The Frogmarch

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

Sunday, December 24, 2006


Lyon's Christmas season begins not the day after Thanksgiving but on December 8 with the Fete des Lumieres (Festival of Lights, not to be confused with that other one with dreidels and menorahs and whatnot).

Back when the cathedral Notre Dame de Fourviere was completed, a dedication ceremony was planned for December 8, with the Pope in attendance to smash a bottle of champagne on the altar (or something like that). A big storm blew in, causing cancellation of the festivities, but the people of Lyon, pumped to honor the Virgin Mary, who they credited with sparing Lyon the ravages Paris endured during the Franco-Prussian War--maybe they should have built a monument to Otto von Bismarck, but whatever-- spontaneously placed lit candles in their windows throughout the citmisery visited upon Paris during they. The storm wondrously abated, and the consecration went on as planned.

Since then, December 8 has been commemorated with the display of small candles in colored glass holders in Lyonnaise windows. In the 1990s, the city, seeing a nice tourism opportunity, decided to make a big deal out of it, and encouraged elaborate and creative light displays of the city's landmarks. The plan worked better than the city fathers could have dreamed, and now the Fete spreads over an entire weekend to accomodate the estimate three million visitors who swarm the Presqu'Ile to watch the shifting lights and drink vin chaud.

It gets pretty festive, I must say. The streets, which are closed to vehicles, are jammed with people, so much so that in the squares the cafe doors won't open outward. Restaurants set up stands to sell vin chaud (warm, spiced wine), crepes, and rosted chestnuts. This rainy night when I took these pictures didn't dampen spirits too much, thanks to the vin chaud.

And the light displays: I grew up in North Carolina, where"Christmas light displays" conjures images of plastic Santa Clauses, bass boats outlined in colored lights, and Nativity scenes overseen by 9-foot inflatable snowmen, not to mention huge traffic jams of people trying to get to McAdenville, NC, the mecca for those who get a bump in Christmas spirit from driving slowly through neighborhoods full of over-the-top displays and miles of lights.

Being French, however, the Lyonnais take this endeavor very seriously as a means of artistic expression. The results are sometimes remarkably beautiful and sometimes just plain Eurostrange [see jellyfish pic]. Think of the opening ceremony of any Winter Olympic games held in Europe and you'll get an idea of the aesthetic. "The dragonflies and bees projected on the facades represent an urban meadow, accentuated by red "flowers" of revolving lights that place the energy of the city within the relaxing context of the French countryside. I'm Bob Costas, and we'll be right back with the Parade of Nations, as the Winter Olympics continues on NBC."

Some of these pictures show the animated CGI show projected on the facade of the gothic Eglise St-Nizier, but don't really do justice to the way the animated gargoyles "climbed" the towers. (There's some video on the official site, here; click "video"). Pretty neat stuff, even for a jaded old hipster like myself.

If you want to see more pictures, a Flickr photo search will give you hundreds, most better than mine as they were not taken one-handed from under an umbrella while a baby in a sling chewed the photographer's shirt buttons.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Picture Someone Else Took Better

Congratulations, B. Ansellem, staff photographer for 20 Minutes Lyon (the best damn free newspaper jammed into my hands when I get on the Metro in the morning)!

Exactly how I would have done it, if I (1) had any idea what I was doing behind a camera, or (2) wasn't too chicken to take pictures of beggars on the street.

Here's what I wrote back in September:

"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 blurred by motion, while she remains in sharp focus."

B. Ansellem, I salute you. Sorry I had to cut & paste from a .pdf into MSPaint, then save as a jpeg.

More real content coming soon. Christmas rush + sick baby + deadlines at work = no time for blogging. Ever try to cram a 6-foot Christmas tree into the back of a rented Renault Megane? Didn't think so. No wonder the French tend toward these little shrimpy tabletop Charlie Brown trees.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Just Another Saturday on La Re

Saturday afternoon, Rue de la Republique. The bridge-and-tunnel crowd flood the neighborhood, window-shopping at Cartier and Minelli and FNAC. I'm puttering around the house, trying to find a way to hang a bike rack inside our one closet that's remotely large enough. V is nursing the baby and leafing through guidebooks, planning our next getaway; Boog is engineering train wrecks in his room. Then the distinctive sound of a megaphone cuts through the usual Saturday murmur coming from the street below. I take a look out the living room window.

Someone has just slaughtered an animal on the street.

What. In. The. Hell...?

I grab the binoculars (kept handy for just such occasions, and absolutely not for peeking in neighbors' windows at night) for a closer look. Wait, it's not a real animal--its legs stick straight out, stiff, and something about the head's not right [click photos for a better look].

"Gotta go, hon," I say, grabbing the camera on the way out the door. "Someone's butchering a goat or something on the street in front of Le Hippo."

"Mmmkay. Pick up a baguette while you're out. From the boulangerie by Printemps, not from Les Trois Brioches."

She's seen it all, this one.

