The Frogmarch

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

Thursday, September 28, 2006

"It Is All That I Love."*

*Literal translation of French version of McDonald's ad slogan "I'm Lovin' It."

I swore to myself I wouldn't do it. I wouldn't. Hell, I hadn't set foot in a McDonald's in probably 2 or 3 years before coming to France (and definitely not since I read Fast Food Nation), so why start now in a city with some of the best cuisine on the planet?

But there are days when I'm tied up in meetings until after the cafeteria quits serving, or they're serving your choice of beef tongue or boudin noir (blood sausage), and it's too rainy to go get a sandwich and eat in the park, and I don't have time to spend the two hours it usually takes to eat in an actual restaurant. Days when I have a choice: get something from the vending machine, or go to the McDonald's down the street [Photo: service entrance to McDonald's at Grange Blanche].

I was very self-conscious when I went in there, feeling like the cliche Yank tourist, half-expecting everyone to turn around and point: "Where's your fanny pack, Lardy McShovelburger?" Ever seen a Mexican family scarfing breakfast burritos in Taco Bell? Me neither, but I'm sure they'd feel the same way.

Vincent Vega was right: The little things are different. Yes, in France you can get a 12-ounce beer (more precisely, 33cL) with your extra-value meal--which, by the way, is confusingly called a "Pack Best Of." With your Pack Best Of, you also have the choice of frites or "deluxe potatoes", which are thick like steak fries. Not "patates de luxe", but "deluxe potatoes". Are you supposed to say this with a French accent, or drop out of your stream of French and deliver those two words as a straight Americanism? Regardless, they come with a packet of herbed mayonnaise to drench them in...not bad, actually.

Your Pack Best Of Royal Cheese (not "Royale"--Travolta must have pronounced it wrong--and not "avec fromage", either) will set you back Eur5.80. Try not to convert the exchange rate into dollars while you're eating.

I know I've complained about French customer service before, but McDonald's is one of the very few places where it's better than in the States. Maybe it's because jobs are relatively scarce here, but French McDonald's seems to actually hire people with IQs approaching average. And the burgers! Why, they look just like in the ads! The bun's not squished, and the lettuce isn't all falling out one side! For $7.25, it had better look nice.

Still, I don't go very often; for all the official French opposition to creeping Americanism and Disneyfied cultural hegemony, the place is always packed--and not with American tourists.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

We Are Everywhere

An article in today's paper reveals that fish caught in the Rhone between the Miribel-Jonage canal and the Pont Pasteur are unsafe to eat due to high levels of PCB's. This news comes as a surprise to exactly nobody; I'm linking it here not because of the story itself but because of the accompanying photo.

The uncropped photo that ran in the print edition showed Jean-Pierre here pulling up his boat to the quai on the Presqu'ile, with the Universite Lyon and the Rive Gauche in the background. Nice enough. But a closer look (even at the cropped version) shows that Jean-Pierre is piloting--yessir, a 12-footer J-series Carolina Skiff with a Johnson outboard, dual trolling mounts and aereated live-bait wells.

It was unclear whether he then hitched his boat trailer to an F-150 with a Dale Jr. sticker in the window and headed to Allen & Sons for a chopped tray and some sweet tea.

I realized the other day that I haven't heard a Southern accent since March (Woody Durham over the internet doesn't count).

Monday, September 18, 2006

Jared's Lament, or, The Rule of Three

This has probably happened to you:
You're in Subway, say, patiently waiting while the, erm, "Sandwich Artist" assembles your turkey & cheese with-everything-but-tomatoes-and-not-too-much-mustard-please, and a guy comes in. This guy has apparently never been in a Subway before--he walks up to the register first and tries to order there, so the semiliterate drone at the register has to point him over to where one actually orders, and then he is utterly blindsided by the white-or-wheat question, and then when he makes it down the line to the register drone again, confusion reigns: Sub Club card? What? Wait, wasn't this combo supposed to come with chips? Oh, they're right behind me? It's not as if everyone in America needs to know the exact protocol for eating at Subway; heck, I wish I could say I didn't eat at the one a block from my old office in Durham every week or so. But still, you'd think that guy would have a clue, right?

When you move to a foreign country, you are that guy.
Often several times a day.

Which line do you stand in at a French post office?
Where are you supposed to validate your ticket at the parking garage?
Do you bus your own table at this sandwich stand? Will they bring your food or do you stand around and wait for it?
Where do you get a key copied, and how many forms of ID will you have to show to do so?
How do you get your packages when they won't fit through the tiny mail slot?
Who do you call to report a power failure?
Does this hotel have ice machines? Where?
Where do you return your library books? And where do you wait while the librarian examines each one of them individually for damage?

Some of those questions I've learned the answer to through trial and error, through being That Guy, through suffering the eye-rolling and Gallic shrugs of hundreds of retail/service employees across the Rhone Valley. Some of them I still don't know the answer to.

