Les pieds dans l’eau

Le zouave is not happy. Not only are his feet getting wet, he’s up to his culotte in the Seine, whose levels have risen to dangerously high levels this week after torrential rains causing flooding in Paris and nearby communities.

‘Le zouave’ is the statue of a North African soldier, erected by Napoleon in 1856 in commemoration of the victory at the battle of the Alma in Crimea. It seems the zouave holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Parisians. Located at base of the Pont de l’Alma, this brave fellow acts as a warning: when water levels rise high enough that his feet get wet, it does not bode well.

The Alma bridge gets a lot of attention. It is near the famous tunnel where Princess Diana died in 1997. Here it is, along with some other famous Paris bridges, in drone images of the flooding.

And here’s a graphic that shows various dates and water levels of the zouave for the history buffs and technical types. (Of which I am neither. I like the story part. The rest flows in and out of my brain like the Seine.)

‘Crues’ means floods; ‘pics’ are peaks. Note that the bridge was reconstructed in 1974, placing the zouave 80 cm higher.

If all goes well, water levels should go start going down in a few days. Unless we get more rain, that is. And it’s pouring this morning.

Those who live in Villeneuve St. Georges and other suburbs near Paris have entire neighbourhoods underwater. Many have been evacuated and those who are sticking it out are braving it with no electricity.

It’s also a problem for les péniches, the iconic houseboats and restaurants along the Seine. I would have thought that during a flood a boat was the safest place to be but it seems that when the river is too high, they can break their moorings and end up crashing into a bridge. Like the Alma.

Attention, Monsieur le zouave!

La manif

Farmers demonstrate in Paris

“Tu vas à la manif?”

The first time someone asked me this, I remember thinking: it sounds like fun. Somehow the formality and seriousness of publicly demonstrating for a cause is lost in the cute short form: La manif’. And the reality is that it’s a bit of a party.

The French have raised the demonstration to something of an art form. This comprises a range of behaviours, from going out on strike to peaceably demonstrating in the streets, or resisting in more subversive ways. When it escalates, you end up with public disobedience, armed protests and violence against various police forces.

It always seemed strange to me that la Fête du Travail, held each year on the 1st of May, inevitably features a massive demonstration of labour unions. In North America, we celebrate our Labo(u)r Day on the first Monday in September with a barbeque and a few beers. The French take to the streets to remind their bosses that they are ready to strike at any time.

Of course, not everyone goes. I remember my Belle-mère telling me years ago that she agreed with her colleagues at Air France for going out on strike, rhyming off an entire list of rights and wrongs worth fighting for. When I asked if she was going to join them at the manif, however, she said no, she didn’t want to be seen at such an event. Besides, she hated crowds and was looking forward to a quiet day off.

When the company I was working for in Lyon was bought out by a German group, then merged with another Swiss company, our site held a bit of a manif. The pharma industry is not notorious for strike action; it’s a fairly conservative field of well-paid scientists and sales reps. But when any group of employees is threatened with potential job loss in France, you can be sure that the unions will get people out on the street. As I recall, there was a gathering of people waving signs, mostly dressed in while lab coats for effect. There were speeches and air horn blasts. I don’t remember if we processed anywhere. Most likely I took a page out of my mother-in-law’s book and went home early.

At such events there is often a festive air. It’s a bit like skipping off school.

There are sing-songs, usually led loudly off-key by some fellow with absolutely no musical ear. There are balloons, the burning of effigies of leaders. Stands with hot chestnuts and sausage vendors on the sidelines. There is a lot of creativity, even ingenuity among French demonstrators. Of course, there are also massive traffic jams and police everywhere. Water trucks and even tanks.

This past week, hundreds of farmers dumped truckloads of straw on the Champs Elysées in protest of the government’s proposed law to illegalize agricultural use of the chemical glyphosate. They camped out on the straw and managed to block access to the capital’s most famous avenue.

