The Frogmarch

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

I Bet This Doesn't Happen Much In Your Town

Saturday morning, the Pont Wilson bridge near our place was closed to traffic, the underground parking garage vacated, and the riverbanks on both sides cordoned off... as the Gendarmerie bomb squad raised an unexploded 1100-pound bomb from the Rhône under the bridge.

[pic not mine; copied from LyonPlus]

What was originally believed to be a dud Allied aerial bomb turned out to be one of the bombs planted on the bridge by the Germans as they skipped town in '44. The other explosives on the old bridge did the trick, and this one fell unexploded into the river in a pile of rubble.

The tall apartment building in the center background of the top photo is caddy-corner across Place de la Republique from our building. In other words, we've walked right over the top of this huge high-explosive device a couple hundred times. Geeesh! Step lightly... Actually, according to the Le Progres article, there was no danger since the detonator had long since deteriorated in the course of its 63 years underwater.

Armed with the knowledge that the bomb would be raised Saturday morning, I headed to the bridge with my camera in hopes of getting some interesting snaps, but as the bomb squad had started work at first light, by the time I wandered out at about 10AM, everything had been cleaned up and there was only this lonely dive boat looking for--I dunno, maybe any other half-ton bombs no one had noticed.


As I write this, the local ambulance-drivers unions are on strike. Strikes are not at all uncommon in France, as you may know, and this would hardly even bear mention except that they have chosen to demonstrate by an "operation escargot" in which huge lines of ambulances drive v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y through the main streets of town. Including the one my office is on. Which means that right now there are about 100 ambulances driving by at 5mph with their blue lights flashing and their sirens going full blast. If it were even possible to think, I'm sure I would be particularly disinclined toward sympathy for the ambulance drivers' grievances.

Also, every dog in the 8th arrondissment is going completely insane right now.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Sarko on 60 Minutes

When I was back in the States this summer, a lot of people asked me, "So what's this Sarkozy cat all about?" Here's a piece from 60 Minutes (13-min video here) that tries to get to that. Worth your time if you're interested in French politics.

It's interesting to note that most French people would regard Sarko's stomping out of the interview--when gently questioned about his then-happening divorce--as perfectly appropriate. Though l'affaire Sarko is front-page material here ("Why She Left Him!"; "Cécilia Turns the Page"; "The Other Man: Who Is He?"; etc.), the personal lives of politicians are off-limits in French interviews. Still, expect him to be savaged in the pages of the next Le Canard Enchainé, the political news weekly whose satire mostly goes right over my head.

[caption: "From now on, Sarkozy will no longer show his personal life...". That's a wicked caricature of de Villepin on the carpet in front of him.]

What the video does provide, though not explicitly, is a more nuanced view of why the French call him Sarko L'Americain: Not simply because, as the American media interpret it, he loves America and values hard work, freedom and opportunity... but because he's also arrogant, self-obsessed, and quick to anger.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

More Video... With Narration This Time

Here's another quick video clip, this one taken at the Parc des Hauteurs, a smallish overlook park I've posted pictures of before.

There are some unusual sculptures there, including a group of stainless-steel chairs bolted into the ground. This was shot on a quiet Sunday morning a month or so ago. Enjoy my clunky on-the-fly French translation and some rad lens-flare.

One of these days I'll get to posting videos that I've actually edited, once I can get my video-editing suite to run without crashing my computer.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sneaking Out for a Quick One

Despite the paradigm-shifting implications of the adoption of the euro currency throughout Western Europe, the increase in open-skies agreements and the proliferation of low-cost airlines in Europe is doing as much to transform Europeans in social terms. When you can fly between cities throughout Europe for as little as 20 euros each way, that makes a weekend trip to another country a perfectly reasonable and affordable thing to do. If I were a single guy with time on my hands living here in Lyon, I'd be exploring a new city pretty much every other weekend. And lots of people do--which explains how I happened to run into, completely at random at London Stansted, the woman whose office is next to mine in Lyon.

[Photo: Lyon St. Exupéry airport, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava]

Of course, when you multiply that price by four to take the whole family, then factor in transportation to the airport (it costs €20 to take the shuttle to the airport, or €60 by cab), then double everything for the round trip, and when you take into account the hassles of air travel these days (especially if, heaven forfend, you end up in Heathrow) and the general difficulty of traveling with small children, then you'll see why we don't take often take such advantage.

