Going on strike in France

There has been a large social movement in French priority education in the past couple of weeks. It didn’t change much as far as my schedule was concerned: when I should have been in class, I was marching outside with the demonstrations that attempted to fight the future budget cuts in our schools (without success for now, unfortunately). Going to school in the morning was a different experience than usual…

After a couple of days, students joined the movement and decided to block the entrance to the school, by piling litter bins from the street in front of the main gate. On the first day, I arrived to find a student standing with his back to the wall, his head completely covered in a hat and scarf. He greeted me cheerfully. I had no idea who he was, but I said hello all the same. He asked if I had recognised him. I had to admit I hadn’t. He removed his scarf so I could see him; he had a huge grin on. The excitement and motivation of the first few days hadn’t worn off yet.

We spent most of the morning freezing our noses off in front of the school. The first half of January was quite cold, for once, and there is no sunny spot at all in the street, so it soon became uncomfortable to stand there without moving. A couple hundred people showed up for the demonstration. We marched through the street chanting, and received no answer at all. So we repeated the process, again and again, all through the month. We even took a train to Paris to join with other people from the local schools. We meant to arrive at the Ministry of Education, but were greeted on the way by the special police forces, all geared up to face a fully-fledged riot, with body armour, shields, helmets, pepper spray, everything. I don’t even know why. Did it look like we were going to start a riot? We only wanted to ask for the necessary funds to teach in decent conditions. Or half-decent. I mean, there are rats in the school gym, cockroaches in the teachers’ common room, we have to wash our dishes in the toilets because there is no other place to do it and the electricity is down for maybe ten days every year, so it’s not like we can’t adjust to the circumstances. Anyway, none of this seemed to matter to either the minister or the Robocop squad that blocked the street for half the afternoon to make sure we wouldn’t disturb anyone. So we travelled back South.

France is famous for having workers who go on strike every other week. Right-wing politicians and journalists who don’t know better love to make it sound like we’re too lazy to go to work. During the past few weeks, it was obvious to all of us that the problem was the exact opposite. We had to go on a prolonged strike because most teachers chose to go to class anyway: they cared too much about their students’ exams to let them miss a single class. How can you stage a general strike in those conditions? Eventually, the movement lost steam. But at least no one can say that we took advantage of the spring to have a party outside. It was freezing cold out there.

Social security: A big Thank You

As you know, health care in France is mostly free. While private insurance exists, it essentially takes care of important but non-vital parts like glasses and dental care (and even these parts can be covered for people who really struggle financially). The rest is taken care of by social security. This costs a lot, of course, but the costs are shared by everyone, and you pay more if you earn more, not if you need more care.

Social security has been a part of the French system for over seventy years. Although we’ve come to take it for granted, there are constant debates concening its costs. Many right-wing politicians would love to transfer most of the burden to private insurances, regardless of how poorly such systems perform in other countries. Let that sink in for a second: I have never, ever heard of a French person who died or underwent a serious illness without treatment because they couldn’t afford it. We don’t even have to plan for that possibility. It simply doesn’t exist. That’s perhaps why some people in France can sometimes get flippant when referring to our social security system: yes, it costs a lot, and yes, if you’re generally in good health, you would probably pay less in the long run if you chose to get minimal coverage from private insurances. Right-wing politicians don’t have to care at all: most of them are so wealthy they could afford any kind of insurance. If social security disappeared, their lives wouldn’t change a bit.

Because of these debates, I think it’s great to pause evey now and then, and appreciate how much social security has changed our lives. A small event in our household has made me think about that a lot lately.

Our cat Natacha has been ill for a couple of months. She’s lost a third of her weight due to intestine and liver problems. Apparently it’s not life-threatening although she’s visibly exhausted, but since cats can’t talk, we’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what was wrong. And money. She’s had blood samples taken, ultrasound exams, plenty of medication along with special food. And it’s not over, so we’re going to buy more medication, perhaps do some additional exams in case there’s something we missed. We’re worried, of course, but at least so far we can afford it. We may have to skip a couple of evenings out in months to come, but our finances can cover it. We won’t give up on her.

Now these are serious costs, but they’re quite exceptional for a cat. Cats are sturdier than humans, after all. For us… it’s another story. In the past couple of years, I’ve needed X-ray and MRI scans, countless physiotherapy sessions, half a dozen visits to the doctor’s office and two paid weeks of medical leave, just because of persistent knee pains. I’ve also been vaccinated against the flu and taken medication for minor illnesses, and I’ve had my blood iron checked. All this for, I think, a little under sixty euros. One-fifth of what we’ve had to pay so far for Natacha, because we’re lucky enough to live in a country where health care is covered by public funds.

Now that presidential elections are looming, I think it’s more important than ever to stop taking things for granted. It’s all well and good to talk about economic growth and public deficits, but how dearly are we willing to pay for a slight improvement in our economy? I can barely think about what it would be like to let go of a beloved pet just because we wouldn’t be able to afford the vet. Having to face the same dilemma for a family member? I don’t even know how there can be a public debate about this. We’re civilised people. Whatever views we hold on our economic and social system, we can’t let people die for a bunch of figures.

