They Strike? I Walk! And Gripe!

Today, December 26, is the 22nd day of the Paris transportation strikes.

Am I resigned? No, I’m furious!

I hope the government won’t give in to the unions. And I hope that someday in this country the government and the unions will sit down to discuss reforms intelligently, with good will on both sides and reach an agreement without clashes and strikes. Dream on!

We’re in France, baby.

As one who has always worked at home as a writer and journalist, I don’t have the same kinds of problems that people who work in offices do. That’s for sure, and I am grateful. I do wonder, though, how it is that people who endure long commutes on crowded trains and metros – if they can find ones that are running – continue to support the strikers. That is one of the mysteries and paradoxes of French life that I guess I will never, ever fathom. So, as the French say, passons.

But guess what? Even and especially people who work at home need to get out of their immediate environment, take a metro or bus to go Somewhere Else. In the good old days before the strike, I would jump on either the metro or a bus (preferably the metro because it isn’t dependent on unpredictable Paris traffic) and go wherever I liked in this city.

Now, thanks mainly to the communist-led union (CGT) that has no intention of “giving in” to the government, I’m virtually under house arrest. Fortunately, although I’m not in a neighbourhood of museums and fancy clothes shops, there are things to see, places to walk to, and that’s what I did today.

I started at 3 pm and gave myself an hour which stretched into two (I always end up having coffee somewhere). I walked past the entrance to the metro which remains defiantly and desperately closed, then down the pleasant avenue du Pere Lachaise where the flower shops abound – logical, because the upper entrance of the grandiose Pere Lachaise cemetery is at the end of the street.

Then, a stroll on the cobblestones of the ancient graveyard where I invariably discover something I have never seen before. Today, as I gazed at the marble tomb of the famous French writer, Colette, I saw out of the corner of my eye some fellows sitting on the cold pavement. They were sketching – I know not what – and were so concentrated they didn’t even see me taking their picture.

After that, I walked to a charming bistro where I admired the old-fashioned French penmanship way high up and ordered a Perrier because it was too early for a delicious glass of St. Amour (love the name as well as the wine). Night was falling as I walked past the magical and ancient church of Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, the oldest in Paris, then up a flight of stairs very much like those you see in Montmartre, and back home.

The walk was great, especially because due to the lack of buses I had to walk all the way instead of cheat as I usually do. But don’t think I’ll thank the strikers for that! I’m American, not French. There’s no way that I will adopt the French mantra: “Yes, this strike is a pain in the neck but I support the strikers.” For services not rendered? No way, especially because on top of everything, I have paid for a month-long transportation pass that I have hardly used. Surely they jest, you might say. Mais non!

When it comes to things like this, we’re not talking about a cultural gap. We’re talking about a cultural chasm!

The camembert that went to the movies

The current strikes in Paris lead to strange things, but I never dreamed that taking a camembert to the movies would be one of them.

But first: Do you know what a really good, ripe, raw milk camembert, as opposed to one of those pasteurised plaster-like fellows you find in supermarkets, smells like? Well, of course it smells like the cow milk it’s made of and if it’s ripe, as mine was, it smells like old socks or unwashed underwear – and that’s being kind. (But not ammoniac – if that’s what you’re getting, toss it.)

An odorous cheese is definitely not something you would want to inflict on fellow passengers in a bus or a metro or even put in the backseat of your car for longer than five minutes – let alone take to the movies.

Unfortunately, that’s what I ended up doing last night. The movie, by the way, was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, the fictionalised story of a real life Austrian soldier, Franz Jägerstätter, who was executed in 1943 for refusing to swear to a required oath of loyalty to Hitler and the Third Reich.

Already at the beginning of this film which was already starting to feel as long as WWII, I thought I saw people looking in my direction, probably to ascertain where the smell of an unwashed person or thing was coming from. I fished around in the dark for my grocery bag, felt the wooden box in which the cheese was stored and taking care not to drop it, slipped it into the zipper compartment of my purse, hoping to diminish or extinguish the “fragrance” that was now threatening to engulf the entire movie theatre.

No such luck.

The next move was to wrap up the entire purse in my long wool scarf – and pray.

It still reeked to high heaven.

I sank further down into my seat waiting for the endless movie to end.

It finally did and my pungent cheese and I made our getaway as fast as we could. Once back home, I threw it in a supposedly odor killing cheese box and went to bed. The next morning I opened the fridge for milk and was almost bowled over by the ferocious fumes that blew out of it. I grabbed the box, opened the door to the terrace, and slammed the reeking offender down on the outside table. Better to stink up the entire neighbourhood than my entire apartment!

