Thursday, January 29, 2009

To the streets!

The French word for “strike,” grêve, contains the word rêve, dream. Maybe that’s why going on strike seems, to an outsider at least, a national pastime. Lengthy visits to France will almost always be marked by some social movement. When, in the early 90s, we lived in Lyon, there was a major strike by truckers. O.K., that’s not so bad, you might think. The truckers did not, however, just stay home. They rode their trucks out onto the highways and blocked them. People had to become experts at alternate, little-used routes and at maneuvering a zig-zag maze that the truckers had deftly structured so that some traffic could flow.

Today (Thursday 29, January) promises to be a major day for disruptions since all the major unions have called for a day of mobilization. Workers will stay home, teachers will not report to school, post offices will be closed, buses, subways, trains and airplanes will operate on greatly reduced schedules. At noon today, I turned on the local news, only to get reruns of magazine-type broadcasts, and a banner reading that the network’s personnel were on strike. France’s workers are, surprisingly, not unionized in great numbers. But where they are unionized, e.g. subway and train workers, they can cause maximal disruption. Being a commuter in Paris today will be one exercise in frustration and ingenuity.

Why the movement? The official themes are wide and general: displeasure with the center-right ruling party’s economic policies; demands for job security; concern about stagnant or lowered purchasing power. The most left-leaning of the three major dailies, Libération, highlighted the word “exasperation” on its front page today. The world economic crisis is making the exasperation worse as more and more people are laid off.

Other European countries are looking at today’s French demonstrations to gauge how deep and wide is public displeasure. Projections are that the strike will be widely followed, even in the private sector, which would be significant. The number of people who turn out for street demonstrations will also be telling. Across Europe a malaise is setting in, even for those who are educated. Young people with degrees have been finding it difficult to get good paying jobs or even stable employment until many years after they have received their diplomas.

Perhaps that is why surveys show close to 70% of the general population as active supporters or at least being sympathetic with today’s mobilization. 75% answered “yes” when they were asked whether they thought the movement was “justified.” These are high numbers for a series of actions which will disrupt the lives of folks throughout the country.

It’s hard to imagine a movement of such scope in the U.S. Impossible, really. First of all, such national coordination would be hard to achieve. Second, strikes like those of Air Traffic Controllers in the 80s, and at Caterpillar in the 90s, failed miserably. Third, companies are good at playing hardball, and have the friends in elective positions to support them. WalMart’s threats to shut down stores instead of accepting unionization has teeth in it, as indicated by the company’s closing of a store in Quebec. Finally, the US populace, in general, is just not as sympathetic to workers as is the case here in France. Imagine the abuse striking subway workers would receive at the hands of stranded, angry urban commuters. Do young Americans even remember the concept of "sympathy strikes"?

The French, on the other hand, still tend in great numbers to sympathize with the little guy. One reason has to do with what I call “projected self-image.” French people, well-off city dwellers though they may be, nonetheless see themselves as paysans beneath the surface, linked to their ancestors, close to the land, little people, without much power. They also see themselves as continuous with a history which reminds them that, faced with power (King, State, Multi-National Corporation) nothing will change unless there is a massive, concerted, and unified effort.

Americans, by contrast, have a very different “projected self-image” and accompanying narrative. They look, not to an agricultural, peasant past, but to a future marked by upward mobility. They see themselves or their children as someday owners of their own businesses, CEOs, or at least as major players in some business. From this perspective, unions or any organization of workers asking for better wages, good retirement plans, health care, are nothing but annoyances. After all, there are no dreams, only letters spelling risk, in the English word “strike.”

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Frenchie the preservative

Our little village has no major grocery stores. It does have a medium sized and a slightly smaller one. The latter is a mini-version of a large chain. Checking out a few days ago, my attention was caught (as no doubt the company’s marketing people intended) by items near the cash register. Typically these are strategically placed for last-minute impulse buys. Indeed, there were cookies on sale. There were also, strange for an American, vanilla beans. Was it a post-holiday clearance? Maybe the locals, upon reaching the cash register, often think, “oh, oh I forgot this week’s quantity of vanilla beans.” Between the two foodstuffs, lying there matter-of-factly: a packet of condoms. Store brand condoms too. Sort of like Kroger or Safeway producing not only house brands of diswashing detergent, aluminum foil, and aspirin, but also their own line of male contraceptives. Customer: “Let’s see, I’ve got the wine, the chocolates…what’s missing, oh right, here it is at the checkout counter, a packet of rubbers.”

