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February 2006
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April 2006

B Minor Mass in Notre Dame by the Ensemble Orchestral de Paris

You see the posters all over major European cities, especially during tourist season: classical music concerts in famous local churches.  "Tonight, 8 PM, in the Church of Our Lady: Mozarts Eine kleine Nachtmusik ("A Little Night Music")."  Or Vivaldi's Four Seasons, or perhaps Mozart's Jupiter Symphony.  It's always a well-beloved classical chestnut, recognizable to all.  The performers are usually an ensemble you've never heard of, like the "Glorious Classical Strings," or the "Soloists of Rome," or something similar.

I don't want to be too snobbish here: there's nothing wrong with performing classical music in glorious churches for the benefit of tourists.  I've been to a few of these concerts myself, since that might be the only thing going when you hit the city.  But the performers tend to be either students supplementing their income, or rather bedraggled-looking adults.  The problem is that they have to play the same pieces -- popular, recognizable classical hits -- 3-4 times a week, with no real variation in the program.  How much verve and sizzle can you bring to your 3,467th performance of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?

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Black Tuesday and the Communists

That's what they were calling it on Monday -- the planned nationwide protests scheduled for Tuesday, March 28th.  Inter-city transport in Paris was pretty heavily affected, but not the metro.  I was able to move all around Paris yesterday without problems, although the trains were running somewhat more slowly.  I decided not to visit any of the manifestations, because there had been some unsavory elements (casseurs, or violent demonstrators) hanging around the previous ones, stealing peoples' bags.  This time, demonstrations went off without serious incidents.  The mainstream, peaceful protesters (very quietly) collaborated with the police to nip the casseurs in the bud.   

According to today's papers, the organizers claim up to 3 millions protesters, and even the police put the figure at more than a million all over France, making this one of the biggest protests in French history.  It's impossible to tell how the government will react.  Publicly, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin continues to insist that he's willing to adjust the law, but not to withdraw it outright, which is what the protesters and unions demand.  They've scheduled another day of protest for April 4 if the law hasn't been withdrawn by then.

Here's a reasonably balanced wrap-up of some of the international press coverage, courtesy of the Washington Post:

[The protestors] are living in a fantasy land, says [conservative American] columnist Steven Pearlstein. "Rather than supporting the reforms that might generate more jobs and more income," he says the protesters "have bought into the nostalgic fantasy of a France that once was, but can never be again."

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Paris is, Let's Hope, Not Burning

Tomorrow will see a massive disruption here in Paris, and all over France.  135 demonstrations are planned, 5 million government employees will strike, and many professionals and other workers in the private sector.  400 extra police officers have been ordered to Paris to try to ensure security.  It will surely be the largest mass action in France since 1995, when almost a week of demonstrations were staged against a government social-security law.

The fuss is about something called the CPE, as I explained a bit earlier.  Long story short: Currently, in France, when a company hires a new worker, there's a short probationary period.  After the probationary period, the worked has an automatic right to an unlimited-duration labor contract.  When this phase sets in, the worker can only be fired for cause, and after a lengthy administrative process.  The right-of-center coalition in the French parliament passed a law changing these rules for workers under 26.  Under the new law, there is a two-year probationary period for these young workers during which they can be fired at any time.  Further, at the end of that period, the company can simply elect not to extend the contract, and they are out of a job. 

De Villepin claims the law will reduce youth unemployment, currently at a disastrous 23%, by introducing much-needed flexibility into the labor market for younger workers. Most college students, as well as students in the top tier of French high schools, strongly oppose the law, and it's not hard to see why.  Importantly, they also have the support of France's hard-left labor unions, and a large number of white-collar employees.  The white-collar employees, who entered the work force under the older, more generous regime, sympathize with the young people trying to break into a labor market in which there's high unemployment.  It all adds up to a perfect storm: 65-70% disapproval of the law, and a major, nation-paralyzing mobilization scheduled for tomorrow.

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The Museum of Old Montmartre

The Museum of Old Montmartre is a fine little museum housed in a large complex of buildings on the Rue Cortot.  The house that forms the core of the complex was built in the mid-17th century an actor and playwright.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the house on the Rue Cortot was extensively sub-divided, and its tiny rooms became preferred lodging for artists in Montmartre, a hill near what is now the northern perimeter of Paris proper.  Back then, Montmartre was still rural.  Chickens squawked in the streets, urchins scampered around looking for odd jobs, and plumbing was nonexistent.  Artists moved into in Montmartre's shabby, muddy streets to escape Paris' high rents.  Dancing establishments and interestingly questionable bars soon followed, and the sleazy, enchanting Montmartre that we see in Toulouse-Lautrec's sketches was born. 

This museum is another charming, idiosyncratic Paris museum.  It’s cramped and crammed.  There are no audioguides or interactive touchscreens.  The core of the museum's permanent collection is devoted to the people who lived in one of the house's many rooms at one time or another in the late 19th and early 20th century.  These residents comprise a cross-section of artists both world-famous (Raoul Dufy, Maurice Utrillo; very tangentially Auguste Renoir) and less so (Emile Bernard, Francisque Poulbot).  Many of the paintings and sketches from these lesser lights crackle with vitality and wit, and you’ll wonder why you don’t know their names.  One room is dedicated to the indescribably voluptuous Suzanne Valadon, a longtime resident of the house.  She started her career as a model, continued it as an object of devotion (from, among others, the world’s oddest man, French composer Erik Satie), and finished it as an accomplished painter.