Down on the street, I start to get the picture. There's a guy with a megaphone and a sandwich board [pic], and a handful of earnest-looking college kids handing out flyers as one squeezes the last drops of fake blood out of a garbage bag.

The "cow"-- I guess it's supposed to be a cow-- looks much less convincing from street level; just some cardboard boxes cut out and taped together [pics].

I pick an unobtrusive spot on the sidewalk, snap a few photos, and take in the spiel. The guy's argument goes something like this (en Francais):

"The breeding of animals in captivity for consumption is specie-ism [is that even a word in English?]! And specie-ism is just like racism! You wouldn't be racist, would you? Agriculture is torture!"

There are any number of compelling arguments for vegetarianism; this isn't one of them. And for the most part, the people aren't buying it. They step over the fake blood without breaking stride, except for some guys taking the opportunity to chat up the flyer girls (having learned, as I did in college during the Gulf War, that protest girls are easy if you seem righteous enough).

The manager from Le Hippo, a steak-and-burger place, comes out and tells megaphone man to get lost. Megaphone Man asserts his right to protest. Le Hippo agrees but points out that Megaphone Man should maybe exercise his rights somewhere else, like off the end of a short pier, or maybe in his mother's [couldn't translate this particular idiom]. Then les flics show up and ask Megaphone Man for his permit. Turns out he doesn't have one. No permit, no megaphone, the cop tells him. Flyers are OK, though, so long as you clean up this mess. Look, kids are playing in it over there.

So Megaphone Man packs up his megaphone in his shopping cart [pic], kids play in the artificial gore running into the sewer drains [pic], and Le Hippo continues grilling steaks.


Maybe it's the French love of theater, but street protests are very common here. There seems to be a march about every week, typically from Place Bellecour up Rue de la Republique to Hotel de Ville (city hall).

"What's it about this time?" V will ask as I lean out over the balcony and try to make out the banners or make sense of the chants.

A bunch of people in white lab coats. Looks like osteopaths, I'll say.

"Osteopaths? What do they want?"

They're against the relaxation of licensing requirements, I think. Or the Man keeping them down. Or a free Tibet, or something. [pic of march staging area, Place Bellecour]

Do any of these marches or "direct actions" (to use the activist-speak) make any difference? I don't know. The huge nationwide protests against the CPE laws were effective, and the ensuing stink seems to have seriously hurt Chirac and Villepin's party (the center-right UMP) with the presidential elections coming up.

But a lot of these protests seem like empty gestures--a couple hundred people parade around, the cops stand around looking bored [pic; the cop in the middle thinks I'm trouble], traffic gets tied up for a while, and everyone goes home to see if they got their picture in the next morning's Le Progres.

Still, everybody's gotta have a hobby, right?

There was another TCL (Lyon public transit)
strike last week, which shut down the local buses
and streetcars, and reduced the Metro to a skeleton service. The line running to Boog's
school was shut down, and as Boog and I hiked home in the cold rain I confess that I was not feeling particularly hospitable toward the transit workers union, and that they could in fact take their desired pay raise and shove it up their mother's [untranslatable idiom].

Nice that someone has faith in participatory democracy, though.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

What have you learned, grasshopper?

One year ago [from when I started writing this], on Thanksgiving Day 2005, I had my job interview here in Lyon. After the all-day series of interviews, I walked along the quais of the Rhone in front of the Hotel-Dieu (unknowingly, a block from my future apartment), smoked a cigar in a gentle falling snow and watched the lights of the Pont de L’Universite reflected in the dark river. What would happen?

Looking back, I could not have anticipated what has happened in the intervening year. Like my man Pat says (after taking a slug of Bushmills and poking at the fire with his boot), “Life keeps comin’ at ya.” Given how sharply my life has changed, how sharply has my life changed me? If living abroad is a learning experience, what have I learned? Let’s take a look.

French Language. Well, I have learned to speak passable French, and I can read French in only about twice as much time as it takes to read English. I still have trouble, though—I find it impossible to keep up in cocktail-party-type situations when more than one person may be talking at once, and V’s podiatrist doubtless thinks I’m a complete moron. Because of the breaking of the finger of the foot, one should not make the walking for not to make the bone sticky in not a line which is straight?

Wine. Oh yeah, I've learned about wine. I’ve toured vineyards from Chablis to the Beaujolais, tasted a hundred or more different wines since I’ve been here, and I even have a small “cellar” now (OK, it’s the bottom of the pantry closet). But you know what? My taste buds still suck. V will taste a glass and mention that it is well-structured and has notes of apples and honey. I’ll take a sip and say it tastes like…wine. Pearls before swine, I guess. But it is kinda cool to look at a wine label and say “Hey, I know where that is…up on the hillside north of town. Not far from the train station, and there’s a good restaurant on the way.”

