The Frogmarch

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

Friday, April 27, 2007

Satori in Paris

One of my favorite movie cliches is that, in any interior scene set in Paris, the Eiffel Tower is always visible through a window. It's great cinematic shorthand (my other favorite is that in any cop movie, when the detective walks into a dive bar looking for information, the bartender is always, always drying glassware with a towel). It works because we all know Paris at some level. Even if we've never been there, we know--or think we know--a little bit about what it's like.

Those expectations can be dangerous, even clinically so; for example, there is Paris Syndrome, in which tourists (almost exclusively Japanese women), after planning and saving all their lives for a dream trip to Paris, find that it isn't exactly what they've been dreaming of, and unable to deal with this disconnect collapse on the crowded sidewalk outside Galeries Lafayette, surrounded by hordes of other tourists shuffling off their buses to file through what is after all just another overpriced department store staffed by pretty, vacant mannequins who don't happen to speak any Japanese.

Keeping with the Japanese theme, ol' Jack Kerouac (secret hero of these pages) called it satori, or "kick in the eye"--a Buddhist concept meaning sudden flash of insight or enlightenment. His book Satori in Paris, written in his fat-Elvis phase just before he drank himself to death while living in Orlando with his mom and trying hopelessly to live up to his own legend, is a disappointing drunken mess, and isn't very clear on what his satori actually was.

I won't bore you with descriptions of our travels in Paris. Many of you have already been to some or most of these places anyway. But I will offer this satori I experienced, one that should have been obvious now that I think on it:

Paris, rather than being the embodiment, the physical manifestation of all that is French, is actually the least French of all French cities.

Grown adults wearing shorts.
Women wearing comfortable shoes.
Not one but two American diners (we're going back on our next trip).
Actual high-quality Asian food (ditto).
Stores that stay open at lunchtime.
Stores that open at all on Sunday.
People who speak English even when you don't need them to.
Not a single person was the least bit rude, and some were even genuinely kind beyond what societal norms demand.

More thoughts to come when I get a minute to upload some pictures. Tonight unfortunately I have to go to Carrefour to get an extension cord, laundry stain remover, and tub & tile cleaner. Ah, glamourous France.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

We'll Always Have Paris (as a Backup)

I've lived in France for over a year now, and I've never been to Paris.

That seems very strange to most Americans, whose travels in France involve Paris almost without exception; it seems stranger to French people, for whom Paris is France in many ways.

Paris' importance to the country, going back to Louis 14th's massive centralisation program, cannot be overstated: It is Washington DC (government), New York (center of culture), and Boston (history) rolled into one, and you might as well throw in Philly for good measure. As with the American Northeast, apart from the opposite coast everything else is flyover country. It's where you go when you've made it, when you've left your dusty little hometown of Vacheamour-sur-Culterreux in your rearview. It's where the money is, where the people are, where it's at.

Oddly, I haven't been in a big hurry to visit--we've made two trips to Burgundy and three to Provence before we started thinking seriously about Paris. Apart from the big-time monuments and tourist attractions, many of the things Americans visit Paris for we have right here in Lyon.

Winding cobblestone streets? Vieux Lyon has more Renaissance buildings than all of Paris put together.
Hausmann boulevards? Um, I live on one. Next.
Outdoor markets? Yeah, done that, a couple of times a week.
Haute couture? My nearest mailbox is on the side of the Hermes store; my nearest ATM is next to the Dior boutique (I haven't set foot in either place and probably won't unless I do something very very wrong and V demands restitution).
Fancy restaurants? Lyon's a better foodie town, and any Parisian will tell you that.

Sure, Paris has the Louvre... but with two small children I'm not going anywhere near that line. I'm saving up my kids-tolerating-a-lengthy-museum-visit karma for the Uffizi, anyway.

There's the Arc de Triomphe... but there's one in Orange that's the real deal, not a Napoleonic knockoff, and doesn't have 8 lanes of traffic screaming manaically around it.

La Tour Eiffel, bien sur... did I mention V doesn't like heights? Plus, oddly enough, Lyon's got one o' them, too.

