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.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'm Cheating

I have a whole lotta things going on right now, with the movin-out and the movin-in and the baby-birthin' (don't know nothin' bout). I had a blog post I wrote up in longhand on a notepad but I don't have it with me, having used the notepad to try to map out our new kitchen. So instead of trying to recall it, I'm just going to copy/paste here an e-mail I sent to my homies Bryan and Judd back home, with some stuff edited out of it. I was in a pretty expansive mood when I wrote it and I think it captures an hour in the life pretty well. Hope y'all don't mind.

[begin paste]
Ordinarily, in another, former life, I'd be calling y'all at the shop around this time: Friday afternoon, with the workday slinking away--no point in starting some new project this late on a Friday--and the sun is out and with a clear blue sky promising cold beers and warm evenings and a few laughs. Instead of a phone call, though, this time I'll send a post card, a snapshot. But while most postcards detail vacations and sights and monuments and castles and works of art, this one is of nothing special, really, just an hour of a life that is becoming everyday.

Around lunchtime I check today's menu at the cafeteria, and though the choice of boeuf mode aux carottes or filet du colin au citron is fairly appealing, I decide fresh air and sunshine are more appealing. I nod at the security guys, scan my badge and wait for the iron gate to roll open.
From there it's a quick right, past a butcher shop and a chocolatier and a tabac-presse, down the block with its incongruous Domino's Pizza (delivery scooters parked out front) to Place Albert Courtois, a large open square with a carousel and a small bandshell and flocks of pigeons that rise and wheel in a gray cloud as I walk through their midst. There are benches here, and at least two games of petanque going on--from idle observation I've gleaned that it's a bit like horseshoes, only played with heavy, metallic balls tossed underhand with backspin toward a red target ball, and played exclusively by men over 50. Cafe Autretemps, on the corner, has tables spilling into the square, and sunlight sparkles in wineglasses and Evian and white table linens. It's nice but too expensive to include in the regular lunch rotation. I cross the square to a sandwicherie, its glass display counter serving as its front wall along the sidewalk, and order a jambon-et-fromage with frites and a Kronenbourg; five Euros twenty. A few extra napkins in the bag, and I cross to the Maison Lumieres. The Lumieres were a family that made their fortune in the late 19th century in the production of photographic plates and equipment, and their palatial house dominates the square with its Edwardian turrets and towers. The former gardens are now a public park, and here I stake out a spot under a tree to spread out my lunch. The gardens are otherwise full of French high school girls on lunch break from the ecole down the street, and the air is bright with their laughter.

To my left is a museum: it seems that the brothers Lumiere, favored with that lucky combination of idle time, scientific curiousity, and resources enjoyed by few but the rich, used their knowledge of photographic materials and techiniques to devise a method of taking photographic images as quickly as the eye can process them, printing them, and displaying them. Using this method, they photographed workers leaving their father's factory one afternoon in 1895, right over there behind where those girls are sunbathing [at this point a drop of sweat appears on my brow], and the motion picture was born.

The sun is warm, the beer is cold, and it's a surprisingly good sandwich. Even the most mundane food here is remarkable: the ham more hammy, the cheese more cheesy, the bread a baguette slashed lengthwise while still warm from the boulangerie. I read intermittently through a few pages of a Paul Auster novel, having just found an English bookstore downtown a few days ago. All too soon it's time to ball up my napkins and wax paper and head back; I'm allowed two hours for lunch but have things I'd like to get done this afternoon.

Instead I kill time and type out an e-mail to my friends back home.

Cheers to Friday.
[end paste]

Here are some unrelated photos; the first is at a Lyonnaise bouchon somewhere in Vieux Lyon (the old city), and the second is from Fourviere, right next to the cathedral. Be sure you click on it to see the details...the old tower in the foreground is at one corner of Place Bellecour, just out of frame; the four modern towers beyond that are on the opposite bank of the Rhone. I wish I knew enough Alpine geography to tell you which mountains those are, but you can see there's still quite a bit of snow on them (this was taken just after we arrived, in late March).