Their strategic presence is no accident. It’s actually part of a coordinated effort, supported by supermarkets, to make inexpensive condoms widely available. Maybe the French attitude toward this particular product explains why British slang dictionaries list “Frenchie” or “French letter" (now out of date) as synonyms. In my college dorm, a very long time ago, people used to praise one known as a “French Tickler,” though I, in my innocence, could never quite envision what it might actually actually look like.

The official French word can serve as a cautionary tale for those learning languages. As any student quickly learns, one must beware of “false friends,” cognates that mean very different things in the two languages. This becomes a special problem when the languages share common ancestry. English and French should not face this difficulty. The former was originally a Germanic language and the latter a Latin one (a “romance” language—one rooted in Imperial Rome).

History, however, intervened in the person of someone known in his youth as Guillaume le bâtard, Billy the bastard. Had his father, heading for a dalliance, been able to drop into our convenience store and pick up an inexpensive pack of prophylactics, Billy might have been spared his moniker. But, then, had Billy not seen the light of day, the world would have been quite different. For, in one of the great all time name changes, little Billy all grown up became, after 1066, Guillaume le Conquérant, William the Conqueror.

When he and his troops crossed the Channel, they naturally brought their language. English then benefited from a whole new source of vocabulary to complement its existing German-derived one. Jorge Borges once commented on the beauty of English for poets. Casting about for just the right word, they could draw on one with Germanic roots, say, “kingly,” or one with Latin roots, say “royal.” A meal in English can similarly be doubled. One can consume chicken (from German) or poultry (from Latin), lamb (German) or mutton (Latin), deer (German) or venison (Latin).

As a result, false friends become problematic for English speakers learning French. Demander, means “to ask,” not to make demands. Someone mentioning a caution is talking about a deposit. Perhaps the most famous is douche, which is how the French say “shower.” “Condom” might look like a French word, but it is not. Although the Quebecois have adopted the term and simply give it their own pronunciation, here in France the correct term can easily be a false friend. An ecologically sensitive type might, for instance, want to say something like: "I don’t want any food that has preservatives in it." Using the false friend préservatif would yield: “no food with condoms in it for me.”

Making such mistakes, though, is just part of the fun of learning another language. It is a kind of fun we would have missed out on were it not for the contraceptive-free affair that gave us William the Conqueror.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Stereotypes R Us?

As a philosophy professor, I have been to my share of conferences. One revelation: stereotypes exist. The bearded academic, droning on about inscrutable problems of interest only to other like-minded types is, alas, real. There might even be something about our look. Taking a break from one conference, I was wandering through a shopping area near Boston’s Prudential tower. The thick post-Christmas crowd was shoulder to shoulder. Suddenly, a stranger approached, asking matter-of-factly: “where is the philosophy meeting?” How had he picked me out? No sign was tattooed on my forehead. I wasn’t wearing my conference name tag. Was it the blue blazer, lack of tie, khaki pants? Whatever it was, I had the stereotype look.

Stereotypical I
Here in France, one stereotype is the bored, lackadaisical, couldn’t-care-less civil servant. Our first day introduced us to just such a type. We wandered into the local tourist bureau. The person behind the desk made no effort to greet us. She seemed kind of bothered and annoyed. After all, we were distracting her from some computer-centered activity. When we mentioned how we would be in the village for 5 months, this professional booster could only reply “Not much to do around here.” At least, this was an honest answer. No hucksterism for her. No snake oil salesperson she. Since not much goes on in winter, well, that’s what she would tell us.

The previous evening, having arrived too late for grocery shopping, we headed for a local restaurant. This one was more typical than stereotypical. The place is small, maybe 10 tables. The staff is small, a husband and his wife. The husband greets folks, takes orders. The wife works the kitchen. This house specialty is Breton food. The stock entree from Brittany is a ‘galette,’ a kind of large buckwheat crepe folded over a variety of fillings. The accompanying drink is a typically “cidre,” which has nothing to do with what Americans call cider. Since we find the stuff undrinkable, we went for the more usual accompaniment in the rest of France, wine. The owner had made no effort to get us to order the more expensive bottle rather than the pitcher. Nor did he point us to a wine list. The choices were simple: red, rosé, white. The bottle was from a local, organic vineyard. Whereas U.S. restaurants typically provide large glasses into which bottles can be quickly emptied (with a server immediately asking if another is desired), this place had simple and small glasses. The wine could then be savored and stretched out over a relaxed meal. The husband/wife team, the relaxed atmosphere, no hard or even soft sell for extras, allowing guests to linger, these are all ‘typical’ of restaurants hereabouts. The treatment of clients is modeled, not on the restaurant being a business, but on receiving people at home.

