Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 16

Chapter 16: My friend the CPE

Are you seeing the footage of the strikes and riots here? I'm not sure how much I need to explain. Basically, this is the deal: forty per cent of French youth (26 and under) are unemployed. This was one of the main reasons for the riots last fall, which were labelled "suburban" but which included burning stores and breaking windows in downtown Lyon.

France's Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, in response to said riots and the general griping in the country about unemployment, came up with the CPE -- First Employment Act? -- under which employees under the age of 26 can be fired with little to no explanation during a two-year trial period. "Without explanation" is arguably the only sticky point in an otherwise smart initiative; under France's current employment laws, it's terrifying for a boss to hire anyone because employees are so well protected and so expensive to upkeep that the employer can be stuck with awful workers and impossible taxes for life. So obviously they don't want to hire anyone and obviously there's unemployment.

Does the CPE need to be adjusted? Sure. Should Villepin have been so final in his presentation? Probably not. Is he kind of sleazy and creepy and an interview bully? Well, yes. But is all this strike action justified?
"Aargh!" cry the angry young people, "we are angry! You aren't listening to us!"
"I am open to dialogue," says Villepin, as he has been saying since the beginning. "I'd like to talk about this and maybe find a compromise."
There is a nervous silence as the young people rack their brains for something to be angry about, in the face of this reasonable proposition to find a solution to unemployment.
"Aargh!" they cry triumphantly. "You're too late! We don't want to talk anymore!"
And they continue to set fires in department stores, throw large rocks at the riot police and block the universities so that all the students who would like to continue their own journey towards unemployment by finishing their degrees have to organize their own counter-demonstrations.

In other words, the CPE is just an excuse to rage against the machine. I'm sure there are a few people who really think it's a bad idea and could argue against it using full sentences and not pepper spray or the word "putain," but they aren't being interviewed; "Villepin sucks!" is pretty much as intelligent as I've heard. They charge out into the streets with signs and torches, occasionally with viking costumes or large Disney-style mascots, though what a bear suit has to do with the CPE remains unclear.

A few weeks ago there was a demonstration downtown around a monument that had just gone up in the name of the Turkish-Armenian "conflict"; the Turkish protestors were not okay with it being called a genocide. (There were no Armenians present to defend their side of the argument, having all been killed in the not-genocide.) As it happens, the CPE demonstrations had just finished in the same neighbourhood, having started that morning at the university on my street and blocked my subway access and thus my route to work -- but I digress. The demonstrators, perhaps keyed up from a day of Villepin-hating, joined the Turks and turned a mild crowd into a stomping, chanting, charging mob. Riot police were called onto the scene, news cameras caught the action.

Now, what the HELL were these kids doing at the Turkish demonstrations, cause-hopping like that? This isn't a game. Except that it is, and that's just the problem: all they want is something to get angry about, to claim that rights are being abused. Actual human atrocities in, say, Darfur or Guantanamo, are just really far away and nobody's too clear on the stories anyway, so... CPE it is! Down with the CPE!

What's interesting is that the demonstrators are all the middle-class university students who have never had jobs before (school is state-funded and few students work) and will get jobs when they graduate, as the employment statistics demonstrate. They enjoy endless strikes -- which, funnily enough, never include demonstrations on the week-end -- while the young people who are actually in the work force and struggling against reluctant employers are hoping to hell that these whining students just SHUT UP ALREADY and the thing goes through. Fire me in two years if you must; at least that gives me two years of work and a boost towards finding a new job.

Also not demonstrating are foreigners, and not just because they want to mind their own business and not be arrested or assaulted by the police for someone else's cause. I think it's mostly because their being from the outside gives them some perspective.

1. French people need all the help they can get finding jobs, since it's impossible without the exact right diploma, including volunteering in a day care, which I am not allowed to do -- despite having done summer camps of all ages for ten years and I'm not exaggerating -- because I do not have the B.A.F.A. diploma. My colleague’s nephew was a ski patrol mountain rescue guy but he had an accident and now he can't ski. You'd think he could find a job in the city, maybe first aid-related, something with the ambulance or fire brigade, something in sports or fitness training, but he can't. Sorry, your diploma says the word "mountain" on it and absolutely can not be adjusted to match any other job. Welfare for you, and dammit if our taxes aren't off the charts! Why does this keep happening?!