Thursday, May 18, 2006

More on the New Place

Tomorrow we'll sign the papers, do the inspection, and get the keys to our new apartment. I'll be glad when it's a done deal, not just because of the apartment itself but also beacuse it means we can have our things delivered, and because it means we'll have a permanent address so we can sign up for cell phones, internet access, and terribly important things like video rental memberships and a library card.

Anyway, I promised details on the apartment, so here they are. It's four bedrooms, has a newly renovated kitchen and bathrooms, parquet floors throughout, marble fireplaces, etc. This picture is of one end of the master bedroom, which has two doors opening onto the balcony.

Here's what things look like from the balcony on a rainy April afternoon, looking south (click to embiggen any of these photos). This is one of the city's main thoroughfares, enough so that we'll be able to watch the start of the Lyon Marathon from here, or Olympique Lyon's victory parade if they should happen to win the championship again next year. It's fairly lively at night--this was one of our only concerns about the place--but our height above street level and the fact that no motor vehicles are allowed should keep things somewhat quiet. Plenty of cafes, restaurants and astonishingly expensive boutiques within easy reach. V. has already noted the locations of Louis Vitton and Hermes on our same block, should we need a scarf on short notice.

If you looked left from here, north along the street, you'd see the fountains and carousel of Place de la Republique, and beyond that a slice of the Rhone.

This is in the living room; the door at left is the one at the corner of the building, seen in the previous post.

One is asked not to use the fireplaces, due to the danger of burning down the entire UNESCO World Heritage area. Also I'm not sure where you'd get firewood, anyway, short of sawing down a plane tree on the quais du Rhone.

Here are our neighbors across the way. The clock tower at the extreme left is at Hotel-Dieu, the ancient (but still operating) hospital where Nostradamus once worked and Napoleon was once treated during his abortive return to power.

Anyway, if all goes well and we get the keys tomorrow, I'll spend most of the weekend shopping for the basics to put in it--we'll need essentially the entire kitchen, for starters. We'll need a French (SECAM) TV and DVD player at some point as well, and probably a portable plug-in air conditioner.

It looks like I'll have to do all the shopping myself: When V. went back to the OB/GYN on Tuesday, the OB said "uh-oh", which is not something you want to hear with your feet in the stirrups. Apparently she's experiencing pre-labor about a month early, and her cervix is actually already slightly dilated. She's been ordered (sentenced?) to bed rest for the next two weeks. We immediately hired a part-time nanny to come look after Boog for a few hours on weekday afternoons, and to cover in case we need to go to the clinic in a big hurry.

Interesting tidbit: If you're an obviously pregnant woman in France, a cab driver won't take you anywhere if you're carrying an overnight bag, for fear of having to clean up baby goo in the backseat. So one goes emptyhanded to the hospital, then when there's a break in the action Dad hoofs it home to pick up the suitcase.

I secretly fear the early labor may have been brought on by the walking we did last weekend, when we went for a Mother's Day picnic up the Saone at the old monastery at Ile Barbe. I'll post some pics when I remember to upload them...but I got a lotta other things on my mind right now.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Our Dee-Luxe Apartment in the Sky

Well, it's not ours yet, pending a big stack of paperwork and the forking-over of a large amount of Euros, but we hope to move in in the next two weeks.

That's it in the picture; the top floor is ours (not the whole floor, just the part you can see in the frame).

More details to come later, but right now it's 5:30 Friday and I'm tired of sitting in front of a computer.

So bon week-end, y'all.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Things the French Don't Do, Vol.2

Pooper Scoopers

My first day in Lyon, back when I was interviewing, I dropped of my luggage and immediately went out for a walk, trying both to reset the biological clock and make the most of the limited free time I had available. I walked a block from the hotel to Place Bellecour and breathed it all in: The cathedrals, the mansard roofs, the cafes, the statues...and the reek of dogplop I'd just dead-centered with my right shoe.

People here love their dogs, right? Not only do they bring their dogs into fancy restaurants, the dogs receive more attentive service than your typical anglophone diner. There are dogs on the Metro, the bus, and the tram, even though this is theoretically interdit. Part of this undying love of dogs is the belief that they have the right to drop their precious little brown business anywhere they want, even if--especially if--it's the middle of the sidewalk.

