Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thanksgiving in Paris

Add to Google Reader or HomepageOur friends Bruce and Judy invited us to join them for Thanksgiving in Paris. They were going to have an “American Thanksgiving” with two other couples and us. We went and had a wonderful time but getting there was not as easy as we had hoped.


Here’s one for the file folder called « soul-sucking French bureaucracy. »

Weeks ago, Ellen started to work on finding the best fares for the train between Avignon and Paris. When she found good rates and good travel times, Ellen purchased the tickets on-line from “idTGV.”  (TGV are the initials for the super-fast train system in France. All trains are run by the SNCF and the trains are fast, clean and on time.)

She printed the return tickets first. The printed tickets had a few lines of advertising stating the advantages of e-tickets including:

Plus rapide (faster)
Plus simple (easier)
Plus souple (more flexible) – and ends with:
« SNCF vous souhaite un bon voyage » (emphasis added)

Ellen went to print the tickets for the trip from Avignon to Paris and every time she clicked on the print command, she was directed to an error web page which said “website not found.” She tried a number of times over the next few days with the same result every time. We went to our friends’ house and tried from their computer to see if it was our machines. No luck. Finally, we borrowed our friends’ car to drive to the TGV station in Avignon to ask one of the SNCF clerks to help us print our ticket for us so that everything would be ready on Wednesday morning when we were to leave.

We approached the clerk and I said “I hope you can help us.” I then explained our problem to the young man at the counter. The young man named Yohann looked at our paperwork and said that since we bought our tickets from “idTGV” and he works for SNCF, he couldn’t help us. Ellen showed him another page that we had brought from our on-line purchase on which was printed a header “” and asked why the SNCF was different from “” He consulted another colleague and came back and said: “They are not the same as us. I can’t print your ticket.” We asked what his advice to us might be and again, he left his chair and consulted his colleague and came back with the suggestion that we just show up with the printed ticket-confirmation page that we had showed him. That way, he said, the conductor can look up your number and know that you have seats on the train. I asked: “If we encounter any trouble, can we tell the conductor that Yohann from the SNCF office told us to get on the train?” He smiled and said “sure” which in French or English usually means “there is a snow-ball’s chance that this guy will remember my name and, even if he does, the conductor won’t have time to come and find me and plus I don’t work next Wednesday… I am off the hook. Next in line?”
On the way back to the car, Ellen said that if the clerk had not been so cute, she would have reached across the counter and throttled him.
PS: On Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before our departure, Ellen got an e-mail from idTGV reminding us that we needed to print our ticket. Ellen followed the links and THIS TIME she was able to print the ticket.

Once in Paris, all of the TGV/SNCF/idTGV/ frustrations evaporated. We were in Paris!

Bruce and Judy live in the Marais so we lugged our luggage 
(? does luggage come from ‘something lugged?) onto the metro and then walked about 10 blocks to their apartment. They have a great apartment.

We walked to the “Hotel de Ville” (City Hall) and got in line to see an exhibit of the works of Andrée Putman – a French woman who designed furniture, room arrangements, Concorde seating, etc. (I had never heard of her, but recognized several of her designs.) That evening, Judy, Ellen and I went to the Left Bank to see the Ionesco play “The Bald Soprano” in French. We met up with Bruce and went to dinner at “Le Bouledogue” (the Bulldog) which is a restaurant in their neighborhood. Wonderful food.

As I walk around Paris, I am amazed at the number of restaurants. It seems that few Parisians must cook at home for all of these restaurants to remain viable. – but when one goes to the markets of Paris, one gets the opposite impression:  most people must be wonderful cooks given the things in their shopping baskets. After restaurants, there is a plethora of eyeglass shops, followed by lingerie shops… If I try to deduce priorities from my impressions, I might suggest that food is at the top followed by being able to read the menu (while looking gorgeous) and being able to eye – from head to toe – the women who come into the restaurant…


Judy, Ellen and I walked to Judy’s favorite vegetable shop to pick up cranberries. The vegetable shop owner had to special order the cranberries because he thought that Thanksgiving was over. Judy explained that it was Canadian Thanksgiving that was over. American (as in US of America) is the fourth Thursday of November.  We then went to the shop to pick up the fresh turkey that Judy had ordered. It was five kilos instead of the seven she had ordered. Judy bought two coquelet (young chickens) to ensure that we would have enough to eat. Just to be sure, we stopped at Bruce’s favorite bakery and bought five baguettes.

Ellen and Judy made stuffing. Judy made cranberry relish and Waldorf salad.

As folks started to arrive, Ellen had made amuses-bouches (appetizers) with foie-gras that she had bought. I served wine until it was time to mash potatoes. I had very capable guidance from Suzanne who said that mashed potatoes were her favorite food. She encouraged me to add more cream, more butter, a little more cream... (Cooking à la Julia Child!)

Suzanne had made "American" green bean casserole with French haricots verts, cream and crème fraiche cooked with mushrooms and American style French-fried onion rings in a can. She also made a squash casserole. Both were perfect in the comfort food list of favorites.