But we did sneak off for a week in England's Peak District, arriving back last night. (More on that trip coming soon.) And as much as I like the ease and speed of traveling by TGV train within France, that trip got me thinking again... Dublin? Bucharest? Rome? Copenhagen? Lisbon? Marrakech? All reachable by direct flights on low-cost carriers from Lyon.

[photo: St. Exupéry interior. Is it odd to name an airport after a guy who died in a plane crash?]

If there was ever any doubt as to whether or why Europeans are more well-traveled and internationally aware than Americans, the ever-increasing ease of intra-European travel should put that to rest. As for me, I'll be brushing up on my Italian. And Spanish. And Portuguese...

[photos not mine, shamelessly stolen off web]

Friday, October 12, 2007

Now With Video! (Maybe.)

Test post of Blogger's newish "Add video" feature. This is just raw footage of a short walk up the side street near our place, from Place Jacobins... passing a Lyonnaise bouchon, a reputedly-good Chinese restaurant we haven't bothered trying, and a local dive bar with sidewalk tables, before turning onto Rue de la Republique.

Lemme know how this works out on your end (Dad, you probably don't want to try this over dial-up).

Oddities & Entities

Errr...long delay between posts there; sorry about that. I have a whole lot going on right now, both at work and at home, and it's hard to get a few minutes to deliver the type of hard-hitting thought-provoking half-hearted dreck you've come to expect from The Frogmarch.

Anyway, another French healthcare anecdote: V took Tater to the doctor the other week for his next round of immunizations. While she was there, she mentioned to him that she had been having recurring headaches that just didn't seem to go away. Now, there could be any number of reasons for her to be having headaches, from lack of sleep to stress to food allergies right up to the really scary stuff ("glioblastoma multiforme" just popped into my head)(that was an oncology joke; chuckle ghoulishly). In the US, your primary care provider would probably give you a few things to try, prescribe some pain meds, and if nothing resolved would get you an appointment with a specialist, who would try to rule out some things, etc, etc.

But this being France, V's doctor wrote her a scrip for a spiral CT scan. I made the appointment at the hospital's radiology center, and we were in and out in 30 minutes with a DVD-ROM in hand showing minute slices of the inside of V's brain, thankfully certified free of gliomas and aneurysms and subdural hematomas and other nightmare fuel.

Then I got the bill the other day. It was (pause, deep breath while opening the envelope)... 42 euros.


I've been collecting a list of strange little quirks about everyday French life as they strike me, and while none of them are especially remarkable on their own, together they illustrate how life in a different culture can vary in ways you never expected, and in more ways than you ever expected.

Take writing a check, for example. You do it every day (or maybe every few weeks when you realize you haven't paid any bills recently), and how different can the process be in a foreign country? Well, a check from a French bank has an extra line on it: the first is the amount, written out in words; the second is the "pay to the order of" line, and the third line reads "Fait à:"which literally can mean either "Made at" or "Made to". This puzzled me the first time I wrote a check; I had just written on the previous line whom the check was Made To! It turns out that in France legal documents are traditionally signed by including the name of the place the document was completed. So most of my checks say "Fait à Lyon", which now has become habit for me, enough that I mistakenly put Lyon on my checks even when we're in, say, St. Paul de Vence.

Oh yeah, and there's no signature line... one just signs anywhere. Which I often forget to do because there's no visual reminder.

On more thing: the checks are numbered... but the numbers are not sequential. Madness!


Two French abbreviations you've probably never encountered, and which probably took me too long to figure out:

I kept seeing the letters "A+" at the end of informal e-mails from French colleagues. What the hell? Am I being graded on the quality of my correspondence? It makes more sense if you read it out loud en français: "Ah ploo." Which happens to be the first two syllables of the expression "à plus tard", or, "see you later".

Along the same lines, if you're going to express the overwhelming depth of your love for someone by spraypainting his/her name on an overpass or carving it into a park bench, the accepted method is to precede the beloved's name with the letters "JTM". Which is read aloud as Je t'aime.


Office supply oddities:

If I were the type of person to steal office supplies, I might be tempted to swipe a lifetime supply of French folders. These sturdy cardboard envelopes, besides having flaps at the top and bottom of the page to keep your stuff from sliding out the ends, have nifty elastic loops that slip over the open corners of the folder to keep everything shut and secure. You could put a 100-page manuscript in one of these, slip the loops over the corners, and fling the whole thing out the window (in fact, I often do), and when you changed your mind and went downstairs to pick it back up, you'd find everything unharmed and in perfect page order.