Stereotypical II
What does one do in a small (2600 inhabitants) village where “not much to do here” is the rule? Well, the locals occupy themselves somehow and the only option is to join in. Announcements were spread around town about a “Loto” night at the local meeting hall. Not quite knowing what this was, we figured what the heck, it’s the only game in town. It turned out to be a French version of Bingo to support the local association of retired people. Florida or France, a room full of retirees, (some long-retired) playing Bingo has a familiar and predictable feel to it.
But the stereotype associated with this outing had to do with the perception of Americans. We introduced ourselves. The immediate response from a neighbor: “But you aren’t OBESE!” Somehow, most likely tv and newspaper stories about the growing girth of Americans, he simply assumed that all of us would be on the larger side.
Lessons to be learned here: news stories from far away can be misleading. Some statistically true claim should not be taken as universally true. In addition, as plain common sense would indicate, although stereotypes exist, there (1) are always exceptions, and (2) hardly anyone is a pure stereotype. At least I hope I am not just a blue blazered, khaki pants-wearing egghead fond of technical arguments about abstruse subjects.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

L'investiture--the Inauguration

Tuesday 20 January 2009, a major day for Americans everywhere, including those of us who could not share in the great ritual at home. Fortunately, France is gripped by a kind of Obamamania. The major newspapers have had a string of front page stories about him. The same is true for magazines. And, piece of good luck for those of us who are far from home, one TV channel carried almost three hours of live coverage. By and large the commentary was uniformly favorable. The only negative notes (a "dose of reality" I’m sure they would say) came from American commentators, either on television or in print. They pointed to the reality of a divided U.S., a quick end of any honeymoon, and the challenge of governing within an adversary system.
Certain aspects of the ceremony drew the attention of French commentators. One was impressed by how the oath stresses defense of the constitution, a reminder of how we are a constitutional republic, committed to a set of ideals and rules which provide the country’s playbook, not just a land that blows with whatever happens to be the contemporary fad. One woman reporter noted, with satisfaction, how a particular camera shot framed Obama preceded by two powerful women, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Diane Feinstein. “It’s a new world,” she said. Another, reflecting on the campaign, pointed out how a standard post-debate scene in the U.S. would be inconceivable in France: when the candidates and their families mingle on stage and actually embrace each other. Another remembered Obama, in a speech, saying that the day he took the oath of office would be the day the rest of the world looked at America differently. "Yes, indeed,"was his simply commentary.

As far as the inaugural address goes, the French focused on several themes: hope over fear, embracing a renewed sense of responsibility in the face of contemporary challenges, and a general sense that it is time, once again, for Americans to roll up their sleeves and achieve common aims.

The responsibility theme, according to a commentary in this morning’s Le Monde, breaks decisively with the Bush presidency which did not tend to emphasize responsibility and sacrifice, pretending that a country “could fight two wars abroad while cutting taxes at home.” The same writer proclaimed rather grandly that the election of 2008 “signalled the end of the age of conservatism in the U.S.” Perhaps the American “dose of reality” commentators would suggest waiting awhile before making so definitive a claim.

Watching the inauguration with some bubbly

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Car Rental Then and Now

The Lambs are accompanying us on this trip. It’s a virtual accompaniment. Charles and Helen are fictional. They were featured in a textbook from the middle of the 20th century. A British couple, The Lambs, in 1955, visit France. When Charles and Helen came across the Channel, things were both similar and different from what is the case today.

Both the Lambs and us rented a car at a train station, Marseille for them, Avignon for us. Upon arriving, the Lambs are surprised to find a car that resembles a mouse. The clerk validates their response saying that yes, the “4 Chevaux” sort of looks like a wind-up toy mouse. Still, it was a popular car, and symbol of post-War freedom.

The agent’s first act is to offer his customers a cigarette. Peter and the agent share a Gauloise, one of the main French brands, along with Gitanes. Today there is still plenty of smoking in France, but, officially it has been banned in public places since 2006. The ban was extended to cafes/restaurants in 2008. Although not offering us a cigarette, the clerk was friendly and helpful. When she learned that we needed a payphone, she simply said, give me the number and I will call. She then gave us forms to fill out, told us the car was a “Corsa” (A kind of Opel, it turns out), and gave us the parking space number.

That was the extent of out contemporary, efficient, time-saving interaction. The Lamb’s agent accompanied them to their car to explain how it worked. “Maintenant il faut que je vous montre le fonctionnement de votre quatre-chevaux.” Starting a car in 1955 involved three components: the ignition, the starter, and the choke. Complicating the situation was the French word for choke, starter. Peter, of course pulls on the lever marked starter and is stunned that the car does not, well “start.” Once the confusion is sorted out, Peter pulls on the démarreur, and things go well.