No, we're going to Paris this weekend for two reasons:
Nursing bras and dim sum.

Explanation and some pictures to come when we get back. Happy Labour Day.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Election Addendum

I happened to have my camera with me as we were out for a Sunday-evening promenade along the newly-reopened Berges du Rhone (riverbanks) and snapped these photos of an official poster-display area on the back side of the Chamber of Commerce building. As I mentioned before, poster advertising is an important part of French politics because of the restrictions on TV and radio ads. Each candidate gets space for two large posters and a smaller card.

I believe the order of candidates from left to right mirrors the order in which they will appear on the ballot, rather than any sort of placement on the Left-Right political spectrum [pic showing Lefty Sego between Nationalist Righty Villiers and Right-Left-Hell-I'm-Goin-Fishin' Nihous].

Some of the lesser candidates try to cram everything they can about their platform onto the poster; others assume you know what they're about already and opt for the glamour shot and catchy slogan.

You can probably gauge a neighborhood's attitude toward a particular candidate by how quickly that person's poster becomes (literally) de-faced. I think the LePen posters come from the printer pre-defaced, with a Sharpied-on Hitler moustache at the very least. Sarkozy seems to fare poorly in Lyon [pic].

The other pictures are of the Berges du Rhone project, a city effort to revitalize the riverbanks-- which for years had been little but gravel parking lots--by building bike and walking paths, green spaces, playgrounds, splash fountains [pic], a skate park [pic], and some big sections of nothing but terraced benches for sitting in the sun. You can now walk all the way from Stade de Gerland up past Parc Tete d'Or, through Parc Feyssine, and clear out to Parc Miribel, a good ten miles or so.

There are also a good number of riverbank cafes open now, too--but not enough, since I didn't see a single open table as we walked along.

The city of Lyon seems to be pretty good at this sort of thing, the public-works project. There always seems to be something new opening up or breaking ground--new metro lines or tramways, underground parking decks, playgrounds, additions to the library, and so on--and they seem to be able to do it without the delays and cost overruns you see so often in the States. Perhaps that's an advantage of a socialist system (that's with a lowercase "s", though the city government is also dominated by capital-S Socialists); interestingly, I've never heard anyone complain about high taxes, the bete noir of a socialist system. It's unclear whether that's because the taxes actually aren't that high, or because people just aren't aware that taxes are lower elsewhere.

Or maybe I just hang out with people who work for international organizations and don't pay taxes. Maybe I should spend more time hanging out with the punters at the local PMU cafe (parimutuel, off-track betting) to hear the true cigarette-roughened voice of the average or slightly-less-than-average Frenchman.


Monday, April 16, 2007

Daniel Jay Poore, 1974-2007

Jay Poore was a preacher's kid from South Carolina. He was a student at UNC when I met him; I was just out of college myself. This is the only digital picture I have of him, taken by my buddy Luke at one or the other of the crummy houses we rented together in Chapel Hill in the 90s.

He loved books, music, and especially film; he was into David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Guided By Voices, Galaxie 500, Japanese anime, German expressionism and kung-fu flicks. He loved UNC basketball and Hurricanes hockey. He was a traveler, a thinker, a teacher, a husband, and for the last too-short months of his life, a father.

And he was my friend.

This all may well mean nothing to you, but here's why I'm posting this: When Jay's wife scattered his ashes on a mountaintop near their home in Seoul, Korea in February, I wasn't there, and neither were any of us--his homies, his boys. We didn't even know he had passed until this weekend. Listen, the communal processing that goes on at a funeral or memorial isn't easy, but it sure beats trying to deal with a close friend's death by sitting alone in a darkened room in France, listening to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on repeat and trying to choke down whiskey around the huge lump in your throat.

I hadn't seen Jay since his last visit to the States two or three years ago, and only exchanged e-mails with him once or twice a year. Neither his wife in Korea nor his parents in South Carolina knew how to contact his friends back in Chapel Hill.

So here's the point: keep in touch. Pick up the phone, or send an email. You don't need a reason; who cares if it's out of the blue. Life's too short to... no, fuck that. Life's just plain too short.