I have learned that accomplishing most anything in France takes about three times as long as in the US: There's the time it takes you to figure out how to accomplish the task, the time it takes for the task itself, and the additional time it takes to move the rusty wheels of French bureaucracy. The corollary to this rule of three is that the first time you do anything, you will look like a complete idiot.

Good thing I have so much experience at that.

Pic #1, above: Look kids, it's the Eiffel--whaa? Lyon has its own poor copy, the Tour Metallique, opened around the turn of the (20th) century for some exposition or another. It's closed to the public now, serving the dual purposes of convenient platform for commo gear and crapping up the Lyon skyline.

Pic # 2: "Do Not Piss on This Wall." Some habits are hard to break, I guess. Taken at the Puces du Canal, a huge flea market that draws shoppers and dealers from as far away as Italy, hence the helpful Italian translation. The Puces have a huge variety of things, ranging from fine furniture to old Tintin comic books, but the best thing I saw on this day was a complete (and running) WWII-era olive-drab scout/courier motorcycle with sidecar. 3000 Euros OBO. Oh man, if I had one of those, I'd just need a leather helmet and goggles... oh, and a monkey to ride shotgun. Preferably a grinning chimp or a soulful orangutan. We'd rule the world, my monkey and me.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Road Trip: Burgundy

For V's birthday, we took a 2-day trip up to Burgundy, about 2 hours north-northwest of Lyon by the autoroute. Here are a whole bunch of pictures.

This is the chateau where we stayed, out in the middle of nowhere near Montbard. The rooms themselves were nothing special, but the grounds (including a working farm) were pretty nice.

We got there late on Friday night, and in this tiny town there was nothing open (or in the neighboring towns, either). The chateau has a restaurant... 90 euros a head. So we ate crackers and granola bars in our room instead.

The next morning we headed to Abbey Fontenay, founded by St. Bernard in 1118 and in continuous operation until the Revolution. The monks did have to make some concessions to the monarchy, though--such as letting the Dukes of Burgundy use the abbey as a hunting lodge.

Saint Bernard dedicated himself to reforming monsatic life by strict observance of the Benedictine Rule. In other words, his monks were to have nothing to distract them from prayer and meditation. There are no ornate decorations; the cathedral has a dirt floor. I've been in a number of cathedrals, eglises, and chapels since we've been in France, and I have to count this one, essentially unchanged since it was finished in 1147, as one of my favorites. It is impressively silent.

The cloisters were where most of the meditation and study went on. On this day, a couple were having their wedding photos taken. I don't know that associating one's marriage with self-induced poverty and chastity is necessarily the best way to start... but I bet the pictures were nice.

There must have been something to St. Bernard's ideas, as this whole place seemed to inspire quiet thought. (I don't know the guy in the picture.)

After leaving the abbey, we headed cross-country toward Alesia. Most of what I know about the history of the Gauls in France comes from reading Asterix comics, so it was nice to get a little real background. Alesia was the site of the pivotal battle between Julius Caesar's legions and the Gauls led by Vercingetorix in 52 BC. Caesar finally cornered the Gauls on a hilltop and laid siege, fighting off attacks from Gallic reinforcements. Vercingetorix eventually surrendered to spare the lives of his men (and was paraded through Rome and publicly executed for his trouble).

Vercingetorix is credited with uniting the Gauls and laying the foundation for what would become France. Alesia has a hilltop statue set up by order of Napoleon III... though modern archaeology casts doubt that this is actually the right hilltop. I like the way this statue looks like a saintly Jesus-type from one angle; from the other angle, it's "Vercingetorix Is Here To Kick Your Ass."

Between towns, we dropped in on this winery, the first one we visited in France. Those are the vineyards up on the hillside in the background. They offered us a tasting, and of course we bought 4 bottles...for about 5 euros each.

On a hill overlooking the vineyard is the town of Flavigny. If you've seen the film Chocolat, you've seen it; V commented that the town looks a lot bigger in the film.

I, on the other hand, found it difficult to photograph--it's hard to capture a place in a frame when it's all around you. Where does one point the camera? I ended up just pointing the camera without aiming and shooting in various directions.

This little town absolutely reeks of French charm, and unlike many other picturesque hilltop towns was free of tourists and gawkers (except us). Like a lot of small French towns, it has retained its charm mostly because progress has passed it by, the economy has stagnated, and there hasn't been any injection of new business
to spur modernization of anything.

Flavigny has one restaurant, one bar, and one hotel (but three churches and a monastery). About the only thing this town is known for is its local specialty, anis pastilles candy (pretty nasty, actually). It's the kind of place where dogs nap in the middle of the street and teenagers can't wait to move away.

At the one restaurant, we ran into an Irishman to whom I had spoken briefly at Fontenay Abbey. Seeing as how we were the only people in the place, we invited him to join us for dinner. Turns out he was there for a weeklong immersion program at the monastery. He was quite taken with The Tadpole (and his Irish name), and gave us an Irish linen tea towel, one of several he had brought to give as gifts at the monastery. He had lived in Paris for a number of years, and had some firmly held opinions about France and French people.

