Monday, November 16, 2009

La Chanson Du Dimanche

Sunday's Song. A math teacher named Clément and a screenwriter named Alex started getting together every Sunday to write and perform little ditties about current events and politics. They filmed themselves singing their songs while sitting on a street corner somewhere in Paris with a guitar, synthesizer and sometimes a kazoo. Yes, a kazoo. Wanna see? Here's a sample of them:

This is one of my favorite numbers. It's about an American who goes to Paris as a tourist but discovers that he can't actually go anywhere because everyone's on strike. In case you can't tell, they actually sing it with a strong American accent. The chorus is the American begging the train workers (cheminots) to go back to work so he can get around: (Petit cheminot, where are you? Petit cheminot, what are you doing? Petit cheminot think of me who needs you! Petit cheminot, I love you, Petit cheminot, I need you, Petit cheminot, don't leave me! Sing with me!)

I've seen some good street performers, but these guys really take the cake. Their songs are incredibly catchy and they've begun to build a sizeable fan base through word of mouth. I discovered them through Gaby who found out about them from other friends. That was a couple of years ago. Now the two-man band is touring in small towns around Paris and will be playing in Paris in December.

So, Friday night Gaby and I trekked over to Achères to see them. And these two guys managed to give a really amazing concert!! Giant Congo lines with the entire audience, song requests, a body surfing contest to see who was the best OGMan superhero with cape and mask (OGM = organisme génétiquement modifié or...GMO in English). They were so energetic and their enthusiasm was contagious! I just couldn't believe what a great show they put on.

Fun show! Fun group! I wish they would somehow make it to the U.S. beyond the small French student circles who might know of them.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Oh Yeah"

Every now and then I come across a catchy little French song that I can't get out of my head. So I thought I'd share my latest favorite one by Housse de Racket:

In case you're wondering, he's mostly naming all the famous artists he'll become one day. He'll change tomorrow, or maybe never...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Les Etats-Unis Part II: Sightseeing

My European friends here wanted to know what all we did on our vacation while we were visiting people.'s hard to go sightseeing when you're visiting your hometown and college towns and really want to see people more than places. Maybe I'll just send my friends the link to the Atchison episode of "A Haunting" and say,"Hey, isn't staying in the most haunted town in Kansas enough?"

During our many people visits, we did have some tourist highlights.

First stop: Bonner Springs. Yes, we wanted to visit my grandmother who suggested we go to this quaint new little place called Madame Hatter's Tea Room. It was lovely, and Gaby got to try sweet tea for the first time. This may sound weird, but in France, no one drinks iced tea unless it's Lipton's "Ice Tea" from a can or bottle. We also got to try on fun hats.

Next we headed to Chicago where Gaby had only one sight-seeing request: the Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. Yes, my French boyfriend is a huge basketball fan and used to stay up all night for the live broadcast of the Bulls playing at the United Center. Michael Jordan was a sports hero and symbol of Gaby's basketball-playing days. When he told me about the statue, of course I wanted to go see it too. I pictured Michael Jordan standing there holding a basketball. Like this:

Well, except it would be Michael Jordan and not James Naismith. Marissa imagined the same thing. Hahahaha! Man...shows how much we know. Here's the real thing:

So perfect!! I think Naismith would have been amazed to see how much his sport has evolved and how much some players have done with it.

Marissa's boyfriend Joe was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to drive us to the United Center and then to take us on a tour of the city. One of our favorite spots was the zoo, which was really pretty and totally free!! So nice!

Once we were back in Kansas, we did what every European who visits the U.S. ought to do. We went to a major league baseball game. To me, it's the greatest American past-time and one that can't really be experienced from a television broadcast. My parents treated us to a game at the newly renovated Kauffman Stadium. When Gaby walked in, he was genuinely impressed and couldn't keep from breathing out an awe-struck "Oh, wow." And he was right. I've always loved the stadium, but now it just looks even more amazing with its screens that wrap around the entire ballpark, the little Royals history museum, picnic areas and centerfield standing room in front of the fountains.

We had seats on the lower level right down the 3rd base line, and I was instantly transported back to my childhood and the days of Frank White, Bret Saberhagen, Bo Jackson and of course, George Brett. That night, the Royals were playing against the Minnesota Twins, and even though we lost in the end, it was the most exciting game I've been to since game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Here we are right before game time:

And the icing on the cake is that Gaby is now officially a baseball fan, and not only that, but a ROYALS fan. (Mission accomplished.) He wanted to go out and buy a baseball mitt and ball so we could play catch. He ordered a Royals cap. He's also officially a Zack Greinke fan on Facebook.

Our vacation probably seems like pretty standard summer stuff for any Midwesterner, but I think from a European perspective, it's still somewhat exotic. Plus there was all the food I mentioned in the previous post. And honestly, we had a really great time.

Les Etats-Unis Part I: Reverse Culture Shock

The school year officially starts this week at Nanterre University, so of course I'm thinking about our vacation instead of planning lessons. In true French fashion, Gaby and I took our vacation in August and went to the U.S. to visit family and friends.