Life is too short.

We'll miss you, JP. See you at the Pipe show.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

An Ign'ant American's* Guide to the French Elections

[There are no longer any wallpapers featuring a famous Italian actress whose initials are M. B. linked from this page. There used to be one but for some reason it got to the top of the Google Image search list for that term, and 95% of my hits were coming from that. So I de-linked it. You horndogs will have to look elsewhere.]
[Yes, she is really hot, isn't she?.]

You know all about the French presidential elections coming up, right? Because the US media is dedicated to bringing you all the international news that affects your world, so long as it involves Anna Nicole Smith, Don Imus, or the latest Caucasian-woman-in-abduction-peril?

Well, you could argue that who wins the French presidency matters about as much to your life as who Anna's baby-daddy is, and you might have a point. But in case you want to impress people with your worldliness and wisdom at your next high-society cocktail party, here's a brief and bare-bones rundown of the key points and players.

The president is elected to a 5-year term through a two-step process: A first round of voting (April 22) determines the top 2 candidates, who then have a runoff (assuming no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, which doesn't happen these days) held on May 6.

Interestingly, even though the election campaigning and polling have been going on for over a year now, the official start to the campaign wasn't until Monday--which means that the candidates haven't been able to advertise on TV or radio, or by hanging posters (the traditional means of political advertising in France).

The Players:
There are 12 candidates this election from France's mishmash of political parties, including two Communist parties, two Workers' parties, the Huntin' and Fishin' Party (really), the Judean People's Front, and the People's Front of Judea. Only four of them really stand any chance of a double-digit percentage of the votes:

Nicolas Sarkozy, UMP (Union for a Popular Movement, center-right)-- Currently leads the polls. Sarko has cast himself as a rebel within his own currently-ruling party, now incredibly unpopular because of its handling of the riots, the Lebanon crisis, immigration and crime. As minister of the Interior, he has established a rep as someone who will do what needs to be done, damn the consequences. There have been murmurs of corruption (unproven) and abuse of power (such as using DNA testing to catch the guys who stole his son's scooter, a crime that usually only gets a shrug from police) about him; he's also taken a great deal of heat for his heavy-handed approach, which includes a promise to turn the hoses on demonstrators and very famously calling banlieue residents "racaille", which is usually translated as "scum" but which derives from the word for "scraping"--as in the bottom of the barrel. Recent voter-registration drives were very successful in adding many immigrants and suburban poor to the rolls, so it's unknown how well his poll numbers will hold up when the time comes. USA equivalent: Rudy Guiliani (without the 9/11 cachet).

Segolene Royal, PS (Socialist Party, center-left)--Sego was running neck-and-neck with Sarko until a series of public gaffes (like apparently not realizing that the Taliban no longer rule Afghanistan) gave the impression that her grasp of foreign policy matters was tenuous at best and Bush-like at worst. Still, she's charismatic, photogenic (like Barack Obama, she's not afraid of being pictured in a swimsuit, and she was voted #6 in a French men's magazine poll of sexiest women, ahead of such stellar examples as [Italian actress whose initials are M.B.] ... I demand a recount), and a snappy dresser; the possibility of a first woman president of the Republic is appealing to some. She feels your pain and is regarded as strong on social and domestic issues, but is she too much of a lightweight for the job? USA equivalent: A female John Edwards.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, FN (National Front, far-right)--In the last election, Le Pen pulled a stunner, outpolling PS candidate Lionel Jospin (USA equivalent: Michael Dukakis) to force the runoff with Chirac. Startled at the potential for a right-wing extremist to actually win the presidency, the various parties of the left threw their support behind Chirac to ensure his win. Could he do it again? This time around, the anti-immigrant FN has been reaching toward unlikely bases of support: immigrants who want the door slammed behind them and are sick of crime and unemployment in their neighborhoods. [See poster of a distinctly brown young lass giving the thumbs-down to the majority parties; text translates as "Right, left--they're all busted."]. The polls don't show a huge groundswell of support for Le Pen, but polls have always understated his support, probably because people don't want to admit to even poll-takers their support for an open racist. USA equivalent: David Duke, with a little Lyndon Larouche.