Ah, but I love my cheese. By the time we had finished the main course of our lunch, I was itching to taste it. And am here to tell you that this evil-smelling fromage was absolutely delicious, perfect, with a beautiful pale yellow colour, a creamy texture and a mild, yes, mild taste.

I am sure you are wondering why I took the camembert to a movie with me.

Easy. I had just bought it and was dreaming of slicing into it as I fumbled around in my purse for my keys. They weren’t there. I was locked out! My husband was all the way across town attending a conference at the Sorbonne. Our son, who has an extra set, was even farther away. And because of the strike, there were no metros and hardly any buses. I would have to wait until my husband walked back home. I figured that would be 11 pm at the earliest. Fortunately I had money and my cell phone. I bought a bunch of magazines and newspapers, repaired to a local cafe where I drank a glass of delicious St. Amour, then feasted on a crepe in a little restaurant I had recently discovered and went to the movies.

And every place I went, the camembert went as well.

Is there a moral to this story? Sure! Never buy a stinky cheese before making sure you’re close to home and have your keys!

I Have a Dream

Tuesday, December 17, Day 13 of the strike and day of a huge manifestation that has already started. The strikers, who are marching from the Place de la Republique to Nation, are lucky: for the moment the sun is shining, the sky is grey, there’s no rain.

I am sitting here in the office of my apartment on the rue Stendhal (named after the famous nineteenth century French writer). My French doors (yes, French doors!) look out upon our private Jardin. It is green and quiet. Birds flutter their wings above and around the feeder my husband has hung on our fig tree. Neighbour cats stroll across our terrace and lawn as if they own it (they like to scamper across the grass but are mostly interested in capturing one of those nice birds for their dinner).

Sitting here, you would never even imagine the total chaos in the streets of Paris. When I leave our building, though, the smell of pollution assails my poor nose and throat. It’s so thick you feel you could cut into it the way you would a nice Camembert. Cars honk, bikes and scooters slalom past me on the narrow sidewalk. The other day my husband barely escaped being knocked down by a cyclist who appeared from behind a truck going the wrong way. After thirteen days of strikes and transportation problems, the Parisians, already high-strung by nature, are getting nervous. Very nervous.

I take my afternoon walk, cutting through the Pere Lachaise cemetery at the top entrance to end up “below” on the rue de la Roquette leading to the Bastille. There’s a strange atmosphere. Hardly any cars, not that many people. I wonder how this can be when thousands are demonstrating not far away. Then I understand: many streets have been cordoned off. Many people have decided to stay home. I continue for a while, do some errands, then return home via the cemetery again. I have always liked Pere Lachaise, for its tall trees, its cobblestones, its sculptures and monuments and its history but today I love it for the good reason that no bike, no car, no scooter can penetrate without getting shouted at and booted out by one of the ever vigilant and not so friendly guards. Within the confines of the cemetery, as in my nearby apartment, peace and quiet reign.

I return home and have a wide awake dream. In the dream, I live in a country rather like Finland or Denmark or Sweden where Presidents don’t consider themselves Kings and where citizens and their demands are taken seriously. In these countries, when there’s a problem, the government and the unions, for example, sit down at a table far from cameras to air their differences and come to solutions. In these countries, a small segment of the population could not make life difficult to impossible for other workers (only 11 percent of the total French railway employees, but the majority of the conductors, are striking and that’s enough to tie the entire country up in knots).

In my mythical – or perhaps real – country you are not a prisoner in your own home for weeks at a time because railway workers, nurses and doctors and teachers and farmers are unhappy (many for legitimate reasons, some not) and have to stage a national psychodrama to get the government to listen to them.

I really do think I’m dreaming.

Still…. I wonder – do you think the Finns or the Danes or the Swedes would have me? If so, I’ll be there in a jiffy.

The French On Strike – Again!!

Friday the 13th:   Day Nine of the transportation strike and I’m sick and tired of it.

But although I complain about being under house arrest (our nearest metro is closed, buses are irregular and the one day we foolishly decided to take the car we spent two hours getting only a fourth of the way to our destination and had to turn around and go back home), I’m one of the lucky ones. My office has always been chez moi and I can walk to a nearby café to write. People who aren’t so lucky get out of bed at 4 or 5 am to try to catch an over- crowded commuter train to Paris, line up in front of buses and metros hoping they’ll be able to squish in and find a place, take cars that barely move in the monstrous traffic jams around and in cities.  I’ve got to hand it to the French: their sheer determination and grit is worthy of admiration.