After being away for an entire year, I was anxious to see everyone and to enjoy my home country for a month. I just wasn't expecting to notice all the differences so much. Here are my top five (not very surprising?) observations:

1. The U.S. is BIG. The first thing I noticed after getting off the plane was how much space there was, even at the airport. Big restaurants, big chairs, big tables, LOTS of room between chairs and tables, humongous portions. Roomy (and very clean) restrooms. The highways are so wide, as are the parking spots, probably because the cars are so large too. Relatively large houses, enormous backyards, lots of open land. I spent a lot of time out on my parents' back porch just enjoying the open space and feeling like I could really breathe. Ahhh.....The downside of all this? Well, Americans are big too. I'm not trying to be mean, but I feel like I could stand to lose more than a few pounds compared to the girls in France. Feeling relatively svelte in the U.S., I didn't think twice about reaching for that extra helping of Doritoes.

2. AMERICAN FOOD IS SO GOOD. If we Americans are ahem...a little heavier than Europeans, I think it's because our food is so incredibly awesome (and awesomely fatty). Having been deprived of some of our favorite American dishes and snacks, Gaby and I went to town. In Madison we helped ourselves to our favorite Glass Nickel Pizza, wings, burgers, hot cheese curds and Great Dane beer. In Chicago we chowed down on Marissa's amazing pork chops, sushi and the best hot gooey cinnamon rolls from Ann Sathers. And of course when we got back to Kansas, we went to a Royals game where we pigged out on stadium foot-longs, nachos and Philly cheese steak sandwiches. And I haven't even mentioned all the Cheetos, popcorn, Doritoes and Pepperidge farm cookies we made evening trips out to Wal-mart for. (TUMS anyone?)

3. STORES like Wal-mart ARE OPEN SO LATE!! I'm used to getting all my shopping of any kind done before 8:00 pm on weekdays & Saturday. Yes, it is hard to fit in grocery shopping when Gaby and I don't get home until 7:00 sometimes, but we manage. We also know that most stores are closed on Sunday and the ones that are open on Sunday are closed on Monday. By contrast, the Wal-mart in Atchison is open 24/7 except on Christmas day. Wow. I don't know how many times we drove out there after 10:00 to pick up some trivial item. (Usually cookies.)

4. I LOVE HAVING A CAR. Sometimes. I love public transportation in Paris, but I do miss miss driving in small towns and in the country. City driving and I have never ever gotten along very well, although Chicago was relatively kind to Gaby and me. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have a car here; then I see all the traffic jams as I'm walking to the store and change my mind.

5. ENGLISH IS EASIER THAN FRENCH. Well, duh. But no, seriously, this was a big thing for me. I tend to be an extremely shy person. I have had to psych myself up to even order takeout over the phone (yes, in the U.S.) Yes, yes, it's almost an illness. Ridiculous, really. France has cured me of it to some degree. Now when I have to talk to a stranger, all I have to remember is that it's not as if I have to speak to them in French, which of course is infinitely worse. I was almost overjoyed to ask for information or directions from my fellow Americans.

There you have it. I'm sure I made other little observations which will probably come to me in the middle of the night sometime when I can't sleep, but for now that's all I can think of. Next post...sight-seeing in the Midwest.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Chez le Coiffeur

I love how my hair feels after a good haircut. Shiny, silky, light, well-styled. The problem is that I cannot stand going to the stylist. It's not the shampooing/conditioning; THAT is heavenly. It's having to sit in the chair, look at myself in the mirror with wet hair in my face and then CHAT with the stylist about n'importe quoi. I never know what to talk about, so more often than not, I sit there awkwardly and don't say anything.

I imagined that getting my hair cut in France would be an absolute nightmare, not only because of the language barrier but also because of this one dreaded question: "How would you like your hair cut?" Euh....It's a question I can barely answer in English mostly because even though I know when I need a haircut, I'm never quite sure what I want, and the few times I have been sure, the stylist has always said, "No, that's not a good idea." What I really want to be able to say is, "I don't know. What do you think would look good? As long as you don't give me a euro mullet, do whatever you want." Not acceptable here.

To avoid the whole haircutting ordeal, I even got my hair cut pretty short in Madison before coming to France. That way I could avoid getting it cut again for a whole year. Yeah, I'm that bad. But by the end of June my hair was so long, unruly and damaged at the ends that I began wearing it in a ponytail everyday. A sure sign I could no longer put off the visit to the coiffeur.

Gaby and I decided to go together to support each other since he hates going as much as I do. Alas, we went in the evening and the salon only had time to do Gaby's hair. He came out looking all neat and groomed, and there I was, still Captain Cavewoman (or Hippie Hil--take your pick.) I was definitely going as soon as I could. This morning I got up early to go to the one stylist that was open in Poissy on Mondays. Gaby walked with me for encouragement.

The owner and a few stylists greeted us with "Bonjours" and smiles when we walked in. I instantly began to relax. First impressions of salons are a big deal to me. This one seemed very friendly. First the lovely shampoo and conditioner. The lady doing the job wanted to know all about me. She even spoke some English with her charming little accent. Once that was over, the dreaded question from the head stylist: "Do you have an idea of how you want your hair cut?" "A little bit shorter and with some layers." "Très bien. We have some pictures you can look at to help you decide too if you want." In the end, I did look at the pictures and noticed that ALL of them had "some layers." Crap. Which one? They all looked way cool. Happily, the stylist ended up choosing one by saying, "How about something like this?" Perfect. Yes.

And then we chatted a bit while he cut my hair. I had a huge advantage that I hadn't been counting on. Since I was an American in France, he wanted to know all about how I liked France and what I was doing here. It was cool too because the guy apparently goes to New York and Miami three or four times a year and loves going there! So then we talked a little about his impressions of the U.S.