Francois Bayrou, UDF (Union for French Democracy, center-right)--who is this guy? He's not any of the above people, and that's probably the reason for his current solid poll numbers. Presenting himself as the third option for those sick of the UMP/PS stranglehold on the government, he's pushed ahead of Le Pen as the likely recipient of the "protest vote". The question is, whose support will he be siphoning? His political stance is not as well-known as that of the others, and close inspection of his generally centrist platform includes some head-scratchers (France should boycott the 2008 Olympics? The European Union is "the most beautiful construction of humanity"?). USA equivalent: A less-nutty Ross Perot...he's even got goofy ears.

The X-factor: The huge fraction (35-40%!) of poll respondents who consider themselves undecided. That's right, "undecided" leads all candidates. You've got a week and a half, people...better make some decisions.

So there you go--informed, insightful analysis from someone who doesn't speak French all that well, doesn't watch a lot of TV and usually skips over the Politique section in the local paper. If you want actual, you know, credible information, the International Herald-Tribune is a good English-language source.

*refers to the author, not you, Dear Reader.

Friday, April 06, 2007

"You Call This a Soccer Riot?"

I've probably mentioned this before, but the local soccer team, Olympique Lyonnais (OL), is kind of a big deal here. Despite having historically been a mediocre club, without the cachet or history of Paris St. Germain (PSG) or Olympique Marseille, they've won 5 straight French-league titles and may have clinched a sixth by the time you read this. Think 1990s Chicago Bulls in terms of their dominance of the rest of the league.

Goalkeeper Gregory Coupet [pic, not mine], a local Lyon boy, has a high-school stadium named after him and a line of boys' sportswear; midfielder Juninho--a Brazilian, only uses one name--you know those guys are good--is devastating on free-kicks (impressive video even if you don't like soccer) and is on half the billboards in town. OL players make up about half of the French national team.

So almost by default I've become a follower of Les Gones, as they are nicknamed (it means "the kids" in Lyonnais slang, kind of like how the Montreal Canadiens are "Les Habitents"). It's a stretch to say I'm a hardcore fan but I do try to catch their games when they're on TV. One of these days I'm planning to take Boog down to Stade de Gerland [pic, not mine] and take in a match in person--tickets cost a little less than an NFL game back home, and they're relatively simple to obtain for the lower-profile matches.

As a side note, the broadcast rights to French-league matches are held by Canal+, which means that the Saturday games are exclusively on that premium channel or its subsidiary Sport+. This is roughly equivalent to having the NFL broadcast only on HBO, and means that a lot of people unwilling to pay 50 euros a month on top of their cable bill pile into bars to watch the games.

Anyway, last weekend Lyon played Girondins Bordeaux in the final of the Coupe de France, and the city erected a big screen in Place Bellecour so fans could watch. After getting the kids to bed I headed down the street to watch.

The mood was mostly subdued, as Lyon's attack had been ineffective all game at penetrating Bordeaux's defence--the outmanned Girondins wisely pulled everybody back into the box to defend and only went forward on the counterattack. Despite a handful of chances, OL had failed to convert and the score stood 0-0 in the second half.

The crowd was not huge in Place Bellecour, as large numbers of fans had obviously chosen to watch at home (this game, part of a nonleague tournament, was televised on free TV) or actually go to the match at Stade de France in Paris (2 hrs by TGV), but there were a good number of people standing around drinking beer and watching the game.

Aside: One of my very favorite things about France is that there is no such thing as a public-consumption law. You can stroll into any store, buy a cold six of beer or bottle of wine, and walk down the street drinking it. You may sit in the park and drink your beer or wine. You may sit watching the river and drink your beer or wine. You may go get in your car and...well, maybe not. It is very civilized; no one will look at you as if you are a miscreant or troublemaker (unless, of course, you are in fact making trouble). You are merely enjoying life a l'exterieur, and your savoir-vivre is commendable. Only in America would consuming alcoholic beverages in public become a problem. What the hell is wrong with us?