It’s a complex issue which tends to inflame public opinion on both sides. The use of the herbicide glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup which is already banned from private use in France, has been shown to be carcinogenic. At least according to some; others maintain there is no definitive scientific evidence of its danger to man. Certainly there are insufficient widespread studies, over sufficiently long periods, but it is surely not good for the environment or anyone who lives in it. I read one set of studies that found the chemical altered the ability of honeybees to fly and forage for nourishment. It has been so widely used since 1975 that traces of glyphosate can be found in virtually everything we eat.

The problem is that without it, commercial agriculture is doomed to lose money. And in France, that means many hard-working farmers who already struggle to make a living will suffer at least in the short term, until new methods and practices can be introduced. That is why Macron has appointed renowned tree-hugger Nicolas Hulot as minister of the ‘transition’ écologique. What is needed is a profound change in the way we grow our food to more sustainable methods. Such methods exist, and they work, but it will take time and money. In the meantime, there will be demonstrations.

The fact is, resistance is part of the French culture. It’s a bit like free speech to Americans or the monarchy to the Brits.

So next time someone asks, I’m going to the manif.

Et toi?

 

Blindé

blindé Titus

Something has changed for me since the latest terror attacks. Something subtle, yet disturbing. It’s as if the shock and horror of so many innocent lives lost has diminished a notch, as if somehow this has become the new normal.

Paris. Brussels. Nice. Orlando. Manchester. London.

Yet how can we accept terrorism as the status quo?

The same way the world has grown immune to stories about the migrants drowned at sea. Just as America accepts the hundreds of lives lost each day to guns – ten of which are children. And not so different from our increasing immunity to the latest lunacy of its president. It is becoming harder to separate the tragic from the comic.

Perhaps we have become blindé.

Like the armoured vehicle shown here, known in French as ‘un blindé’, we have toughened our exterior. I read that this model, called Titus, was being tested in Paris to transport security forces following the attacks at the Bataclan. It is tough but moves quickly, and can safely carry 13 men and wounded under fire.

It is not uncommon to see heavy artillery on the streets of Paris.

When I first came to France in 1986, Paris was the midst of a wave of terrorism. A bomb went off in a popular store called Tati on Rue de Rennes, killing seven people and injuring 50. Suddenly there were machine gun-toting military and army tanks on the streets. I was frightened and perplexed. Were we at war?

I learned that for the French it is vital to have a show of force at such times, to see that the government is doing something to maintain order — whether to control student riots, to bring an end to massive strikes and demonstrations, or to protect the people from acts of terror. While I was terrified to see so much visible weaponry, most people found the police presence reassuring.

Yet, how can you protect anyone on the street from a maniac behind the wheel of a van? From someone with a hammer or a knife who takes another by surprise? You can’t, of course, and that is why we must grow tougher. Learn to live with the threat. Keep calm and carry on.

Not immune. Not blasé. But tougher none the less.

‘Se blinder’ means to become used to a threat, to toughen up, thicken one’s skin. It also means to go on a bender, to get rip-roaring drunk.

In a weird way that makes sense. Either way, we are feeling less pain.

So what will it be: get tougher or get drunk?

Do you feel you have become ‘blindé’?

Tant de chemin parcouru

I like to look back. Whenever I take a train or a boat I sit backwards, facing the departing view rather than what is rushing towards us.

It occurs to me that at this time 25 years ago we were getting ready to cross the pond. The contents of our lives were on a container ship, our two Frenchies were checked in with our luggage, and we were squeezed into two economy class seats on an Air France flight to Paris with a squirming two-and-half-year-old. I think it was the last time we got away without paying for an extra seat for our son, who is now 27. Our daughter, who turns 24 this year, was in the active planning phase. Enough said.

 

So much water under the bridge, tant de chemin parcouru as we say in French. We moved from my in-laws’ house in Paris to Lyon in the summer of 1992 and never looked back.

