Monday, October 25, 2010

And they lived happily ever after...

Villandry and its gardens--mostly edible!
Villandry's famous gardens, reproduced exactly from the 16th century!

Azay-le-Rideau, named after the village, built by the wife of one of the Gilles Berthelot, Tresurer-General of the king, because he was caught for embezzlement in 1528 and left his wife in charge of construction.
Chenonceau, one of the most famous of the Loire Valley chateaux, as Rick Steves says, it is "the toast of the Loire Valley," also designed by women. King Henri II gave it to his favorite mistress, Diane de Poitiers in the mid-16th century. At the time, it was just the square part on the far right side. She got tired of using a boat to cross the river, and had the arching bridge built. Upon the king's death, the queen, Catherine de Medici, made the mistress leave this castle, and she had the second story built over the bridge, thus englarging the castle to have more room for her lavish parties.

Chambord, the largest of the Loire Valley chateaux, and second largest in France (after Versailles). As the tour guide said, it was designed by a man, so the inside is a completely unlogical, but the outside sure is something to look at!

Il était une fois...

"Il etait une fois"= Once upon a time

Despite the strikes which caused our train to be canceled, Lindsay and I made it to the Loire Valley, chateaux country! The Loire River is the longest in France and cuts it horizontally. The famous Loire Valley is located in central France, and for a time, stole the royal glory from Paris. In the 16th century, Paris was not the nice place it is today, so the kings of France decided to migrate a bit south and build their magnificent homes along the Loire river. This was also a strategic decision, as the Loire river was the main artery of transportation of goods and people. Thus during the French Renaissance, hundreds of castles were built in this area by kings and nobles, who had of course, like moths to a flame, followed the center of power everywhere, from Paris to the Loire, and later from Paris to Versailles (under Louis XIV in the next century). Many of the chateaux were built on the site of ancient fortifications, and some of the "chateaux" are actually fortresses, and not royal residences, those the latter are of course, the main tourist attraction.

Francois I was the first king to establish the Loire as the new center of France, and while his main residence was the chateau in Amboise (pictured above; also where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last 3 years as architect and painter of the king), he had several other chateaux built, some of which he visited only a handful of times (no wonder France was going bankrupt by the mid 18th century!). Other kings followed suit, and while the money may have been better spent buying peasants bread, luckily for us, there remain many gorgeous chateaux to visit today, allowing us all to feel like kings and queens, if only for a moment.

Addendum to "faire la greve"

In the last week or so, I have read, heard and discussed more about the retirement reform issues and just wanted to add a few things to my previous post.

First of all, now that it is the Toussaint vacation (a 10-day fall break around the Nov 1 "all saints' day" holiday), the strike scene is starting to calm down. To add to this, the Senate has finally voted in the law, and it should become official within the week. However, the unions have called for two more official strike days--Oct 28th and Nov 6th, but those will likely be smaller than previous demonstrations, and hopefully less violent.

For those of you who have seen reports about the violence in France during the strikes, just know that it is not coming from strikers themselves, who are demonstrating peacefully as usual, but from younger, well, delinquents, mostly in the poorer suburbs, many of whom have been coming into the city causing trouble--breaking store windows, melting trashcans, etc. The police have retaliated with tear gas--which, lucky me, I stumbled upon one day. Trust me, not fun. Lyon especially has been the site of many a clash between the police and these troublemakers, but it's really not as dangerous as it may sound, especially if you know the areas to avoid.

On top of this, other big problems caused by strikers are: gas shortages (caused by blocked oil refineries), fewer trains, and even piling trash in Marseille (garbagemen on strike). Many people have canceled their Toussaint travel plans due to these issues, and lines at the gas stations continue to be rather long.

Anyway, back to the issues over the reform. For many, the specific issue of working two years longer is not really the most important; generally I would say those most angry over that are those close to the original retirement age. Rather, this reform (soon to be law) is really just a symbol of the direction in which Sarko has been leading France. Both the straw that broke the camel's back, and a foreboding harbinger of what is to come.

France was a pioneer in the area of "droits sociaux," or social welfare state, and they have some of the best in the world. Like I have said previously, the French are used to and expect these rights given them by the government, and they pay for them as well. With this reform, they see these rights getting chipped away, and especially with Sarko at the head, they fear that they will see more and more rights taken away until France is just like--gasp--the US, which is not exactly a forerunner when it comes to social welfare, and could honestly take some tips from Europe (those socialists!). Since most Americans really know next to nothing about the French president, aside from the fact that he is married to singer and former-model Carla Bruni (trophy wife!), it is perhaps hard to understand the extreme distrust and fear he inspires in many French people--even those who voted for him in 2007 (he currently has an all-time low approval rating of 29%). Just imagine the French equivalent of George Bush (only shorter) and maybe you can understand the problem.