But don't get me started on two-hole-punch ring binders. Three holes and three binding rings are how [$deity] intended for our loose-leaf notebooks and technical manuals to be assembled. The rings shall not number two, unless that number is immediately followed by three. Four is right out.


Soixante-neuf, le department erotique: Back in the Revolution, along with adopting the metric system and the somewhat-less-useful metric calendar, the visionary founders of La Republique Francaise decided to devide France into administrative départments, with the list of 100 being alphabetized and each department assigned a sequential two-digit number. Hence Ain is 01, Aisne is 02, etc. On French automobile license plates, the last two digits of the plate number are the department in which the car is registered. I believe the sole purpose of this is that when someone cuts you off on the autoroute, you can spot the "75" on the plate and curse those damned idiot Parisian drivers.

These department numbers can be symbols of local/regional pride or identity, somewhat analogous to area codes in the US (I'm reppin' tha 9-1-9, knowhumsayin', yo?).

Lyon is in the Rhône department, which due to its place in the list is number 69. Now, "69" has the same sexual connotation in France as it does elsewhere. Still, this doesn't seem to discourage its use--note that calling a phone number listed as "69 Hotline" is unlikely to result in heavy breathing unless the switchboard operator at the departmental prefecture is having a particularly bad day. I've also seen 69 Lubrification (an oil-change shop), Hot Jobs 69 (local employment listings) and 69 Seniors (I didn't ask). And it can be a little jarring to see a 10-year-old girl in a t-shirt with a big "69" on it.


I think I mentioned in a post in praise of the Lyon Public Library that they have a significant collection of books in English, although novels are grouped by country of origin. That is, in the fiction department there is a section marked Etats-Unis, which has all books by American authors, regardless of whether they are in English or have been translated into French.

Take a look at your nearest bookshelf. Look at the spines of the books: see how the titles are printed to be read from top to bottom (i.e., rotated 90 degrees right)? In reading the titles of a shelf fullof books, you tilt your head to the right. Well, titles of French books are rotated 90 degrees left. Why? I dunno--it means that if a book is lying flat on a table, the title on the spine is upside-down. But in looking at a bookshelf full of mixed French and English titles, your head flops back and forth like you were Janice from the Muppets.

I am probably the only person in the world bothered by this.


Rock, paper, scissors...well?
You know the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors--used as a method to determine who buys the first round, who goes first, who has to ride in the center of the back seat on a road trip, etc. The French version of this game includes a bizarre twist: the addition of a fourth sign, the "Well", made by making a vertical fist with a "hole" in it, like you were pulling an invisible door handle.

The well drowns the scissors and the rock, but can be covered by the paper. Think about that for a minute: in the classic R/P/S game, each sign is equally powerful, being superior to one of the others and inferior to one of the others. But adding another means that two signs (the Well and the Paper) are each superior to two of the others (Well beats Scissors and Rock; Paper beats Rock and Well), creating a hierarchy, or class system if you prefer, of haves and have-nots. Thought-provoking commentary on the inequalities of the capitalist system, or maddening twist merely to be difficult?

The effect on strategy is profound: Since Well beats two of the three others, it is the obvious choice to begin with. Of course, that is exactly what your opponent will be thinking, which is why you must begin by throwing Paper. Of course, knowing this, your opponent will throw Scissors, so of course Rock, lowly Rock which only beats one other, is the only logical play. Unless your opponent anticipates this and opts for Well, in which case...



Monday, October 01, 2007


We hit the street at 7:30 sharp, Boog and I, he with his Lightning McQueen book bag and me with my briefcase. Rue de la Republique is wet underfoot, thanks to the street cleaners who have just finished up here and moved their hoses across Place Bellecour to Rue Victor Hugo. A flock of pigeons flutter and fight for the scraps left by the just-emptied garbage bins outside Quickburger, then burst into the air to avoid the delivery truck pulling up to the Pomme de Pain boulangerie cafe. Boog jumps a gutter puddle, and we pull up short to avoid being run down by a kid riding a scooter in the bike lane.

[Pic: sunrise over Lyon, from Notre-Dame de Fourviere]

The free-newspaper guys at the Metro entrance are different from last year (as everything begins anew in September, at the end of vacances) and they don't know yet that I only want one paper. Non, merci, je veux seule l'un. Merci bien, et passez une bonne journee. Boog scans his pass himself and the gate zips open and zips closed, and for a second we're separated by the glass doors in a busy Metro station, and I have a brief nightmare scenario of my pass not working--and then the gate zips open for me and we're waiting on the southbound quai for Perrache.

