The Frogmarch

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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Croix-Rousse Street Carnival

The Croix-Rousse is a neighborhood on the north end of town, the traditional home of the Lyonnais silk industry. It was here that the famous silkworkers revolt ended in massacre, and today the area, the 4th Arrondisement, has a sort of hip cachet, not ritzy like the 6th, tourist-ridden like the 5th, or stuffy like our own 2nd. It's the type of place where a videogame designer might live in a converted silkworkers loft (coveted for their large light-admitting windows and high ceilings), and the type of place that might host the city's largest organic marché--which is why we go there, or at least V does, to buy organic veggies to make Tater Chow.

[First 4 photos: kids hanging out at a game booth; euro-drop game with a chance to win a Vespa (but don't hit the machine); a waiting row of Skil-Cranes; "When the horn sounds, watch out 'cause the ride's starting"]

Anyway, one week recently there was a street carnival there at Place de la Croix-Rousse, allegedly for something called the Fete des Marrons (Chestnut Festival), although there was no evidence of chestnuts except for the roast ones being sold by street vendors among the rides and carnival booths. Still, as you know, I love a carnival and the chintzier the better, so I took a few photos.

This kiddee-car ride [photo] had more copyright violations per square meter than anywhere outside the Taipei night market. I fully expect to get a C&D letter from Disney lawyers just for having taken this picture.

In the square here stands a statue of Joseph-Marie Jacquard, inventor of the eponymous loom perspectives be seen as a forerunner of the modern computer (it used punchcards to "program" that can from some complicated designs that otherwise would have to be woven by skilled artisans at great length and expense). Of course, by freeing the artisanal weavers from this difficult labor Jacquard was also freeing them from their means of making a living... which explains why, on this spot, an angry mob of his neighbors and former friends smashed the prototype loom he had put on display and chased him down the street. By about 1840, though, enough of the old hand weavers had died off (possibly of starvation) that Jacquard's invention was rightfully acknowledged as a pivotal moment in the Industrial Revolution... hence the statue [photo clumsily juxtaposing symbols of work and leisure, yada yada].

The brasserie in the background of this photo is one of the city's three brewpubs. The jungle cruise train ride is just a bonus.

It was miserably cold and a spitting rain was falling, which took away from the jungle ambiance somewhat.

Still, bumper cars, shifty games and snack foods made of fried dough and sugar add up to a good time in my book.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Dinde Day

Thanksgiving Day, and something of an anniversary for me--two years ago today I had my job interview here in Lyon. Of course France doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving, so I don't get the day off from work. So this makes my third straight Thanksgiving spent in this office building, without benefit of canned cranberry sauce, giant inflatable cartoon characters on TV, or the Detroit Lions. I wrote about this last year, so I won't go into it again. But I hope y'all are doing all right and have a good one... have some extra stuffing for me.


Speaking of things I wrote about last year, the Beaujolais Nouveau has once again made its debut with a ceremonial tapping of the first keg at midnight. And just like last year, I managed to miss this one, too: After getting the boys to bed, I sat down for a minute with the idea of resting up before venturing out onto the (freezing, rainy) streets at midnight. Of course I fell asleep almost instantly, as tends to happen to me nearly any time I stop moving. I settled for buying a bottle at Monoprix the next day.

Funny thing: You know how in the US, wine retailers, grocery stores and specialty shops put up those oh-so-Français signs reading "Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé"? Here in France, the signs read, in English, "It's Beaujolais Nouveau Time!"


A couple of people have e-mailed me to ask how I'm holding up with the strikes going on. To tell you the truth, though Paris is a mess right now, out here in the provinces things are pretty much as usual, at least in my life. The main groups that are on strike are the SNCF (national train service) and the RATP (Paris public transport), so if you're not leaving town and not in Paris, things aren't bad. There have also been one-day strikes by Electricité de France, La Poste, and the newspaper printers, but all that has meant to me was no mail or newspaper on Tuesday. Shrug.

Now some knucklehead has vandalized TGV lines, which has neither increased already-flagging public support for the strikes, made the unions look respectable, or made the government more inclined to make a deal. We'll see what happens... just hope they get this cleared up before our next planned vacation.


And from the department of WTF?:

It seems that a ridiculously wealthy businessman from Dubai is going ahead with a plan to construct a residential development that is a Disneylike simulacrum of Lyon in Dubai, including a francophone university, an Olympique Lyonnais soccer training center, and a Paul Bocuse culinary school (link in French but worth clicking for the illustration of the quais de la Saone superimposed on the Dubai skyline).