2. When you're unhappy about something, there are many ways to express your feelings. You can write a letter to the newspaper, say, or accept the prime minister's repeated invitations to talk things over; a strike should be your last resort. I don't feel that striking three days a week at random, shutting down public transit, the post office and the airport and causing riots (because people are stupid, have always been so, and can't help their mob mentality) are particularly good or thoughtful solutions. I wouldn't hire you either, you bunch of jerks.

3. What the rest of the world is okay with is that sometimes you have a crappy job. Often, even, when you're young. Your internship is temporary (the cause of last month's rage and strikes), you have to do some menial tasks and maybe work a week-end every once in a while, and you suck it up because you never expected to be the CEO at age 23. You EARN job stability and raises in pay and if you're really bad at your job, you will probably lose it. That's how it works.

I understand that they want to preserve their nice number of hours and vacation and pay and security and all the rest -- who wouldn't? -- but they can't do all that without unemployment. You have your crepe or you eat it, mes amis, it can't be both. I want to be sympathetic to the cause: this is a first step towards -- steel
yourselves -- CHANGE [gasp!] and I guess it can seem threatening. But their way of going about it is so frustrating and unprogressive and self-righteous that I'm turned off by the whole thing. Why don't you try a new approach to your economy and actually WORK for a change? Huh? There won't be time for demonstrations, which might be a problem for you, but I think it just -- might -- be worth a try.

Anyway. That was in case any of you were hearing things about France losing its mind and maybe saying to yourselves, "I wonder what our Kathryn has to say about all of this." Now you know. What I have to say is: "blech."

The apartment is kind of a hassle these days. First was the water: it's heated by a big white thing over the toilet, whatever that means to you, and the white thing has been leaking since November. Our landlord finally got a replacement, waited for me to come home from Canada and Franck from Marseille, then came and shut off our water. It was supposed to be just hot water and just one day, but of course he didn't want to pay for a plumber and he knew what he was doing (read: he had no idea what he was doing.) He muffed it up and ended up banging and smashing things in our narrow little hallway for five days, blocking the toilet so that I was always panicky about not being able to pee. And no hot water, which meant boiling water and pouring it over my shampooed head, not as romantic as I had imagined. (The tricky part is when you realize you didn't boil enough: do you take your wet self out into the freezing cold kitchen and wait for a new pot to boil, or do you just use the ice water in the shower to rinse off your head? Neither one is really a happy solution.)

This is obviously nowhere near as traumatizing as the plumbing problems I hear from Julie in Moldova or Clara in Mexico, but suffering is relative and our apartment is COLD. I've never been so happy to see someone leave: I washed the floor with cold water, so desperate was I to live in a clean and chaos-free space.

We had some early-morning visits -- all unannounced, despite my repeatedly writing down my phone number and saying "make an appointment" -- from the pipe-fixing guy, as the rain water gathers in our broken pipe and floods the girl downstairs. (Her cigarette smoke has made my wardrobe -- nay, my life -- smell like an ashtray, so I think the floods are just what she deserves and am in no hurry to help. Call it karma.) On his third visit, when he buzzed at 7:45 a.m., we decided to show him who's boss and pretend we weren't home. So the super intendant let him in! Super jerk! They tried to scold us for intentionally sabotaging their fix-it project but I tore into them about courtesy and respect and how dare they barge into our home when we have specifically asked them to call and arrange a time. Franck's favourite part was "I'm standing here talking to you in my nightgown. Do you think that's normal?!" The guy happened to finish his work that morning and never had the chance to sheepishly ask me when he could come by again, so all I can do is fantasize. In one version, he cries.