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French Thoughts on Communism

As most of your have seen, there have been a series of ever-growing protests in France; I described the background to them in a previous post.  I will go into a little more detail in the next few days, since there's really no escaping this story in France these days. 

But first, an interesting opinion survey I read two days ago in L'Humanité, the far-left French newspaper closely allied with the French Communist Party (PCF).  The PCF commissioned a study on French attitudes toward the Party itself, toward Communism in general, and to the need for profound social transformation in France.

The results were published on page 8 under the title "Our public opinion poll: Capitalism isn't living up to its promises."  The results? 

  • 37% of the French had either a "very good" or "mainly good" opinion of the PCF; 46% had a very/mainly bad opinion of it. 
  • 54% believed that "communism is an idea which belongs to the past and has no current relevance," 39% believed that it "still has a future" as long as it "re-thinks its principles."
  • The statistic I found the most intriguin concerned capitalism.  45% of those polled believed that capitalism should either be "radically transformed" or "profoundly reformed."  A further 45% believed it should be "improved in certain aspects."

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Tiny Museum and Tiny Record Shop Day

Yesterday it was cold and rainy, so time to visit a few museums in the "New Athens" section of Montmartre.

The first was the Musée de la Vie Romantique, housed in the former home of 19-century painter Ary Scheffer.  The house was also in the hands of relatives of George Sand, so contains much Sand and Chopin-related bric-a-brac (including Sand's jewelry and her surprisingly good watercolors).  Navigating the creaky wooden floors, you see Sand's reconstructed salon, decorated by many portraits of the somewhat long-faced, droopy-eyed Sand, as well as portraits of various July Monarchy notables by Sheffer.

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French Words of the Week

There comes a time in life when you finally settle down into a stable relationship.  The relationship can take many forms: it might be a marriage, might be shacking up.  The point is, you've stopped looking, and you're ready to work on building a life à deux. The French call this stabilisation sentimentale.  According to some French government study, it happens to French men when they're 36 years old, and French women when they're 29.

A concussion is a commotion cérébrale (F).

And now, the pièce de résistance.  What the American military calls an "Improvised Explosive Device," or a homemade bomb, is called, in French, a bombe artisanale.  Add your own cynical jokes in the comments...

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Jerry Lewis: Living God

We English speakers enjoy taking the piss out of the French for their love of Jerry Lewis.  Do they really love him so much? 

Or, I should say, do they really love Him so much?  From an ad in Tuesday's Libération (Libé for short), about an interview they will publish tomorrow:

The weapon of mass hilarity [pun untranslatable]: A conversation with living god Jerry Lewis, who is publishing his memoirs and who evokes his maximum-burlesque career in nine images.

Emphasis added.


Social Combat chez La Poste

I visited a French post office yesterday to send off a letter to Germany.  Since it was a real letter, not a postcard, I figured I'd better get in line and talk to a human.  The line had about 15 people in it, and it took me about 40 minutes to finally go through it.  40 minutes well-spent, observing the social microcosm of the post office. 

Counter service at the French postal service is defined by four facts:

  1. Every potential transaction is governed by a complex web of precise rules (the simple stuff, after all, you can do yourself, or at a computer terminal);
  2. Because most citizens have never dedicated a few days to reading and memorizing these rules, most of then enter the post office without knowing what they have to do to successfully carry the transaction through;
  3. Although the employees know more about the rules than the customers, there are still large gaps in their knowledge;
  4. Unless you are a friend or family member of the employee (and, in Germany, even if you are a friend or family member), you will probably be expected to comply with every single rule.

The primary objective of the person behind the counter is to ensure that the rules governing the particular transaction are applied correctly.  If that objective is consistent with the citizen achieving his goal, the clerk will be happy to help. 

If that objective is not consistent with the citizen achieving his goal -- or if the clerk doesn't like the citizen for some reason -- then the citizen will not achieve his goal.  The notion that the "customer is always right," or the idea that postal clerks should bend rules to serve their customers, is foreign to European bureacracies.

Thus, the citizen should approach a complicated postal task not as an efficient, impersonal transaction, but as an opportunity to engage in a complex game.  Whether you will win the game (by getting your package sent), is by no means clear.

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10000th Hit Coming Up

I just noticed that German Joys is close to getting its 100,000th hit.  I don't know exactly how Typepad measures hits (apparently there are several different ways, all of which are controversial).  But, in any event, I'm grateful for them. 

I've enjoyed writing this blog, and I'm grateful for the comments and feedback.  I see blogging a little bit like bartering.  You don't do it for money, but rather for the immaterial rewards.  The first, of course, is ego gratification.  However, through this blog, I've gotten to know plenty of interesting new people, and learned about bands, websites, books to read, and various pieces of cultural trivia.  I will hope to continue the blog as my schedule permits, and hope you'll continue to check in from time to time.