Category Archives: culture shock

Second Strike of 2009

Protesting puppets at the March 20th strike in Valence.

Protesting puppets at the March 20th strike in Valence.

This morning, I woke up to find a scorpion lurking outside my door. I didn’t want to risk a scorpion in my room, so I’m sorry to say it was killed by my giant French dictionary. I hope that this will not happen often. As much as I love animals, I prefer it when the ones that could sting me in my sleep stay outside my living space.

Yesterday I spent a lovely day in Aix-en-Provence, but I will get to that in another post. This Thursday there was another strike in France, this one claiming to be bigger than the January 29th “grève.” I didn’t have to go into work due to the disruptions with the buses and the fact that only two of the teachers I usually work with would be there. So after running the errands that I could on a day when most public buildings were closed, I walked to the park to see the strikers gathering. The umbrella issue was the economic crisis, with most believing President Nicolas Sarkozy is not doing enough to slow the recession. Even though this strike had a little more of a serious vibe than the January strike, there were still people walking on stilts and the giant puppets in the photograph above. I’m going to assume they represent people in the DOM-TOMs, although they could just as easily be leftovers from Carnaval. They kind of scared me, because when they walked their giant hands reached in front of them like they were trying to grab people in the crowd and their necks bobbed up and down. They also danced to the music, which ranged from drum groups to solo bongo players to U2 blasted out of a car stereo to a guy with a megaphone doing a version of Gavroche’s song in Les Misérables. He just substituted “Sarko” (short for Sarkozy) for Rousseau, which I guess was clever. Ex: “Misère est mon trousseau/C’est la faute à Sarko.”

Strike going down the boulevard in Valence.

Strike going down the boulevard in Valence.

I saw a couple of my students who screamed “ALLEESOON.” The kids are always shocked that I actually live in France and don’t fly home to the States every night. I guess their spatial reasoning is still being formed. I also ran into some other assistants lounging in the park, and we enjoyed a couple bottles of Clairette while watching the strike pass by. I’m still not sure about the strike culture here. It’s fantastic that people are so attentive to what their government is doing and are willing to express their opinions. However, it happens so frequently that it seems like it would lose some of its effect.

I taught a short lesson on American music in my private lessons this week, introducing the five main genres of the 20th century: jazz, country, rock and roll, hip hop, and pop. I showed a short video for each, using Miles Davis, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, The Roots, and Feist (I know, technically Canadian) respectively. The least favorite for all the kids was The Roots, alas. Anyway, I bring this up because there was a moment when we were talking about other types of music related to these. One of the kids said punk, so I played a short clip of The Misfits and their grandma, who was in the other room, shouts: “What is going on? Is everything okay???” I guess the punks are still making the older generation uncomfortable.

Losing Time

Dead face garage sign in Valence.

Dead face garage sign in Valence.

You can tell with the assistants that we’re all aware that the end is near, because every time we encounter each other this question always comes up: “What are you doing after France?” And the response is almost a uniform “I don’t know.” Some people are going to graduate school, a few are still undergraduates, a handful have jobs waiting for them, but most are like me and are just hoping that something turns up when we get back home. Although home is so arbitrary. Is Oklahoma still my home if I don’t intend to move back there? What about my hometown, Bartlesville? My parents are moving away from there, so I’ll have no reason to go back. And the United States seems too large to call a home, although it might be my best answer. The fact is that in two months when I go back to the United States I’m going to have to find a new home, job, apartment, and life. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but then again I’m ready to see something new and, I’ll admit it, be in a country where I’m no longer a foreigner. I get tired of being an outsider and even when I’m not speaking and therefore hiding my accent, I feel like I have some cloud of otherness around me. Yet I’ve definitely felt like an other in the United States, especially in the awkwardness of high school or in rural towns that still have George W. Bush stickers on all the cars.

Buvez Choky! An advertisement for chocolate-flavored coffee.

Buvez Choky! An advertisement for chocolate-flavored coffee.