I gave my three months' notice -- that's right, he asks for three months -- later than planned, so I'm hoping the landlord will find someone to move in before my official leave date so I don't have to keep paying rent. A girl came to visit, though, and I told her how much he had jacked up the price (from our 490 euros to 600! It's highway robbery!) and that the hydro bills were really bad and it's freezing in the winter... After she left, Franck said, "so -- do we NOT want to find someone for this apartment, then?" We agreed that next time I'll go for a hot chocolate down the street while the apartment's being viewed.

I have more to say, believe it or not, so consider yourselves warned that another e-mail is soon to follow. But the bell's ringing for class and I have to come up with something to do with the little buggers -- anyone have a grade six lesson they want to share?


ribbit ribbit

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Kathryn vs. Lyon, Round Two: Chapter 15

Chapter 15: A Canadian Breather

There are certain things to which I still haven't adjusted here.

1. I can never believe how quickly my phone credit is eaten up by a local call.

2. Everyone smokes. Every single person. All the time.

3. Women in stores look me up and down with blatant disapproval, shamelessly staring at me until I feel that I've done something wrong. I can't find a good translation for "you got a staring problem, PUNK?" but am planning to whip out the standard "why don't you take a picture? It lasts longer" next time I am thus judged.

4. I'm never entirely sure if I should kiss someone hello, as the rules seem to change weekly. You're not supposed to kiss your colleagues, then suddenly I'm getting "la bise" from my entire staff room. It's when you say hello, not good-bye, except when they also do it for good-bye. Sometimes my tutoring lessons start with a bise, sometimes not. My neighbour may or may not go for it, who the hell knows? How am I supposed to understand if they keep messing with the system?

5. Yesterday, another transit strike. Except that the subways were running, so I had no idea there was a strike until I got to the depot and saw the infamous whiteboard, on which are listed all the bus routes and their new frequencies. Two or three were running at 50 per cent, usually the ones that go to the hospital, others weren't running at all; my bus clocked in a ten per cent, which is the most irritating of all. If it isn't coming, I can go home. If it's coming half the time, I can wait an extra ten or twenty minutes. But one in ten? This bus leaves every fifteen minutes; if I've just missed it -- and they don't tell you which one in ten is going to be running, so I have no idea how far off the mark I am -- I'll be waiting two and a half hours for the next one.Is this an effective strike? Does it accomplish anything other than turning the public even further against the transit workers' cause?

All these small details that I can't -- quite -- grasp. So it was good for me to spend some time in Canada so that I could feel confident in my understanding of correct social behaviour (which isn't to say I always acted accordingly) and to wash my neighbours' stinky smoke out of my clothes, even if only for ten days. It was also good, however, to feel kind of displaced and weird, which made me understand that any place can be unsettling when you're not used to it. Frankly, it was hard to adjust to Toronto.

-Why is everyone around me speaking English? How trippy is that?!

-Stephen Harper is ACTUALLY the prime minister? It wasn't just a sick joke?

-Was it always this damn cold? What will I do when my fingers snap off? How will I sew buttons on then?

-Why have they built ugly buildings all around the SkyDome (which isn't even the SkyDome anymore, is it?) when they were supposed to be IMPROVING the Gardiner?

-Have young Canadians always said "and I was like 'no way!' and he was like 'I know!' as much as they seem to now?

-Have I always said it? For ten days, I was like, "Kathryn, get a vocabulary -- you're an English teacher!" but then it was like "listen, it's just my speech pattern. I can't help if I'm regressing." It was like, shut up!

Home sweet home, and a lesson learned.

As for airport competence, it doesn't exist. They're all crap. Our flight out of Lyon was delayed because there wasn't enough air space for take-off, which struck me as highly irresponsible; shouldn't you know ahead of time who's flying out of your airport on any given day? Aren't air space negotiations done ahead of time? On -- what's that thing called again -- oh right, a SCHEDULE? So Mom and I waited -- what else could we do? Strike? [bitter laughter] -- and the longer the delay, the more it looked like we would miss our connection flight in Frankfurt. As it happened, we landed and had to run through the very large Frankfurt airport, carrying our luggage and sweating through our it's-cold-on-the-plane layers. We arrived at the gate -- gasping, triumphant, bedraggled -- and there a twenty-minute delay. (Take your time, ladies! Why don't you have a washroom break?) They couldn't tell us that before the three-kilometre sprint? Ever heard of a walkie-talkie, "Frankfurt"?

