The Frogmarch

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

Monday, May 29, 2006

It Ain't All Chateaus and Lavender Fields

I pass him almost every day, on the corner opposite the Casino supermarket where we do most of our shopping. The first time I saw him, I was struck by how much he looked like someone I might have sat on a barstoll next to at The Cave, drinking a PBR and dialing up Merle Haggard songs on the jukebox. "Un Euro, une piece, pour quelque chose a manger?" has been the extent of our conversations.

If you agree with at least the presuppositions of John Edwards' "two Americas" schtick, you'll have no trouble at all seeing two Frances. In the square I mentioned in the previous post, I've seen on several occasions women and children systematically searching the garbage cans after the produce market has packed up for the day, slurping down spoiled strawberries and packing away extraneous fish parts to take home. One day on the tram I inadvertantly sat across from a man who was literally caked in his own shit (I can only assume it was his own); I lasted about 30 seconds before the stench made me quickly decide that I'd rather strap-hang at the other end of the car, and out the tram windows I watched women in furs promenade their tiny dogs among immaculate gardens. Once at Carrefour I watched about ten cops gang-tackle a kid who was presumably shoplifting; a man carrying a case of wine didn't so much as break stride or look over at the writhing mass as he walked by.

The Other France is especially evident in the difference between our new neighborhood and our temporary one, in Villeurbanne. If the Presq'ile is Manhattan, Villeurbanne is Brooklyn: some pockets of gentrification but generally urban-blighted and gritty, at times proudly so. A popular t-shirt here reads "69100%", referencing Villeurbanne's postal code, and "Produit des banlieus" (made in the banlieus), referring to the the term that literally translates as "suburbs" but which is as politically loaded and coded as "inner-city" is in the US, with Arab immigrants replacing blacks as the ethnic group in question.

If Villeurbanne is Brooklyn, Vaulx-en-Velin is the South Bronx, block after block of concrete housing projects in varying states ranging from virtual ruin to merely soul-crushing. On a recent Sunday, acting on a tip about good places to get cheap furniture, I went to the puce (flea market) there, and I will return if I ever need to buy used-Renault parts of dubious origin or counterfeit Nikes.

France's unemployment benefits are, along with its public healthcare system, among the best in the world, but the continuing double-digit unemployment--estimated to be as high as 50% among young men in the banlieus--is dangerously stretching resources. Everywhere in the banlieus, knots of young men loiter on street corners, in playgrounds or on stoops in front of kebab shops. In our Villeurbanne neighborhood, the hot spot is in front of Mister Taco, a take-out restaurant that as far as I have been able to determine does not serve tacos; the sidewalk there is filthy with cigarette butts and broken glass, and the adjoining alleyway reeks of piss. There is a uniform among the guys who hang out here: a track suit, brightly colored and tight at the ankle, paired with soccer shoes and a baseball cap (preferably Burberry plaid) worn tipped back as far as possible, giving the wearer a pinheaded profile. I understand that this outfit is meant to signify toughness, but it fails miserably, in my eyes at least. The uneasiness that I've been conditioned to feel when walking past wannabe thugs in big white T-shirts and gang-color do-rags back home utterly fails to trip when I'm confronted by pinheads in seafoam-green track suits. Maybe it's for this reason that I've never felt unsafe in Lyon: I'm too dumb to know when I should feel alarmed.

There really isn't much to fear here in terms of violent crime. Muggings and attacks are very rare, and the total annual murders for all of France are probably less than an active summer in Durham. Property crime, on the other hand, is a given, as accepted as the weather. French insurance companies won't pay a claim if you've had something stolen from inside your car: if you were stupid enough to leave something in plain sight, you probably deserve to have it taken from you. Otherwise-charming apartment buildings are fitted with metal shutters and roll-down gates ; the front door of our Villeurbanne townhouse has three bolts and a sliding chain.

The French way is to always maintain one's cool, even if this means utterly ignoring problems. One day while I stood with Henri outside an apartment building for the realtor to show us around, a homeless guy came up and gave Henri an earful, about, I think, the train signals controlling his mind or something. Henri utterly, totally, devastatingly ignored the guy, looking off into the middle distance with a slight smile as if pondering at which restaurant to have dinner tomight. It was awesome. The guy eventually shambled off, and Henri didn't so much as mention it as we resumed waiting for the realtor. This very French talent (or coping mechanism, depending on how you look at it) probably explains a lot about "the situation in the banlieus" last fall, which we would call "riots".

I dunno, I don't have an answer and I can't even say where I stand on the argument about whether the systeme Francaise is any worse or better than the American Way. But I realize that most of my blog posts have been about how wonderful or at least interesting things are--probably a subconscious means of convincing myself that I've made the right decision to drag my family here. But there is ugliness here, too... just wanted you to know.

Pictures: Graffiti is everywhere in the less-affluent neighborhoods, and usually it's not even interesting or well-done, just boring, sloppy tags. See the last picture? That's on a kid's playground toy (click to read, it's written upside-down). Nice work, guy; way to subvert the dominant paradigm. That'll really show those... toddlers.


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