Despite all that, I know I’m going to miss France terribly. I’ve met some wonderful people and have seen and done more things than I expected to do in my entire life. If I ever get depressed here, I’m only a 5 minute walk from what will undoubtedly be the most delicious pastry of my life. I’ll miss getting coffee at cafes with no worries about deadlines. I’m going to miss having so many friends. After graduation from college, most of my friends moved away and while I had a lot of acquaintances, there weren’t many people with whom I could have a casual yet meaningful conversation. Maybe it’s more of me being comfortable with myself, but I just feel like I know so many wonderful and open people here that it’s going to be sad to possibly not see some of them again. Although with the wonder that is the internet and Facebook, I’m sure that there will always be some contact. On the positive side, I will know people all over the States and the world and when traveling should never be far from a friend. And to those that I have met over here who might be reading this, know that you’re welcome to sleep on my couch or floor wherever I may be living. Even if it’s a closet-size apartment in New York.

Le Garage.

Le GARAGE.

I find myself keeping an unofficial mental list in my head of the pros/cons of France versus the United States. For example, the teenage boys pushing in front of me and the man with a cane to get on the bus today would be a con. The spitting on the streets and people not cleaning up after their dogs are also negatives. However, I can see a crumbling castle on a hill when I walk through the center of town and can take a train to Provence whenever I want. Definitely pluses. In the end, France is not some sort of magical dreamland nor is it a slum, just like the United States.

As to where I want to live in the United States when I get back, my hope is a major city with New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Chicago, and Seattle all under consideration. I am honestly up for anything.

En Grève!

Strikers at the kiosque on the Champ de Mars in Valence.

Strikers at the kiosque on the Champ de Mars in Valence.

Last Thursday, January 29, I didn’t have to work because the teachers, along with over a million other French citizens, were on strike. Despite having attended the Valence demonstration and having asked several French people about the strike, I still can’t name one thing as the cause. To the best of my understanding, the nationwide strike was aggravated by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s policies in regards to the economic crisis. However, the teachers I talked to were mostly concerned about jobs being cut in education and low wages. Reports showed that this strike was even bigger than the one against the CPE that took place while I was studying in Clermont-Ferrand in 2006.

Stilt ninjas at the Valence protest.

Stilt ninjas at the Valence protest.

With all of this in mind, I was expecting to find an angry crowd at the Champ de Mars in Valence. But this was far from it. It was like being at a parade and I saw more smiling faces than raised fists. A French woman heard me speaking English and asked what I thought about the demonstration, and I said it was more of a “spectacle” than a “manifestation.” As you can see from the people on stilts above, there was even a carnival touch. Although the stilt ninja on the right was yelling at those people for some reason. So I guess someone was angry. But if Sarkozy watched the Valence protest on TV I would be surprised if he felt threatened by it. However, I’m coming at this from an American perspective and I realize that strikes are a big part of French politics. I’m still trying to understand how they bring about change. It seems like back in the States most protests concern big idea issues like abortion, the death penalty, the environment, or the war in Iraq. France is much more about protests and strikes in response to policies.

Strikers in Valence.

Strikers in Valence.

I watched the strike with the other Valence assistants. We’re from the USA, England, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. I think it’s also hard for us to feel strongly about the strike because we all have our own economic crisis back home. The economy in the States worries me much more than that of France because that’s where my future is, at least for May and June. There were tons of children at the strike and it’s obvious that they grow up with this system of public demonstrating. It’s great that they are able to express themselves politically and even leave work without fear of losing their jobs, although I think it is sometimes overdone. But maybe it isn’t done enough in the States.

A guy in a white mask climbs on a sign at the strike in Valence.

A guy in a white mask climbs on a sign at the strike in Valence.

I enjoyed the music blasting from the back of trucks and the enthusiastic flag wavers who managed to energetically dance for about an hour straight. However, I didn’t stay for the whole day as it was obvious that it was going to last until dusk. This is the second strike that has caused me to not work since I started being an assistant in France. If the government doesn’t please the unions, it may not be the last. I’m not sure if the union leaders can agree on any solution to the economic crisis or if they can only be unified against Sarkozy. I’ll be interested to see what happens in the coming months.