Friday, January 30, 2009

Journée de Grève (France on strike!)

Quand il y a une grève en France, personne ne s'en aperçoit. (When there's a strike in France, no one notices.)
--Nicolas Sarkozy

Well, I seriously doubt Sarko and friends could have ignored the strikes and demonstrations on Thursday, January 29th. The post office, the train, auto and metal workers, the hospitals, the high schools, the universities, the students and more all turned up to protest the French government's response to the economic crisis as well as the so-called reforms it has proposed. An estimated 500,000 of us marched in the biggest demonstration I've ever participated in. And that was in Paris alone where not everyone could make it because the trains (on strike) were running on limited service.

I'm not going to pretend to know all the reasons that all the different workers are on strike. I know that in the private sector, a lot of people have been laid off because of the economic crisis or they've had their hours cut way back with wages that are impossible to live on. Nothing has been done to help them. The public sector is being threatened with privatization because the government claims it doesn't have the money to continue to fund public services, including hospitals, schools and the post office. Of course, this same government, who can't spare a penny for the regular joe, managed to find billions of euros to bail out the banks who caused the current economic crisis in the first place. French workers of all trades are deciding it's time to stand up and let their government know that they've had enough. And they're right.

Education is one of the major areas under attack. At all levels it is facing budget cuts which have led to huge staff and faculty cuts. To make matters worse, Sarkozy has decided that French universities should rely on private rather than public funds. What he's really saying is that students should pay much higher tuition rates. Everyone knows that this spells disaster for anyone seeking an education, especially for those with lower incomes. As someone who is unhappy about having to pay back student loans in the years to come, I will of course fight for other people to have the right to an affordable education.

Sarko also wants professor evaluation to change. For those who may not know, professor evaluation as it stands is stringent; profs don't sit around patting each other on the back and telling each other "good job." Under the new plan, a (government-appointed?) committee will do evalutions. Profs who are not considered "good researchers" will be given much heavier teaching loads than those who are. Obviously, teaching more classes will not afford these so-called poor researchers time to do any research, but this doesn't seem to be a concern for the government.

These are just a few of the major education reforms Sarkozy is calling for, but they're enough for me to be on the side of the teachers and the students. Even if I'm not sure that I myself will be able to strike--I cringe at the thought of being a scab, I will show my solidarity with the courageous people who are on strike. There are more manifs to come, and I will be there to at least add to the number of demonstrators. If the students go on strike to defend their right to an education, I will support them however I can.

This has been a difficult post to write. There is so much more to say on this subject, and I've hardly done it justice here. In any case, I hold great hope that by taking to the streets, by disrupting the system, by making it impossible for Sarko and his cronies to continue to ignore us, we can resist these reactionary "reforms." It's worked in recent years, and it can work now if we all stick together.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Excuse my French

At some point during the semester one of my students said that she thought English people cursed more than Americans. She had spent a few years in England, and apparently the English were always dropping the f-word. By contrast, when she'd gone to the States, all the Americans tried to avoid cursing as much as possible. Or if they did let a swear word slip past, they immediately apologized for their language. Another student agreed with the first's observations and then added that the French cursed even more than the English did.

As I later reflected on this, it occurred to me that this was probably true. My students are always saying "putain" this and "putain" that. "Putain" by the way, is the equivalent of the f-word. And maybe this would seem normal on a college campus. After all, I've heard it plenty of times at UW and at KU--a common word in students' vocabulary. In France, however, it's definitely not limited to young people who are talking with their friends and peers. My dad once recounted the story of how he and my mom were taking a tour of the Louvre with an English-speaking French guide. They had stopped in front of a painting of two lovers, and as the guide was describing the lovers' secret affair, she casually added about the woman, "Of course she f***ed him." My dad was completely taken aback and quickly looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. Unfortunately, the other tourists' attention spans were a bit shorter and they showed absolutely no reaction, or perhaps they had just assumed that she couldn't have said such a word to a tourist group. My mom swears the guide did not say that word. However, given my experiences here, I'm more inclined to believe that she did. How many times have I heard journalists on national television say "putain"? Many, many times. How many times have I heard them say "f***"? Surprisingly more often than one would think. No FCC here to punish them with fines for indecent language.

Even in Gaby's family, the language is more vulgar than it is in my American family. And it's not as if his family is considered exceptional as far as bad language; rather, this is the norm. One evening before dinner, I told Gaby's mom that grading tons of essays was really "chiant" because that's the word I've heard people use when they want to say something is really annoying and boring. Her face lit up and she exclaimed, "Wow, you're really making progress in French!" This is the phrase she uses whenever I unintentionally use vulgar language. Literally I had said that that grading a ton of papers is "shitty." Similarly, if I wanted to express that something was broken, or ruined or messed up completely, I would be inclined to say it was "foutu" and I would be thinking "broken, ruined, etc." But really this is the equivalent of saying that something is "f***ed" or all "f***ed up."

I asked my students if they said such words in front of their grandparents. Most shrugged and said it depended on the grandparents while some even claimed that their own grandparents said such words. What? I tried to imagine my grandmother ever saying something along the lines of "My garden is completely f***ed up, Rod." o_O No. No no no no no.

In France those words just don't seem to carry the same taboo. I don't know if that's strange or if it's stranger that we place such importance on them in English. Or maybe it's just that curse words in English sound harsher and uglier than they do in French. Perhaps more people, including the French, would agree with the Merovingian that "[cursing in French] is like wiping your ass with silk."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Lunch in Italy and Picasso in Antibes

I realize this is the 21st century equivalent of a vacation slideshow, but I don't care. Yeah, I'm one of THOSE people. We decided to go to Italy for lunch. It sounds glamorous, but it was just an hour away. And it looked pretty much like France except for all the signs in Italian.