For those of you who, y'know, always wanted to live in Epcot.

[I'll try to remember to put up some pictures to go with this post, so check back]

Friday, November 16, 2007

Um... This Is Up To Code, Right?

You want slice-of-life? You want everyday routine? Well, you got it pal--here's 14 paragraphs dedicated to a building renovation. A couple of posts below I mentioned the work that's being done in our building; they've been at it since September and should have things wrapped up by the end of the year.

I happened to have the camera with me the other day as I passed through, after the workmen had gone home for the day, and I took a few snaps.

[photo: scaffolding on the stairs; take one bad step off that platform and it's six storeys straight down through the center of the staircase spiral. Unless you grabbed the electrical cable and slid down it with lightbulbs popping off, like Jackie Chan in Police Story (very end of this clip)]

The worst of the damage appears to be over now; for a couple of weeks all of the old electrical wiring was being ripped out of the walls, leaving huge piles of plaster and dusting everything with a layer of plaster dust, which of course got tracked into our apartment and into everything, just like beach sand.

In order to tear out the wiring, they had to pull off all the old wallcovering, which you can see in this picture I took last year (along with cool old gas socket covering, now missing; it seems to have migrated into our apartment and onto a mantelpiece, probably carried in by plaster dust). I was a little bummed by this, as I kind of liked the old wallcovering and wasn't impressed with the plain white paint going up, but it appears now that they aren't done and are in fact putting up some sort of textured-paint rag-rolled treatment that looks pretty nice.

As the old wiring is being replaced, a very makeshift-looking spiderweb of cables is currently (ha!) carrying the load (zing!), and when they finally put in the new cables I won't put up any resistance (OK, had to reach for that one).

[Yes, I know that first picture is of phone wires... don't get hung up on it (Pow!)]

The old yellow paint you see in these photos is gone now--waiting to see what will come next.

This picture shows the new videophone thingy that is being installed in the entry. The digicode pad at the bottom has been there all along, but to date we have had no way to see or talk to anyone entering downstairs--in other words, we had to give our sooper-sekrit code number to any visitors, whether our friends or the plumber or the meter reader or Jean-François the moped driver at Speed Rabbit Pizza Delivery's (sic).

[photo: note the ATM-style buttons that let you scroll through the list of residents' names. Not sure how I feel about having random-drunk-on-the-street-at-3AM being able to buzz up and call me by name]

This next photo shows the old tile floor of the entry partially covered by the new and entirely boring tile floor. It's awfully dirty in this picture, covered by floor adhesive, construction schmutz and the aforementioned plaster dust, but the old tile had style, and I wish they had simply cleaned it up and left it. I suppose in France, 19th-century tile is the equivalent of 70's burnt-orange carpet: Not old enough to be antique, merely dated and tacky.

This harmless-looking gas feeder pipe [last photo] was the culprit in our little gas-and-chaudiere-outage adventure last week. Do you see where the gas was turned off? Take a look; I'll wait.

About halfway up the pipe, dead-center of the photo, there's a little metal doohickey shaped like a baseball diamond. If you look closely [click to embiggen] you'll see the letters "O" and "F", for ouvert and fermée. The whole diamond pivots around the pitcher's mound to turn the gas on or off.

When I went home for lunch today to get a nice hot bowl of gumbo (it's 30 degrees F today), there was a group of men framing up some sort of shed structure in the building's small courtyard, where our garbage and recycling bins usually live. Please please please let it be a bike rack so I don't have to haul my bike up in our tiny elevator standing on one wheel and haul it through the bedroom out onto the balcony where I have to park it...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

City Braces for Invasion

France is accustomed to being invaded by relentless juggernauts bent on world domination, so this item from today's paper comes as no real suprise:

[my hamhanded translation from Le Progres]
"The American corporation Starbucks Coffee, worldwide leader in the distribution, roasting, and branding of coffees, with a presence in 43 countries, will open a location in Lyon. On November 30 it will open its 41st coffeeshop in France at 2 rue de la Republique [that's the other end of the street from us, by the Opera]; the other 40 locations are all in Paris. Customers may enjoy, either in-store or for takeaway, coffees from Africa, Latin America and Asia, as well as espresso-based drinks or teas, cakes and pastries."

What does this mean? For me, probably not so much, as I'm not a fan of Starbucks coffee (over-roasted, in my opinion) its pricing models ($4 a cup? GMAFB) or its business practices in general. Maybe it'll mean more available tables at Raconte-Moi La Terre. There's no impending shortage of places to get a good cup of coffee here, but the city's most famous street will now have a McDonald's at one end and a Starbucks at the other.