Even if I had never read a French newspaper or watched French TV, I would know something big was happening just by going to my local metro station and finding it closed. Buses run up and down the street but they are irregular with horrendously long waits and so many people stuffed into them that even you couldn’t get in if you wanted to.  As I walk up my street to buy my bread and cheese and vegetables and fish and meat, I see long lines of cars trying to get into the traffic circle to go in their different directions.  The honking of horns grows louder as buses and big trucks get stuck in the circle. An ambulance, its siren wailing, tries in vain to wedge in and continue its journey.  I pity the poor invalid inside.

The fascinating thing about all this is that a great majority of French people support the strikers in spite of the inconvenience and trouble it causes them personally.  A common phrase you hear is “It’s a real pain but the strikers are right to continue.”

Every once in a while a TV reporter will challenge that seemingly prevalent view by interviewing a hotel director who notes that the number of cancellations has drastically  increased or a butcher whose meat is not getting delivered or a small shopkeeper who has lost so much business she fears having to close her store.  

What, you may ask, are these street protests all about?

In a nutshell, a new pension plan for French workers that would replace the one set up at the end of World War II by Charles de Gaulle who wanted the country to get back on its feet and fast. He allowed each job sector to organize and oversee their own retirement programs with different dates for retirement and different perks. Under this system, forty-two pension plans were set up for groups ranging from railway workers to ballet dancers. While most French workers retire at age 62, train conductors can, for example, retire at age 52.  Different strokes for different folks.

No one likes to give up an acquired privilege and most French people dislike and distrust the very idea of reform.  On top of that, Macron, who I admire for taking on the challenge of replacing an unfair and antiquated pension system with a a unified one missed the boat when trying to explain just exactly what the workers would GAIN from it.  

So here we are on Day Nine with a huge strike announced for next Tuesday and threats of prolonging transport slowdowns until Christmas. Everyone is wondering: how long can this last? Who will win?

Strikes are nothing new in France. The French demonstrate regularly and see it as an inalienable right. If you live in France long enough, you’ll see plenty of manifestations – even if you may never get used to them. 

By sheer coincidence, I am reading a novel called The Art of Regret by writer Mary Fleming, an American in Paris who knows France and the French well. The protagonist is the unenthusiastic owner of a bicycle shop who has no ambition in life and does nothing to attract customers. But it’s 1995 and suddenly a prolonged strike brings hordes of desperate clients to his shop, upsetting his plans for an apathetic existence.  I was here during the three week strike in 1995 the author evokes.  Describing the situation during a family gathering, one of the characters remarks that “change in France always occurs through conflict.”

Truer words were never spoken.  

Leaving Paris? Really?

The other day I met a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time. The occasion was not a happy one. We were in the Parisian apartment of a recently deceased friend where we had been invited to choose, if we wished, a memento, something material by which to remember her.

These moments are always a mixture of sadness (why am I standing in this place when its occupant is no longer here?) and fond memories. Mine were of parties at my friend’s wonderful apartment right on the Boulevard Saint-Germain where she lived for many years, and later, after she moved, strolls in the nearby Jardin des Plantes. We also lunched, slurping down Phos in Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants near the Opera or, moving upscale, enjoying good French food and wine at more upscale establishments. Even when she was being treated for lung cancer, we would meet at a lovely restaurant near her place for an elegant meal. I admired that. I admired her.

My friend was the Paris Bureau Chief of Life magazine when I first met her some 40 years ago when I was a stringer at Time and we worked in the same building. When Life bit the dust, my friend became a freelancer, something she had never bargained for nor desired. She worked both as a writer and an editor – and as the editor of European Travel & Life, a prestigious glossy that no longer exists, unfortunately) dreamed up articles that suited the interests and specialties of her journalist friends. In fact, the articles I worked on with her were the genesis of my first book, French Toast. She had a sharp eye and sharp wit and was kind, but she wouldn’t tolerate missed deadlines (I never tried her on that) or sloppy work. When she sent her writers out on travel assignments, she checked to see that all was well but never hounded us in any way. She respected our work and brought out the best in each of her writers. Her name was Judy Fayard and all who knew her miss her optimism, high standards, sense of hard work and fun and joie de vivre.

But I digress.

Standing in her soon to be emptied out apartment, our mutual friend, a well-known food writer, smiled at me and said “I really enjoy your posts on Facebook and agree with you entirely.” I admit I didn’t know what he was talking about. Which posts? I’m not exactly a Facebook fiend and post sporadically.

Seeing my blank expression, he added: “the ones on Paris and how awful it’s become.” He paused: “I’m even thinking about leaving, going down to the south of France. Paris has become just another city, large, noisy, polluted and dangerous with all these cycles and scooters on the sidewalks.”