Actually, that is untrue. We look back a lot, or at least I do. The years have this way of flying by, and it’s only by looking back and seeing where you’ve been that you get a sense of how far you’ve come.

Where were you 25 years ago?

Un petit voyage

Salzburg view

I am not the world’s most adventurous traveler. My regular trips across the Atlantic are mostly due to a chance encounter with a Frenchman in a bar back in the last century. When we decided to make it permanent, I succumbed to the undeniable attractions of France. After all, what more romantic city in the world for a wedding than Paris?

Then came the big question: where to go for our honeymoon? My beaux-parents worked for Air France, and were eager to pull a few strings in order to send us to our dream destination. However, when exotic ideas like tropical islands and far off lands were tossed about, we were both less than enthusiastic. Husband because none of the options contained his preferred snowy mountain peaks; I being no fan of air travel and knowing we would soon be back on a plane to Canada for Christmas.

In my fledgling French, I tried to explain that we would be happy to stay in Europe for our honeymoon. Rather than travel half way around the world, could we not just go on un petit voyage? For some reason I never understood, my in-laws found this hilarious. “Tu veux faire un petit voyage?” Beau-père teased. My ‘petit voyage’ became a standing joke.

In the end they surprised us with the tickets. My heart fell when I saw the destination: Tahiti. A 20-hour flight from Paris via LA. But that is another story, and one I promise to tell soon. For this post, I want to tell you about the petit voyage that we finally took together last week, 30 years later.

Salzburg cathedral

Salzburg is famous for a few things, at least two of which draw masses of tourists each year. I had been there many years before, in another life, when my tour bus made a brief stop. I had fallen in love with the place and felt sure Zfrenchman would agree, given its spectacular alpine setting.

One of the things Salzburg is known for is, of course, salt. On my first visit, our group donned miners’ overalls and rode a train into the bowels of the earth to explore the salt mines and secret underground saline lake.

The other two things have to do with music. Salzburg is the birthplace of Mozart and the setting for The Sound of Music, two very different musical history notes that today compete for tourist dollars. We discovered that the locals venerate Mozart and loathe The Sound of Music. To find out why, we did what tourists do best and took a tour.

Salzburg.jpg

I should note that as a child The Sound of Music was my favourite movie. Julie Andrews was my hero, not only because she sang like a lark but because she always broke the rules. Between solving a problem like Maria and a Mary Poppins’s spoonful of sugar, I knew by heart every last note of her most famous Hollywood roles. Husband, being French, had never heard of either so we sat down and watched The Sound of Music before we left. To my surprise, he quite enjoyed it. Although why that surprised me I’m not sure. Between the music, the mountains and the struggle against the Nazis, what’s not to love?

Apparently the fact that Hollywood distorted the truth of the Trapp family singers is not particularly loved by the Austrian people. There are many examples; most notably, the family didn’t actually traipse across the Alps to Switzerland as they did at the end of the movie but simply boarded a train to Italy. And poor Maria Von Trapp only ever got $9,000 for what became the highest grossing film of that time.

unadjustednonraw_thumb_3883And while some of the songs from Rogers and Hammerstein’s hugely popular soundtrack still move me to tears, let’s be honest: it is not Mozart. The legacy of that particular musical genius is the true pride of Salzburg. Yet it is overshadowed by the Sound of Music tour buses that fill its streets as Americans and Brits, rather than pay homage to Mozart’s first piano in one of several museums, prefer to spend their money to see where Maria and Georg were married (by the way, this is the church).

Which will bring us back, not to do- a deer, but to our wedding. In honour of which, 30 years later, we enjoyed our petit voyage to Salzburg. We even took in a classical music concert in the famed Mirabell Palace. Mozart would have been proud.

And the best thing was, we didn’t have to fly. We took the train.

By the way, if you go, do try the famous chocolate Sacher torte at the hotel of the same name.

Sacher torte

If you could travel anywhere, where would it be?