Friday, 29 October 2010

Not Ranting

I went out in the car the other day in search of petrol. Out of the four service stations I found, three were already closed and one closed the pumps in front of me as I was waiting in the queue. The motorways seem to be relatively well provided with petrol but, in the car-dependent suburbs, a tankful of 95 really does seem to be like gold dust.

My friends from Italy were supposed to be coming to visit this weekend. They turned up at the station to find that their train had been cancelled due to the SNCF strike. In theory, they could have exchanged their tickets, but all the later trains were full. My friends from Italy are no longer coming to visit this weekend.

Not ranting. Just saying.

Seasonal Confusion

Last weekend, some friends and I managed to defy the petrol crisis and make it all the way to the mountains without having to get out and push the car once. We also managed to get back again safely, but I would have been completely happy to stay. Forever.

There were lots of reasons why I loved Haute Savoie, many of them relating to melted cheese and mulled wine, but the best bit of the trip was the incredible change in the weather that we witnessed literally overnight. Saturday was a gorgeous autumn day, with rays of low October sunshine streaming through the clouds. Sunday was a vin chaud day, as it rained from the moment we got up in the morning until after dark, but on Monday we headed out into the blustery wind to discover that the rain had fallen as snow higher up in the mountains and, on closer inspection (a.k.a. driving further up the hill) what looked like a delicate dusting of icing sugar turned out to be a veritable winter wonderland, with a good 15cm of snow and lots of opportunities for throwing it at each other. Walking amongst pine trees with branches laden down with white powder, our feet crunching gently underneath us, it was hard to believe it was only October, so we indulged in some early singing of Christmas carols.

It looks as though my next trip away from the city might have to be a skiing holiday :-)

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Sarko, the Footie and Losing my Democratic Rights

Last night's post, I realise, was something of an opinionated rant. Now, I love writing polemic. I also quite enjoy expounding in a polemical fashion in speech, at least until I see that look in my listeners' eyes that says "I really don't agree with what this crazy person is saying and ... just get me out of here now." But up until that point, I really quite enjoy it. I do find, though, that after publishing a piece like that (or scaring away an audience of poor souls who just wanted to make polite conversation), I suddenly feel a desperate need to be reasonable and open-minded again. So here, from the angel on my other shoulder, are a couple of reasons why the situation in France at the moment is not as bad as it might be.

One is that, in recent years, the government has succeeded in introducing a "minimum service" during strike times. This means, for example, that a certain number of trains have to run and that when the teachers strike, the mairie sends in people to look after the kids. (Little devil voice says that this may make people less likely to object to the striking and therefore let it carry on longer, but I'm ignoring it because I'm trying to be positive.)

The second is that, while the violence and the vandalism related to the lycée strikes is shocking, to be fair to the majority of the students, the demonstrations were supposed to be peaceful. Today's news reports are now suggesting that ordinary demonstrations were infiltrated by kids who just wanted to cause trouble, a bit like the way football hooligans cause trouble at football matches. So the country's youth may be deluded/brainwashed/looking for an excuse to skive off school, but at least they aren't all hooligans.

What has depressed me about the whole situation, however, is the fact that I have absolutely no power to change it. I live in this country, have a permanent contract to work in this country, pay taxes in this country and at the same time do not have the right to vote (except in local and European elections). By leaving Scotland, I've already lost the right to vote in Scottish Parliament elections because they are regarded as local government even although the Scottish Parliament has the power to make decisions about most of the issues that I have strong opinions about. Ironically, if there is a referendum on Scottish independence, I won't have the right to vote in it, while some random French person living in Scotland would. I do still have the right to vote in UK national elections, but even that disappears after a certain number of years. It's not something I've ever seriously worried about before, but somehow all these photos of burning cars are making me change my mind ...

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

I Didn't Want to Write About the Strike but ...


when teenagers in a town a few kilometres down the road are tear-gassed by the police after throwing bricks at the windows of their schools and Molotov cocktails at cars, it becomes hard to ignore.

I didn’t want to write about the strikes because they happen so often in France that it becomes the kind of expat moan that’s on a par with complaining about the dog dirt on the street – so well known it’s a cliché and hey, if you don’t like it, don’t choose to live here, right?

But as the effects of the current strike encroach ever-further on my back yard (and as people at home keep asking me about it!), I’ve been motivated to do a little bit of research (aka ask some friends) about what it’s really about. This is what I’ve found out so far:

The main feature of the reforms is that the minimum retirement age in France will be raised from 60 to 62. To claim a full pension at that age, however, you have to start working at the minimum school leaving age, so it’s argued that for many people, the age is effectively being raised from 65 to 67.

