Saturday, February 21, 2009

Life at the Laundromat

As you may know from a previous post, I do not like doing laundry. This dislike is compounded by the fact that I actually have to leave the apartment and go to the downtown laundromat to wash my clothes. Without a car. While it's not too far away, it's definitely no walk in the park and it tends to lead me to ...some interesting folks.

A few weeks ago, I was dragging my enormous suitcase of clean garments back home through downtown Poissy and feeling very self-conscious because the wheels were making a really loud noise as they rolled over the stony sidewalk. But I told myself that it was all in my head to feel like a weird foreign girl that everyone was looking at. This shaky sense of normalcy was destroyed by a boy across the street.

"HEY!!" he yelled at me. I looked up. "You mjohgiagh the suitcase?" he yelled. I really had no idea what he was saying about my suitcase, so I ignored him, although I was cringing inside about the loud wheels. He insisted. "HEY! YOU mfaohfoaush THE SUITCASE?" This time I frowned at him, but he wouldn't shut up. I quickened my pace, my face getting hot as the wheels rolled even more loudly against the pavement and the boy continued to scream at me about my suitcase. I cursed myself for not being able to understand him. It was French after all. Why couldn't I understand that ONE word?? Especially when he kept repeating it. Ugh. I still have no idea what he was saying.

Of course this experience did not have me looking forward to doing laundry again anytime soon, and I put it off, even resorting to handwashing some items. But as I was running out of clean clothes and had a lunch date with a girlfriend the next day, I grudgingly packed everything into a couple of large shopping bags (no loud suitcase for me this time) and once again headed out to the laundromat for a new adventure.

When I arrived, the first thing that hit me was the smell. Like a magic marker. It took me a second to realize that it was coming from one of the dry cleaning machines. This was the first time I'd ever seen anyone use one of these machines, so out of curiosity I looked to see what they were cleaning. Hmm...a rug. This, despite the fact that in huge red letters right above the machine door it was marked "RUGS PROHIBITED". I briefly wondered why rugs wouldn't be allowed but didn't think anything of it and went about starting my wash and then my usual people-watching.

That's the thing about the laundromat. There's always at least one interesting character. On this particular day, green girl was there. I call her that because she was dressed entirely in green, even her shoes. I've run into her before at the laundromat. She is extremely polite to me, and I'm always nice back to her, but you can tell she's not all there. She mostly likes to let people know what items she has or doesn't have, although her remarks tend to be rather off-color when she talks to men. Today for example, as I was taking my clothes from the dryer, she asked me if I had a daughter. When I told her "no," with a smile she said that she didn't have one either. She then moved on to the man standing a few dryers down and said to him, "Sir, you and I have not slept together." "Indeed," replied the man and went about his folding with absolutely no other reaction. I tried not to laugh as green girl then focused her attention on a couple who had just walked in.

As it turned out, they were the dry-cleaning people, come back to retrieve their "prohibited" rug. When they opened the door to the machine, it was clear that something was not right. The smell of dry-cleaning solvent was sickeningly strong. I doubled my efforts to finish my folding faster, but couldn't keep from looking over at them. Although they were not speaking French, it was clear that they were not very happy with the results of the cleaning. As they argued about the rug, green girl piped up behind them:

"I don't have a rug at my house," she said.

"WHAT?" the couple asked in an exasperated tone.

"I DON'T HAVE A RUG AT MY HOUSE! No, I don't have a rug. Or a carpet. No rug or carpet at home. I don't have a computer either."

I once again looked at the couple, waiting for them to tell her off, but the woman just tersely said, "Well, it's better that way."

It was at this point that I realized that their problem with the rug was not just the poor cleaning. It was soaked through with solvent and dripping everywhere; as they pulled it out of the machine, a pool of dry-cleaning fluid splashed onto the floor. The smell was cloistering, like ten thousand magic markers opened all at once. The possibility of an instant migraine was tremendous. I hurriedly grabbed my last few pairs of socks, crammed them into my full shopping bags and headed out the door. But not before seeing the couple stuffing their dripping wet rug into one of the dryers. This was not going to end well.