Finally he made the finishing little touches and I was done. My hair looked great, nothing crazy or new, but just what I had wanted. And the coiffeur had been so nice. Yet another case of my having been nervous for no reason. How silly. I walked out with a big smile and my head held high.

On my way back home, some guy yelled out the window of his car, "T'es BELLE!! Oh là là..." I credit my stylist. Oh, the French know how to make a girl feel good.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Update (long): autorisation de travail

In my last post about immigration, I'd just found out that I had to have my work authorization after all. I haven't written again about it because I thought it would just be too depressing/uninteresting for everybody to read about. But since I now have my papers in order for next year, I've decided to share how everything went at the department of labor when I tried to get my new work authorization. It was really an unpleasant experience that I need to record.

Gaby's mom came with me again, for which I am extremely grateful. I think that the department of labor workers tend to push around foreigners more when they're alone. I knocked on the door of the office of the woman with whom I'd talked the week before, the one who'd been so patient and polite. She didn't even look up, didn't even respond to my polite "Bonjour, madame" and just sat their for at least a full minute stamping applications as if we were not even there. Gaby's mom was shocked. (Not even a little 'bonjour'!)

I finally began explaining my situation to her and that the préfecture was asking for a new work authorization although I'd been told the week before that I wouldn't need one. She finally looked up and said she couldn't remember my case because she'd seen so many people since me. Yes, of course, I wasn't asking her to remember my case. If she'd only looked up beforehand, she would've seen that I had all my documents out for her to review. Of course I didn't say that. She took my current titre de sejour--the one she'd looked at before when she'd told me I wouldn't need a work authorization card.

She then said that she wasn't the person who dealt with cases like mine, and that I would have to talk to her colleague. Not a good sign. She kept my card and left the room to speak to the colleague and came back a few minutes later.

"You don't have the right to stay in this country for more than a year. Your work authorization card is non-renewable."

"What? But my contract is renewable and has been renewed, so shouldn't my work authorization also be renewable?"

At this point she directed Monique and me into the office of her colleague. There were no chairs to sit on, and so we were forced to stand there to make my case. I once again explained my situation.

"You'll have to go back to the United States because your contract ends at the end of August."

"Yes, I know, but it's been renewed, so the university told me I needed to renew my titre de séjour. To renew it, I need to renew my work authorization card."

"It's non-renewable because you just have a one-year contract that ends at the end of August. Renewable work authorizations are only for people currently living in France."

"I am currently living in France. I've been living in France this whole past year."

"Well, your university should have treated your case as if you hadn't been in France the whole past year. They need to treat you as if you were a new introduction into the country."

"But I'm not a new introduction to the country. I was here last year. What does that even mean?"

"It means they'll have to send your file to the Department of Labor in Nanterre so they can approve it and send a letter of approval to the French consulate in the US so they can give you a new visa. You should really go to the Department of Labor in Nanterre to see how this works."

"I did go last week. They told me to come here because it was a renewal."

The ladies both rolled their eyes and then began scolding me.

"Didn't the university explain how your contract works? (No.) Didn't the French consulate in the US tell you you wouldn't be allowed to stay beyond a year? ( You do NOT have the right to stay in this country. You have to go back to the US. Weren't you planning to go back to the US this summer?"

"Yes, but to visit my family, not for a new visa. None of my colleagues have ever needed to go back to the US for a new visa; they've all been able to renew their titres de séjours here in France."

The ladies both shook their heads.

"Well... can you tell me what documents the university needs to send for me to get a new visa?"

The lady behind the desk showed them to me.

"Oh! I have those documents--the university gave them to me. Can't I just give them to you now?"


"Why not? They're all in order; everything's signed and stamped."

"We're not allowed to take documents directly from people here. They must come from the employer or the prefecture."

"Well, the employer gave them to me to give to you. The prefecture didn't want them and told me to give them to you."

"Oh, no no. That's not how we do things. Oh, I can't believe the préfecture and the university are treating this like a normal renewal. "

Because maybe it IS a normal renewal you crazy bitches.

Monique stepped in. "Well, can't you perhaps call the préfecture then and explain that there's a miscommunication?"

"Oh, absolutely not. We do not EVER communicate with the préfecture. They don't know anything, and we just don't get along with them very well."

WHAT???? Isn't that your JOB????

At this point I began to think about the plaque that's hanging in the lobby of their building. It was put up in memory of two department of labor workers who were killed in that office for "trying to uphold the law." I won't tell you what other thoughts went through my head at that moment.

Monique continued to question them about how the whole process worked, but I was already gathering up my stuff. It was a lost cause. Usually new visa applications were turned in at the end of May at the latest. I would have to apply for a new visa at the end of July right before everyone went on vacation for the month of August. This meant my application would sit on someone's desk for a whole month and they wouldn't even look at it until September, meaning I wouldn't get my visa until mid-October and would lose at least a month and a half's salary.

And then a miracle happened. The lady behind the desk asked to see my contract again.

"I'll tell you what. I'll just treat this as a renewal this time. After all, the university's like a big enterprise and not just some little employer. I'll stamp the department of labor's approval on your contract and send you your work authorization through the mail."

I couldn't believe it. Of course I thanked her profusely, but I felt more suspicious and angry than thankful. Would she really renew it or was she just trying to get us the hell out of her office? Was she really going to send my new work authorization or would she just throw my file away once I left the room? I made sure I had copies of everything as she wanted to keep my two original work contracts.