Rounding out the list but proving that ‘the last shall be first’ were the dessert offerings that Yolanda brought. We enjoyed sweet-potato pie and pumpkin cake each served with ample amounts of chantilly (whipped cream) or crème fraiche. Everyone went home with left-overs.

Quel repas! (What a meal!) We had a wonderful meal that was second only to spending time with wonderful people. Quelle chance! (How lucky we are!)

And then…

Friday included shopping (Ellen bought very stylish boots – thus ending two months of women staring at her for wearing her Croc sling backs or her klunky but comfy Merrell boots) and going to two of the museums that were participating in the photography expo across Paris. In the afternoon we went to see an American film: “Mother and Child” in English with French subtitles (so different from what we usually get to watch at the cinema in Vaison.)  Bruce made bouillabaisse for dinner that evening. (Another great meal)

Saturday, we went to the Museum of Modern Art to see one more of the photo exhibits connected with the expo. Then back to the Marais, lugging our suitcases to Gare de Lyon and the trip home.

Paris is always thrilling but I like our little village.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Picture is worth...

Add to Google Reader or HomepageThanks to Betty for sharing her pictures with us including this collage.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Strikes in France

cAdd to Google Reader or HomepageWhen John et al. were here, we had conversations about the French strikes, French lifestyle and the meaning of life (which usually means having had too much wine). We talked about the frustration (for Americans) of ordering a coffee and then spending the next 30 minutes trying to get the attention of the waiter to bring the bill so that we could pay it and leave. In Vaison la Romaine unlike most restaurants in the states, there is absolutely no pressure to “turn a table,” so you can sit at the café as long as you want. This is antithetical to Americans who want to keep a schedule and are frustrated that their commitment to a schedule is not shared by their French wait staff. Life moves along more slowly in France. In France, most stores are closed between noon and 2:30 PM for lunch. In the US, lunch “hours” are rarely that – more often 30 minutes.

As we discussed the differences, Arleen, who has collected data on the millennial generation, told us about the different approach to life and work of the new American workforce. Her comparisons between our generation and the millennial generation reminded me of the old Japanese film “Woman in the Dunes” in which the protagonist asks: “Do we live to shovel sand or do we shovel sand to live?” (The answer for the millennial generation is: ‘We will work – and we will be productive while multi-tasking while working – if it doesn’t interfere with life.’)

The question in “Woman in the Dunes” is, of course, a parable of life anywhere but Americans of my generation view work as life-defining whereas it seems that the French view work as a means to support their lifestyles.

These are very essential differences. Americans celebrate individualism and believe that everyone can become a success if one works hard enough. The French prefer looking at life as “the tide raises all boats” and work to keep the tide rising. Even though times have changed, the differences between individualism and the collective provided an insight for me as to why the French put up with daily life-crippling strikes and demonstrations. The French believe that collectively they have the capacity to develop surprisingly strong and demonstrative changes through strikes and demonstrations. On the down side, it also appears that at the individual level, there are some who use this “collective umbrella” to manifest personal discontent through vandalism such as breaking car windows, setting fires, etc.

The strikes and demonstrations across France have mostly ended but friends in the states remain concerned about how safe it is in France. From my narrow view of the world, the strikes and demonstrations were never a threat to our safety. True, there were a few violent incidents that attracted a lot of press coverage. Unfortunately, the press picked up on these incidents and made the focus of the stories about violence. In reality, people across France were angry but showed their anger in peaceful demonstrations and strikes. The unions managed the strikes and demonstrations so that they had the maximum impact without violence or injury. Two years ago, the president of France had dismissed strikes as unimportant and of no consequence. Désormais, quand il y a une grève en France, plus personne ne s'en aperçoit", s'était amusé Nicolas Sarkozy le 6 juillet 2008 devant des militants UMP (Le Monde, 5 novembre 2010).

The French people participated in and/or supported the strikes because they were upset not only about the plan to change the age of retirement eligibility; they were equally angry about how the Sarkozy-led government has changed national policies, leaving French low and middle class people exasperated by increasing inequalities with the upper classes in taxes, salaries and employment as well as by Sarkozy’s nepotism scandal. (Even teenagers have demonstrated against the new retirement rules, something about which teens usually don’t think until they are in the workforce.)

Our friend sent me a wonderful description of her perspective on the strikes. I have included much of what she wrote because I think that she does a good job of describing the situation. (I have also shown this to a few French friends to be sure that I was not guilty of “disinformation” à la Reagan administration.)

“The media coverage has been a bit simplistic and overly dramatic. Our daily lives have been unaffected by the strikes and the political turmoil. We have to go out of our way to see a demonstration, and we have not seen any violence. My husband takes the metro to his French classes and his commute has not been disturbed at all. There were some problems with garbage pickup in Marseille and other cities. There have been a few travel delays on trains, but that seems to be over. I think that some teenagers burned a car in a suburb of Paris. That footage has played over and over making it look like the city is on fire. There is real frustration among many segments of the society, and the strikes give people an opportunity to voice that frustration. 

“There has also been coverage of the long lines at the gas stations.  Refinery workers and some truck drivers were on strike, but that is over.  We rented a car for four days to drive to Alsace, and the longest we waited in line for gasoline was about five minutes.  An innkeeper in Alsace told me that the exaggerated media coverage had hurt his business because clients from Germany or Belgium saw the news and think that France is in a civil war.