Sarko insists this law is necessary because of the economy. It's not that the French can't understand that the economy is still in trouble. However, this law hits those already struggling because of this economy, rather than those (like Sarko and his cronies) who could stand to lose a few euros. The point is to try to find a solution that isn't targeting the middle and lower classes, ie the majority of the country (hence the general outrage). Even members of parliament don't want this reform for their own retirement, having rejected just this in early September. If this reform is so unavoidable and mild, why would they refuse it for themselves? The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. One of Sarko's slogans in 2007 was "Travailler plus pour gagner plus!" (Work more to earn more!). Well, people are working more and earning less. Well, taking his own advice, Sarko too is workisng more (to piss people off) and earning less (approval).

All of that said, I am looking forward to the end of this constant strike state--it definitely gets tiresome after a few weeks. As it looks like the passage of the law is now inevitable, hopefully France will soon return to "normal." Then they can put all of their energy into electing a president from the left in 2012 (looking iffy at best right now, despite Sarko's unpopluarity) and hope that he/she will repeal this law, or at the very least, halt the trend towards less social rights.

Wish me luck for my train to Cologne (and to my dad) on Thursday!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Faire la grève

Retrait de la réforme des retraites! Remove the reform on retirement! (withdraw is a better translation of "retrait" here, but trying to keep the alliteration!)

"Faire la grève"= to go on strike.

"grèviste"=someone on strike.

"syndicat"=labor union.

It's finally here, the one you've all been waiting for with baited blog about France's favorite pastime: striking. Even the chiens (dogs) go on strike here: "Grammy, 67 years old, still here to serve us!"

Along with wearing berets, walking around with baguettes, and playing a rousing game of boules, this is a cherished, and time-honored tradition in French culture, starting with, if you will, the original strike of 1789, aka, the French Revolution, and in more recent history, with the blow-out of May 1968. In 1968, students were protesting and revolting all over the world, and considering France's revolutionary history, she certainly couldn't be left out of the action. Students, and eventually workers, joined to advocate change to a society stuck in the past. In fact, they caused so much commotion that the venerable General de Gaulle couldn't even handle it and hid away at Baden-Baden, leaving his prime minister (and eventual successor), Georges Pompidou to attempt to negotiate with the unions.

Anywho, since then, the French have not hesitated to faire la grève whenever a controversial reform is proposed, especially when it has to do with changes to retirement law. I remember back in 2007, while studying in Paris, several strikes broke out throughout the year, preventing some students from getting to class, and putting a bit of a wrench in my weekend trip to the Alps, as strikes often end up involving transportation personnel. While I don't remember the exact issue being protested, it was definitely related to la retraite (retirement). This time around, the strikes are even more ferocious and and the strikers perserverant. Sarko (Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and I say that with all the disdain I would when mentioning our former president) is trying to reform the retirement laws, changing the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age when they can receive full benefits from 65 to 67. He believes this will help alleviate some of the government's economic problems, still struggling to recover from the recession.

As teachers' unions are the largest in the nation, this has meant some missing teachers on big strike days--thus less work for moi!

A few grevistes gathered in Place Bellecour,
a popular spot for demonstrations in Lyon

To Americans, brainwashed by the Puritan work-ethic on which our nation was founded (and with which it has since prospered), all of their commotion over this reform falls on deaf ears, and many probably look at the French and roll their eyes while calling them lazy, or as my dad said: "Tell them to stop whining." This, along with their "35-hour" work week (which doesn't apply to everyone, btw), 5 weeks of paid vacation (vs our maybe 2 weeks), and (exaggerated) 2 hour lunches, can paint a false picture of the French for those who know little or nothing about their
culture, and fail to realize that despite the fact that, yes France is also part of the Christanized, Occidental world, it has a history, and therefore mentality, completely different from our own. (Refer to 60 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong for an excellent read on the subject).

They don't want the retirement age to change because they have in fact worked very hard for 40+ years and don't want to wait another 2 years, especially when this has been the norm since Mitterrand lowered the age from 65 to 60 in 1982. They would like to relax and enjoy life while they still have all their teeth and can remember what day it is. Who wouldn't like to retire earlier? This is especially ennervating for people on the verge of retirement--suddenly they are being told they have to wait a couple of years longer. Young people--college and high school students--are also joining the strike. First of all, if people are working two years longer, then prevents jobs from opening to young graduates. As if the job market weren't already difficult enough. Secondly, many feel the need to join in solidarity with their teachers, mothers, uncles, etc, and hopefully keep the status quo for them and for themselves in the future.