The people who go on to further education therefore feel that they are being penalised.

The people who started work at 16 are complaining that they already work more years than anybody else and are now being told to work even longer.

These people are also cross because pensions in France are final salary-linked and, as they tend to be in lower paid jobs, as well as contributing for more years, they also get a smaller pension.

The people who get promoted to superior positions with higher salaries are cross because “final salary” used to mean the average of the final ten years but this is being extended to the last twenty years.

None of this, as you may have noticed, is actually caused by the raising of the retirement age. All of these “injustices” were present in the system already.

For comparison, in the UK, the pension age used to be 60 for women and 65 for men. It’s now being raised to 65, and potentially 66 for everybody. Previously, you had to work from the age of 21 to retirement age to get a full pension. Now you have to pay contributions for thirty years to get the basic amount, which is a sum and not a percentage, and if you pay for more years than this, you get an additional pension. (A clever way of presenting the facts that perhaps the French could learn from.) To my knowledge, no Molotov cocktails were thrown and no cars burned when these changes were introduced.

Now, I can understand why if I were approaching retirement age, had just learned that I would have to work for an extra two years and was extremely selfish, I might feel like striking against the French government’s reforms. Admittedly in a country with the best healthcare and one of the longest life expectancies in the world, these baby-boomers are quite clearly throwing the toys out of their luxury pram, but they got their thrills in ’68 and have apparently never experienced anything quite so memorable since, so at least their actions kind of make sense.

What I really don’t understand, though, is the school pupils who are destroying the fabric of society that is there to support them in the name of opposing reforms which, if successfully blocked, will allow the toy-throwers an endless life of ease, while the young pay ever-higher contributions in ever-lower paid jobs to support them. The fact that this is in any way seen as reasonable behaviour is a sign of a society that has become so blinded by its destructive way of operating that it doesn’t realise that, by opposing its government and vandalising its infrastructure, is actually destroying itself.

Anyway, having got that out of my system, I think I’ll go off and appreciate an evening of cuisine, conversation and culture in a country that is otherwise a very nice place to live in!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Burgundy at my Feet

Much as I love Paris in many ways, I'm not really a big-city girl. Deep down inside of me is a little girl who grew up in a country where the entire population is a lot lower than that of the world's great metropolises, in a capital city where fields, hills and beaches are never more than a short bus ride away. Part of surviving Paris, for me, is therefore finding as many opportunities and places to escape to as possible, and I was delighted to discover the other weekend that Burgundy fits the bill perfectly. We went to the town of Vézelay, two hours' drive from Paris, to walk in the countryside, taste the wine and visit the beautiful medieval buildings.

I had only ever seen the region from the motorway before, so I was surprised to find out that the seeminly endless landscape contains deep river valleys, lush greenery and interesting towns nestled among the rolling hills. The town of Vézelay itself is dominated by its basilica, perched on a high cliff overlooking the surrounding countryside. The backbone of the town stretches down the hill behind, with old, old buildings and as much French tradition as you could expect to find in one place.

In the afternoon, we went for a walk along the river, following the GR which leads to Avallon. We had also booked a wine tasting and were much amused by the fact that when the wines were described as made “in the traditional way” this actually meant that they were full of chemicals, unlike the organic versions which were also being sold. I wasn’t hugely impressed by any of them, so I just bought one bottle, of Melon, a rare variety of wine that is only produced in that region and also got a couple of pots of local honey.

As with most holidays in France, the food was definitely a highlight of the trip. Burgundy is the home of escargots and boeuf bourgignon, as well as producing some of the country's best wines (with or without chemical help!). The restaurant where we ate on Saturday night was called L’Auberge de la Coquille. It was situated right in the heart of the old town and the food was wonderful. For 19 euros, we had a four course meal that included: snails in garlic butter with parsley, meat in Bourgignon sauce for main course, a generous slice of gloriously runny cheese and a delicious sorbet with cassis to finish, all washed down with Irancy wine.

We were also amazed by just how friendly everybody we met in Bourgogne was. People went out of their way to offer us directions, point us on our way and generally check that we were ok. The waiters at the restaurant were not only polite but friendly and didn't seem to mind that we arrived an hour later than expected and ended up staying very late to appreciate their delicious food.

l arrived back in Paris very late on Sunday night desperate to get out and do it all again, so it's definitely good to know that, when I need to escape Paris next time, Burgundy is just down the road!