"Selfish," he said, "or at least self-centered. It never occurs to a Frenchman to consider what the other person's feelings might be." V at least partially agreed with him. She's setting up a blog of her own (I'll pass along the URL when she has something up) where she can vent about the daily difficulties and frustrations of life in France. But for this weekend at least, she came to the conclusion that France is a heck of a lot nicer when you're on vacation.

We got in from a day trip to Provence late last night, and I put Mom and Dad on a plane back to the States early this morning. Man, I'm beat... but some nice pictures coming from that trip as well when I have a few moments.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Picture I Can't Take

Continuing the theme of people one encounters on the streets of Lyon:

You'll have to imagine this picture yourself, first because I never have my camera with me when I see this woman (maybe once a week or so, usually on my way home after work), and second because I'm not sure how to set the shutter speed and depth of focus to capture the effect I'd want.

She is kneeling, this woman; not sitting back with her thighs resting on her heels, but straight, as if at prayer. Her knees support her entire weight on the rough flagstones of Rue de la Republique. Her head is bowed, as if in shame; both hands extend palms-up as if in supplication.

She is perfectly still. The river of humanity that is the rush-hour crowd along La Re parts and eddies around her like a rock in a stream. In my imaginary photograph, the colors and faces of the passersby are blured by motion, while she remains in sharp focus.

Her hajab (I believe that's the right term) is white, as is the headscarf that covers her head and neck and drapes down over her shoulders. Only the downcast face and upturned hands are uncovered, and they are brown an weathered. I cannot determine her age. A battered cardboard sign in front of her has Arabic script in black marker, followed by French: Please help me I have four children one sick.

What is arresting is not that she is begging--there are plenty of bums, panhandlers, gutterpunks, and scammers in Lyon (oddly, just like back home, they all just need some gas money to get to Greensboro)--but her penitent pose and perfect stillness, as if she is being punished. My imagination, tweaked by reading about Nazi atrocites during the Occupation and several viewings of Miller's Crossing, easily completes the picture by conjuring someone standing behind her with a gun to her head.

I've never given her any money. I don't usually give handouts to panhandlers anyway, but for some reason she appears to be beset not just by misfortune but by actual oppression or evil. Maybe I'm afraid some of it will rub off on me. Maybe I'm just uncomfortable with the intrusion into my happy insulated little bourgeois world.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to run pick up the antique jewelry I bought for my wife.

(Sorry for the downer post... my Mom and Dad are in town visiting and I've been too busy while at home to upload pictures of fun stuff. We took a drive up to the Beaujolais on Monday; it's harvest time right now, so we got to eat grapes right off the vine and warm from the sun while tractorloads of grapes in vats rumbled by. Pics coming but probably not until after M&D leave.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Brief but Illuminating Anecdote from the Lives of the Lyonnais Bourgeoisie

We hired a maid. Or I suppose "housecleaner" would be the appropriate term; still, "French maid" sounds so much more exciting (if you're going to do a Google Images search for "French maid", be sure SafeSearch is turned ON).

Anyway, I've always been uneasy about the concept of hiring domestic help, both because of the troubling class distinctions that are immediately drawn and because I just plain don't like making someone have to go around cleaning up after me. My mama didn't raise me to be too uppity to clean my own damn toilet (now, being too lazy to clean my own damn toilet, that's my own fault). Still, with all of V's time commitments in taking care of both Boog and the new baby, she doesn't have time to do any housework besides the daily mountain of laundry; besides, domestic help is pretty darn cheap here. So why not?

The new cleaning lady--I'll call her Sylvie, which may or not be her name; I frankly can't remember, not having met her in person-- came this morning, when I was at work and Boog at school. I had left written instructions for her en Francais, since "Sylvie" doesn't speak English and V's French isn't very good; she did her job efficiently and thoroughly, and charged us for two hours' work even though she'd been there two and a half hours. V took a look at what she'd done, quickly surmised that she'd done a good job, and asked if she would be able to return next week.

Sylvie said something in French which V. didn't understand, even on a second and third try. So V picked up the phone, called me at the office, and handed the phone to Sylvie so I could talk to her and figure out what she was saying.

[following conversation takes place in French]
Sylvie: "Bonjour, monsieur. I have finished cleaning your apartment."
Me: Thank you much. I am sorry we are having so much of the crap in all places. I hope it is not being too much trouble for you making the cleanage.
Sylvie: "When you return home, please be sure ithe job I did meets with your approval. If it does, give me a call and I'll be glad to come back again."
Me: But of course. OK. I do this. Good day having.

She had to get my approval, see. Not V's. Because I am the master of the house. For I am a man. And decisions such as these should not be left to a mere woman.

[cue James Brown: "It's a Man's Man's Man's World"]
France is like this. The most shocking example is when I had to give permission for V. to have her own bank account at Credit Lyonnais--probably because V. doesn't have a French source of income, but still...

Those of you who know V. should have some idea of how well this sits.

Ah well, I'm on my way home now; she'd better have her biscuits in the oven and her buns in the bed.