Here's Gaby at the little restaurant. Can't you tell we're in Italy?
I will say that the food was delicious. I had an excellent lasagna and Gaby had a pizza made with Prosciutto ham and fresh mozzarella. There was no tomato sauce, just big slices of fresh tomatoes. Very tasty.

We walked down the boardwalk afterwards for a little while. The most striking thing about the town was that many of the houses on the hills seemed to be piled on top of each other. From there we went into Monte Carlo and walked around the docks where we saw some enormous yachts that people were getting ready for New Year's parties. You can't see the big yachts in this picture--I would have felt weird photographing them with a bunch of strangers on board like that.
There was also a little Christmas market where they sell holiday sorts of things and serve all kinds of food (think melted cheese poured over potatoes with little slices of bacon...mmm...), mulled wine and other hot drinks. We stopped for hot Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce drizzled over them.
The last day, we headed into downtown Antibes, the old part of town where all the streets are narrow and so quaint.
And then we went to the Picasso museum which is in old Antibes. It was in a castle where Picasso had spent some time painting. Although the paintings were fine, I liked the sculptures the best. Those guitars were awesome.

And I'm not sure what these sculptures are supposed to be, but I call the one on the left "Deformed little cat." Maybe it's supposed to be an owl.

Anyway, that concluded our little trip and we headed back to Poissy the next day. It was a good little holiday. That said, I do hope that I will someday be able to go to the beach when it's warm outside and not too windy and not rainy. And not too crowded . . . Right.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Juan-les-Pins & Cannes

Gaby and I went down south over the holidays. Yes, this is a late post because I've been rather lazy over the holidays. Anyway, although it was still cold, it was not nearly as cold as Paris, and a lot of trees were still green. And there were palm trees and the beautiful Mediterranean. If it didn't get so crowded in the warm months, it would be a great place to live.

We stayed in a little studio apartment in Juan-les-Pins which is very close to Cannes.

Here's a view of the upper courtyard:

There were palm trees and orange trees (with oranges!) in December. Beautiful.
It may look sunny and warm, but our first day there was freezing!! The North wind was so strong, I almost lost my hat and finally took it off for the pics. And no, Gaby did not spike up his hair with tons of gel; the wind is blowing it back.

In spite of the cold, the trip was worth it because the Mediterranean is just amazing. In the background, you can see the Alps.

We went to Cannes our second day there and took a picture on the famous red carpet just outside the cinema. We tried to ham it up a little bit but were nothing compared to a group of Italians who totally put on a mafia act. They were great. The slogan on the big poster above us was: City Zen Cannes. I thought it was a cute play on words.

There were also handprints of movie stars who had come to the festival. This one is Samuel L. Jackson's print for Pulp Fiction.

There were other fun things about that area as well.

And of course, it was gorgeous. Sigh...

In the following days, we went to Monaco, over the border into Italy and then explored the old part of Antibes. More on that next time.


Washing clothes seems to be a fairly straightforward concept. You toss in some detergent, put the clothes in the washer, choose hot, warm or cold water and then press start. And your clothes are done in 30-45 minutes at which point you can choose to machine or line dry them. Piece of cake.

Except in France, it's not. Well, not for me anyway. The French tend to wash everything in hot water. They even have ads on TV about laundry detergents that will get your clothes clean, even if you wash them in COLD water! As someone who washes only whites in hot water and nearly everything else in warm or cold, I have come to hate French washing machines. They're slow, needlessly complicated with their settings (pre-wash, wash, long cycle, short cycle, extra rinse, active soak, intensive wash, cotton, synthetique, delicates, wool, 95, 60, 50, 40, or 30 degrees, and * (whatever that means). Okay, okay, I realize that American machines also have the fabric settings, but the last American washing machine I used did not even have those. And I liked it that way.
It may look like an innocent washer, but it's evil I tell you. Pure evil.
Damn, the settings are still too small to read. Too bad. At least you can see all the buttons on the left. Overwhelming for me.

The first time I washed a sweater in a French washing machine, I chose the coldest setting I could find on that particular machine. Thirty degrees. Celsius. I did not do the math in my head to figure out what 30 degrees was in Fahrenheit. "It's the lowest temperature written on the machine, so it must be pretty cool" was the only thought that went through my head. My washing-machine-safe wool sweater would be fine. I should have known better. If I had even just estimated, I would have known that 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit spells disaster for a wool sweater, even a machine-safe one. A second wool sweater met a similar fate this year when it accidently got mixed in with some dark colors, colors that I normally would have washed in cold water in the U.S.

Sweaters have not been the only victims of the washers. This past week, I went to do some bedclothes that had been piling up. I usually wash these on hot, but thinking of my sweaters, I chose a conservative 60 degrees (140 F). The duvet covers came out fine. The fitted cotton sheet did not. It's supposed to fit on a queen sized bed; when it came out, it looked like it would fit on a double bed. I later managed to yank it down over the corners of the mattress which then bowed terribly in the middle. No matter! I got it onto the bed which means that I won! Hahahahahaha! It's on there now, probably digging holes into the side of the mattress as I type...Damn French machines.

I'm sure at some point I'll come to appreciate all the different temperature settings and the options for extra-slow washes, but at the moment, I just want the simplicity of Hot, Warm, Cold, Start.