I'm sure it will do quite well.

Friday, November 09, 2007

A Week In The Jolly Old

[Note: The below was written at about 3AM Saturday after a couple of glasses of cognac, when I really should have been sleeping. Which may explain why it wanders off-thesis about halfway through and never quite finds its way back. Apologies in advance for slandering your fine country, whichever one it may be.]

As I've mentioned before, the competition between low-cost airlines in Europe makes it relatively affordable to get around within Europe by air when the train would just take too long. My Mom and Dad go to the British Isles about every year for vacation, and this year, since we were, y'know, in the neighborhood, they invited us to hop on Easyjet and come up to spend a week at a cottage they were renting in the Peak District.

[photo: the Pennine Way crossing the Edale Moor]

The Peak is (by English standards) a wild, rugged, remote area of the country. It is the equivalent of, say, Montana, if Montana was located about an hour east of Manchester and wasn't home to wildlife that might eat you. Still, tell an English person that you're vacationing in the Peak, and you'll get one of two reactions, depending on the outdoorsiness of your interlocutor: Either: "Wow, that's beautiful country up there," or "Why on earth are you going there when you could be going somewhere civilised like say for example y'know London."

[photo: Chatsworth House, home of the Duke of Devonshire, seen through a sculpture. V took this one; good instinct, I think]

When I was 15, my first trip overseas took me to England. I had been to Canada (a.k.a. "America Jr.") before that, but this was my first real trip abroad, and my 15-year-old self grooved upon the strangeness of it all: the funny accents, the weird money, the lamentable television. When I got back to East Mecklenburg High School for my junior year, I imagined myself so worldly, so changed by the wig-flipping, perception-rebooting foreign-ness of it all.

Twenty years (!) later, and with the added perspective of having lived in France for a year and a half, I came to an entirely different conclusion: England is (almost) just like home.

[Photo: ruins of Peveril Castle, as featured in Sir Walter Scott's Peveril of the Peak. Just like it was in Robin Hood's day, minus the jet contrails]

Never mind that whole batshit-insane driving-on-the-left-side thing. You'll get used to that in just a few days of near-fatal near-accidents, and before long driving on the wrong side will be just as easy and natural as throwing a 50-yard pass lefthanded off the wrong foot. Your passengers will stop screaming eventually.

No, if you've been living in France, England seems exactly like an old shoe: not stylish, not especially pretty, maybe a little moldy...but boy is it comfortable.

[photo: trail to the neolithic hill fort at Mam Tor]

Example: In packing, V. happened to leave her iPod charger at home. So we swung by a mall in Manchester, and there was a freaking Apple Store right there. Right between a Body Shop and a Gap. We might well have been in Durham, except that there were no black people (what gives? I know England has plenty of black folks; do 100% of them live in London?), and everything appeared to cost very little but in fact cost very very much.

Beer? Yes. Good beer everywhere you look.

Food? Erm. English pub grub is solid and filling but unadventurous. But the Indian food! Krishna H. Vishnu, was it great! We stopped in at a random Indian joint in a random Derbyshire town, and holy smokes the menu was eight pages long, with entire sections of stuff we, as grizzled veterans of every tandoori joint in the 919, had never even heard of! Indian restauranteurs of America, I implore you: rise to the challenge of your countrymen! If you build it, we will come.

[photo: paragliders launching off Mam Tor]

The Fabled British Humour? We passed a large sign advertising "Manchester's Best Five-Minute Hand Job." It was on a car wash.

Fashion? OK, England, c'mere a minute. Look, it ain't no big thing. And you know, I ain't GQ Johnny mydamnself. But... Tracksuits? Ugg boots? In 2007? On the other hand, I understand the climate means you've got to wear wellies a lot of the time, and I respect that: I even dig the big ol' wooly sweater bit. Covers up some of that... well, those cumberland sausages are tasty, aren't they? It's great that you don't spend a lot of brain cycles worrying about what you look like. Unlike people in a certain continental European country I could mention.

[photo: Countryside viewed from Mam Tor. Note the smoke-spewing factory at left, like a cigarette burn on a handmade patchwork quilt... as V. said, "I see what Tolkien was on about."]

The language? It's something of a revelation to once again be able to read and understand every sign, every billboard, every advertisement. Everything makes sense. Comforting. Comfortable. Like an old shoe.