Expanded gastronomic repertoire. Just like with wine, I’ve had much more exposure to fine food here (which should not in any way be interpreted as an insult toward Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen or Lexington Barbecue #1). I actually kind of like escargot, though I suppose that just about anything will become palatable if drenched in enough melted butter and garlic. Frog legs? Not terrible, but I don’t think I’ll ever go out of my way to order them. But know this: I will never again be intimidated by a fancy French restaurant in the US.

Exposure to foreign culture. You know, people actually pay money for those immersion programs in which they go and live in foreign countries for a while, just to experience different cultures and lifestyles and doing laundry and shopping at the market and so forth. They pay money for this. I remind V of that whenever she’s down on living in France, which is almost always.

Knowledge of the Rest of the World. They say Americans are too insular, too blind to what happens in the rest of the world. Know what? They’re right. The typical US news broadcast will tell you about a bus crash in Alabama, a fire at an apartment building, and (if you’re in California) a freeway chase. The comparable French broadcast will lead with a report from Kigali on the most recent Rwandan genocide allegations, and an analysis of the Ecuadorean elections. I’m not saying that one system is better than the other (in truth, the Ecuadorean elections affected my life equally as much as the Alabama bus crash; that is, not at all), just markedly different. So do I know more about the world than I used to? Well, maybe a little. It’s more that I’m more aware of how little I know.

Cancer. Thanks to my job, I know a lot more about cancer than I did a year ago. But only in very specific and entirely non-clinical areas, so y’all don’t come to me asking if you should get that mole checked out. I only know about which precursor genes and missense mutations are associated with squamous-cell sarcomas in Wistar-Hannover rats.

Empathy with US immigrants. Back in high school in Lexington, NC, I worked one summer at Kmart, in the Sporting Goods & Automotive department. From time to time, a group of 6 or 7 Latino guys would come in, mill around for a bit, nudge each other, and finally the one of them who spoke broken English would ask me where to find oil filter wrenches or dolly ramps or radiator stop-leak or whatever. Then he’d ask if I had valve stems for an ’86 F-150, and I’d have to explain that Kmart doesn’t carry anything that specific, and that he’d have to go to Advance Auto Parts for that. I’d always kind of roll my eyes at those guys—c’mon, you’re in America now, at least make an effort—but now I completely sympathize. Even after this much time in France, there are still a lot of situations in which I don’t fully understand what’s going on, I don’t have the vocabulary for anyone to explain it to me, and I’ve got my little immigrant clan looking to me for answers.

What else has changed? I’ve lost weight without exercising at all, because I walk everywhere. I sleep less than I used to, though I think that’s probably a result of having a new baby rather than a result of living in France. I have fledgling interests (and puddle-depth knowledge) in soccer and European history. Most importantly, I am now armed to bore the crap out of people with endless sentences that begin “When we were in France….”

[Unrelated pictures: Perouges, a mostly-rebuilt medieval town not far from Lyon. Pretty--Bill Clinton did visit there, though I can't verify that he scratched his name in the wall above--but perhaps over-restored and somewhat Disneyfied.]

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Don't Forget Your Scarf, Kids!

I don't think I even owned a scarf before I moved to Pittsburgh to go to college. Sure, North Carolina winters occasionally got cold, and we had snow once or twice a year, but a scarf was just one more thing to lose, and was always coming out of your jacket and getting snagged on branches, so I did without.

But the French...boy, do they love some scarves. The minute the temperature drops below 65, two out of three people on the street are wearing them. I'm serious--I've seen people waring scarves over short-sleeve t-shirts. The affluent ladies wear fancy Hermes numbers, men in suits have cashmere scarves color-matched to their pocket squares, sporty types have their Olympique Lyonnais scarves, and the hip college kids rock black-and-white kaffiyehs, like Bob Dylan on the cover of Blonde on Blonde [pic].

I have a cashmere-blend scarf that one of V.'s uncles gave me for Christmas some years ago, which is warm enough but won't really cut it fashion-wise. So I'm keeping my eyes open for a kaffiyeh source here in town. I'm sure one of the shops in the Arab neighborhoods could point me in the right direction...but I'm wary of looking like a poseur (Even though deep in my heart I know that's all I am). I'm also wary because wearing a kaffiyeh in a certain way is a political statement of solidarity with the Palestinians (think Arafat rather than Dylan); not that I'm anti-Palestine in general, but I'd just as soon stay out of that mess.

But all of this background is really just an excuse to run this picture [pic #2]. Go ahead and click on it so you can clearly see this guy, who is chilling perhaps as much as any individual not named Isaac Hayes has ever chilled. Note the carefully arranged scarf, the bike leaning with studied casualness, the faithful dog patiently waiting, the fresh copy of Le Monde...and, oh yeah, the fifteenth-century Chateau Epoisses he's living in. This was around eleven on a Monday morning. Man oh man, the rich are different from you and me.

Unless you've got a tennis court just inside your battlements, right next to the stables [pic 3]. These pics are from our Vezelay trip, which I swear I'll get to posting's just that I took a billion pictures and Boog is bugging me to get off the computer so we can go do something before Mama wakes up and spoils our fun.