Coming back, I was confident that everything would function properly, that I would arrive in Lyon at the time written on my ticket, luggage in hand and good plane food in my belly. I was in Toronto, after all; in Toronto, things work. My suitcase was too heavy (it's all that damned maple syrup!) and so I took out my backpack and filled it with heavy things. There followed a brief interaction with the Air Canada agent, who had spotted my teddy bear in the open suitcase and was concerned for his well-being, and then with one hour until my flight, I said good-bye to Mom and Mark, whipped off my belt for the metal detector and settled in for a four-hour wait, as -- wait for it -- my plane was delayed. Here's why: the pilot, in a routine last-minute check, found some mechanical problems and refused to fly the plane. The offending vehicle was thus removed and replaced by a new plane, which was examined and cleaned and whatever else it takes three hours to do.

Now, you can't be angry in these situations. I, like our eagle-eyed pilot, don't want to fly in a broken plane. If I have to wait three extra hours, let it be in the airport lounge rather than in the ocean with a broken arm, burning debris floating around me and sharks coming in for the kill. Who's with me?!

That being said, don't they check the planes ahead of time? Isn't that somebody's full-time job? If you're pulling a broken plane up to the gate, loading in the luggage and counting on the pilot to spot the problem, you're just not running a tight enough ship.

We were offered a food voucher for the delay, but the only place available was a burger joint and I wasn't seeing a nine-hour overnight flight on a greasy french-fry stomach as my best possible decision. I got an apple juice and listened to a hoser from Calgary try to pick up an English woman: Don Juan's opening line, and I quote: "I detect an accent. What are you, from Australia or something?" I also listened to an agent with a.d.d. who kept trailing off in the middle of her announcements: "Would passenger Hwang and passenger Johnson please..." The first time, I figure they've shown up before she finished, or maybe someone has distracted her and cut her off. Then she does it again, then again with other names -- as those passengers look around desperately to find where the voice is coming from. "Yes? I'm passenger Hwang, where do I go? What do I do? Who are you?" And then his flight leaves without him.

One delay obviously leads to another, as I had missed my Munich connection by a long shot and had to wait three more hours for the next flight to Lyon. They gave me another voucher and the girl at the food counter was really stressed out that I wasn't taking the full fifteen euros' worth. I guess she thought I didn't understand and she kept pointing emphatically at the "15 euros"; I pulled out my limited German and managaged to say "no, thank you, six euros is good" (I think; maybe she was stressed out because I was spending too little and speaking gibberish at her) and then set off to find the rumoured non-smoking part of the airport.

The whole place is officially smoke-free, you see, other than certain special zones. These are: 1) every single area in which food is to be consumed, and 2) every ten metres in little stands called "smoke and go," like phone booths but completely open, so that there is nothing to stop the smoke but the people sitting in the smoke-free zones. Say me, for example. It's nice to see these innovative ideas popping up in Europe: keep up the good work, friends.

They obviously lost half of my luggage, what with my being on the wrong plane twice in a row, and I was concerned that someone was going to steal my half-dead 1992 camera with my film still in it. Such worries were for naught, however, as my bag was delivered to my doorstep the next evening, unthieved.

I was up early the morning after I arrived because Franck had to go to Marseille to get some papers re-printed, as our sketchy neighbour seems to have stolen his wallet and you can't go very far without your identity card here. (You can't, for example, go ahead with the operation that was scheduled two months earlier, even if the dentist doing it knows you and you are already registered in the system. Just an example.) So he was off.

I then had some tutoring sessions, came home to receive my bag from Lufthansa cargo and tried to get some sleep despite my jet lag, which was on the tail end of the jet lag I'd had in the other direction. (Incidentally, on Cranium night, I guessed Bronwyn's "jet lag" charade before the other teams, just one step towards our final victory. Sorry about your luck, LOSERS! Too bad everybody can't be on Kathryn's team.)