There are efforts afoot (heh) to convince people to at least usher Fifi to the gutter when the tail starts to wag in that certain way (see picture). But the overall solution is very French: create a government sub-agency whose taxpayer-funded responsibility it is to come clean up the poop once a week. On our street, it's Sunday when the guys in green jumpsuits come to cart off the turds to...wherever they take them. By the following Saturday, though, pedestrians are demonstrating the strange skipping walk of the Frenchman who's learned to subconsciously avoid the piles of reprocessed Purina. I've picked up some of this skill myself; the trick is to use your lower peripheral vision to continuously scan the sidewalk for dark patches. There are false-positives when you find yourself skipping left to avoid a fallen leaf, for example, but on the whole it works pretty well.

Boxer Shorts
Or maybe I'm just shopping in the wrong stores (like Banana-Hammocks-R-Us).

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Few Things I Should Mention

So, you may have asked, howcum no pictures of V. or Boog or anyone else on this blog? And second, how's the new job going, anyway?

Well, a couple of things: Apparently becoming a mother makes one acutely aware of all sorts of evil that lurks out there in the world, for V is now an expert on the horrific fates that befall those who are, fr'example, unwise enough to put pictures of their children on their blogs (or even mention their real names). This is apparently an open-house invitation for kidnappers, slavers, pornographers, etc. I personally think that's a little hysterical, but V does tend to be right about most things, if over-cautious when I tend to be over-casual, and besides, I said I wouldn't.

So if you want pictures of Boog you'll have to wait for the Christmas card.

As for the job... blogging about your work is just asking for trouble. If you wanna hear me bitch about my job, you'll have to e-mail me. And even then I probably won't.

Still with me? Ok. Here, apropos of nothing, is a picture of a guy doing tai chi (I think) at the park. In the middle of the lake is an island mostly occupied by a massive memorial to the sons of Lyon who died in World War I. There's a marble statue of six 30-foot-tall naked guys carrying a coffin, and a wall running most of the circumference of the island, with the names of the dead inscribed in alphabetical order. There are a lot of names. Somber vibe nothwithstanding, it's a very tranquil place to sit and rest awhile in between train rides or soccer games, and watch the boats glide across the lake.

This guy was running through his entire routine, about 15 minutes, while his wife/trainer/publicist/whatever filmed him. When he finished, there was spontaneous applause from the other 15 or so people who had gathered, like me, to sit on the steps and watch idly. He seemed surprised, as if he hadn't noticed at all that there was anyone there.

(Dunno why the sky and water are so dark in the second was taken seconds before the third one.)

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Travels with Boog in the Monts d'Or

At Auchan (the French Wal-Mart, more or less) the other day I found a book titled 40 Walks Near Lyon... except in French of course. Of these only two are reachable via public transportation, unfortunately, but with a long weekend and some really nice weather, Boog and I set out on Sunday to go kick around the Monts d'Or, just north of town and just within reach of the bus system. It was as pleasant a ride on a public bus as I can recall, 7 or 8 miles north of town along the right bank of the Saone, past farms and rowing clubs and riverside cafes and small towns, to the village of St.-Romain-aux-Mont-d'Or. It's really just some stone houses around a village square next to the river, with some sunken lanes (see pic) leading steeply up to farms and villas clinging to terraces on the hillside.

We hiked around for several hours, easily the farthest I've ever hiked with Boog under his own power, up the mountainside and back down, with a break in a grassy meadow for a brief siesta and a juicebox. It was the first time since we've been here that we've really been out of town, and it was nice to be out among trees and forest, even if there's no place in France one would really call wilderness. Here are a few pictures.

The sign says (approximately): "Salamander breeding ground: Do not disturb them!" It was over a stone cistern--helpfully dated 1895-- where a spring trickled from a hillside. Sure enough, it had salamanders in it.

This is looking back across the valley of the Saone. Mountains in the distance are the Jura, not the Alps, since this is facing northeast. Tall buildings in the right distance are apartment blocks in the Lyon suburb of Caluire.

The smudge in the left foreground is Boog's noseprint.

I don't even know what this is a picture of... chateau, train station? This was on the way back into St. Romain, where the trail popped out of the woods above some expensive-looking houses.