One last important side note, retirement works differently in France and the US, which I found myself struggling to explain to a bunch of confused high schoolers the other day (especially since I wasn't even totally clear on the issue). In the US, though we do have Social Security, most people save their own money for retirement. Thus, they can technically retire whenever they feel they have enough money (they just won't receive Social Security until around 66). In France, retirment is all based on something similar to our Social Security, so unless you are super rich, you have to wait to retire until the government says you can. As is quite common, things that are handled privately in the US--health care (grr), retirement, even museums (with the exception of the Smithsonian museums in DC)--are handled by the government in France (and many other European nations). Across the ocean, we have always been terrified of big government and anything that smells of socialism (dare I even metion the other -ism?). From the "Red Scare" in the 1920s, to Blacklisting in the 1950s, to calling Obama Hitler, this country has consistently proved hostile such ideas. In France, though, the government is expected to handle almost everything--and the French pay good money for it too. And they're about to pay two more years of their life.

Sous les pavés, la plage!

--Under the cobblestones, the beach! (A famous slogan from the 1968 student revolution).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ça y est !

While this expression can have a million and one meanings, depending on the context (just try looking it up on word reference, no quick easy answer), basically it's a kind of woot woot, it worked/is working out, it's done (exclamation point!!)! In this case, I am of course, refering to where we left off with my previous post--well, previous previous post--about my life being on hold until I found housing. As I said quickly in my pink praline post, I HAVE A HOME!! Chez an incredibly nice famille française--mom (Sophie), dad (Gilles) and 18-year old son (Oscar). Oh yeah, and the giant, but friendly, dog (Rita). I have taken over the room of the older son (don't remember his name...). It's a beautiful house nestled on the Fourvière Hill, overlooking the lovely city of Lyon. I know, my life is tough. I just had my first dinner with them (as well as Sophie's brother), and everything about it was so typically French, I almost can't believe it myself. Needless to say, this is going to be a delightful and educational 7 months. I never envisioned this kind of living situation when I thought about coming to Lyon--I figured I would find an apartment with some other French people my age--but this is so much better! I wanted cultural immersion, and boy am I going to get it. Duck, champignons, squash gratin, wine from the Rhone valley, and of course, some fromage, plus your average French dinner table discussion topics: wine, food (while eating other food), and politics. For my part, I taught them the words for squash and pumpkin, and shot down their sterotype that Americans don't like fresh cheese. Apparently, we only like it cooked and are afraid of French cheese, including goat cheese. Oh no, I said, although I don't like goat cheese, I know many Americans who do, and we have many other French cheeses in the US. It is, of course, a much more central part of the French gastronomical culture than in the US, as is foie gras, bread, wine, well, food in general.

View from back of the house, same view as from my room (snow-capped mountain is Mont Blanc--apparently when it is so clear you can see it, rain is coming soon!)
My room (a bit bigger than it looks)

As for other things that are off and running, I had my first, sort of, real day at work this afternoon. For the first week or so, I'm basically just introducing myself and observing. I did jump in every now and then when the teacher asked me to explain an expression--"live and let live"(I almost started singing "Let it Be)-- give a synonym for "profess" or "anxiety," etc. It's really a challenge to suddenly have to explain things you just say all the time without even thinking about them. It was a really interesting 3 hours, and I was really impressed by the students level of English and, especially, by their eagerness to participate. They were expressing ideas in English that I could never have done in French when I was in high school. Even in college level French courses students weren't usually so vocal. Of course, today I apparently had some of the best students at the school, so my impression is a little one-sided. Probably the most hilarious part of the day was when a student said the F-word while performing a skit. In France, les gros mots, or cuss words, aren't as strong and offensive as they are in English, and you'll hear them much more often, including out of the mouths of children, than in the US. As a result, when French people speak English, they often drop more cuss words than many of us would in an everday conversation. The teacher kindly explained to the student that this word was extremely inappropriate, much more offensive than he thought, and was never to be used in the classroom, while I nodded vigorously from my seat.

Besides a little F-bomb dropping, the rest of the day was spent with another teacher who had had her students watch a short video in which New Yorkers were inteviewed about their opinions on the mosque near Ground Zero. I appreciated that she emphasized that only some Americans confuse terrorists/extremists with Muslims. Others of us realize that it was not in fact the Muslim community that flew planes into the twin towers. Then again, it's probably the same people who compare Obama to Hitler and insist that he was not born in the US. In that class, I realized I would be spending some time this year teaching the students differences between British and American English, starting today with autumn and fall (next week--can't and cahn't). I'll probably learn some things along the way too, and before I know it, I may even become fluent in British (I kid, I kid).

Ok, that's all for now folks. Tomorrow I'm opening a bank account, getting a metro pass, and hitting up the Monoprix for some essentials. Look out Lyon, Lindsey really lives here now! :)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Les Pralines Roses

So I finally have a home, just moved in a few hours ago in fact! It is the room in the maison bourgeoise that I wrote about in the last post. As I'm leaving early in the morning for a weekend in Paris (already? I know right?), I don't have time to do a proper blog entry, so that'll have to wait till I get back. But, I will post some pics, as promised, of these pink pralines I keep going on about, one of Lyon's many gastronomic specialties. So feast your eyes, try not to drool on your computer and yes, you can get diabetes just looking at these pictures...