The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, January 09, 2011

"Enjoy your stay in Italy, Signor. Also, your son's passport expires today."

File under "things you do not want to hear on the first day of your Christmas vacation."

[photo: all the essentials, Ravello, Italy]

So instead of relaxing on the Amalfi coast, we spent a day scurrying around Rome trying to get Boog a new passport . Fortunately, the staff at the US Embassy in Rome were miracle workers, being able to issue a temporary passport within a few hours, and even more amazing, to find me a secure parking spot in central Rome on a Wednesday afternoon. After four years in France, I found the competence and willingness-to-help of government functionaries to be something of a shock.

[Photo: semi-submerged nativity scene in public drinking fountain, Amalfi, Italy. You really need to enlarge this one to understand how wonderfully strange it is]

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PS: Lyon Is Burning

My office phone rang around 11:30. It was V. I had left her downtown at Place Bellecour about an hour before, after we'd gone to visit a house for rent in Sainte-Foy (verdict: well-located and good space, but dreary interior and no yard at all). She was going to shop for a winter coat, since the weather here has suddenly changed from high-60s to mid-40s, and her warm clothes are all in our shipping container, wherever that may be.

"All the stores are closed, they've sealed off the Metro, there's cops everywhere, and there's a car on fire in the middle of Rue de la Republique. How do I get home from here on foot?"

[photo: Casseurs throw rocks at riot cops in Place Bellecour. Credit: Philippe Juste for Le Progres]

You've probably heard about the massive protests over retirement reform in France, and the strikes, airport closings and fuel shortages that have resulted. Protests and strikes are pretty much par for the course here in the fall marching season (yesterday was the fifth transit strike day since school started), and we've learned to take them in stride. This time, though, things are different: along with the middle-aged union members making up the bulk of the organized protest marches, some high schools have closed, allowing a lot of bored teenagers the opportunity to add, er, youthful enthusiasm to the proceedings. Adding to the chaos are hundreds of casseurs--literally "breakers", who have no real political interest, don't care that much about retirement because they don't actually have jobs, and revel in the fine opportunity to throw rocks at cops, break windows, turn over and burn cars, and loot stores--despite the efforts of some marchers to get them to cool it [photo: A union syndicate marcher argues with hooded and masked teenagers. Credit as above]

To their credit, the cops have generally exercised restraint. In order not to escalate matters (or create martyrs) they have mostly stood by for events of minor vandalism, such as burning trash cans, smashing flowerpots on cafe terraces, or rolling giant glass-recycling drums down the street [photo: A looted jewelry store on Rue Victor Hugo. Credit: as above]. I imagine that in a similar case in an American city, things might get pushed over the edge a bit more quickly (see: Seattle WTO protests).

But on a personal level: the "forces of order", as they are called by the press here, have shut down all public transport to the Presqu'ile, the peninsula at the city's center. The Metro has effectively ceased to function, the trams aren't running except far out in the suburbs, buses can't run through the center of town--essentially, the city has been paralyzed by a couple hundred jerks. For us, since we don't have a car (we haven't needed on for 4+ years) it means the boys get to and from school by taxicab. At 30 euros each way.

The situation appears to be calming somewhat, and it appears that I may be able to take the Metro home from work tonight, though some stations in the Presqu'ile remain closed. Still, the Senate is set to vote on the reform bill Thursday, so who knows what will come next.

I'll post some pics V. took with her iPhone (she's still in the "look how useful it is! The price is totally justified" phase) if I get the chance or can pry it out of her hands.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Where Was I?

Oh, yes. Well. It seems some time has elapsed since my last post. What has happened? I met the princess of Thailand (she's nice, has a PhD in chemistry). In my kitchen in Villeurbanne, I beat a rat to death with a hammer handle. I've endured two transit strikes (and counting) as the French try to decide whether they'll raise the retirement age to 62. I've watched loads of gendarmes appear in the Metro and train stations as a reaction to vague and not-so-vague terrorist threats. I sold off half of my library. I sold a minivan with a quarter-million miles on it at a yard sale. I packed the boys' toys and books into shipping crates now somewhere in the Atlantic or a customs yard in Portsmouth. I relocated French sources for Skippy peanut butter (no Peter Pan, sorry) and Nestle Quik. I bought year's supplies of Nyquil, Q-tips, Children's Tylenol and birth control pills. I put thousands of dollars of work into our house so we could rent it. I craigslisted (is that a word?) baby gear and small appliances and old bikes and yard tools. I drove down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill listening to the new Superchunk album (!) on WXYC just as if 1997 had never ended. I ordered a same-day abdominal ultrasound at a French children's hospital to rule out appendicitis (results negative, cost 20 euros). I ordered a lab test at UNC hospitals to rule out streptococcus (results negative, cost $180 for lab costs plus $170 for physician's fee plus $210 for use of the examination room, payable to 3 separate agencies). I went 3 straight days without sleep. I carried a vomiting child through Heathrow Terminal 3. In 3 weeks in Chapel Hill I saw my friends for a total of about 45 minutes. I didn't get the chance to hang out with you, and I'm sorry about that.