I froze. Were we really having this conversation? Then I remembered my latest Facebook post in which I observed that Paris was “eminently elegant but barely liveable”. It was illustrated by pictures showing the torn up streets and plazas as extensive renovation takes place in every part of the city. I was/am sincerely upset at seeing “my” Paris become one big “chantier” (construction site). Not all the results are good: one of my posts showed the redone Place de la Pantheon, one of Paris’ most emblematic sites, with its new “benches” – basic wooden planks that are ugliness personified and spoil the beauty of the site. I’ve seen those same benches pop up in other places in the city and can’t understand the logic: they are so uncomfortable you can’t even sit on them!

So, yes, we really were having this conversation and the reason I froze is that at least two other longtime dear friends who have been in Paris as long as I have (almost fifty years) are currently saying the same thing: “Paris isn’t what it used to be! I don’t want to grow old here. The sidewalks aren’t safe. The air is polluted. The noise is unbearable!”

We came, you see, as young people with vim and vigor. So of course when we remember the Paris that was, perhaps we are also remembering our youth, which is gone. In our defence, though, I have to say that none of us are blasé or bored. We still love this place – but we’re disappointed lovers. Some of us grin and bear it, others are making plans to leave or have already left.

One friend, who has a charming apartment in an ancient building in front of a square in the Marais that attracts tourists like flies, simply can’t stand the crowds and the noise. At one point the apartment above him became an AirBnB with renters on holiday noisily pounding up the stairs late at night and turning on the washing machine at 4 am. This friend now rents his place and divides his time between southern France and Italy. Yet another friend, who was as starry-eyed as I was when she came decades ago, then met and married her French husband, has rented a place in Brittany so she can get out of Paris as often as possible. For those two, and for many others, the solution seems to be to own and have something in Paris but get away as often as possible. I wager that even if my food writer friend makes good on his plan to leave, he’ll buy a tiny place to stay in when he comes “up” to Paris – because truth be told, no one who has lived in Paris can entirely abandon it.

My personal take on this? There are days – many days – when I curse the trash bin laden, electric scooter strewn streets of Paris as I try with difficulty to navigate them. I’ve even basically stopped taking the long and wandering walks through Paris that I once so enjoyed. Will things ever get back to normal after the construction binge ends? We all wonder. In the meantime, I too flee to the provinces as often as I can.

And why not? As Henry James wrote more than a hundred years ago in his classic book, A Little Tour in France, “France may be Paris, but Paris is not France”.

Getting to know how a writer thinks

In February my husband and I spent a month in Tucson, Arizona where I had been asked to give a speech to a philanthropic organisation on the topic of “Getting to know how a writer thinks”.

I admit I was perplexed by the title.

Frankly, I’d never thought about how a writer thinks – but was happy to rise to the challenge.

I rapidly concluded that the best approach would be to tell the audience about what and how ONE writer thinks.

I was off the hook!

First of all, I described my writing background. It goes way back to scribbling stories as a child, writing for the high school newspaper which was published in the town paper (first byline!) to majoring in English at the University of Michigan and getting an M.S. J. at the Medill School of journalism, Northwestern. Journalists don’t need masters’ degrees to write, but I must say that had I not had the good fortune to attend Medill, I never would have had the sheer discipline required to meet deadlines nor skill at turning out stories people would want to read, stories that were carefully structured, grammatically correct with no spelling mistakes, factually correct and reader-friendly (i.e., not boring).

As a freelance journalist in Paris, I had great gigs, ranging from reporting on business and culture for the International Herald Tribune (now International New York Times) to stringing for the Paris bureau of Time magazine, writing everything from obituaries to articles on strikes at French automobile factories to the coming of Eurodisneyland and the building of the Pei Pyramid. My favourite job was with a glossy publication called France Discovery Guide whose editors every year for about ten years sent out a bevy of reporters and photographers to cover specific regions of France. I calculated that I covered all 22 of those regions except Corsica and in doing so learned more about the food and drink and scenery of my adopted country than I ever would have from a book.

I loved journalism and the opportunity it gave to get into people’s lives, have different experiences, learn new things. But after freelancing for many years, I decided it was time to turn the page (pardon the pun).

I had often heard that writers write because they have to. They have something that they NEED to say. That was my case with my first book, French Toast. I wanted to tell the world (and especially my Mom) just exactly what it was like to live permanently in a foreign country literally “embedded” with a foreign husband, how it was different from being a tourist who can always go back home. In spite of fluent French and apparent assimilation, I kept running into situations and reactions I didn’t understand. I made a list of them and told my story using “I”. After all, it was my life and my book, n’est-ce-pas?