I didn't relax until Monday morning at 11:00 when Monique called to say the postman had dropped off my department of labor letter and could she open it? Yes of course, open it!! The work authorization was there and ready with all the correct information. I couldn't believe it.

We went to the prefecture immediately where I got my new titre de séjour receipt. I'll be able to pick up the real thing in September when I get back. It's amazing, really, that it is done so early. And all this based on the whim of some lady who decided to not follow the crazy bureaucratic rules that define immigration, rules that vary from department to department and even from worker to worker.

I've read countless stories online about other people's horrible experiences with immigration, and I know from experience that they're not lying or exaggerating. I hope that someday we'll do away with such ridiculous laws and that people will look back on them and realize how stupid and barbaric they really are.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

La Fête Nationale à Poissy

This year for Bastille Day, Gaby and I decided to avoid the crowds of Paris and stay in Poissy. After all, the town had its very own fireworks show over the Seine, just down the street from our apartment. (We're rather lazy these days.) The old bridge was blocked off to pedestrians several days in advance for security purposes. I watched all day as workers raked up leaves and bits of trash and mowed the park lawn in preparation for the crowds.

I spent the early evening making fried chicken, cutting watermelon and making fresh-squeezed lemonade, food and drink that I associate with the American "fête nationale." Gaby, his mom and I walked on over to the park not too long before the fireworks were to start and were still able to find a good spot to sit right next to the Seine. To our left, small children were shooting off Black Cats and jumping jacks. To our right, a family was taking turns lighting roman candles. I couldn't keep from grinning. It felt just like the 4th of July, a holiday that I've missed far too often in recent years.

At sunset, they signaled the beginning of the show with lights on the old bridge.

A barge from which the fireworks were to be shot moved slowly down the river to position itself just to the left of the audience. And then the show began with the music of movies dealing with astronomy and space exploration, Poissy's town theme this year. As an American, I think I found it especially comforting to watch really spectacular fireworks set to the familiar scores of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and E.T. It was a nice little remedy to any pangs of homesickness.

(Sorry for the lack of pictures--I was too busy watching the show to take any more!! I'll try to add some of Monique's shots later.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Fun with Immigration

In mid-June I found out that the Université de Paris X had decided to rehire me for next year. Of course I was (and still am) ecstatic. But underneath the excitement was the dread of knowing that I would have to go to the trouble of renewing my titre de séjour. Ugh.

The Préfecture has somehow traumatized me enough that everytime I go there, my heart starts pounding and my hands start shaking. No matter how simple the process should be, they always find ways to make it difficult.

This time was no different. I went there the earliest I possibly could, the morning after I got official confirmation in writing that I would be rehired. At the reception I asked if I could have some information about renewing my work visa. No. Why not? They were closed for the day. Er...really?? Could I at least have the list of documents I would need to renew my work visa? No. I would have to come back on Monday and arrive early to get an appointment. It was 9:45 a.m.

Monday morning, I arrived at 7:00 am to stand in line. Forty people were ahead of me. At the reception I asked again if I could have some information and told the lady that I was a salaried worker, as this had made a difference in the past. It seemed to make no difference this time. She gave me a ticket to stand in a waiting room with everyone else. There weren't enough seats and the sun was already shining hotly through the glass ceiling. I got squished next to a fat little Frenchman who was clearly hitting on me, although he was married to a beautiful Russian woman who was pregnant with his child. Jerk.

Two hours later, my number was up, and I went to the desk to get my information. The lady looked at my current titre de séjour and then asked to see my passport. She looked at my VISA. "Just as I thought," she said. "I'm not the one you're supposed to see. You'll have to wait until 1:30 and see if you can get a ticket for window 25 where my colleague works. She's the one who deals with this." I had been up since 5:30. It was almost 11:00, and I was tired and hungry. In spite of myself, I could feel the tears welling up. No no no. No crying. And I didn't, but I came close enough that the lady took pity on me and at least got me my list of documents needed and answered some of my questions.

At 1:30, I returned and asked for a ticket for window 25. Success!! One person was ahead of me. When my number was called, I had the lady look at my file, and she told me that everything was complete except for the work authorization card which I could obtain from the Department of Labor. She gave me the address. It was in a town at least 5 miles away.

Gaby's mom Monique was kind enough to drive me to the Department of Labor (DDTEFP) building where the receptionist informed me that I could only get an appointment between the hours of 9:00 and 11:30, but that I could call anytime that afternoon. Monique called because I still sometimes have a hard time talking on the phone, especially when it's for complicated stuff like this. Although Monique was very polite, the lady working yelled at her for not knowing how anything in the Department of Labor worked. As if it were just common knowledge. She then told us that we ought to go to the DDTEFP in Nanterre because they would be more "friendly" there.

I went later that week since they are only open on Tuesday mornings and Thursday afternoons, something I found out the hard way. The first guy I talked to had no idea how to renew my work authorization and referred me to his friend, Patrick. Pat told me I needed to go back to the other DDTEFP where he said they might give me some trouble about renewing my card. He wished me luck and sent me on my way.

I returned to the first DDTEFP the next morning. There was no line, and I got right in. The lady I talked to was very nice and patient and answered all my questions. She informed me that I wouldn't need to renew my work authorization card because it was something that the Préfecture would do automatically. It was a new policy that was only a few months old. Great! I thanked her and left, a weight lifted from my shoulders, my heart much lighter, my worries nearly gone.

