The Frogmarch

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

Friday, March 14, 2008

Observations from a Morning Commute

Boog and I pass through the turnstile gate of the Bellecour metro station onto the platform for the A-line toward Perrache. There's a suspicious smell wafting across the platform; I look around and spot the source: two guys in green workman's coveralls are standing at the back of the platform, smoking a joint (mixed with loose tobacco, as is the custom here). It is 7:35 in the morning.

I hope these guys are coming off the third shift, rather than making attitude adjustments prior to punching in for their crane-operator jobs.

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In the freebie newspaper I pick up at the metro entrance, there's a headline: The last French poilu has died. (Article in English here.) Poilu, which literally means "hairy" (and I suppose by extension "manly/tough/brave") is the term given to French soldiers of the Great War--roughly analagous to our "doughboys"-- and is uttered with great reverence. In America we refer to the Greatest Generation who won WWII and built a prosperous Atomic-age nation; there is no comparable term in French that I know of, but the sentiment is the same.

For the French, World War I was the last Good War. World War II had its heroes, no doubt, was France's Vietnam in a way, a sudden collapse of ideas of power and invulnerability, and a rabbit punch to national pride (of course, the actual Vietnam was also the France's Vietnam, and throw in Algeria to boot). Every French village and town, no matter how small, has its monument to its war dead, much the way Southern towns have their Confederate memorial. The horrific bloodshed of WWI--France lost 1,700,000 killed, 11% of the entire population (!)--means that these monuments can be very affecting. Out strolling in a quiet hamlet in rural Burgundy, V. and I came across one that had twenty names on it; there were only nine houses in the village. My frickin' bank branch has a plaque in the lobby listing its employees who died in La Guerre 14-18; it's got probably 30 names on it. Noble, bitter sacrifice.

One wonders whether, with the last of the poilus having answered the last bugle call (or insert your own overwrought metaphor here), the French view of its own history will have to take on less of a shine and begin to address issues of heroism and glory that are much less clear-cut. We shouldn't smirk, though; reunions of our WWII GI's get smaller every year.

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The 8 bus, in its transit between the old-money 2nd arrondissement and the leafy southwest suburb of Ste.-Foy, passes through some of the city's most blighted urban landscape, a former shipping/warehouse district that was forgotten when the modern port opened a few miles downriver. The bus stops close to Cours Charlemagne are used primarily by characters out of Bukowski--bums, drunks, squatters, dealers, pimps and whores. One of these last gets on the bus and sits caddy-corner from us; she is young, maybe 18 or 19, with nearly blue-black skin and clothes that are seedy even for members of her profession. It is most likely, based on what I read in the papers, that she owes a huge sum of money in exchange for being brought illegally from Nigeria to Europe in hopes of a better life, and now has few other options for paying it back.

She removes a glossy publication from her bag, and begins to read. Curious, I edge a little in my seat, wondering what it is she might be reading. She turns the page and I glimpse the cover.

It's a ski resort brochure from Courchevel.

You go, girl.

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