As for the matter of how I was thinking about that first book: I think writers need inspiration and I found mine in a serious and weighty book called Invisible Differences by Raymonde Carroll, a French woman living in the States where she observed and analysed specific Franco-American cultural differences from friendship to telephone behaviour. I loved everything she said – but vowed that if I wrote my own book I’d have some fun with it. Then, completely by accident, I came across Domestic Manners of the Americans, a book written in 1832 by Frances Trollope, the mother of the famous English writer Anthony Trollope. In it, she related anecdotes about the manners of the (mostly) uncouth Americans she met during a little tour of the New World. This frank and funny and no holds barred tome became an instant bestseller in its day – and the model for what I wanted to do in the book that would become French Toast. I wanted my book to be personal, light-hearted and informative. And that guided my approach to French Fried and Joie de Vivre, the two that followed it.

I could have spoken for several hours about the thought process that went into those three books but time was whizzing by. I decided instead to proffer a few generalizations about writing and writers. Some writers might agree: others might not. Once again, these are the observations of ONE writer – me.

  • A writer is neurotic (the ladies laughed rather nervously at this one). She is unhappy or at the least unsettled when not writing and when writing not too pleased about shutting herself off from friends and family.
  • A writer is alone. Why? She needs to do her job! Many friends wanted to join me on my annual reporting in the provinces gig in France. I mean, who would turn down an opportunity to travel down the wine road in Alsace or taste wine in Burgundy? As much as I love company, I had to say “no”. I would have spent my time chatting and laughing rather than finding and interviewing locals, dodging in and out of centuries old churches, checking out this intriguing monument or that hidden garden, giving myself the downtime to stumble on a totally unexpected someone or something that might give flavour to the story.
  • A writer is disciplined – or not. Sadly, I’m not. When I get into my subject, I can write for hours. But I’m not one of these people who gets up at dawn and writes until lunchtime, takes a break and goes back to it in the end of the afternoon. Oh how I would love to be like that. I guess I do have a certain kind of discipline but it certainly could be improved.
  • A writer writes for someone, maybe herself, maybe her mom, maybe a former teacher or even someone she wants to get even with (not all motives are noble).
  • A writer needs time to dream, invent, plan and work on her project.
  • A writer needs devotion to the task at hand.
  • For – and in this age of fast communication where few re-read what they write, leaving sloppy errors and fake facts behind them – real writing, good writing is just that – a task.

You never get used to how hard writing is, actually. After three nonfiction books, I set out to write a historical novel based on a true story. The action takes place in Paris and southwestern France during World War II; the protagonist is an ordinary woman in extraordinary times whose fate is sealed by her carefree nature and willful ignorance of political realities. I knew my character who became more real by the minute and I knew the area I was writing about. I did the research to find out about what I didn’t know about political tensions during that frightening period called the “épuration” or purification. It took me years and years and tens of drafts before I finally finished. The book, which will be published in 2019, was a long haul and a magnificent learning experience. I can only hope that my readers will enjoy the result of all the hard work that went into it.

But I digress: what and how does this writer think right now? That it’s time to finish this article and time to give neophytes a little advice: write your heart out if that’s your wish. Don’t think of publication. Just think of what you’ve got to say, what’s important for you to get out of our system. Think of your craft. Do your best. The rest will take care of itself.

Demystifying the French – once again

Are you a Francophile ? Or a Francophobe ? It may seem contradictory but whether you are one or the other you are surely confronted with the same malady :  you don’t understand the French.

Of course the Francophobe probably doesn’t even want to.  The Francophile, on the other hand, is avid for all things French, the wine, the food, the aesthetics, the romance. l But even when the Francophile easily and eagerly catches on to the wine, the food, the aesthetics and the romance in France, he or she doesn’t necessarily understand or « get » the French. In that, France is unique. I mean, do people write books about « figuring out the Chinese » or « figuring out the Italians » ? Or « demystifying » them ? Mais non !

But the French…oh my. Now it’s time for me to tell you that I have lived a very French life in France for more than forty years (French husband, French in-laws, French schools for the kids, etc.) and am well-equipped to dissertate on the subject of the mysterious French and their ways. About twenty years in, it occurred to me that there were many things I didn’t understand. I felt an itch, an urgent need to investigate and if possible unravel the mysteries of the French.  (Mysteries, by the way, is often a polite way of saying that they’re driving you crazy and you don’t know why.) That resulted in my books French Toast, French Fried and Joie de Vivre. One might say I had (and still have) an ongoing fascination with the French. And I’m not alone. A veritable cottage industry about France and the French has popped up. In fact, there’s almost a surfeit of books on the subject.

