Then they’re like people everywhere.

The stereotype of rude French is so out of whack it amuses us. The Basque people are unique of both language and culture, though French is their mother tongue; extremely proud of who they are and their songs reflect this. Seems to me they have found the perfect mix of keeping cultural traditions alive as well enjoying a commercial bent. It’s kind of a social socialism with mercantile activity underlying, even underwriting, it.

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Most everyone has a place in this society. And from what I can observe, there are no meaningful social stratum; the postie is as happy as the cop as the business person as the pharmacist as the plumber. Who wouldn’t love to live in a society like that? Though of course people find their own levels, just not necessarily inherited class status or lack thereof. Oh, and it must be mentioned: a very large percentage of the populace reads books.

This is not a comparison exercise, more an observation of cultural differences and opinion that culture is an evolutionary thing and New Zealand is – in some ways – a little bit behind.

In other ways, like our can-do attitude, Kiwis are ahead. I have a niece who, along with two other Kiwis, set up two of the most successful café/restaurants in London in recent years serving thousands weekly. My good friend’s freight/logistics company has several branches in France, along with 240 more throughout the world. Kiwis, mate. So I’m not knocking us.

We make better coffee than anyone in the same big wide world. But our alcohol drinking is more a binge culture than an enhancement to social and cultural activity. And our streets should be safe to walk any time of day or night, like our bars and pubs, instead of watching our backs and having to keep the antennae up for danger signs.

And we do need to read a whole lot more, and I don’t mean reading trash. 

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