[Photo: A good day's haul from the marche St-Antoine]

Sunday, August 01, 2010

What They Think of Us, Season 4 Episode 9

Gleaned from the street index of my Lyon map, herewith the local streets named after Americans:

Entertainment Division:
Rue John Ford
Rue Charlie Chaplin
Allee Buster Keaton

Military Division:
Avenue General Eisenhower
Boulevard des Etas-Unis (so named because during WWI it ran to the US Army camp just outside of town; the site, since annexed, is now an entire neighborhood known as Etas-Unis)
Rue de 3 Septembre 1944 (date of the liberation of Lyon)

Political Division:
Cours Franklin Roosevelt
Pont Woodrow Wilson
Avenue de President Kennedy

Science Division:
Rue Jonas Salk
Avenue Albert Einstein (half-credit, naturalized after his most important work)
Avenue Enrico Fermi (half-credit, ditto)

Square des Ameriques (a bit of a stretch, maybe)
Impasse Lindbergh
Avenue Rockefeller

[Photo: Although, in general, 19th-century transcendentalists are underrepresented in graffiti art, Uncle Hank-Dave peers out on a heavily-tagged stairway on the slopes of the Croix-Rousse]

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Seven Minutes at the 34 Bus Stop

"Seven Minutes at the Bus Stop" sounds like a junior high party game, but in this case, I was simply on my way to the office on a Saturday afternoon--doesn't happen often, fortunately--and not being in an especially big hurry to get there, opted for the 34 bus over the Metro. When I got to the stop (on a side street just off the main drag through Villeurbanne) and checked the Saturday timetable, I saw I had about 7 minutes to wait. Fortunately I had my notebook with me, so I decided to simply jot down observations for those 7 minutes. Let's go to the, um, action:

A quick survey of the surroundings: Bryan's Cafe on the corner, decorated with flags of the 32 World Cup nations. Across the street, a prewar apartment building with a sculpture of a bicycle on the balcony. Next to that, "Centre de Sophrologie" [relaxation therapy; I'm not sure exactly what that entails], then a dry cleaners, a Residence Retraite [retirement home], and a sales office for a new apartment building going up nearby. Down the street on Boulevard Emile Zola, I can see La Coupole cafe/restaurant, and next to it Cordonnerie Top'Smell [photo]. "Top'Smell"? I've gotten to the point where I can usually understand French puns or sayings, but I really have no idea what they were even going for there. [A cordonnerie is a small shop that cuts keys, re-soles shoes, makes rubber stamps and other odd services like that. They have a distinctly old-school vibe and seem to all be run by friendly old guys with filthy shop aprons.]

Behind me is a restaurant whose name I cannot read from here, but letters painted on the window proudly proclaim that it has a Salle Climatisee [air-conditioned dining room]. This is a narrow one-way street with cars parallel-parked on both sides, some real beaters of 80s and 90s vintage. An elderly woman waits in the glass-walled lobby of the retirement home, looking up the street for her ride.

A skinny guy, 40s-50s, walks up and asks me if I have a scrap of paper he can have to leave a note at the Grossiste Materiel Coiffure [wholesale beauty supply] shop, which is closed for lunch. I don't want to tear up my notebook so I give him the back page of the IRS Form 1040 Instructions I happen to have with me [Fun fact: If you live overseas you get an automatic extension on your tax return].

A guy on a bike rattles by-- his front mudguard is loose. Several people pass carrying baguettes from the boulangerie around the corner. It is impossible to carry a baguette discreetly.

A young couple walks up to the bus stop. The dude is wearing a T-shirt that says on it in large letters in English: "Mustache Never Dies". This would have made some sense if there was a picture of Chuck Norris or something on it, but there is not. Just the text.

They check the schedule. "1:15?"
"No, it's Saturday, look here. 1:21," she says.
Dude leans against the bus shelter to use it as a windbreak, and lights a cigarette, takes a drag. He looks up. "Ah, merde alors!" The 34 bus has just turned the corner.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

What They Think of Us, Part 704

Just in time for July 4, the cafeteria at my office had a special On Fete Les Etas-Unis (We Celebrate the USA) theme lunch. They do this every so often for countries whose cuisine translates neatly into the cafeteria format--Italy, Morocco, etc. So the cafeteria was decorated in red-white-blue bunting and posters of New York City and Route 66, and Meilleur Hits d'Elvis Presley playing on the PA.

As for the menu:
  • Barbecued chicken wings (not spicy, but you take what you can get)
  • Cheeseburgers (looked passable enough)
  • Cole Slaw or something like it
  • Potato Salad or something not quite like it
  • and for dessert, Pancakes with Peanut Butter [insert skrrriittccchhh sound of record needle skidding across "Jailhouse Rock"]

Clearly no Americans were consulted in developing the menu.

[photo: image from the website of a local shop that specializes in "deco American". I keep meaning to go check it out, especially because they have this majestically displayed in the front window. I mean... wow.]

Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's Always Some Dam Thing

You probably already know that France is way ahead of most industrialized nations in replacing fossil-fuel power-generation sources with nuclear power (>75% of electrical production, good article here) and wind turbines (the charmingly named eoliennes). But the French were quick to jump on hydroelectric energy as well, back in the late 19th century.

One fairly early example of this is the dam on the flood-control canal diverted off the Rhone as it passes through Villeurbanne and Vaulx-en-Velin just upstream of Lyon. This dam is still in operation, and though it does not operate all of the time (depending on river levels) it still supplies most of the electricity needs for Villeurbanne.

As with everything else, the French took pains to ensure that aesthetics were just as important as functionality (in some cases more important; see "Citroen")

The dam isn't open to tourists, but there's a small shady square on the left bank that overlooks the facility, and an informational panel with various charts, blueprints, photos and diagrams, plus this groovy poster [photo] in which a sexily tousled Marianne unleashes the power of electricity for the mustachioed gent at lower right, who gazes in wonder at the works of man.

The old tow path alongside the canal remains, and can be used for an occasionally-rugged bike trip between Villeurbanne and La Grande Large, a sort of calm bay where the river widens and it suitable for use by various rowing and sailing clubs [photo].

Makes a nice spot for a waterside picnic as well, or just to take a breather before the return trip.