Today I got a letter from the Préfecture stating that my titre de séjour was almost ready. Yes!!
However, before I could pick it up, I would need to send them my renewed work authorization card within the next 15 days.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Metro Etiquette

This post is directly inspired by my cousin Megan's blog on the metro in Singapore. I think everyone who regularly takes public transportation in a big city must have the same kinds of problems so I thought I'd do a post on how Paris' transportation system tries to handle some of them. Personally I find their signs rather entertaining, although not as good as the Singaporean rap video.

Their most recent campaign for train safety and comfort has involved these little conversation bubbles:

From the top clockwise: "Holding open the doors holds up the train." "The doors open; I let people get out." "Preparing to exit makes getting off the train easier." They are not very popular among the French who have complained about having huge guilt trips because of them. Not a problem for me or Gaby.

On one occasion we were trying to make a connection to get home to Poissy. As we pulled into the station in our first train, we could see our connecting train already stationed across the quai and getting ready to leave. Knowing the next one wouldn't arrive for 30 minutes, we ran like crazy to catch it, but Gaby still had to hold open the doors for me to get in which caused the train to have to wait a few seconds longer. Right in front of us on the doors just opposite was this sign:

"One second lost in the station = delays on the whole line." We laughed. Other people don't take it so well:
(A power outage = delays on the whole line)

I don't think those little bubbles will ever make people think twice about holding the doors open. But I don't mind; it seems to be a very small issue compared to the problem of getting out of the train. Letting others descend before getting on the train seems to be so hard for people to understand, that RATP has tried regular signs like the little one above but has also resorted to this:

Sometimes instead of arrows, they even use little footprints. I think it actually works pretty well!

Finally, the most famous sign in the Paris metro is this little pink rabbit.
The picture on the left is the original, and it's located on the doors of every metro in Paris. It says: Watch out!! Don't put your hands on the door or you risk getting pinched very hard!"

On the right is a picture making fun of the fact that the rabbit doesn't seem to have a right arm (which must have gotten cut off in the metro doors). "Obviously it's not the first time this has happened!"

There are other parodies that have nothing to do with the metro: "Watch out!! Don't look at ads: you risk getting manipulated!"
The pink rabbit warning is so famous that it even reached that stupid show Jackass.

I honestly have no idea how effective these little signs are, and of course such signs don't cover every metro offense--how could they? After all, if there were a sign for everything, (it's rush hour and a thin lady takes up 2 seats or a businessman leans against an entire pole so he can work his crossword or a teenage girl stays seated in her fold-down seat near the doors and has the gall to scowl at people when they trip over her) the trains would simply be covered in warning stickers. So I grin and bear it and remind myself that despite any inconveniences, taking the train is still much better than sitting in a car in rush hour traffic in Paris (or anywhere).

Saturday, June 13, 2009


Although I have an intense fear of bugs, especially roaches, spiders have never really bothered me very much. Growing up with a biologist dad, I quickly learned how to identify the venomous brown recluse spider, the only dangerous spider in Northeastern Kansas. But even the threat of their necrotic toxin didn't seem to instill any sort of real fear in me (although it probably should have). And as for harmless spiders, no problem! I even found little black jumping spiders kind of cute. Such a statement would make my highly arachnophobic twin cringe, and I'll admit that I've teased her many, many times for her fear of spiders.

Perhaps she would be pleased to know that karma has finally come back to bite me in the ass.

When I've visited France in the past, I've never seen any kinds of spiders anywhere. In the 19th-century foyer in the 7th district, there were none. No spiders invaded the modern foyer in the 18th district. Neither of my apartments in Paris had them. I've never seen a single one at Gaby's house. Even when I took walks in the forests, I didn't ever see any spiders! I was beginning to think France just didn't have as many spiders as the U.S. or that they simply tended to avoid the Paris area.

Boy was I wrong.

One night a month or so ago, I was getting ready for bed and had just removed my contacts. As I was drying my hands, I happened to look down and through blurred vision could see a very dark spot in the corner of the otherwise white walls. What was that? Mud? How had it gotten on the wall? I put on my glasses. It was a spider, but not just any spider. An enormous one. I stood there frozen staring at its dark brown bulbous abdomen and long hairy legs curled up underneath it. Ugh.

Gaby? I croaked. He must have sensed the fear in my voice because he came to the bathroom immediately. I pointed.

Do you want me to kill it? he asked.

Now this might seem like a dumb question to most people, but not to me. I usually cannot stand to kill spiders; they're supposed to be our friends and take care of all kinds of nuisance insects. So usually I just trap them in a jar and take them outside to be released into the wild where they belong. Not this time. The spider was in a corner where trapping it would have been difficult, and I just couldn't imagine trying to fit it underneath one of our narrow glasses. To see if it was alive, Gaby sprayed it with the shower nozzle. It fell on the floor and didn't move.

See? he said, It's not even alive.

Could you spray it one more time just in case?
I asked.

He did. The spider immediately spread out its long long legs and tried to run away, fast. It was probably almost 3 inches long with its leg span and it was heading straight towards me. I tried not to scream. Gaby's shoe came down on it and I closed my eyes and covered my ears to avoid hearing that awful crunch. Brr.

Two days later, we found another one just as big that we had unknowingly killed by closing the bathroom door on it. Fearing we might have a spider problem, I tried to determine where they could be coming from. I covered up a washing machine pipe that's not in use at least to keep them from hiding in there, but hoping that that was their entry point. Right. Then we didn't see any more of them for awhile and I figured that was the end of it.

