The Frogmarch

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

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

PS: Lyon Is Burning

My office phone rang around 11:30. It was V. I had left her downtown at Place Bellecour about an hour before, after we'd gone to visit a house for rent in Sainte-Foy (verdict: well-located and good space, but dreary interior and no yard at all). She was going to shop for a winter coat, since the weather here has suddenly changed from high-60s to mid-40s, and her warm clothes are all in our shipping container, wherever that may be.

"All the stores are closed, they've sealed off the Metro, there's cops everywhere, and there's a car on fire in the middle of Rue de la Republique. How do I get home from here on foot?"

[photo: Casseurs throw rocks at riot cops in Place Bellecour. Credit: Philippe Juste for Le Progres]

You've probably heard about the massive protests over retirement reform in France, and the strikes, airport closings and fuel shortages that have resulted. Protests and strikes are pretty much par for the course here in the fall marching season (yesterday was the fifth transit strike day since school started), and we've learned to take them in stride. This time, though, things are different: along with the middle-aged union members making up the bulk of the organized protest marches, some high schools have closed, allowing a lot of bored teenagers the opportunity to add, er, youthful enthusiasm to the proceedings. Adding to the chaos are hundreds of casseurs--literally "breakers", who have no real political interest, don't care that much about retirement because they don't actually have jobs, and revel in the fine opportunity to throw rocks at cops, break windows, turn over and burn cars, and loot stores--despite the efforts of some marchers to get them to cool it [photo: A union syndicate marcher argues with hooded and masked teenagers. Credit as above]

To their credit, the cops have generally exercised restraint. In order not to escalate matters (or create martyrs) they have mostly stood by for events of minor vandalism, such as burning trash cans, smashing flowerpots on cafe terraces, or rolling giant glass-recycling drums down the street [photo: A looted jewelry store on Rue Victor Hugo. Credit: as above]. I imagine that in a similar case in an American city, things might get pushed over the edge a bit more quickly (see: Seattle WTO protests).

But on a personal level: the "forces of order", as they are called by the press here, have shut down all public transport to the Presqu'ile, the peninsula at the city's center. The Metro has effectively ceased to function, the trams aren't running except far out in the suburbs, buses can't run through the center of town--essentially, the city has been paralyzed by a couple hundred jerks. For us, since we don't have a car (we haven't needed on for 4+ years) it means the boys get to and from school by taxicab. At 30 euros each way.

The situation appears to be calming somewhat, and it appears that I may be able to take the Metro home from work tonight, though some stations in the Presqu'ile remain closed. Still, the Senate is set to vote on the reform bill Thursday, so who knows what will come next.

I'll post some pics V. took with her iPhone (she's still in the "look how useful it is! The price is totally justified" phase) if I get the chance or can pry it out of her hands.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Where Was I?

Oh, yes. Well. It seems some time has elapsed since my last post. What has happened? I met the princess of Thailand (she's nice, has a PhD in chemistry). In my kitchen in Villeurbanne, I beat a rat to death with a hammer handle. I've endured two transit strikes (and counting) as the French try to decide whether they'll raise the retirement age to 62. I've watched loads of gendarmes appear in the Metro and train stations as a reaction to vague and not-so-vague terrorist threats. I sold off half of my library. I sold a minivan with a quarter-million miles on it at a yard sale. I packed the boys' toys and books into shipping crates now somewhere in the Atlantic or a customs yard in Portsmouth. I relocated French sources for Skippy peanut butter (no Peter Pan, sorry) and Nestle Quik. I bought year's supplies of Nyquil, Q-tips, Children's Tylenol and birth control pills. I put thousands of dollars of work into our house so we could rent it. I craigslisted (is that a word?) baby gear and small appliances and old bikes and yard tools. I drove down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill listening to the new Superchunk album (!) on WXYC just as if 1997 had never ended. I ordered a same-day abdominal ultrasound at a French children's hospital to rule out appendicitis (results negative, cost 20 euros). I ordered a lab test at UNC hospitals to rule out streptococcus (results negative, cost $180 for lab costs plus $170 for physician's fee plus $210 for use of the examination room, payable to 3 separate agencies). I went 3 straight days without sleep. I carried a vomiting child through Heathrow Terminal 3. In 3 weeks in Chapel Hill I saw my friends for a total of about 45 minutes. I didn't get the chance to hang out with you, and I'm sorry about that.

[Photo: A good day's haul from the marche St-Antoine]