Where was I? Oh yes, soccer: As the minutes of the secong half ticked down, it looked more and more like overtime was in the cards, or even penalty kicks if the overtime period failed to produce a goal. Then, in the 89th minute, Bordeaux suddenly had a corner kick in the Lyon end (wait, how'd that happen? I was watching the crowd) and before I had time to complete the thought I've got a bad feeling about this there's a perfectly-placed header and Coupet picking the ball out of the back of the net.

Two guys in the Bellecour crowd, Girondins no doubt, started going absolutely bonkers. People turned away in disgust, muttering. The crowd started to break up as people started wandering off. I looped around the edge of the crowd as the final whistle blew, noticing the security and unusual number of police gathering by the big screen.

Then people started throwing stuff.

Trash, bottles, whatever. I'm not sure if it was directed at the screen (showing the Bordeaux players hoisting the ribbon-bedecked tournament trophy) or at the cops, but as I was passing behind the screen at the time heading toward home, it suddenly became a little uncomfortable.

Discretion being the better part of valor, I valiantly ducked behind one of the big plane trees ringing Place Bellecour.

People were lighting flares now, which led to an interesting phenomenon: people getting away as quickly as possible, passing by people running toward the flares as quickly as possible [pic].

The flares poured smoke and illuminated everything with sinister red light [pic].

People started picking up the flares and throwing them. One came spinning out of the night sky, struck the branches above me, and fell at my feet next to a discarded Royale Cheese box, where it sputtered out and smouldered [pic, the flare looks like a discarded toilet-paper roll].

I watched the flare play for a while longer, but it looked like the situation wasn't going to evolve further, so I headed up one of the side streets parallel to Republique for the short walk home.

Coming up on the cross street, I realized I had unwittingly made the right decision: A phalanx of riot cops blocked the way, armed with shields and what I assumed were tear gas cannons (they looked like a cross between a leaf blower and a Ghostbusters accelerator backpack). I took a picture furtively, aimed from hip level--too furtively, as it was far too blurry and didn't come out.

But the cops let me pass without question (I suppose I looked pretty harmless) and I went inside, looking back over my shoulder at the mass of people who had begun to gather, chanting and lighting more flares.

Across the street from us, the staff at Haagen-Dazs brought in their outdoor tables and chairs in a big hurry.

By the time I got up to our apartment and out on the balcony, the crowd had started to set fire to trash cans, and smoke from the burning trash and the flares filled the street [pic].

At some point, the riot cops decided enough was enough, and deployed into lines crossing the street [pic; hard to see but the lines of people up the street are riot cops, and the yellow/red lights are fires]. The effect was immediate, someone must have yelled "gas!" because the chanting crowd immediately broke up and ran--seen from my high vantage point, it was like watching roaches scurry when the kitchen light comes on.

A few of them stopped below our apartment [pic], judging it a safe distance from the riot cops. They stood there for a few minutes, chanting something at the police, and took the time to light another trash can on fire [pic; that's what the four blurry guys in a circle are doing].

Interestingly, these particular youths were energetically waving an Algerian flag as they taunted the cops; there was definitely a sociopolitical subtext there, though unfortunately my inability to understand crowds shouting on an echoing street, coupled with my general cluelessness, prevented me from understanding exactly what that subtext was.

The police started to move up the street, and the fire-setters made a strategic retreat, leaving a burning trash can as they redeployed to the far side of the fountain in Place Republique, just out of sight of our balcony. A fire truck with a police escort crept up the street and doused the burning trash.

Thus ended the excitement, from my point of view, anyway. This little incident was very low-key as soccer-related disturbances go, not worth the label "riot". In fact, I found no mention of it at all in the next day's paper.

But it made me seriously rethink taking Boog with me to a match.

By the way, if this kind of thing interests you, I recommend picking up a copy of How Soccer Explains the World, a fascinating, thought-provoking read even if you don't care about soccer, and even if it does not in fact explain the world.


Oh yeah, we didn't go to Paris over the weekend; V got deathly sick and spent the whole 4-day weekend in bed. Still, we'll always have Paris as a backup--we're planning on going later in the month.