Out of curiosity, I tried to figure out what kind of spiders they were through different websites. They looked and crawled almost like wolf spiders, but they seemed smaller. I finally found pictures and descriptions that most closely fit our spiders, and apparently they're quite simply referred to as "Giant House Spiders." Great. Huge spiders that regularly come indoors.

Last night we found the latest one, just as big as the other two, in the bedroom, closest to my side of the bed of course and with the beginnings of a thick web to go along with it. Sick. It has since joined its fellow spiders in the arachnid afterlife and I spent a night of fear-induced insomnia. The thought of such enormous spiders crawling on me freaks me out way too much.

So yay. Thanks France. Way to pull a fast one on me, making me think there were no spiders near Paris or just little harmless ones. Instead we've got mini-tarantulas wandering around. Sorry Jill for ever making fun of your arachnophobia.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

La Bière

Beer? Yes, I know. Since I'm in France, I should be talking about their smooth Côtes du Rhônes, bubbly champagne and crisp Sauvignon Blancs. I do sincerely enjoy French wine and still believe the best wine comes from France (sorry California), but today I'd rather put aside this (more sophisticated?) drink and talk about beer in France.

BEER. As the beverage of choice for parties, BBQ's and big sporting events it seems like it should always be written in all capitals. And yet, despite BEER's reputation, the French have managed to avoid any coarse associations in their treatment of it and have somehow made it seem closer The word itself, la bière, is lighter than its English equivalent, the R gently rolling off the back of the palate instead of being swallowed as it is in American English. The gender is feminine.

When I first came to Paris, I made the mistake of ordering une bière without specifying the size and was surprised when they brought out a small yet heavy chalice of 25 centiliters--about a half-pint in the US and less than a can of soda. How darling! The bottles are smaller too which certainly helped explain how my French students could brag about being able to drink 10 to 12 bottles of beer at their parties. Yes, 10-12 cute squat little 25 cl containers (compared to the US' standard 35.5 cl bottles).
Am I being the typical American who likes everything BIG? Yes, I am. And France does offer pints of beer as well. You just have to specify that you would like a grande bière or 50 cl.

France itself makes many beers, although unfortunately, I've tried only a few pretty standard ones. They have Kronenbourg which is like Bud Light (definitely not my favorite) and the Pelforth beers that I tend to enjoy more. Desperados is an odd sort of tequila / beer combination that tastes rather refreshing if you can get past the smell.

But a really nice thing about ordering beer in France is that bars regularly offer the more expensive, harder-to-find beers that the US may or may not import.

I'm a fan of Belgian beers. Leffe is a pretty standard beer with good flavor. There's also the widely available Hoegaarden (in the US too, I know), often on tap here and delicious with a slice of lemon on a hot summer night. Chimay Bleue, one of my favorites, has a rich, deep taste with hints of caramel. And of course there are the fun fruity lambics such as Lindeman's Framboise, a purple raspberry beer and Kriek, a tart ruby-red cherry-flavored beer.
When I ordered one of these fruity beers at a bar, my Irish colleague looked at it in disgust and said, "Ewww...smells like jam! It's like you're drinkin' a cup o' jam isn't it?" But he couldn't resist tasting it and then ordered himself one the next round. It's worth trying, but definitely only in the 25 cl quantities.

Finally, my favorite beer that's available in many Parisian Irish pubs is Kilkenny, a creamy red Irish ale lighter than Guinness but full of flavor. Unfortunately, this beer is not available in the U.S.! So if you're ever abroad, even in Canada, and you like darker rich beers, order yourself a pint.
These are just a few of the beers that I've discovered so far while living in a wine country. Why limit myself to wines? Someday I'll write about my favorite wines, but for now I'm going to stick with my little European (okay...mostly Belgian) beer tour. Cheers!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

La Bibliothèque Nationale (the Library)

There is one library in Paris that I have been avoiding this entire academic year. To find my much-needed sources, I opted instead for my university's library. When I couldn't find my books there, I went to Gaby's university's library. I even checked Amazon and FNAC for books that those libraries didn't have.

But last week, I could no longer put off the dreaded task. I needed books that could be found only at France's Bibliothèque Nationale, aka the BN (or as my snobby French colleagues like to call it "La Bibliothèque François Mitterand.") In any case, all the names refer to the same place: France's National Library. Or as I liked to think of it: Hell.

So I tend to overdramatize. But that place is no picnic either.

There are two levels to the library: the Upper Level which is open to the public, and the Lower Level which...isn't. I'd bought a library card to the Upper Level way back in September but had found the selection of books to be unsatisfactory. Plus, there was the time I'd dragged myself all the way across Paris in the pouring rain to get some work done only to find upon my arrival that the Upper Level was closed. On a MONDAY.

It was with dismay that I discovered that the several books that I needed were available only at the BN's Lower Level. The special level. The level that required an interview with a librarian who would then determine if you really needed to use the books there. Yeah.

Gaby and I went together, which made things less scary for me. Our interviews went fine (thank God!), and then our librarian told us how to use the library which unfortunately was full that day. Full? Yes, it would be better to make a reservation for a seat or come back another day. A reservation? Yes, or to come in the morning for the few open seats that are non-reservable.

I tried to make a reservation the following week. Full. I would have to go in the early morning to try to get one of those coveted seats, and that's just what I did.

I arrived, had my bag checked and went through the metal detector. Then I checked in my bag at the vestiaire where they gave me a transparent plastic briefcase to put my belongings in: laptop, paper, novel, writing utensils. I was then ready to go through the first set of turnstiles. I scanned my library card, a green light indicated a free passage and I pushed open a very tall set of heavy metal doors.