Fortunately, once in a while someone like Janet Hulstrand comes along and writes a book that stands out. It’s not a book about buying a cute little farmhouse and filling it up with Provencal furniture ; it’s not a book purporting to know everything about French cuisine or this or that. (These books often tend to ignore the French other than as caricatures, aka Peter Mayle). No, this is a helpful, practical, insightful and informative tome about the French and the way they are – and how to be sensitive to them. So many people aren’t. (And then criticize the French for being rude and arrogant !).

If there’s one book that will get you up to speed on the French and your relationship with the French, this is it. In a benevolent but no nonsense way, Hulstrand tells us all about demystifying the French, the title of the book.   Her subtitle is « How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You” – which I doubt will happen (I’ve been in France too long…) but is a nice goal. Even if the French LIKED you a bit (and you them), it would already be great.

Here’s what I like about Ms Hulstrand’s book : At 100 pages, it’s brief enough to carry around with you or read on Kindle so you can always have it on hand.  ( For more information and a look at the charming cover, please check out https://wingedword.wordpress.com/demystifying-the-french/.  And her advice is sound, starting with Part One which offers « essential tips for even very brief encounters «.

Tip #1, which is to say « Bonjour ! », seems amazingly simple as does Tip #2, « Ask ‘Do you speak English’ ? » – but the number of people who do neither is great. My favorite, though, is Tip #5 : Shhhh !!! (For goodness sake !). Well, my dear American friends, let’s face it : you are simply too loud so please, please remember to keep the volume down. Hulstrand explains why. If you follow her instructions, you will indeed be amazed by the results.

Part Two deals with the French mentality which you will begin to understand if you live here long enough (and even then it can be difficult) but which can be a major mystery if you’re a tourist. Hulstrand tells the reader about the French passion for complication, the importance of being « correct », the importance of taking your time, and the unimportance of money (this is a major difference with the USA). If you read and absorb and act on this information, you’re on your way to having a much easier, more relaxed time in France.

The author generously culls quotes and knowledge from others who have plumbed the mysteries of the French (full disclosure : that includes this writer). She also provides a wonderfully unorthodox glossary of French terms, such as Adieu and Au revoir and their nuances , Foutre, a crude, but often used word, Laicité and Système D, two concepts that are hard for the non-French to grasp.

With a list of sources cited and additional recommended reading, Hulstrand has done a fine job of covering the territory. You’ll want to read more after finishing it – but if you only have one primer on the French to read before your trip or bring along with you, hers is the one.

You may even end up « loving » the French – and making them love you. 

Sick and Tired of the Yellow Vests !

Last SaLet me say it loud and clear so there’s no ambiguity:  I am sick and tired of the Yellow Vests.

Saturday, January 5, was the EIGHTH time the Yellow Vests, a populist movement named for the bright yellow jackets French drivers must have in their car in case of an accident, filled the streets of Paris and other major cities to demonstrate.  About what?  Initially, it was about the carbon tax which would make gas more expensive. President Macron delayed the measure. It was also about the cost of living, and President Macron responded by making some moves (among them, 100 euros additional income each month) to try to ameliorate their situation.

So what is all this about now?

That’s what I’m asking myself.

As time goes on, the number of demonstrators dwindles, for sure.  But the violence is, if anything greater, more unpredictable, lightning quick, astonishing and frightening.  A few examples from yesterday’s demonstration: one Yellow Vest, a professional boxer, repeatedly punched a policeman who managed to protect himself from the vicious blows with his shield;  in another  mind-boggling attack, some of the protestors got ahold of a construction engine and bashed in the door of the Ministry of Relations with the Parliament while the Minister, who was there, was evacuated by security guards.  And we’re not even talking about the cars set on fire, the broken windows, the looting and pillaging (one fellow was caught by police after he tried to sell online three expensive Givenchy bags he had stolen during a recent demonstration).

Now here’s the kicker: the reaction to these totally reprehensible, totally illegal acts of sedition was, in general, a big ho hum.   French journalists and French politicians and the majority of ordinary French people  continue to sing the same old song:   we mustn’t  mix things up.  The violence is not the fault of the  innocent peace-loving  Yellow Jackets but outside infiltrators. Some even say that the violence of the acts is a response to the violence of the government. Uh, that one’s lost on me.

Today on TV, I finally heard a member of Macron’s party deliver the message I have been longing to hear ever since this tomfoolery started:   “This violence is insurrectional and must stop. Now.”

Too bad it’s not the majority message. Most of the pundits shrink from going this far.

To try to understand the woes of the Yellow Jackets, the government has called for a national consultation starting on January 15.  It will  try to involve simple citizens in determining what is wrong, where and grievances can be remedied. This is all good and well – but personally I think that these people, who have no leaders, very different demands and are being manipulated mostly by the extreme right plus the extreme left and revolutionary movements, will never have enough. Because their ultimate project is to overthrow the government.

