Train Connections

Madame Gisele of Montpelier writes her address
for us as the TGV approached Lille today.

Hôtel Brueghel,
5, Parvis Saint-Maurice Lille

Our train excursion to Lille today involved some unplanned excitement in Paris.

The TGV sped us from Cannes to Paris Gare Lyon in four hours, which meant we had more than two hours to have lunch before catching another TGV to Lille in northeastern France. We stored our bags in a locker, found a decent Chinese restaurant near the station, and lingered afterward at a makeshift crafts market where I bought a book by a Chetchnian author for my Institut professor, Jean. I thought I would have 40 minutes to take photos in the wonderful light of the train station after checking the board to find our track location. I immediately knew something was wrong when our train wasn’t listed, even though trains before and after it were on the board.

In nearly the same moment, I knew what was wrong, and I confirmed it by looking more carefully at the ticket. Sure enough, our train to Lille was scheduled to depart in 30 minutes from Gare Nord, not Gare Lyon. We raced out to the curb and frantically asked a taxi driver if he could get us to the right station in 30 minutes. “Pas de problème,” he assured us, and off we sped.

Traffic was mercifully light, and our driver seemed sure we would make our train. I relaxed enough to ask him some questions in French and learned that he was from Haiti, that he had voted Non in the referendum, and that he thinks all the French leaders are buddies who live in grand houses and don’t care about the plight of the common people. “You will have time to have a coffee,” he assured us, which was an overstatement, but we did arrive in time to make our train.

Our seats on the one-hour TGV ride to Lille faced an elderly woman who was returning to Lille to visit friends. Her name was Madame Gisele, and she said her husband had died three weeks ago, and that they had been married 62 years. We talked about her travels to Egypt, California, the Grand Canyon (including a helicopter ride), Ceylon, and Greece. We talked all the way to Lille, with Darlene listening and adding a couple of questions. As we approached the station, she offered to write down her address in case we are ever in Montpellier, where she now lives. I do believe if we have the chance we will try to visit her there before we leave for the U.S.

We didn’t know what to expect when we got off the train, and as usual low expectations led to delight. Lille this afternoon was bustling with people in the old city, which has handsome old Flemish buildings and large plazas. The crowds on a pedestrian mall were so thick that we wondered if we had stumbled into the middle of a big festival. In the Place de Charles de Gaulle we sat for a while watching a boy kick a soccer ball to his mother.

We also noticed several bizarrely dressed young women accosting strangers with odd requests, each of the women followed by a group of giggling friends. One of them made a bee-line for me and put a scale down on the ground and asked if I would stand on it to be weighed, for a kiss. This sounded like a good deal, so I stood on the scale, received my two-cheek kiss, and then sat down at the edge of a fountain. One of the girl’s friends began speaking to me in rapid French, and I somehow got the idea that she was asking for a donation. I assumed they were raising money for a school project, but when I reached into my fanny-pack for a Euro, they looked horrified and explained, in English and French, that the woman was getting married next week and that she had to weigh and kiss men totaling 1000 kilograms as part of her preparation for marriage. This explained what all the other hubbub had been about, and we were introduced to a custom we hadn’t read about in the Michelin green guide.

It’s cool here in Lille, headed for the 50s tonight. Tomorrow we have heard there will be a big open-air market near our hotel. We are looking forward to exploring the city, and I’m going to be on the lookout for brides-to-be needing help from strangers.
Posted by Hello

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Darlene turns at least one head as she walks down a pedestrian mall this afternoon in Lille. Posted by Hello

A boy prepares to boot a soccer ball this afternoon in the busy Place Charles de Gaulle in Lille. Posted by Hello

View from my table at the Deep Sun Cafe, Boulevard Carnot, Cannes. Posted by Hello

Friday, June 03, 2005

Sarko and the Sedentary Tourist

It’s bizarre, to use a favorite word of the French, that my preferred way of exploring France can be done from a café or from the apartment. I am fascinated by what I find in the newspapers, on television, on CDs, and on the internet. But for Darlene’s desire to explore the real world, I could happily plant myself anywhere in France with a decent internet connection, and create France between my ears. Now, of course, is a rich time for such intellectual tourism, because of the unfolding post-Non drama. But even in normal times, I would be happy, as I am in Denver, never straying far from my desk or favorite café table. I am a sedentary tourist.

Which is not to say that the location of my body is unimportant. The vibe here in Cannes is totally different than the vibe in Denver. I don’t believe my mind operates differently, but because every single feature of the environment is slightly strange, it’s as if my usual mind becomes energized by taking in new impressions. I often wonder what I would make of my life 30 years ago if I were to return knowing what I know now. Living for an extended period in France is like that. Speaking French at the level of a precocious child brings me into a childlike zone of communication and emotion. I have a 12-year-old’s delight in figuring out the world of the grownups when I try to decipher what’s going on in French politics. The last time I might have felt this level of discovery would have been when Kennedy was running against Nixon.

All this is by way of caveat for my gangly impressions of the current French scene. To wit:

The most intriguing figure in the soap opera is Nicolas Sarkozy, a little guy with big ears, intense eyes, and an impressively pointed beak. He is immensely popular, despite his conservative ideas, because he seems to be more “of the people” than the traditional French political class, all of whom attend a certain school, the Harvard Business School of French politics, and many of whom seem to take on the bearing and elitist grandeur of aristocrats, perhaps because of all the meetings they have in palatial rooms decorated in gold. Sarkozy is the only major politician frequently referred to in the mainstream press by a nickname, “Sarko.” It gives him the flair of an action figure.