To my right, two gleaming escalators led down to the reception area of the Lower Level where I had to ask the lady at the desk if there were any seats available in Room V, the French literature room. She informed me that there were a few seats left for the morning. I could have one, but I would have to give it up in the afternoon since it was reserved. She gave me a seat number, and I was then allowed to go through a second set of turnstiles, through more heavy doors and finally into the Lower Level.
Thick plush red carpeting led the way to room V, where I saw rows of big wooden tables lined up with small lamps at each work space. The tables were mostly empty, and I felt rather annoyed that they were nearly all supposedly taken. I found seat 36. In front of it, a little red light indicated it was reserved for me. A green light was next to it. I put away my affairs and headed over to the computers where I could make my book reservations. Oh yes, aside from a few books in Room V, there is no access to most of the stacks. You have to reserve the book and when it's ready at the desk, the little green light at your table lights up. It can take 45 minutes for it to arrive.

I reserved one book and then found another one in the available stacks. When I arrived back at my seat, I noticed the green light was blinking. My reserved book was available? Already? I went to the desk where the librarian took my card. "No, it's not ready yet," he informed me. "But my green light is flashing," I said, puzzled. "That's for the afternoon person," he said, sounding rather irritated at me. was I to know when my book was ready? Too shy to ask, I figured I could work with my available book first.

Finally, when I had only one hour left for my reserved seat, I returned to the desk to see if my other book was ready. A friendly-looking lady took my card and then frowned. " wanted these books." I nodded. "Well, you'll have to use the microfiche instead," she said. "Why?" I asked. "Are the books not available?" "They are," she replied, "but when it's this type of book, we prefer you to use the microfilm." She then handed me a piece of paper with the call number for the microfilm written on it and told me I would need to reserve it. And then wait 45 minutes for it to be ready. This would leave me 15 minutes to look through the source. I smiled tightly and told I was just going to cancel my order because I didn't have time to wait. She was very apologetic about it. It was okay, I said, I'd come back the next day.

As I packed up my belongings though, I could feel my frustration mounting. If they preferred that people didn't look at the books, why did they make them available for reservation? Why couldn't they have sent down the microfilm instead? Why couldn't the first librarian have told me there was a problem with my order? Well, at least I'd been able to get a lot of information from my other book, I thought to myself consolingly.

When I went to the BN the next day, the seats were all "taken." I pictured the nearly empty room. But fortunately the receptionist gave me a place in a science room where I ordered my microfilm immediately. Success! It arrived in 20 minutes and I was able to spend the entire morning looking through one of Alexandre Dumas' newspapers that he'd run.

That day I left feeling like an accomplished scholar. I decided that although the BN is intimidating, not really user-friendly, and requires a certain amount of patience, it was a good experience to figure out how to use it. Just another step towards becoming a real researcher. And honestly, the sources they have are just really cool. I just hope my next sessions over there prove to be good experiences as well.

Monday, April 20, 2009

La Famille à Paris Part III, Hamming It Up at the Museums

After three full days of touring, everyone was ready for a bit of a break. So we took it easy on Wednesday and did some souvenir shopping and light sight-seeing. It was good to do something rather relaxing. Marissa and I checked out the cute boutiques (that I'm usually too shy to go into) in the upscale Saint-Germain neighborhood and then went to the French version of Express for some casual stuff. We found cute flats.

Meanwhile, Jill and our parents had walked down the Rue de Rivoli to see the Louvre courtyard and the Tuilerie Gardens.

My dad thought it looked like the perfect place to go bowling. Ahh...can't escape it.

And unfortunately, Jill discovered that Paris can be a lonely city for some.

Marissa, my mom and I were too serious for such antics I suppose. Or we just found Jill and Daddy entertaining enough. ;) I take it as a sign that they were feeling very comfortable in Paris.

Thursday was the last day my family would be there, and it was also the day of a National Strike. Sure that the train lines would be mostly down, I'd advised everyone to save the nearby museums for that day, just so we could avoid the metro as much as possible. Of course, the clowning around didn't stop that day either.
I guess my dad missed teasing the poor cats back home.

In the afternoon, we headed over to the Musée d'Orsay which is famous for all of its impressionist paintings by the likes of Monet, Manet, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Unfortunately (and most unexpectedly!) they had closed off the floor with the most famous paintings because of the national strike!! WHAT??? The museums were on strike too? No one explained why the floor was closed; everyone just kept saying the same thing: "C'est la grève." "It's the strike." Sigh....

My dad, always managing to keep his sense of humor, made the best of the paintings we still had access to. When this portrait of the biologist Louis Pasteur was painted, he was about the same age as my dad is now. I think the resemblance is striking.

And Jill and my mom also managed to take full advantage of the exhibits the museum did have open that day. Even after Marissa, Daddy and I had finished seeing everything, they were still off looking at all the paintings and sculptures in great detail.

We waited for awhile. Note that Marissa's pointing at her watch.

Then we finally left to go get some expensive Coca Lights in a nearby café.