Of course there are decent, hard-working people and people down on their luck and people who don’t have enough money to make ends meet. They deserve respect, they deserve help.

But their movement has been hijacked.

And there is no excuse for the violence that we have seen the past eight Saturdays and will see much more of as time goes on.

If I were the French Head of State, which I’m not, I would refuse to enter into any kind of negotiations until the Yellow Vests get off the streets and give them back to law-abiding citizens.   Personally, I, and many people I know,  have not gone out for eight Saturdays because although the Yellow Jackets say they will be demonstrating in one place, they quickly move to another (which, by the way, is illegal).  My husband loves to go to the Stamp Market at the bottom of the Champs-Elysées on Saturdays. He can no longer go because the entire area is barricaded either because they have said they would demonstrate there-  or because they might turn up .

Tourism is down, shops and restaurants and hotels are losing money, the damage to streets and stores and cars and monuments can be counted in billions of euros.  And don’t you think it is absolutely terrifying that the demonstrators have actually approached and entered the center of power by forcing their way inside a Ministry? I do!

But never forget: in France, the right to strike is sacrosanct  even when those strikers penalise all the other millions of people who are just going about their business.

Something wrong with this picture?  You bet.

 

Yellow vests get violent – what’s next?

Paris, December 3, 2018

Many people who have seen or read about the recent violent demonstrations of the “yellow vests”  in Paris have asked me:  How bad is it?

Here’s my answer:

I have lived in Paris for the past 47 years and have seen many demonstrations, but never anything like this.   (As an aside, French police  say exactly the same thing). In France, demonstrations or  manifs, short for manifestations, are frequent and generally peaceful although many times troublemakers come in at the end to loot and pillage.

But the demonstrations held the last three Saturdays in Paris and throughout the country are different. The thugs did indeed come from the outside – but they were inside as well.  And that’s a surprise, actually, considering that 72 per cent of the French approve the yellow jackets and their protests. They see their colourfully clad compatriots as non-violent which is the image that the protesters give – and what one can hope they probably are for the most part.

But, according to the Prefet de Police, there’s another side to the story.  Of the hundreds of people arrested and summoned to make an immediate appearance for acts of violence, the majority were men from the provinces aged between 20 and 45, with jobs and families, whose main aim in coming to Paris was precisely to have a fight.The others were the usual delinquents and thugs from the extreme left and extreme right.  Some of the yellow vests don’t even deny the accusation:  They are filled with rage against the government and high taxes, feel they have nothing to lose and say that their acts of violence and vehemence are nothing next to the “violent” way in which they are being treated by the government. 

A few weeks ago, just when the movement was starting, I took a trip to southwest France to the village where my mother-in-law was born.  It’s a pretty little town in the Périgord where many English, Dutch and other foreigners settle to enjoy the fabulous food and wine and scenery. So far all good and well. But as I walked down the streets admiring the ancient massive golden-stone houses which reeked of history, I saw abandoned shops as well as shops with hardly anyone in them.  I didn’t see a post office or a hospital;  it’s possible that people living there have to travel when they need to see a doctor or post a letter.  And that’s one of the reasons the yellow jackets are mad:  in the absence of the public transportation people in big cities enjoy, they depend on their cars. And their cars need gas.  And gas prices have skyrocketed due to a new energy policy and new taxes imposed by the Macron government.  One woman living in a small town in Brittany wrote an angry post about this situation on Facebook and it spread like wildfire:  a popular movement against the government was born. And the protests began.  The movement eschews leaders and is having a hard time organising to meet and hold discussions with the government.  The movement doesn’t like or want unions or political parties to interfere.  This  total lack of structure is responsible in part for the chaos reigning in the demonstrations.

The third demonstration, on Saturday, December 1, was an unmitigated disaster, fuelled by rage.  Cars burned, cobblestones and barricades and projectiles of every kind were hurled at the police – who were accused of not being aggressive enough (but if they had been, things would have been even worse.  They were ordered not to engage with the protester.  One police officer, in a television interview, confessed that he was convinced that some of the yellow vest protesters were there, not just to injure, but to kill).


My take on this?  I’m sorry for the low-paid, highly taxed nonviolent yellow jackets who simply want to be able to live decently and who are offended and angered by Macron’s lack of response to their demands. He really does need to address them with compassion and offer them viable solutions.  They see him as a cold Parisian technocrat who cares nothing about the little guy.  He needs to at least look like he cares.  