[Pic: Morning light through trees, Parc des Hauteurs]

On the Metro, Boog continues his running narrative as five-year-olds do. Would you believe George's Marvelous Medicine made his gramma's head stick out through the roof? And her feet were in the living room? And Mr. Cranky had to get a crane to pull her out? Look, there's the orange Metro at Ampere. French people don't dote on kids overly much, but for some reason they find a little kid chattering on in English to be hilarious. Behind my head an advertising poster en anglais reads "Change Your Life! Speak English... Wall Street English!"

At Perrache, terminus, the metro car empties and we sweep with the crowd upstairs into the central hall, where the bus station is and where escalators connect with the train station. Perrache station is a 1970's nightmare of mouldering concrete, questionable architectural decisions, decrepit stores and wandering bums, like a Detroit strip mall left for dead. However, thanks to the boulangerie across from the bank of ATMs and instant-coffee machines, it smells heavenly, at least in the corner where the gate for the Number 8 bus is. A red LED digital clock reads 7:44.

[Pic: Chairs, Parc des Hauteurs]

On the 8 bus, we see many of the same people--a schoolgirl of maybe 10, a young mother with stroller, two of the older highschool-age kids from Boog's school. Boog sits by the window as the bus winds through the freight depots and abandoned warehouses of the lower end of the peninsula, a neighborhood left behind when the new, modern shipping port opened downriver outside of town. Already in this newborn day the prostitutes have taken up their positions along Cours Charlemagne, shivering in miniskirts with hands jammed in pockets of zip-up sweatshirts, backs against a concrete wall and faces seeking some warmth from the morning sun. Boog counts cargo vans at the rental center (I counted fifteen today, Da-da!) and watches traffic rip along the autoroute towards Marseille.

Across the Saone river by Pont de la Mulatiere, the bus stops in front of a stone wall pierced by a railroad tunnel that passes through the Fourviere hill. Set into the wall is a plaque, similar in form to many, many others around Lyon, commemorating a spot where the Gestapo executed Resistance members during the war. (It is instructive that the French have a specific word, fusillee, that means "executed by firing squad".) In their last moments, backs to that wall, these men would have faced the sun rising over the Rhone valley and glittering over the confluence of rivers, seen the gleaming red tile roofs of the old city below, the same sunrise as I see it each morning. The people at the bus stop take no obvious notice of the plaque or the wilted flowers taped to the wall; they stamp out their cigarettes and shuffle aboard as the doors hiss open.

[Pic: Body shop garage door, St. Just]

Right at the gas station, up the steep hillside in a series of S-curves, the traffic in the other direction already starting to pile up--a stop near a lycee (high school), and most of the bus clears out, save for kids going along to Boog's school. They're speaking English, and I cannot help eavesdropping, as my ear is drawn to any English conversation, even in a crowd. These particular kids are seniors--Boog's school is K-12--and it's a little jarring to hear my son's schoolmates talk about drinking a few beers (quite legally at age 16) and watching rugby.

La Mulatiere is a wealthy suburb, with a commanding position on a hilltop overlooking Lyon, and smack in the middle of town is a rather incongruous collection of public housing projects with what must be superb views from the upper east-facing balconies. Arab grandmothers in headscarves pulling their poussettes de marche climb aboard, bound for the morning produce market. Across the street, an elderly woman sweeps the front stoop of her small cottage; she is as regular as clockwork, for I see her every day. Or perhaps she just takes a very long time to sweep her stoop.

We reach Boog's school at last, and he drags me up the driveway at a near-run as the 8 bus motors off toward St. Foy. There is a scramble of book bags and jackets and indoor shoes and good mornings and goodbyes (this being the one place in my day where conversations begin in English rather than French) and I hoof it back down to the bus stop as Boog troops upstairs with his class, mostly Swedish kids with names like Viggo and Sigrid and Morten.

[Pic: Bibenda in junk shop window, Vieux Lyon]

If I can catch the 8:23 bus back to Perrache, and if it makes it there in time for me to catch the 8:44 tram T2, I can relax leaning against the tram doors and read my paper, headphones jammed in ears, and be at my office right at 9:00.

But today is Monday, so none of that works as it should. I slink in at 9:20 and take the back stairs so no one notices.

The day begins.