Wednesday, May 25, 2005

"Today they make walk even those without feet."

I watched a documentary last night about Cuban immigrants in America. In my psychological preparations for going back home, I've thought a lot about the States. I had forgotten how sad it can be.

To be sure, the documentary was about the underbelly of American society, but just seeing the streets of New York, Philadelpia, Miami, Alberquerque, I remembered what life is like for "white trash" and America's other poor. I was reminded of the sadness and hopelessness they seem to eminate in their daily struggle. And I was reminded of what "struggle" meant in America: televisions, cars, a nice house, and fat. Incredibly fat poor people. The whole situation just screams of unmet needs: the unseen, spiritual kind.

In France, I don't feel the same sort of dispair, even from the poor. There are a few crazies and drunks who hang around the train station, but otherwise everyone still has their dignity. Fat people are rare and so the perfume of a self-control lost doesn't permeate daily life. The Africans I've come to know are truly poor but have an intact set of morals. Even if I don't agree with them sometimes, they have rules they live by and thus preserve their dignity. Even the Arabs, the French equivalant of Mexican immigrants, rarely sell drugs and usually follow their religious beliefs. 

The difference, I believe, is self-respect. The Arabs were sent for to reconstruct after the war and then discarded. The poor French are victims of an elitist system, which gives upper-level management positions uniquely to graduates of "Les Grands Ecoles." The Africans are working against widespread racism, trying to snatch back the lives taken from their ancestors. 
Everyone blames the "system" or the rich Frenchman and everyone is happy. Well, maybe not happy, but at least they hold their heads high, because there was never any choice. Because there's not really a sense of self-determination like in the US, you get to blame someone else for your social position.

It's an interesting situation. A lot of people are very unhappy with the French system. But a lot of people who support the American system, don't seem as happy and fulfilled as the French people who don't like theirs.

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In other news, I attended an elementary school's field trip through local history today. Here, local history consists of the German occupation of France, and the resistance movement's heros and martyrs. We stood in the square where Jean Moulin, a founder of the Council for the Resistance, was captured and later killed by the German gestapo. The children sang a violent song — with angelic voices and no obvious recognition of the words — that was sung by the resistance.
"Oh, Partisans, workers and countrymen, there's the alarm!
tonight the enemy will know blood and tears."
And so on.
Afterwards, the children encircled the old, uniformed former resistance fighters and asked them questions such as "What was the gestapo like?" and asked for autographs.

In France, history is hard to forget. Nearly every road or square is named after some historical person, event or date (yup, date. I live not far from "Nov. 11th 1918 Place"). The historical people ones are the best because on the street signs they write in small print at the bottom why this person was important, because he or she is usually not a household name. Or at least, they wouldn't be if the street weren't named that. It's a great everyday reminder of history and helps people not to forget the stuggles and acheivements of their ancestors. The American system of numbers and letters is practical, but it's very impersonal. Even the few times we do come up with people, it's just presidents or maybe MLK Jr.


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Finally, I wanted to make the following annoucement: It takes only about 30 minutes to walk from the mall to my apartment. Thanks to a sudden strike throughout the entire public transportation system (metros, buses, tramways, even the funicular) I am now initimately aware of this fact. Though transportation strikes have occurred about five times since I've been here, they have never been this bad. Usually it has just meant that everything was running slowly. And usually there were warnings a few days in advance that there would be a strike. This was total, sudden and complete. Following what they would only describe as an "aggression" against a driver, the whole network threw in the towel.

I was unfortunate enough to be on the complete other side of Lyon (technically in a different town: Cuire) from my apartment when this happened. After walking all over Cuire with the elementary school kids, I was obliged to walk back to the metro stop instead of taking the bus that had brought me there. The metro was still working at that moment but the terminus still left me 20 minutes walk from the office. After checking the internet, I realised how serious the strike was and decided to try and get home with the #36, which, they said, was operating at 67%. I walked to the mall and waited for nearly an hour for a bus that never came. I had never walked from my apartment to the mall, but it seemed like a very long way, as the bus travels on very fast, straight roads.

When I finally made it home, I had very tired legs and feet, a rather bad sunburn and a rather large (mercilessly unpopped) blister on my right foot. On my way, a lady looking as tired as I was said to me: "Today they make walk even those without feet," and continued on her way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

After three weeks of vacationing, I need a vacation

There are two types of vacations. The first is when you don't go to work or school and sit around not doing a whole lot of anything. The second type is where you travel around a bunch, which, while very interesting, is not incredibly restful.
So when I say I just got back from three weeks of vacation, you know which one I mean.
After my mom arrived we spent the first week exploring the city that I have come to call home. We saw lots of the major spots to see in Lyon, and even though it's not a big tourist draw, I think mom would agree that there's enough to do here to fill a week.
But she didn't come all this way just to hang out, so we rented a car and drove to Beaune, the capital of the Burgundy wine region. It was a very cute little mediaeval town with an awesome public hospital called Hôtel-Dieu built in 1443. The hospital functioned with reknown all the way until 1971 and was enriched along the way by donations from the upper classes making it into a real "Palace of the Poor" with many works of art and the home of the most famous wine auction in the world.
Mom and I also tried a few samples of wine, of course, and dined very well while there.
The next day, after I got us lost, we got to Annecy, a cute little town near Geneva on the edge of the cleanest lake in Europe. I was mostly interested in old town, however, and enjoyed walking through the streets with old, quasi-Swiss style houses and touristy shops posed at the edge of the little river that feeds the lake.
For the final four days of my mom's stay we were in Paris and really had an enjoyable time. We walked a little more than I wanted, but in such a big city and with so much beautiful and interesting stuff at every corner it's hard not to want to see it all! And we came pretty close too. From the Eiffel Tower to Versailles to cafés at the Bastille and Notre Dame, we saw pretty much everything, except Musée d'Orsay, which wasn't open because of the holiday.

Then I came home to Lyon for a day where I worked all day at Le Progrès writing my first real article! It should be published sometime next week! The next day I headed off again, this time on a bus trip to the Dordogne region in the south of France with just about everyone in the Centre Oregon program. It was great to get to see everyone again and see how the past year has treated them, and to see which ones turned out to have actually learned French and which are just drinking away their parents' money... ;-)
The trip itself was really interesting as well. We stayed on an organic farm that welcomes tourists and feeds them twice a day with products from their farm, including organic wine (very bitter, not recommended). During the day we took trips, one to Sarlat, an ancient little town with wisteria hanging everywhere and foie gras shops on every corner. In the afternoon we took canoes down the Dordogne river and floated by lush countryside, beautiful bridges and very cool rock houses, some built directly into rock walls lining the river. Some were so old and so well camoflaged you only noticed them by the windows in the cliff face. The next day we saw a pretty cool castel and learned about its defenses. Then we had an awesome lunch at a two-star restaurant (French give out stars sparingly. One star means it's exceptional). We rolled out of the restaurant to go on a boat tour and then to an incredible garden with bizarrely shaped hedges on a hillside looking out over the entire Dordogne valley and its castels. Before going home we stopped off at Lascaux II, the site of near-perfectly preserved prehistoric paintings (where Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear series takes place).

I finally got home last night and must now concentrate on all the things I have to do as we ramp up to the end of my stay here. I have classes to pass and editors to impress, ends to tie up here, and plans to make for Russia. The unfortunate part of the last three weeks is how much time I spent speaking English and how quickly my French deteriorated because of that. In my final weeks here I hope I can accomplish all I want to, but it's scary to think how quickly all that will disappear...

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