Wednesday, November 21, 2007
As we traveled, we saw mountains, snow, cows, sheep, and beautiful scenery the whole way. The travel took about 5 hours with a connection in Lausanne, but the trains were comfortable and speedy. Bern is a wonderful city with lots of cobblestone streets, Medieval architecture, and fountains. I can't upload pictures at the hotel, but will try later. We've had lots of good things to eat already, and more to come. The contents of the bakeries and chocolate shops look delicious.
Lorraine and her boyfriend arrive tomorrow. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
The strike is still on (day 8), so we're not sure whether we'll make it to Switzerland or not. Today, government workers had their strike, which they had planned a few weeks ago, and that only added to the chaos. If we can't make it to Switzerland, we'll stay in Paris until it's time to return to Memphis
For more info on the strike, see: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/11/20/europe/strike.php
France resolute on change as mass walkout cripples country
The Associated Press
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
PARIS: Civil servants, from teachers to postal workers, began a mass walkout across France on Tuesday, the seventh day of a transport strike that has caused havoc on French rails. But the government said it would not abandon its planned changes.
Up to half of the country's teachers could stay off the job in support of higher salaries and job security, officials have said. Postal and tax services were also affected. Flight disruptions were expected, as air traffic controllers are also civil servants.
National newspapers were absent from the streets Tuesday as printers and delivery personnel joined the strike.
Though not state workers, they used the opportunity to protest job cuts.
With a paralyzing transit strike stretching toward its eighth day, Ludovic Boltz, a commuter, stood in the gloom on a suburban train platform Monday, fuming about his daily journey and shaking a bag of baguettes in fury.
"My opinion of this strike is that it's annoying lots of people and lots of workers," he said, voice rising above a bellowing announcement of another train delay. "It amounts to terrorism, and we're the hostages."
But there was no relief in sight to ease the commuter misery from the national transport strike that the government says is costing the nation from €300 million to €400 million, or $444 million to $591 million, a day. On Monday, rail workers voted to press on with the strike, most likely at least through Wednesday, when union officials will sit down with government officials and transportation executives for talks.
November is shaping up as the high season in France for strikes, with students challenging a new higher education law, tobacco shop owners organizing to demonstrate against a new anti-smoking law and French judges and lawyers poised for a Nov. 29 strike to protest structural changes that could result in the elimination of 200 courts.
Along the train platforms, weary resignation with limited services is starting to turn into resentment as the crippling strike continues. On Sunday, several groups organized a counterdemonstration in eastern Paris to demand an end to the conflict.
The governing party, the UMP, has been passing out fliers at train stations denouncing rail workers as a "minority defending a system of retirement at two speeds."
"People are really fed up," said Sabine Herold, a spokeswoman for a group called Liberal Alternative, which helped organize the stop-the-strike rally in Paris. "It's very complicated with the subway, buses and trains blocked. It's very difficult to have a normal life. People are really fed up because they think the strikers are egotistical."
The rail unions are fighting to keep special privileges for about 500,000 workers that grant locomotive drivers, for example, the option of retiring at 50 or 55 with full pension benefits. The government wants the workers to pay into the retirement system for at least 40 years, changes that have already taken place for workers in private industry and the civil service.
On Sunday, the stop-the-strike demonstration drew about 8,000 people, according to the police, or 20,000, according to organizers, who noted that people had braved bitter cold to participate, along with a general lack of transportation.
It was hardly the turnout of May 1968 when a huge showing of the "silent majority" converged on the Champs-Élysées to demonstrate support for President Charles de Gaulle, who was confronting student unrest.
But Herold said the group had united with others to organize another rally for next Sunday if the strikes continue. Others in her group, like Jean-Paul Oury, said they considered the counterdemonstration over the weekend just the first round.
Polls show that the counterdemonstrators are tapping into popular sentiment, with a majority of the French people siding with President Nicolas Sarkozy on changes in the pension system.
A weekend poll by Ipsos, commissioned by the government, found that support for changing the pension system had grown 10 percentage points to 64 percent in one week, while support for the strikers had dropped from 35 percent to 33 percent.
In the meantime, French commuters are turning to classic coping techniques: bicycling, roller-skating, carpooling and telecommuting.
Monday, November 19, 2007
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Friday, November 16, 2007
Throughout Paris, the mixture of old and new stands out, especially as I've seen a number of restaurants which have recently been remodeled and are shiny with glass and metal. My visit to the Quai Branly museum (about which I wrote a few weeks ago) reinforced that sense of the new. But there are still plenty of old buildings which have stood for centuries.