V commented that we're living in the wrong European country, that we're doing it backward: we should be living in England and vacationing in France. She would revise this sentiment slightly in Italy two weeks later... but more on that to come.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Welcome Home

We crossed the Alps around nightfall, the last leg of the long drive back from Italy's Cinque Terre (just 6 hours drive time, but an eternity in driving-with-small-children time), and made the last hour or so down the western slopes and into Lyon in weary silence. I slotted the rental car into a space in the Republique parking garage, and we loaded our arms with suitcases, half-empty Orangina bottles and semisleeping toddlers.

We had lunched on a beach on the outskirts of Genoa, where seagulls shrieked and our gelato dripped meltily onto the sand, but here in Lyon a cold wind blew purposefully as the mild autumn gave a resigned sigh and shuffled off in search of its overcoat and scarf.

Strung-out and road-funked, we go up the escalator, across the street and into the doors of our building, where our footsteps leave tracks in the plaster dust of the entry. Men have been at work here for several weeks now, ripping out the old wall covering, rerouting electrical conduit, tearing out the old tile floor and cementing down new tile--but for the long-weekend Toussaint holiday they appear to have left their tools and sacks of plaster and cement right where they fell at 5PM on Wednesday.

I unlock the door to find kitty staring back at me accusingly, as he does whenever we go out of town. It's cold in our apartment, really cold. I set down my load of stuff and go to the kitchen to turn the heat back up. Then I see it--the red trouble-indicator light blinking at me menacingly, like a Cylon centurion.

It is the chaudiere--an infernal device mounted over our kitchen counter that uses gas heat to power the hot water and the radiators simultaneously. It has a self-protection system that prevents it from damaging itself further in the event of freezing, loss of pressure or water leak: In true French fashion, at the first sign of trouble, it surrenders.* When the chaudiere turns turtle and goes into "security mode", there is nothing for it but to call your local depanneur de chauffage, who will charge you 90 euros to come out and twiddle a few valves and hit a mystical hidden reset button.

In the meantime, you will have no heat and no hot water.

Sigh. OK, I decide to start heating up some water on the stove so at least we can give the boys a bath and get them to bed. I twist the knob on the gas stove, hit the ignition button and... nothing. The sparking of the starter is laughing at me: snik--snik--sink--snik. There's no gas.

So not only do I need to get the chaudiere man, I need to get the gas company on the case first. And it's Sunday night, which means nothing doing. So I'll have a bunch of phone calls to make on Monday morning, when I should be preparing for a meeting with the Agency's director... a meeting I'll have to go to unshowered. At least I'll have some clean clothes to wear, once I get this load of laundry into the... oh hell no.

Monday morning in my (heated, thankfully) office, I start working the phones, en Francais.
First to the building management: Hey, um, y'all weren't doing any work on the gas lines over the weekend, were you? 'Cause my gas is off. No? OK.

Then to Gaz de France: Yes, I'd like to report an outage. No, I don't know how long it's been out. I was out of town. No, I'm not there right now, I'm at work. My wife's there, though. She can let your repairman in. Oh, but it'll have to be before about 2:30 or after 4PM, because she goes to pick up my son from school. But it's 9:30 AM now, so that won't be a problem, right? Great. Thanks.

About 3:30, my phone rings. Hello? Yes, I'm the one who reported an outage. No, of course I'm not there. I'm at work. No, there's no one home to let you in. Like I said there wouldn't be when I called six hours ago. Could you come back in maybe 20, 30 minutes? She'll be home then. No? Um, OK. You need me to call the dispatcher again when there's somebody home? Fine, fine, have a nice day, bye. [slam.] Jerk.

It goes on like this for the remainder of the day--me calling Gaz de France, GdF making vague promises, no one showing up, reindeer herds migrating across my living room, V. looking into nearby hotels.

At 10:30 that night, the doorbell rings.

We look at each other. Boog and Tater are asleep under their respective piles of blankets, V is in her wooliest jammies, and I'm fumbling through my closet to find my cleanest dirty shirt.

Is your gas working? The GdF man asks.
Of course it's not working. That's why I've called your office 10 times today.
Is your gas working now?
Non. Il. Ne. Marche. Pas. Jeez, is my accent that bad?
He reaches over to a gas pipe sticking out of the wall on the landing and gives a twist to something I would never have recognized as a valve. Something that could easily have been knocked askew by the painters who put a fresh coat of paint on the hallway while we were gone.
Try it, monsieur.
I walk to the stove, twist the dial... and hear the hiss of gas. I walk back to the door.
You complete freaking retard, he somehow restrains himself from saying. Passez une bonne soiree, monsieur, he actually does say. He is not as successful at restraining the smirk.

*Yes, that was uncalled-for and mean-spirited, I admit. But your spirits would be mean, too.