I am sorry for the store and restaurant owners whose premises have been trashed and whose livelihoods are endangered by all the damage done to their businesses.   I am aghast at seeing the Arch of Triumph tagged outside and ransacked inside. I am  horrified by the spectacle of the yellow jackets tearing down the gates around the Tuileries.  I once saw an excellent film about the French Revolution and those protesters chillingly reminded me of the people railing against King Louis XVI and his lack of response and compassion.  

Let’s hope everyone and everything will settle down and this doesn’t end in a beheading!


Next Saturday, December 8:   Act Four (and we hope, the last act) of this continuing French psychodrama.

Harriet in Wonderland

OK, so you’ve been to Paris and seen the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph and the Seine.  Maybe you’ve hopped down south to the Riviera to check out sunny St. Tropez and Nice.  Some of you may have ventured to the Périgord with its prehistoric caves and foie gras, and to Brittany to enjoy its spectacular ocean views, fresh seafood plates and succulent crêpes.

But have you been to Alsace, in the northeast corner of France?

If not, it’s time to go!

On a recent trip, I was amazed at my own delight in re-visiting this magical land of lush vineyards whose slopes run right down to the road, fairy-tale villages with brightly coloured houses – and even storks (real ones!) who oversee the towns from their nests on high.  Local specialties are a feast for both the eye and the stomach: they include the Kougelhopf, a prettily shaped brioche made in a colourful mold,  heart-shaped pastries and gingerbread,  and  of course, perfectly made to-die-for choucroute (sauerkraut) served with local charcuterie (also to-die-for).

From Paris, It’s easy to get to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace.  Those of us who endured the  five hour plus ride in the olden days are grateful for the sleek fast trains (French and German) that barrel along at more than 300 kilometres per hour, reducing total trip time to a mere hour and a half.

Strasbourg’s main attraction is the immense, one-spired eleventh century Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral and its astronomical clock. Fashioned from sandstone, the cathedral takes on different hues, from grey to pink to almost red, depending on the season and the hour of the day.  A friend and I, sitting in front of it at a nearby café savouring a flammekeuche (kind of an Alsatian pizza with cream and munster and bacon on the top), concluded that we could happily remain there all day just to watch the pageant of changing colors.

Strasbourg has scores of half-timbered houses, narrow streets, charming canals and a lovely Old City. But it is also  the well-kept up modern home of several European institutions including the European Court of Human Rights and, with Brussels, the European Parliament which holds 12 sessions a year of four days each. And as everywhere else in Alsace, Strasbourg’s streets are clean – and such a contrast to the  litter-strewn ones of Paris.

South of Strasbourg is the well-known and much travelled “route du vin” which features village after village of colourful houses, storks on their high posts, places to taste –  and buy  –  the wonderful wines of Alsace (Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Pinot Noir).

Riquewihr, a wine-making town of 2000 inhabitants (and easily ten times that of tourists), is the jewel in the crown.  You are literally stunned as you wander down the cobblestoned streets gawking at the medieval half-timbered houses painted in what some might consider outlandish or garish tones – that somehow work.

To be sure, there are softer hues, such as this green house I love

But then we move on to bolder colours, such as this blue and yellow duo side-by-side

I thought that was probably the height of daring color combinations but saw I was wrong when I came upon the gem below which conjured up images of gingerbread houses, witches, black cats and cobwebs.

We could barely tear ourselves away from Riquewihr to our final destination:  the town of Colmar and its world-famous Unterlinden Museum. Located in a former 13th century convent, the museum houses the magnificent and moving 16th century Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grunewald. He painted this tableau of the Crucifixion for sufferers of the plague in the nearby monastery of St. Anthony; its powerful message still resonates today.

Alsace is a feast in so many ways, in the taste of its traditional food, in the architecture of its houses and churches, in the tranquility of its villages and vineyards.  No wonder Germany coveted it, occupying Alsace from 1870 to 1918 and annexing it in World War II and forcing Alsatian men to enrol in the German Army – they were called “malgré-nous” (in spite of ourselves).  The Alsatian artist Jean-Jacques Waltz, better known as “Uncle Hansi”,  illustrated books showing typically dressed Alsatian children in a pro-French happy Alsace. (note the French flag planted in the soil of the vase with the cardboard cutout of an Alsatian boy).   Hansi was captured by the Gestapo in 1941 and beaten so badly he was left for dead. (He survived and died after the war in Colmar).

The Alsatians speak a German dialect, but don’t think (or tell them) they’re speaking German. That’s an insult.  They are fiercely proud of their region, fiercely proud to be Alsatian. They even refer to the French people who don’t live in Alsace as “les Français de l’intérieur” (the French of the interior).

I imagine it might be hard to fit into their culture if you aren’t born into it, but it’s not hard at all to take a little trip and admire this thoroughly admirable part of France.