Still, I often think that people, especially tourists, focus on the old and the historic without realizing that Paris is a modern, growing city which often needs new construction. Just like every city, Paris is changing, even though many people still like to imagine it stuck in the past. But, even with all the change, the past remains, and it presents itself in buildings like this one.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
The program has been a huge success, although whether it has helped to reduce traffic is hard to tell. In fact, I think it has made being a pedestrian a little harder. Bike riders don't always follow the traffic rules as they should, sometimes running red lights or making unexpected turns. And they frequently come up onto the sidewalk, either to avoid street traffic, to make a shortcut, or just to have the open pavement to themselves. But the sidewalks aren't always open, and they're often quite narrow. When a bike shows up, almost all of the limited space suddenly vanishes. I've almost been hit by bikes on more than one occasion just walking down the sidewalk minding my own business.
I'm all in favor of the Velibs for being environmentally friendly, and on a strike day like today, I'm glad to see people still getting around. But unfortunately, they add another element of the unknown into the already confusing Paris streets.
Image courtesy of www.20minutes.fr
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
November is the season for strikes in France this year. The rail workers went out last night, and university students have been striking for a couple of days and have had some violent clashes with the police. On November 20, the fonctionnaires, or government workers, are walking out. France has a strong labor movement, in part because they follow through on their promise to strike.
The issues are varied, but they all seem to center around the uncertain relationship between the people and their new president, Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is a reformer with a sometimes brash style. He's been dubbed "the American" becuase many of his policies seem to be more in the US model than in the more traditional French way of doing business. He argues that the old way of working won't work any more and that things have to change. For instance, in the case of railway workers, they have a special arrangement that allows them to retire a few years earlier than the standard age of 55. Sarkozy argues that this inequality in the system costs the whole social security structure and must be brought into line with what other businesses do. But the rail workers are not happy about it, countering that they have been given one set of rules for years and that now the goalposts are moving.
Most of the population is actually on Sarkozy's side with polls showing some 55% of French people in favor of the reform. But the other 45% who agree with the strikers is still a sizable minority. France is divided over how to move into the 21st century, but in the meantime no one is going anywhere -- at least not on the trains.
I'm hoping that this will be resolved by the time Ellen and I are scheduled to leave for Switzerland next week. Most people I've talked to here seem to think it will be over in a few days. But every once in a while, someone mentions 1995, the last time the government tried to reform the special retirement regime for rail workers. Apparently, they were out for weeks. But a lot has changed since then, and I don't think anyone can predict how this will play out.
The image is of people trying to cram onto one of the few trains that did run, courtesy of France 3 (www.france3.fr)
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
There's always a certain carnivalesque aspect to Paris, whether it's the sights or the sounds. Yesterday when I left the library, I heard a young man singing at the top of his voice to the song on his i-pod. He was French, but of course he was singing in English. I guess he didn't mind sharing his performance with the rest of the city.
Monday, November 12, 2007
When we sat down, they didn't bring us la carte, but instead asked us how we wanted our meat cooked. We told them, and within a couple of minutes, they brought us a small salad. Then, within a few moments of our finishing, they brought us a plate of steak with frites (fries). On top of the steak was some kind of sauce, maybe an herb butter. We began to eat, unsure of what we had gotten ourselves into. But it was fabulous! The steak was tender and juicy, and the sauce only added to the delicious flavor. The frites were crispy and golden. We looked around and realized that everyone else was eating exactly the same thing. This is the only thing they serve in the restaurant, something which explains the super-fast service.
Then, just as we were finishing our hearty portions, the waitress came over with a second helping of everything. I was shocked, becuase this does not usually happen in France. There are no "seconds," at least not in restaurants. French establishments usually offer a portion size which is just right -- not too big, like most American restaurants, but not too small. But here she was, giving us more steak (not as much as the first time) and frites. We couldn't say no.
As we sat there, I could watch the line out the door grow, so that by the time we left, there were a couple of dozen people standing outside waiting to get in (at 2:00 PM). This is clearly somthing which many Parisians know about and have made their Sunday lunch tradition. Turns out that Le Relais de l'Entrecote has several locations, including in Geneva, and many people have reviewed it on Paris food websites. But we just stumbled into it one Sunday afternoon. Sometimes, those accidental finds turn out to be the best places. And Paris is full of such accidental finds.