Maybe I should have stayed and told them not to do that, but I didn't think it would have mattered. They weren't supposed to have put their rug in the dry-cleaning machine and they had done it anyway. The solvent wasn't flammable, although it would probably leave behind its terribly strong smell and maybe ruin the dryer. And the heat of the dryer along with the solvent might ruin the rug. I know it might sound bad, but I couldn't be bothered to say anything. I didn't have any alternative drying solutions for the couple, and the prospect of spending Saturday evening lying quietly in a dark room was not very appealing.

So, heavy bags in hand, I simply continued walking down the busy street and wondered if the couple was regretting not having paid for a professional cleaning. And if green girl would let them know what else she didn't have at home. And of course...what would happen next time I went to the laundromat.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Slogans

Okay, I realize this strike has been dominating my blog posts, but it's the biggest thing going on in my life right now. (That is, until my family comes to visit at which point I'll be sure to document all their reactions to French life.)

One of my favorite parts of going to demonstrations is seeing all the slogans. I love this combination of creativity and activism, and I just can't resist sharing a little of what I've seen so far. Most of the signs I see are from the English department at Paris VII, so many are in English or make reference to English or American culture. But my favorite ones are the ones that are all in French.

Yes we can (overcome) !
Guess they still love Obama.

The University Strikes Back
The Return of the Teacher

Gotta love these two Star Wars references as well as the play on the word "strike."

Fac off!
The "fac" is the university in French, and the way they pronounce it is very similar to another "f" word.

La LRU nous gonfle. (written on a balloon)
In slang, "The LRU reform wears us out." But "gonfler" also means "to inflate."

And I've saved my favorite for last:

Si tu veux que j'arrête de te casser les couilles, arrête de nous couper les bourses.

"If you want me to stop breaking your balls, stop cutting our funding."

But in a lovely play on words "bourses" can also mean "balls" in which case it reads:
"If you want me to stop breaking your balls, stop cutting ours off."

Ahh...the French have such a way with words. ;)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Back to work...on strike.

I was nervous about going to the university on Thursday. It was supposed to be the first day of my classes for the spring semester at Nanterre, but I knew that all the universities across the country were on strike. I had no idea what to expect, but the day turned out fine.

While my afternoon and evening classes were empty, in my morning class, I had 7 students out of 25. I asked them what they were doing there because frankly I was surprised to see anybody. They informed me that they didn't care about the strike. What?!

We spent the next 15 minutes talking about the reasons for the strike and what it meant for them as students. As it turns out, they were well-informed about the anti-education reforms being passed, and they did care about how that would affect their profs and fellow students. But not enough to miss class over it. They also insisted that they would show up to class the next week, a day when there will be another huge national education demonstration.

Most people would applaud those students for showing up. Although I appreciated their enthusiasm for working on their English, I was rather disappointed that they weren't looking at the bigger picture. Especially since I would be sending the entire class their assignments through email throughout this strike period.

To be clear, striking at the university does not mean that students just don't show up for class. Sure, there are students who will use the strike as an excuse not to get out of bed in the morning, but there are also thousands who use that time to get informed and make plans to mobilize other students. So although no one came to class on Thursday, the university was far from deserted.

Professors and students alike have been giving informational presentations about the strike. At some universities, the profs have even organized workshops where they give talks on labor history, history of protests and current work situations around the world.

Thursday afternoon there was a General Assembly meeting where students, faculty and administrators voted for motions against the reform. It was also a time to pass around sign-up lists and create committees who would be in charge of different actions to protest the reforms. They needed people to create signs and banners for the next manif'. They needed others to pass out tracts at the train stations and make people aware of why the universities are against the reforms. This is especially important since the French media has insisted that profs are against any sort of change and are just lazy people in cushy jobs, a gross misconception perpetuated by irresponsible journalism.