Happy New Year everyone!

Hope the year is off to a good start for everyone reading this. A few notes from here:

Winter is back. That’s a relief. It’s not so much that I enjoy the cold (although two winters in Québec give you a very different perspective on what qualifies as cold), but there was a time when lamenting the changes in your natural surroundings was a thing only elderly people did. Being thirty and already noticing the animals that are not here anymore, the lack of butterflies or bees, and feeling the change in the temperature is not a great feeling. I know the changes are not stopping, but I still welcome the cold.

I’ve finally registered as a member of the local Family Planning. I don’t know what I’m going to do yet, exactly, but I’ll find out in time. So far I was given a very warm welcome and a cup of tea. I’ll find out more on Thursday when I go to the first meeting.

The moth infestation is mostly gone. Now the cupboards smell heavily of cedar oil (hopefully this will work out better than lavender) and our balcony is covered in yarn in plastic bags. My cat is not happy about this, but she’s a nice cat, so she hasn’t complained more loudly than usual.

Last time I went to refill the sunflower seed distributor on the window sill, I found myself half a metre away from a feeding goldfinch. I don’t remember goldfinches feeding here last year. I didn’t move until it was gone. It spent a little while bickering (not too agressively) with a crested tit before they both left. That makes it the fifth species to feed on our window sill: great, blue and crested tits, siskins and goldfinches. I’ve seen a couple of robins and possibly blackcaps (although they’re more difficult to identify, being extremely shy birds) feeding off the seeds that had fallen to the ground.

So far, the besting box is still up, which means I can probably count on my neighbours’ tolerance if I hang another one. No one has hung their dog’s house in the tree either. I knew we could all live in harmony…

Happy new year to you all!

The War on Christmas strikes back

All right, before I get started, let’s get one thing over with: Yes, Mum, You Were Right. Okay? Now let’s get on with it.

There a new war on Christmas going on. This time, it’s against moths. Or more specifically, the Flying Legions of Hell with all of the nastiness and absolutely none of the class.

Of course I’ve only realised this about half an hour ago, just as I was about to go to bed. I had just taken out my stash of yarn after noticing suspicious-looking chewed bits in a random ball, and I thought I would deal with it in the morning. Seeing what it looked like up close quickly changed my mind. This absolutely couldn’t wait.

There are eggs everywhere, and I mean, absolutely everywhere. My stash of yarn looks like a statue in a public square that would have been attacked by a very vicious flock of pigeons, if pigeons not only crapped everywhere but also chewed holes in public buildings. And also laid thousands of tiny eggs. All right, maybe the comparison isn’t really to the point, but I don’t care because it’s late, I’m tired, I’m going to spend all of tomorrow baking my stash of yarn instead of moving on with my knitted Christmas gifts as planned, I’m completely aware that none of this presents any degree of gravity at all but it still warrants a good rant. I hate moths. And now there are hundreds of tiny little ones that apparently hate me too and I’m sure give me hundreds of tiny fingers from inside my balls of yarn. I’m not happy about this. It sucks.

The good news is, the infestation seems to be a recent thing. I took my stash out for inspection a couple of months ago and I didn’t notice any damage. The bad news is, recent or not, these beasts are voracious. And they do not give a single fuck about lavender. Natural repellent my arse.

This is also a good time to lay an interesting myth to rest: that moths prefer their textiles a little dirty, or with lanolin. My yarn had never been used and was completely clean, and some balls still show ugly bite marks. Also, balls of alpaca suffered as much as sheep wool. So far, in fact, I don’t really have a solid explanation for what they chose to eat. It appears that some yarns suffered more damage than others, but I don’t have any coherent hypothesis as to what type. Aside, of course, from the fact that moths suck and I hate them.

There’s also the matter of the wisker basket I was using to store my stash. It’s a lovely basket and I’m very fond of it, but wicker has a lot of nooks and crannies for moths to hide in. I’ve started cleaning the whole thing with white vinegar while waiting to the most infested part of my stash to heat up in the warm oven, but I suspect I’ll have to do something messy like finish in the shower. I should probably figure out a way to line the basket with something that won’t let the beasties get into the wicker if they do come back. I hope they won’t. I’m going to have a lot of knitting to do this year, with a ban on yarn shopping until I’ve sorted through this mess.

I suppose I’ll have to wait and see if the oven manages to kill the Legions of Hell. In the meanwhile, I’m off to run the rest of my stash under a hot iron in case that can achieve something. I’ll sleep later. Night, everyone.

Moana

On Thursday, we went to see Moana, Disney’s latest (which was translated as Vaiana in France for rather obscure reasons). Aside from the fact that the film was a little bit heavy on the cutesy songs, we loved it. Disney has gone a long way since the days of singing mice and wide-eyed princesses. They’ve yet to produce films as thought-provoking and imaginative as Pixar’s best gems, and the songs really get a bit kitschy for my tastes, but it’s well worth the price of the tickets. Also, I never imagined that a daft chicken on a boat could offer so many possibilities for comedy. And also, Mad Max: Fury Road references. Just what the doctor ordered.