See their website: http://www.relaisentrecote.fr/
Sunday, November 11, 2007
In the US, this day has become Veterans Day, something set aside for veterans of all wars. But we also have Memorial Day, which started after the Civil War, so the memory of World War I is somewhat diluted. And November 11 is so close to Thanksgiving that Americans are too busy looking ahead to it that Veterans Day gets lost in the holiday shuffle.
But Europeans still keep the memory of the so-called Great War -- the "war to end all wars" -- alive. As I tell my students when I lecture on World War I, nearly every French village and town has a World War I monument often bearing the names of those lost in the conflict, so that even today when you walk through the town square, you read the names of the men who died. The losses in France were great -- more per capita than any other belligerent during the conflict. So World War I still looms large in their memory.
After World War I, the international pacifist movement gained strength, and governments worked to try and prevent further conflict. They created the League of Nations so that countries could resolve disagreements peacefully. They passed the famous Kellogg-Briand Pact which outlawed war as a means of conflict resolution. The 1920s and 1930s were full of struggle, but the hope for peace was so strong, that they tried every way they could to avoid war again -- even to the point of the now infamous Munich agreement with Hitler.
To us, Munich always looks like foolishness, but that's because we see it in hindsight. To Europeans in the 1930s, their hindsight was the trench warfare of World War I, an experience so grisly and horrible that they would do everything in their power to keep from going back into those trenches. We need that kind of hopefulness for peace again, especially on Armistice Day.
Some food food for thought: "It's Past Time to Bury the Hitler Analogy" at The American Prospect's website: http://www.prospect.org
Saturday, November 10, 2007
Update on a previous post: Ellen showed my photograph of the Angela Davis image in Paris to her class, and one of her students identified it as the work of Obey. See http://obeygiant.com for more information, including other uses of that same image of Davis.
Friday, November 9, 2007
The experience made me think about the American community here in Paris and how big and interconnected it is. I studied this phenomenon when writing about jazz, but I'm only now really feeling that sense of an expatriate community on this trip. Between the other fellows at the Institute, a weekly meeting of American academics organized through the H-France email listserv, and a few other people, I know more Americans in Paris than on any other trip here. Visiting the American University, as well as at Reid Hall, reminded me that there are so many Americans here at any given time.
Being an expatriate here means living in Paris and perhaps knowing some French people (I had lunch with the one French academic I know) but also being part of a community which still remains set apart -- "foreign," for lack of a better term. People who understand each other through shared cultural values, assumptions, and references naturally seem to find each other and click, even if they might never meet or get to know each other in the US. When living in another culture, we look for the people most like us because they remind us of home.
On this trip, I've come to be even more sympathetic to anyone who leaves the country where they were born and moves to another place, especially when learning another language. It takes lots of guts, brains, and willpower to be an immigrant not only because it means learning so much that is new, but giving up so much that is a part of you.
Living in another culture sounds romantic until you do it yourself for a time. Then you begin to understand why, for instance, immigrants to the US from various places around the world live near one another, create their own stores, churches, clubs, and other institutions. Americans have done the same in Paris (and elsewhere). You could go to an American high school and an American university, attend American churches, read in the American library, and eat in American restaurants all right here in Paris. I'm not an immigrant, only a temporary expatriate. But I have a new appreciation for anyone who leaves home for another land, even if only for a short time.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
It also reminds me of New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik's essay in his book Paris to the Moon about joining a gym while living in Paris with his family. After signing up, he did his workout and went home. But when he returned to the gym the next day, the people at the front desk expressed surprise that he had returned so soon. They warned him not to overexert himself by working out every day. Somehow, that didn't fit with the Parisian frame of mind, despite the fact that there are plenty of gyms and swimming pools around town.
Why Parisians seem to be more interested in jogging, I don't know. Their new president Nicholas Sarkozy is a jogger. Perhaps they too are concerned about health issues and youth obesity. The more McDonalds hamburgers they eat, the more they might actually have something to worry about. Either way, now I have to watch out so that I don't get run down by the runners in the park.