The waiter there seemed to like to joke around as much as my dad. When we came into the cafe, I asked him if we could sit anywhere. His smart-aleck answer? "Well, if you mean can you sit downstairs, sure! Go ahead. But if you want to sit in this seat behind the bar (indicating a random stool), well...I'm afraid that's not possible." That wasn't even the worst of it. As we were sitting enjoying our Cokes (and a Schweppes Agrumes for Marissa), a clueless little Japanese girl came down the stairs and asked the same waiter where the bathroom was. "The bathroom?" he said with a puzzled expression. "We don't have one. You need to pee? Here, use this," he suggested, holding up a glass. The look on her face was priceless, and I could see he was trying to keep from laughing too hard as he directed her to the real bathroom. We were all cracking up.

We finally met back up with Jill and Mom and got ready to find a place for our dinner together in Paris. We decided on a little Italian place not far from the hotel. I know, I know. It's just that that's what sounded good.

And it was good! After the meal, we walked around Paris just a bit more and then everyone headed back to the hotel where we said our goodbyes, and I tried not to be too sad.

Ever since my very first trip to Paris in 1998, I've been dreaming (literally!) of the day my whole family could come visit and we could see the city together. The reality was better than anything I could have imagined. I only wish they could have stayed a little bit longer! Well, I suppose I'll just look forward to future tours of France (other European countries?) together. :)

La Famille à Paris Part II, La Banlieue

Most people who have studied French have learned at one time or another that the Paris banlieue or the suburbs are places to be avoided, the French equivalent of the poor inner city. Movies like "La Haine" and "Banlieue 13" and news reports about riots and car burning in Paris' banlieue have only reinforced these impressions. The truth is, while there are poor suburbs around Paris, there are also very nice ones, and even rich ones that we don't hear about as often.

My family spent Monday evening and then all day on Tuesday in the Paris suburbs. First they came to visit Gaby and me in Poissy to check out our humble apartment overlooking the Seine.

Then we went outside to look over the Seine ourselves.
Of course we had to show the family around our charming little town.
They thought it looked like a nice place to live! This was a bit of a relief because we'd thought they would think we'd made them come all the way out to the suburbs just to see...crap.
(A most unfortunate abbreviation, especially for a restaurant, eh?)

After Poissy, we headed over to Achères where Gaby's mom had prepared an Alsacian French meal of flammekuche (a very thincrust pizza-like dish with cream), a large ham, potatoes and fruit tarts. She'd also bought some Veuve Clicquot champagne to welcome them. It was a fun and interesting night of translating for Gaby and me. Everyone got along great, and it was getting late by the time we headed back to the train to accompany my family back into Paris.

We were glad to get them back to the hotel at a reasonable hour because Tuesday was to be spent at Versailles, another suburb of Paris that tourists don't usually think of as being the dreaded "banlieue." The town itself is very pretty (and rich), and the château is just spectacular (and huge!).
We visited all the wings that were open that day. The beautiful chapel:

And of course the recently renovated and extravagant Galérie des Glaces (the gallery of mirrors).

Lunch was simple curried chicken baguette sandwiches outside on the steps.

And then we went to explore the Versailles gardens. These are actually my favorite part of Versailles, and I was disappointed that the small gardens were closed for the winter.

But my family still got an idea of how amazing (and again, huge!) such gardens could be.

And so concluded our third busy day together in near..Paris.

La Famille à Paris, Part I

My family came to visit me in Paris over a month ago. I'm just blogging about it now because it's taken me that long to recover. Okay, okay...that's totally not true. Actually I've just been working on other stuff and the blog has had to take a backseat to my other projects (i.e. the dissertation).

I'll admit that I was rather worried before my family came because I wanted to be a good guide. They would be in Paris for less than a week, and I wanted them to have the best time possible in only a few days. Would the weather be okay in the middle of March or would it rain everyday? What should we see? What days should we go to certain sites? What days were these sites closed? Where would we eat? What would they like? What French foods should they absolutely try? Would they have a hard time since most of them didn't speak French?

Well, of course, I did a lot of worrying for nothing because everything turned out fine. The weather was beautiful, and I discovered that I belong to a family of really great travelers who want to see and do a lot. I should have known. They arrived early Sunday morning at Charles de Gaulle airport, and Gaby and I went to meet them.

Once in Paris, we got some breakfast/lunch at a little café near the Saint-Michel fountain and then were ready to start our tour of the city. First, Notre Dame de Paris. I always forget how beautiful it really is.
Next, the Bateaux Mouches, or in English, the flyboats. This was a great way to get an overview of the major sites in Paris. Plus my poor jetlagged family could relax (and even sleep a little) during the tour.
The rest of the day was pretty relaxed. Everyone was able to check into the hotel at 3:oo and take much-needed naps and then explore the neighborhood just a little bit. Incidentally, my parents had gotten a hotel not far from my old Paris apartment in the 6th. It was so good to hang out in my old familiar neighborhood.
Monday was the day of the Towers, or climbing day. We started with the Arc de Triomphe where we climbed the spiraling staircase to the very top.
And the view:
After a stroll down the Champs Elysées, our next stop was the Eiffel Tower. We had planned on taking the elevator up, but realized that we would have to wait two hours in line. We decided to test our fitness levels and take the stairs. Most of us found out we were seriously out of shape, and we marveled at the people who were actually smoking as they walked up the steps. UGH. Still, the walk was worth it.
As we made our way back down the stairs, we snickered at all the people huffing and puffing on their way up. We even made encouraging remarks like, "Don't worry...only 400 more steps to go." We're nice like that.
Although we were tired (and some of us aching--okay, me), our first full day together in one of the most beautiful cities in the world had turned out great. But it wasn't over yet. My family had decided that it would be nice to visit Poissy where Gaby and I live.

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.

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.