In the tumult of France’s Non vote to the European Constitution, the discredited President Jacques Chirac dismissed his loyal prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who is now savoring his freedom during a long vacation in sunny Crete. Chirac took the message of the referendum to be “It’s the unemployment, stupid” and he promised that the new government would be focused on making a dent in France’s stubborn unemployment rate, which has been above 10 percent for most of the past 20 years. The fascinating question that has worldwide implications is whether France can create more jobs without tumbling to what is scornfully referred to here as “the Anglo-Saxon model” of low taxes, a minimal social safety net and wild-west competition. In an odd quirk of language, this dreaded model is called “liberalism” in France, so if Rush Limbaugh were to syndicate his show here he would have to figure out nice things to say about liberals every other 10 minutes.

Chirac and his crowd believe they can have jobs and the French social system, too. Sarko says no, it’s time for big changes, it’s time to admit that other approaches, such as that of the hated Brits, are creating more jobs than the French model. That he is popular in spite of these scary ideas is a tribute to his skill as a politician. When Chirac shuffled the deck of ministers, he put Dominique de Villepin at the top, as prime minister. Villepin is a tall, elegant fellow with gorgeously long white hair who writes poetry and who made a stirring case against the war in Iraq at the U.N. The rest of the ministers are mainly Chirac loyalists, but the cagey president of the Republic surprised everyone by including Sarko in the lineup, as the number two minister. And Sarko surprised his friends by accepting the job, instead of staying outside the government in his powerful post as head of the majority party, where he might have enjoyed lobbing rhetorical grenades over the wall at Chirac et al between now and 2007 when the next presidential election is held.

Last night on television, Sarkozy explained his reasoning in a way that helped me understand his appeal. He admitted he is in a difficult situation, being the sole “liberal” minded minister surrounded by ideological opponents and political foes. “It’s precisely because it’s difficult that I want to do it,” he said. “And now is a time for everyone in France to work together.” Sophie, my new French teacher, explained it this way: “It’s very risky for him to join the government, but he is a man who is unafraid of risk, and that is perhaps what France needs.”

Le Monde this morning has a cartoon as usual on its front page. It shows Villepin at the bow of a little boat, reciting these lines of poetry: “Le chômage, je vais le vaincre / Et j’ai 100 jours pour convaincre!” (Unemployment, I am going to conquer it / and I have 100 days to convince!) At the stern of the boat, holding the royal red train of Chirac, is a goofy little caricature of Sarkozy with a big grin, reciting his own little poem to Villepin: “Continue à faire le couillon / Tu vas bientôt déraper, / et comme Napoleon, / je vais t’impoisonner!” (Keep being an imbecile / you will soon get out of hand / and like Napoleon / I will poison you!”)

So this is a great drama unfolding. I love reading the different newspapers, because each has its own ideological slant. But love him or hate him, Sarko is always center stage. He reminds me of Ross Perot, without the whacko.

Timed Writing

I have just a few minutes left of battery life. What would you write if your battery was about to die, your last words on the blog? Dread thought. It’s a lovely morning here on Boulevard Carnot near our apartment. My sidewalk table faces the busy sidewalk. Darlene is finishing up two hours of French study with Sophie, our new teacher whom we found at a school one block away from chez nous. My session with her later today will focus on coverage of Jacques Chirac’s televised speech last night announcing a change in the government after the cataclysmic Non vote on Sunday. Eighteen minutes left. Have a great day!

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Le Non de La France

Today I wake up at the epicenter of an ideological earthquake. The French rejected the European Constitution yesterday, 55 percent of the voters casting a “Non.” Here at the Deep Sun Café in Cannes, where someone forgot to turn off the free wi-fi connection offered during the Film Festival, everything looks the same. Boulevard Carnot, a main artery in and out of the city, is busy with buses, scooters, Meganes, Volkswagens, taxis, and vans. Pedestrians walk by talking on cellphones. A tourist pulls her luggage, the wheels clacking on the stones of the sidewalk. It looks like another warm, sunny day, the day after France was turned upside down.

“Le non a gagné et tout est bouleversé,” Le Figaro’s editorial concluded. The No won and all is turned upside down. France, one of the founders of the European Union, becomes the first country to reject the constitution. The Netherlands votes this week, and the No is leading there, too. So the dream of a strong, united Europe has been rocked hard.

My own highly subjective reading of this historic moment is mixed. I feel sad for France, because I am sure this vote will have the effect of further marginalizing a country with a proud history and culture. The ascendancy of a market-dominated world seems unstoppable, and probably a good thing for bringing more jobs and more democratic freedoms. But what’s lost as the world plunges ahead into the globalized future is also precious. One way that I picture the difference is to compare the dizzying crush of shoppers at Monoprix, a small-time Wal-Mart, with the image of a Frenchman strolling home with a fresh baguette under his arm, purchased at a small boulangerie. You can buy baguettes cheaper at Monoprix, I’m sure, although I’ve never been tempted to even price them. The world economy is headed for Monoprix and mono-lots-of-other things. It’s harder and harder for a country (or in the U.S., for a single state) to hold onto its identity, to keep vibrant the things that make it unique in the world. I’m not generally comfortable with such simplistic notions, but today seems to be a day for looking at large trends.

So a part of me resonates with the French and their “Non.” It was a stupid gesture by all rational measures. But this is France, after all, so it should be no surprise that the heart, whence spring fear as well as desire, got 55 percent of the vote yesterday.

Monday, May 30, 2005

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