Monday, November 5, 2007
I ran across this store which specializes in rare medical books and antiques not too far from the apartment. There are skulls and large-scale models of organs on its shelves, old pieces of medical equipment, diagrams of the human body, and thousands of books. It's just across from the medical school, so I'm sure they cater to students and professors interested in the history of medicine. It just goes to show that there's something in Paris for everyone.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
It's interesting to think about how one monument has been co-opted and appropriated for a completely different purpose simply because of its location. I'm sure the fact that it's a monument to the concept of liberty helps since many people thought of Diana as a "free spirit," especially after her divorce from Prince Charles. Had this originally been a monument to Polish volunteers in the French Revolution or Protestants massacred on St. Bartholomew's Day, it would have been harder to borrow for the purpose of remembering Diana. But whether through fortunate coincidence or simply the happenstance of geography, this place -- as close as you can get to the location of her death without traveling in a car through the tunnel -- has become the pilgrimage site for those who want to remember "the people's Princess" when they visit Paris.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
I first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road ten years ago during my first trip to Paris. It was the book’s 40th anniversary, and I read an article about it on an in-flight magazine. That, plus the fact that a friend had recommended it to me and that I kept seeing it in bookstores, led me to buy it in London’s Gatwick Airport. I still have the cash register receipt, yellowed and creased, tucked into the book. So I know that I read the first words of the book -- “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up....” -- on September 21, 1997. I thought, “Hey, I’m on the road too,” and plunged into a book that, it turned out, would change much about the way I thought.
I just finished reading it again, ten years later. Much has changed during that time. Now it’s the book’s 50th anniversary. Again, Kerouac has been getting much attention. I read most of John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters before I left for Paris. But I’ve changed too. And my reading of this book, important for me in many ways over the past decade, has evolved.
When I first read Kerouac, I was struck by the sense of adventure, fun, and excitement of being on the road -- something I felt then too being in Paris for the first time. For Sal and Dean and the other characters in the slightly-fictionalized version of Kerouac’s own travels in the late 1940s, the goal was having “kicks” and seeing what lay ahead on a road that stretched out beyond where the eye could see. The theme that I paid most attention to was their desire for experience, life, and exploration. They couldn’t seem to explore enough, both of America and of themselves.
Those two were, metaphorically, the same thing. Sal and Dean are “all-American” boys, although not the sort from 1950s sitcoms. Dean -- based on the real-life Neal Cassidy -- is a former juvenile delinquent and ex-con, a feverish talker, crazy driver, and con man who thinks of little but himself. He is plagued by “madness,” something which Kerouac never labels or describe any further, but seems to be a cross between ADD and existential angst. Dean is endearing in many ways too. Throughout the book, he pulsates with energy and literally says “Yes” to everything and everyone he meets. His life may be troubled, but it’s certainly full to the brim.
Sal -- the fictionalized Kerouac himself -- is quieter, shyer, more reflective and broody. He embraces an America that is similarly “beat” -- the word that he popularized. “Beat” means down-and-out, but it takes on tones of mystical revelation. Drawing on his Catholic heritage, Kerouac’s “beatness” meant being beaten down to the point of seeing things in a new way, of removing all your old self and creating a new one. Beat revelation could lead to resurrection. And that’s the America Sal sees.
One of the things I loved most about this book when I first read it was that he captures of a vision of post-WWII America that is not the one of economic good times, the baby boom, and suburban white picket fences. There is no nuclear family, no new car in the driveway, and no mom vacuuming in high heals and pearls. Instead, there are migrant farm workers in California picking fruit, black jazzmen blowing in juke joints, bums riding the rails and warming themselves around fires, and the “beat generation” of bohemian writers like Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and others before they became the famous icons of modern American literature. They are Kerouac’s heroes because their outsider status -- and their “beatness” -- means that in his eyes, they are closer to some greater truth than all the people who follow the rules and do what they’re told. The “beat” have nothing to lose because they’re already society’s losers. That makes them “the poor in spirit” to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven.
My reading of the world in On the Road in 1997 was one of limitless possibility. Ten years later, that theme is still there, and it still make readings this novel fun. But other elements of the narrative came clearer to me this time. For one, this is a story of loss. The entire book is told in retrospect as Sal looks back over the course of his friendship with Dean, knowing -- as we do by the end of the book -- that their friendship will end. The story is intensely personal, the tale of two men who start off as adventurers and become spiritual brothers, but who eventually take different paths out of adolescence and youth into adulthood. Kerouac shows us the intertwining and the unraveling of two lives, but leaves us with only with a sense of loss.
That notion of loss runs throughout the book as Sal and Dean search for “IT,” as Dean calls that sense of revelation, but which they rarely ever find. Dean is constantly looking for his long-lost alcoholic father who has abandoned him, and Kerouac ends the novel by conflating the two men. The book’s last words are: “...I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” The sense of absence permeates Sal and Dean’s relationship. The climax of the novel comes at the moment and in the place where Sal and Dean come closest to the freedom and inspiration for which they’ve been looking as they encounter a limitless sensual and emotional experience in Mexico, a place they see as being free of strictures and limitations of American society. Kerouac calls it “the end of the road.”