“The media also make it sound like the “lazy” French don't want to work past 60. The age to get the minimum retirement benefits will be raised from 60 to 62. That is like me taking my Social Security at 62, and not getting full benefits. The age for full benefits has been raised from 65 to 67. The number that I find to be truly amazing is that now in France one must work for 41 years to qualify for full government benefits. I know a lot of Americans that take their Social Security that have not worked for 41 years. If a doctor manages to finish his or her training and begin to work by age 29, he or she would have to work to age 70 to get full pension benefits. Of course, people who earn middle to high incomes can invest in private retirement funds, but many people cannot afford to do that.

“The unemployment rate in France has been between 8% and 10.5% for decades.  Just as in the US, unemployment tends to hit the youngest and the oldest workers the most, as well as workers in certain industries.  The lower-paid workers, who cannot afford a private pension, may lose out on full government benefits due to extended periods of unemployment.  A worker who is laid off or down-sized after age 50 does not have a good chance of finding another full-time job and may never be able to log 41 years of work.

“Due to some tax policies 20 to 30 years ago that encouraged people to have a third child, France is one of the few developed countries that has enough young people of working age to support the retirement system.  With a high rate of unemployment, many of those younger people cannot find work until the older workers retire.”

The major protests are over. The French Senate approved the Sarkozy plan to change retirement ages as proposed.  President Sarkozy signed the bill into law on November 10, 2010. The Left has pledged to continue the pressure against what many in France consider their birthright. (In 1982, the Mitterand government established the retirement age at 60.) The Left will focus their demonstrations and strikes on generating the sentiments necessary to overthrow the Sarkozy government in 2012 and reverse the policy.

I thought the differences between France and the US were significant but then I read the press release on the “deficit-reduction committee” recommendations. It seems as if “equality” gets trumped (again!) by liberty. The Americans and the French have similar items on the national agenda. The difference is that the French plan to use collective action to do something about it.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


Our friends have left Vaison la Romaine and returned to the states. Betty and Cecilia left for Paris on Wednesday and John and Arleen left on Friday. Despite too many rainy days, it was a wonderful visit and a lot of fun to meet the friends of our friends and to enjoy time with the four of them. During our time in Provence, we have been making our way in our village meeting new people and finding new/shared interests. It was wonderful having the chance to meet John’s and Arleen’s friends and getting to know more people that we want to have on the “BFF” list.

If laughter is the best medicine, we should be healthy for quite a while. We had so many laugh out loud moments from sharing stories and experiences. A lot of laughs came from stories of our friends and their missteps in the dance of French culture. (In their defense, they did run into a few folks who should be in counseling for career change.)

I guess most Americans have asked/been asked the following as we clumsily trip our way through a foreign culture:

  • Why should one have to ask to have butter on the tablein a restaurant?
  •  Why is coffee often served tepid?
  •  Why do the French drive so fast? Once they get to the café where they are headed, they will sit there for an hour after they have finished their coffee waiting for the waiter to offer to bring the bill.
  • Why do they permit trucks on two-lane roads when the truck takes up one and a half lanes?
  •  If you want to have a coffee with cream after 9:00 AM, does it mean that you expect to get a croissant with it?
  •  Will people who you know expect three “air kisses” every time you see them?
  •  Where can you get “coffee to go” in Vaison la Romaine? (Why would you want “coffee to go” in Vaison la Romaine?)
  •  Why can you find only an “eastern style” toilet when you are pressed for time?
  •  How can such “cute” (Monopoly-like) currency be worth one and ½ times US currency?
  •  Why do most French dictionaries not include words found on menus?
  •  Why are there two flush buttons on the top of the toilet?
  •  Why does one ask “Ou sont les toilettes” (where are the toilets) when you need only one?
  •  How many different kinds of a single cheese are there? In Lansing, we consider ourselves lucky to find Comte or Roquefort. Don’t confuse us with multiple choices of each.
  •  Do shopkeepers actually spend 2 ½ hours eating lunch? (In a more American-style question: Do the French need to have a 2 ½ lunch period?)
  •  What makes the metric system so special?
  •  Are shop clerks going to expect me to say “Bonjour, Madame” and “Au revoir, Madame” every time I enter/leave a shop?
  •  Is it the sum of these questions and similar questions that makes another culture intriguing and charming?
Eat some chocolate!

Too bad our guests had to leave before this weekend. There was a wine and chocolate festival at the Rasteau wine cooperative. John would have been especially pleased. (It is he who ends his answering machine salutation with “Eat some chocolate!”) The cooperative was offering wine and chocolate pairings. There were three chocolatiers (chocolate artisans) from the area offering samples and selling their art. In the wine tasting room, I heard them promoting vin doux de Rasteau (sweet wine from Rasteau) to go with the chocolates but I prefer deep, dry red wines – the ones that make you think of chocolate as you sniff the aroma or sip the wine. Red wine and dark chocolate: it doesn’t get much better than this! – and John is right: “Eat some chocolate!”Add to Google Reader or Homepage