“Grieving la Grève”

“If you don’t at least make it up the Eiffel Tower, I’m going to feel very bad,” I told my visiting friend, Amy Roberts. She had an hour before we left for the airport for her flight home. We live only two blocks away, so the Eiffel was a good choice.

The day before, Amy was an innocent victim of “Black Tuesday” – France’s latest strike. Vicky & I were warned about it but we had no idea it would go beyond Metro, rail, bus, air traffic controllers, teachers and postal workers. I convinced Amy to set aside Monday & Tuesday as museum days. The Louvre is open on Mondays so that worked out fine. We had no idea that the strike would shut down the Musée d’Orsay on Tuesday! Amy missed out on one of the best museums in Paris. As an alternate visit, she opted for a trip up the Eiffel Tower – something she had been meaning to do on this first visit to Paris. But even the Eiffel Tower was closed! The strike didn’t slow down the ever-present cluster of Africans selling Eiffel Tower statuettes, charm bracelets, postcards and laser pens. The day these guys go on strike is the day that France is really in trouble.

250,000 Parisians (1.5 million people across France) decided not to show up for work. The issue is over the French government’s move to increase the amount of years public workers are required to work to receive their pensions. The government wants that figure at 40 years – it is currently 37.5 years. People are living longer and the number of people past pensionable age is growing larger. Public workers have very secure jobs and are required to work fewer years than employees of private companies.

Wednesday morning, I drove Vicky to work. At a stoplight near our house, a well-dressed young, French businessman went from car to car asking for something. He had a sad look and seemed to be embarrassed about whatever it was he was asking. “Is this guy begging for money or what?” Vicky asked. We never found out – the light turned green and we headed down Quai Branly towards Place de la Concorde. Along the way we saw other businessmen sticking their faces into windows of passing cars.

” Uh-oh,” I told Vicky,” this is a bad sign; I think the strike is still going on and these guys are trying to hitch rides to work.”

Sure enough, the strike continued for another day. People resorted to motorcycles, scooters (motorized AND push types), bicycles, hitchhiking, skating and skateboarding. It was entertaining to see the Parisians and their creative modes of transport. The streets of Paris were like one big circus. Heck, give a Parisian a pogo stick and he’ll commute to work on it…

Tuesday’s strike wasn’t so bad: many people (non-strikers) stayed home or made alternative plans to get to work. Traffic was not bad at all.

The strike continued on Wednesday. It hit everyone by surprise and people were scrambling for ways to get to work. Traffic was heavy in the morning with a chaotic gridlock in the afternoon that went well past 9 pm.

Vicky had a dinner out so I called Michel to see if he wanted to join me somewhere for dinner; we agreed to meet at his office. A trip on the scooter that normally takes 10 – 15 minutes took 50. The same trip in a car that evening would have taken hours. I have never seen Paris traffic like I saw last night. Intersections were jammed. I ignored most red lights and weaved around stopped cars. It became a game with other motorcyclists to see who could find the clearest path through the mess. I felt like I was putting a large jigsaw puzzle together.

At his office, I asked Michel why the French continually put up with all of these strikes: “Oh, this country is really screwed up,” growled Michel. He was obviously in a bad mood. He told me he sat in traffic for 4 hours that afternoon. “They take more than half of what my company makes then they take almost half of what I pay myself; now they want to come audit me to see if they can squeeze some more out of me! And the fonctionnaires (civil servants) are crying about having to do a little more work! I’m with the government on this one – I’m tired of working for their pension funds! What they fail to realize is that if nothing is done to remedy this problem, the whole pension and social welfare system will collapse and we’ll all be working until we’re ninety! I won’t be surprised one day if Paris is merely one big Disney-like theme park – no real businesses left – they’re all leaving! It’s all ridiculous…” Michel was on a roll and I let him vent…

We ate dinner at the Italian restaurant down the street from his office. Giuseppe, the owner, came over to greet us. This is the same guy I was coaching in English a year ago over grappas; ‘How ya doin’?’ (a la Tony Soprano) was the only English Giuseppe knew at the time and I added three more words to his vocabulary by refining his delivery of ‘What da fuck?’ – also a la Tony Soprano.

Giuseppe moaned about the strike and complained to Michel about his waitress handing him an 80 € receipt for a taxi ride because she could not take the Metro to work.

Dinner was very good. Michel had veal Marsala and I had pasta with tomatoes and artichokes. We split an order of Mortadella as an entrée (that’s ‘appetizer’, in American) and washed it down with a tasty Sicilian white wine (I forgot the name). For the main meal, Michel brought along a 1994 Louis Jadot Beaune 1er Cru “Clos des Ursules”. It was a textbook red Burgundy with a wonderful nose and very delicious. What does this have to do with the strike in Paris? Absolutely nothing. But my scooter trek across town was well rewarded by it! And the wine made us forget about the strike…

Amy’s reward was an Eiffel Tower open for business. She made it up to the second level but said the elevators going all the way to the top were closed – most likely due to the strike. She was fortunate to get out of Paris yesterday without any problems with the flights (or at least we didn’t hear of any problems…)

We woke up this (Thursday) morning for another day of unexpected strikes. We learned that they would continue through Monday of next week. Who knows what will happen beyond that… I am scootering Vicky to work every morning. She said she’s not quite ready to make the trip on skates.

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