But my favourite point, I think, is that this is what I would call a genuinely environmentalist film. I’ve struggled for a while to figure out what environmentalist art might look like: having a clear message about not hurting our poor planet is one thing, but 1) for the last time, our planet is doing fine; it’s the species on it that are suffering, and it’s humankind that’s going to be radically screwed over if we keep on like this; an 2) it’s not enough to deliver a message; if it’s going to end up like those countless movies that blather on about how the female lead is so strong and self-reliant and then show her tied up and helpless waiting for the hero to rescue her, then it’s completely useless to lecture the viewers.

However, Moana goes beyond delivering a message. In fact, there is no lecture to speak of. The film never says a single thing about respecting nature and living beings. It simply shows a group of people who are all going to die because they haven’t done so. At the beginning of the story, they’re not even questioning their way of life: as they see plants and animals dying out around them, they only consider planting trees in different places and sailing farther away to fish. Moana herself has no more reverence for nature than the rest of her people; she even eats pork ribs with delight right in front of her pet piglet. It turns out that they’re not even individually guilty: what caused their plight was the decision of a hero who thought he was only helping humans make the best of their environment. I think that, so far, it’s about the best ways to sum up our current environmental issues I’ve seen in any film.

There is another reason why I would say this was a great environmentalist film. The ocean is not just a setting: it’s a character in itself, and it’s portrayed in a gorgeous wealth of detail, all of them relevant. The heroine has to learn to interact with the wind and the water to sail her ship. Coral reefs are depicted up close, with dozens of different species, each one playing its part in the journey. The ocean is not just something Moana uses to get to her destination: she has an intimate relationship with it, she gets water and salt in her hair, she feels the current and the waves and learns to love every part of it. Her sidekick Maui turns into a variety of animals depending on the purpose he’s trying to achieve. Animals, plants and water are far from being decorative: their part in the story is as important as the humans’, and that’s all the more impressive considering that they’re hardly ever anthropomorphised at all.

I loved it, I was impressed that it too a child’s film to offer such a successful take on what the environment means to us, and most of all, I was grateful to see the sort of story children will grow up with today.

Marseilles

I arrived at the bus station after a rather crappy morning (even if I’ve got used to it, giving my students a thorough dressing-down is still not my thing), intent on enjoying a long peaceful week-end away from school. There was a very dapper elderly gentleman waiting for the bus with a cigar in his hand–carefully combed white hair, curled moustache, long dark jacket over a suit, shiny shoes, the very picture of old-school elegance. A rare sight at the bus station, and in many parts of this city as well.

As I walked by him, he started muttering to himself–

‘Fuck the son of a bitch, I’ve been waiting for five fucking minutes! Motherfucker!’

Marseilles…

Three days in Transylvania

I said the past couple of weeks had been stressful. They were; but there also were some very good things, the best of which probably was discovering Transylvania with my students. It’s too bad my students discovered very little of it (they were attending a scholarly programme, and only had time to gaze at the landscape through the windows. Thankfully, I was free during this time, and could roam the moutains all I wanted, or at least, the little part of the mountains that was accessible while wearing a skirt and city shoes.

Like most people who were fed an early diet of vampire stories, I pictured Transylvania as a dark, forbidding place, with vertiginous mountains full of rocky crags. Now I know… it looks exactly like that. Except that, at the top of one of these mountains, there is a huge cross that is lit up at night, giving you the impression of an extremely creepy cross of fire hanging in the sky over your head. Also, dogs seem to howl almost continuously, there are very few people, and when you do meet someone on the street, they either ignore or glare at you, because apparently, Romania is one of those countries where it’s not usual to smile to strangers.

What I mean by this is, of course it’s beautiful.

Going there in the middle of autumn meant that the top of the mountains was dusted with snow, while most of the slopes were covered in orange and dark green, beech woods mixing with spruce. I managed to find a path to a waterfall in the forest. It had this combination of natural beauty and decaying infrastructure you sometimes find in countries that are just starting to develop tourism: the fall used to produce (or still produces, I don’t know) electricity for the village below, and there wer concrete pipes running among dry leaves down to the river. On the deserted skiing slopes, mushrooms grew in rings. They looked like the very toxic ones that grow at home. I left them alone and only picked wild mint for tea.

The village itself had an air of faded grandeur. There is a small castle somewhere, built by a nobleman in the 1900’s as a holiday home. Many houses are very pretty, with carved wood and bright colours. Many more, however, are for sale. Perhaps it’s not so surprising: climate change has been hard for skiing resorts all over Europe, after all. There  were few guests in the hostel we stayed at. It was very quiet at night. You could have wondered if all the crucifixes on the walls (one of which was lit up at night and glowed red) were to ward off vampires, or just for company.

Here is the first thing I saw when getting off the train:

Now, it would have been perfect if the three songs playing in my head all this time had not been this one, this and this (one because it mentions a German soldier in Bucarest, the second because it’s the most infamous Romanian export of the 21st century barring horse meat in lasagna, and the third, I suppose, because it randomly features the word Transylvania at some point). Who said our species had a natural sense of aesthetics?