Things are a lot easier today, easier, at least for Americans who can negotiate a standard transmission, the default for rentals in France. Still, it is a good idea, before leaving the lot to check out some of the fonctionnement: windshield wiper operation, the headlight controls, how to open the gas tank, and, what is most important, how to shift into reverse. Our Toyota and Honda require moving the shift over to the right and down for reverse. European cars often require moving to the left and up. But that is not all. There is a lever on the gear shift that must be lifted in order to allow engaging reverse gear. Typically, one puts one’s index and middle finger around the gear shift and, with the index finger, lifts up on the latch. Not knowing this in advance can pose a problem if caught, as I have been, attempting a three point turn with oncoming traffic looming in the distance. This is not the best time to master the act of getting into reverse.

Like the Lambs, our car was grey, sort of looked like a mouse, but, since the Corsa is a hatchback, probably had more space. Theirs was a rear-mounted engine, so the hatchback design was out of the question.

One final difference: their license place was composed of three digits, two letters, and then two more digits. In France, the final two digits indicate the department where the car is registered. There are 97 numbers in all. The Lambs’s plate ends in the number 13, Bouches du Rhône, the mouth of the Rhone, where Marseille is situated. Our rental, in an era of greater flexibility, carried the suffix of 76, Seine Maritime, the part of Normandy around Rouen. Avignon, where we rented the car, is actually 84, part of the department of Vaucluse. The numbers correspond to the alphabetical listing of departments. Cars with a suffix of 75 are from Paris.

50s style license plate

our license plate

Newest Plates (the middle one would be the Lamb's today)

Recently, the ministry in charge of transportation proposed eliminating the department-identifying suffix. Immediately, there arose a great hue and cry. In a compromise, the new license plates will not include the department suffix as an official part of the identifying number. What licenses will include, however, is an identifying symbol and departmental number on the extreme right of the plate. People will be free to choose what number they want on their plates. It might be the department of birth, to which they still feel some kind of attachment. It need not be the department in which the license is registered.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Getting There

“The road is better than the inn,” so, at least Cervantes thought. Often it is indeed all about the journey and the wonderful adventures along the way. At other times, though, getting there can be a chore and the “there” is definitely better than the “getting.” Trips, like ours, involving air travel, are of this sort. How to make things easier? We have certain rituals based on experience. They’re probably mostly familiar, but I share them in what I hope will be an organized way.

Naturally, it all begins with packing. The tried and true adage here is that old favorite: “half the clothes and twice the money.” Envision how many (clothes) and how much (money) to bring. Then halve the former and double the latter.
To maximize suitcase space (1) minimize inflexible items, i.e. shoes and (2) roll all rollable clothing. This does not do wonders for pressed shirts, but it does economize space.

Plane trip
1. Late Grooming
A transatlantic trip can be a grubby affair. Since it is an overnight flight which arrives in Europe early in the morning, one’s body clock is still on U.S. time. This is complicated by the fact that one’s body, plain and simple, carries the dirt and chin stubble most often associated with late night rather than early morning. How to compensate? I have found it helpful to shower and shave as late as possible before boarding the plane. Obviously, this is easiest if there are no connecting flights. I have been known, however, to shave in the connecting airport while awaiting the overseas leg of the journey. This may not seem like much, but, psychologically, arriving in a condition that more approximates what one would normally feel/look like in the morning does make a difference.

2. Sleep Mask.
On the flight itself, one indispensable implement, for me, at least, is a sleep mask. What one seeks: minimizing fatigue and jet lag, while maximizing good health and the opportunities for a full day after landing, depend on sleeping as much as possible on the overnight flight. Sleeping in the cramped setting of a plane is quite a challenge. On and off slumbering is the most one can hope for. Here is where the sleep mask becomes crucial. It forces one to keep one’s eyes closed and encourages a return to dozing status. I usually go with the double dose of sleep mask plus blanket pulled over my head. It may not look pretty, but it is effective.

3. Clock/Water
Getting the self ready for the new time zone is another crucial prerequisite for handling jet lag. My own onboard ritual is to have dinner (at least airlines still serve this gratis on transatlantic flights, even though U.S. airlines now make passengers buy the wine to go with it), then set my watch to the target time and get to sleep as quickly as possible, i.e. put the sleep mask on and resolve not to remove it until the flight attendants are bustling about getting breakfast ready.
Since an airplane’s air is dry, it is also important to drink plenty of water.
The three adages of successful Transatlantic travel then are: “half the clothes, twice the money,” “clean yourself up as late as possible,” and “stay hydrated.”