All in all, the strike has hardly been a vacation for anyone. I've never seen so many involved students who are thinking for themselves, organizing themselves and working together to fight for their rights. It is just incredible. When I look out across the amphitheater where at least 1000 are assembled in solidarity against these reforms, I feel such a sense of strength and optimism (and yes, pride too) and the whole scene brings to mind a chant from a demonstration in Madison: Do you know what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Potato Chips in France

My favorite chips in the U.S. are Krunchers' Jalapeno chips. I love the satisfying crunch and the very spicy flavor. Of course they are unavailable here and I rely on the very generous (and $$) care packages my family sends me now and then. And if I really want a little spice and a taste of the U.S., the stores do carry Pringles Hot & Spicy chips which I indulge in every now and then.

Why not just eat French potato chips? Don't they have their own brands and flavors. Yes. Yes, they do. Just last week, I laughingly pointed at a bag of "Chicken and Thyme" chips which Gaby consequently added to our basket for me to try. They were good, although it was kind of like eating crunchy soup. They also have chips with "Bolognaise" in the spaghetti sauce? I think so. There's roasted beef and braised chicken and some chips that are Mustard and Pickle flavored. I haven't tried them all...yet.

I guess I just feel like chips should have names and flavors that seem more "snacky" and less like meals. If I want roast beef, I want real roast beef and not a chip that tastes like sort of like roast beef. Okay, maybe sometime I will want a chip that tastes like roast beef; they're probably very good. But the "snack vs. meal" thing explains in part why mustard and pickle chips rather than "braised chicken" or "roast beef" are next on my list of chips to try. I've heard they're delicious.

Plus de Chercheurs, Moins de Traders!

February 5th marked another demonstration day for the students and faculty of the Universities of Paris. Paris III and Paris VII were the two most visible groups, adding up to around 3600 students and teachers.

Our numbers were rather disappointing. I'd been hoping to see more people from my university, Paris X, but found out that people aren't as mobilized yet since the second semester doesn't start until Monday. Our route was also disappointing. When demonstrations are organized in Paris, the prefecture of police has to be notified and they have to approve the date and the path of the demonstration. Obviously, they had approved a path that would be visible to few people.

We were supposed to end the manif at the pre-approved Place du Panthéon which is in the Latin Quarter next to the Sorbonne. Even then, there seemed to be few people around; our demonstration had been effectively contained so that we had disturbed only a handful of drivers and gotten the attention of only a few people who looked out the windows of their workplaces or apartments. I think it's safe to say that many of us were feeling like we still needed to be seen and heard.

So when the CRS tried to physically contain us at the Panthéon, they unwittingly put some fuel on the fire and motivated our group to march on. The riot police had used their trucks and a few armored men to block the street leading from the Place du Panthéon down to Saint-Michel. Unfortunately for them, they'd thought we students would keep to the streets and had neglected to block the open sidewalks on either side. They must have though we were stupid. In a calm but determined movement, our crowd of demonstrators headed towards these open paths. The cops made a vain attempt to stop us. However, they were terribly outnumbered and ended up leaving the middle of the street wide open. At this point all of the the demonstrators got past them and poured out onto the very busy Boulevard Saint-Michel where we headed towards the Seine. There was nothing they could do to stop us except call for backup and try to cut us off elsewhere.

To avoid their roadblocks, several hundred of us turned onto the equally busy Boulevard Saint-Germain which was choked with rush-hour traffic. As we marched between the cars yelling "Sarkozy, t'es foutu, la jeunesse est dans la rue!" and "Etudiants pas contents!" we were happily surprised to see that many of the drivers and passengers were giving us the thumbs-up and even cheering us on. Keep in mind that this was in one of the very richest districts in Paris where views tend to be very conservative. The reaction was amazing.

Our group continued on towards the Quais de la Seine where we were still trying to stay one step ahead of the cops. Traffic, narrow streets and lack of communication kept our group from staying tightly together and at one very tense and frightening moment, about 30 of us found ourselves surrounded by policemen carrying shields, teargas, tasers and nightsticks. One wrong move would have meant very bad consequences for us. We put our hands up in surrender and were allowed to leave under the unsaid condition that our manif' be considered over. A few ultra-leftists wanted to continue, but the rest of us agreed that it was safer to stop.

We had made ourselves heard despite our smaller-than-expected numbers. We had been a success. On Tuesday, students and profs from all over the country will unite in Paris for a national demonstration against the reforms. I'm hoping for a good turnout.