But at that moment, Sal falls gravely ill with dysentery and Dean, having gotten the quickie Mexican divorce from one of his several wives, returns to New York. At the moment when Sal needs a friend most, Dean reveals his true, selfish nature and leaves him to recuperate on his own. Dean, the abandoned one, now abandons Sal. They meet again, and Sal seems to have forgiven, or excused, Dean’s behavior, but from then on nothing is ever the same between them. Sal finds the girl he’s always been looking for and plans to marry her. Dean criss-crosses the country to see Sal, but never explains why. And they are forced to part as Sal goes off in a limo to a Duke Ellington concert, this time abandoning Dean on a freezing cold Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, never to see him again.
Sal loses more than his friend, he loses his illusions about life and love. He still embraces a romantic vision of “beat America” where the downtrodden are more real and true than the mainstream and the road still beckons to him as the path to a mystical journey. Later novels carry on this theme of travel as redemption and enlightenment. But it’s the human story of the ending of his friendship with Dean that made its powerful punch to me this time.
The other theme, related to the first, that became more apparent to me on this reading was the loneliness of the road which Sal feels, especially in the first part of the book. On his first journey when he crosses the US by himself, he meets many people and has a range of interactions. But there are long stretches of solitude too. For all the connections he makes, each one leads to an eventual departure and to having no one on whom to rely but himself.
The best example is his encounter with Terry, the Mexican girl he meets on the bus to California. They start a relationship and almost see themselves as married for a time. Their feelings seem genuine, and he moves to be with her family and picks fruit with them in the hot sun. There, he dreams of being a Mexican -- a fantasy full of romantic stereotyping which bears little resemblance to the real lives these people lead. But, despite the intensity of his feeling for Terry and the time he spends with her, he knows that it has to end. And it does. The road remains open -- it beckons to him -- but often he’s the only one on it.
Friday, November 2, 2007
Thursday, November 1, 2007
Today is Toussaint -- All Saint's Day -- and everyone goes to the cemetery to visit their friends and family members who have passed on. I went to the Montparnasse cemetery and saw people cleaning graves and planting flowers (as in the photos) and reflecting quietly. A few tourists looked around too since the cemeteries of Paris are always a popular sight. They're a calm and peaceful place in the middle of a busy city, and they're so different from most American cemeteries with their enormous monuments and sculptures.
Many things are closed today since Toussaint is a pretty big holiday. The streets were extremely quiet this morning. But the day begs a set of interesting questions about why a secular country which has no official religion celebrates a religious holiday. Of course, we do this in the US by closing so many things for Christmas. But France's relationship to its Catholic heritage is more complex. In addition to Christmas, they take off for days like Pentecost and All Saint's. Every night on the weather report, they tell viewers what the next day's liturgical holiday is -- what saint's day or festival day it is. France has its national holiday too on Bastille Day in July, but many of the days on which things are closed are religious in their origin.
Clearly, this reflect's France's tradition as a Catholic country which, although having officially separated church and state in 1905, is still steeped in a cultural tradition which emerges from that faith. In the US, we have a longer tradition of religious pluralism, even though much of that pluralism was between different Christian sects and denominations. The battles in France over religion and politics have been long and sometimes bloody -- the 16th century Wars of Religion, for example, or religious violence during the French Revolution. These fights are part of why many people struggled to separate faith and politics since people were literally killing each other because of their beliefs. But as holidays like Toussaint indicate, that cultural memory is deeply embedded and, despite the history, hasn't gone away.
I also wonder if these kinds of religious holidays perhaps aggrivate tensions between France and its Muslim immigrant populations, especially because it reveals a certain hypocrisy over the way that French society deals with religious expression. The big battle here during the last few years has been over whether Muslim girls could wear headscarves in school. The girls and their families argued that head coverings were a symbol of faith and of modesty required by their religion. The government countered that there should be no religious symbols in any French school because schools are a secular space where everyone is a citizen first, not a part of some other competing identity group. France has traditionally disliked the idea of hyphenation: there are no Franco-Africans or Franco-Italians in the way we have African-Americans and Italian-Americans, and the French census does not record statistics about race or ethnicity. To be "French" is supposedly to give up any claim on some other identity.
But when the stores, libraries, restaurants, and indeed much of Paris seems to have shut down for Toussaint and when they announce that tomorrow is Saint So-and-So's holiday on the nightly weather report, surely Muslims and other religious groups must wonder what's going on. How can one identity be so culturally ingrained and empowered that it controls the calendar while another identity can't be expressed by wearing a simple piece of clothing?