The next morning I went ahead with my highly questionable decision to get on a train and hang out with my family in Le Mans for four days. I had thought that tucking a visit into my two-week holiday was a good idea, since I haven't seen them in years, but afer an exhausting and emotionally draining Canadian adventure, four days in a family that includes two rambunctious children was a death wish.

At the same time, it was nice to see them, to get to know my little cousins, to eat the bread from their magical boulangerie, bread that I can't find in Lyon. (They said it's "un pain rustique," but my local bakers have looked at me blankly and suggested a nice rye loaf when I've asked. Le Mans. Who knew?)

True to what we've always known, the blue and sunny sky turned cloudy and grey as the train approached Le Mans, though my uncle Patrice said that they had great weather until I got there. Hmphf. Likely story. (The Canadians also claimed they'd had a mild winter until the freezing cold week-end we arrived. It's a conspiracy, dammit!)

Patrice rented a piano for me to play, in the hope that I would inspire the kids towards music. We printed out Chopin and Scott Joplin pieces from the internet, the kids and I prepared a little singing concert and Patrice even rigged up a recording system so they could listen to my virtuoso playing any time, fortunately scratchy and white-noisy enough to cover my mistakes. (Oh, that crazy Chopin.) I think the clincher was when I played the theme song from their favourite PlayStation game and then snazzied up the chords; they were so overcome with awe that they couldn't speak. It was magical.

I very quickly lost points in the household, however, when Timothée, who has two little stuffed toys he carries around with him, saw the teddy bear sitting on my bed. His parents have been telling him he's too old to carry around Nemo and his bizarre little monkey friend, but seeing a full-grown adult (as far as he can tell) who has trouble sleeping without her teddy... I believe I swiftly reversed the progress that was being made. Aunt Marie suggested I start sucking my thumb, too, just to drive the point home.

Patrice and I then chose an adventure movie for the family that scared the bejeesus out of Timo (while, interestingly, leaving the younger Anahë completely unfazed.) I assured him that all the characters were just actors, that this man did not really have worms crawling under his skin and that girl was never actually stabbed. I then did a stage-fighting workshop with them and showed how we could make it look like he was strangling me without hurting me at all. In the end, he was reassured that the scary parts were elaborate special effects, creative tricks, and he didn't have any nightmares. He was also completely disenchanted with the film industry and spent the next few days looking distrustingly at his Star Wars video game, at all the light sabres and wookies that don't actually exist. Next visit I'll tell him there's no Santa, just to seal the deal.

In town we saw the display for the new tram that they're installing for next year. There was a computer-animated video with a virtual tramway driving through a spruced up and suspiciously green Le Mans, complete with terrible actors saying things like "this tramway will bring a whole new energy into our city!" and "wow, Claude, what a smooth ride!" Patrice said, "it may not seem like a big deal to you, but this is our most exciting event in years." I think he should watch "Waiting for Guffman."

We then walked through the beautiful medieval town, only by then it was raining and we couldn't look up at the houses because our umbrellas were in the way. We went into the cathedral, one which I particularly love, but wandering through a big stone building when your ears are cold and aching and your clothes are dripping ice onto the floor is -- what's the word here -- crap. Home again, home again, head colds for everyone! "Bon Voyage!" they cheered as I dragged my sorry ass onto the train.

I'm home now and things are as usual in Lyon, except that the missionaries are out with a vengeance. I've been approached twice in my three days back: both were from Utah (note to self: never go to Utah) and both were just so darned nice that I couldn't be rude. They're so sincere, these people, their smiles just so warm -- and yet they're complete loonies! Missionaries? Spreading the word of Jesus?! Are you kidding me with this? But I was defenceless in the face of their unnerving friendliness and could only sigh, world-weary, and say "I'm not interested. Best of luck in everything."

Hypocritically yours,


ribbit ribbit