Monthly Archives: December 2019

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.