19 November 2007

Tis the Season

Student General Assembly, Marc Bloch University, Strasbourg

Getting around France isn’t easy these days: the SNCF (national train company) has gone on strike again (second round in a month’s time), protesting Sarkozy’s pension plan reforms. The facts:

Workers in France can retire at the age of 60. SNCF employees can retire at 50. Why this disparity? Because running a train used to be hard work! Although the work is no longer as physically exacting as it use to be, workers still retire at 50, then take on other paying jobs while gaining the SNCF retirement. Sarkozy, insisting he was elected on a reform mandate, is trying to bring the retirement age for SNCF employees in line with other sectors.

Beyond that there is much detail, speculation, and political play. Suffice it to say that the SNCF is striking against this reform, running at less than half capacity and losing hundreds of millions of euros. Not to mention inconveniencing a lot of angry French, especially the Parisians.

Because (you guessed it), not only did the SNCF go on strike, but also the Paris metro system! Some lines are hardly disturbed, while others (like the line between Paris and Charles de Gaulle airport) are hardly running. The papers keep reporting how many hundreds of kilometers of traffic jams there are around Paris each day. The latest number I saw was 300 kilometers…but then, that’s only twice as many as normal.

It gets better. This strike is what they call ‘reconductible,’ a nice way of saying ‘never-ending.’ The SNCF announced it as such well in advance, but few thought it would last this long. It started last Tuesday, and although it’s followed less and less every day, it keeps going.

And the more the merrier! Part of the reason the SNCF strike may have lasted so long could be because those on strike want to join up with the civil servants, who go on strike tomorrow. Civil servants make up quite a chunk of the French population, and include government offices, the Post, and all teachers including university professors. I’m not sure why they’re all going on strike, or how well-supported this strike will be, but it’s possible some of my classes will not take place tomorrow.

And the students, oh the students. They are quite up in arms about university reforms. The government proposed raising the tuition prices of under-funded masters programs (so a year’s tuition would cost, you know, 900 euros instead of 500). The students rallied against it with leftist cries of biased selection by financial means. Then the university was forced to close down the masters programs which lacked funding. Well, the students wouldn’t stand to have their peers thrown out on the street without having the chance to complete their academic training. So, someone in the university administration offered the idea that private institutions could donate money to universities to keep these masters programs afloat. Sensing the strings attached to private funding, the students protested against any sort of ‘McDonalds/EuroDisney degree.’ What’s a publicly-funded government-controlled university to do? Why, request autonomy, that’s what! Autonomy for each university to make its own decisions on site. But, the students remind them forcefully, all universities in France are supposed to be equal, so that everyone in any region has a chance at the same education. How can they be equal if every university makes its own decisions?

A twist on the French motto

They’re hard to please, they are! In fact, the student movement has been building in Strasbourg, with student General Assemblies almost every other day. It hasn’t happened here, but elsewhere in France students have blocked off whole campuses. Last Thursday, students camped out in one of the amphitheaters (for what purpose I’m not too sure), then were removed by the police. In the process, somehow, one of the curtains caught fire, and then the building was closed to students through the weekend. Twice my classes at the university have been interrupted by student announcements of another General Assembly or a biased reporting of what ‘actually happened’ (for example, that the administration set fire to the curtain to chase the students from the building…hmm).

Tomorrow I’m going to check out the 9:30am student manifestation, followed by a very important General Assembly. I’m not complaining—this is all very sociologically interesting.

This sign posted over ATM machines reads: Welcome to the University. Coming soon: For a license (undergrad), insert your debit card. The machine will charge you 3000 euros. For a masters, insert your debit card. The machine will charge you 5000 euros. For a doctorate, insert your debit card. The machine will charge you 8000 euros.

I’m just glad the French students don’t know how much my university costs.

And I’m glad I’m not traveling by train either!

A last note, just in case you aren’t baffled enough: In December, AirFrance employees are going on strike.

Vive la France!

French and American University Systems: Two Extremes

It’s true that I pay too much for my university education, and that the French students pay too little. It’s true that private money is too powerful in US universities, and that private money could go a long way in improving French ones. I have experienced the two extremes of the same university education system. Sounds like a paper! But honestly, I can only give observations. In these last few weeks, I’ve heard a lot of communist rhetoric, met people who look and act like they should be in a smoky café talking revolution, and noticed the really pitiable state of the Marc Bloch campus. Like I remarked before, what I wouldn’t give for a grounds crew! Or even grounds to keep! Also, the profs can be quite distant, not engaged and personal like at Manchester (Although Manchester in this respect, to such a degree, is quite rare. I try to explain to other French students that I am friends with my professors, and they nod and smile and ask questions, but I don’t think they believe me.). On the other hand, if the ‘substance,’ the quality of education, counts the most, I don’t feel at all slighted at Marc Bloch University. My professors know the material and even succeed at explaining it! No easy feat when talking of arborescent representations of syntagmes nominals. I make for quite a poor English linguist, when all the terms I know are in French! Someday I will post a picture of my linguistic lecture notes: They’re very pretty, with lots of word trees and arrows and plus signs. And whatever happens tomorrow, I will try to take pictures to give you all an idea of what’s going on.

A wine shop in a hospital?! Only in France

A week or so ago we BCAers visited the Hôpital Civile, the Strasbourg Municipal Hospital which has existed since the fourteenth century. Back in the fourteenth century, according to the guide who showed us around the cave (wine cellar), people paid with what they could, including property. Eventually, the hospital came to own a scattering of vineyards across the region, and in the cave are kept hundreds of immense casks of these wines. The largest cask held 26 000 bottles of wine. The oldest cask held wine from 1472 (we smelled the stopper…I wouldn’t want to taste it). My favorite cask was the one that held the average amount of wine consumed by a 4-person Alsatian family during the course of a year. After the visit, we had a wine tasting of Crémant (champagne of Alsace), Pinot Gris (classic Alsatian white wine), and Gewurztraminer (Alsatian white dessert wine), all with bread and kugelhopf (a dense bread, often with nuts and bits of ham baked in, and with a very particular shape. A successful visit, I’d say.

Mozart, Mmm!, and Mom

And lastly, I spent a lovely Sunday arranging my room (I’ve actually accumulated enough papers, bottles, and stuff worth cleaning and arranging and nesting, one of my favorite pastimes!), watching Mozart’s Idomeneo at the National Opera (for 5.50 euro, thank you student Culture Card!), and dining at the Ancienne Douane, a very old restaurant dating from 1358, right on the river bank.

And here I rest, well-fed, well-entertained, and just generally well.

Except last Friday I had my first real episode of homesickness. In the middle of a difficult conversation, I realized how much I missed having people around who know me, who have been part of my life already. At the beginning it can be liberating not to be known, not to be pigeon-holed into what you ‘are.’ But it can also be exhausting as you must continually explain/create yourself and your history. Then you just seek understanding, and you think about that whole community you left of people with whom you have that understanding.

The first sentence I sobbed out was, ‘I miss my mom!’


I miss you mom, and everyone else with whom I feel at ease, at home, myself.

1 comment:

michmark said...

There you go with the wine again.....we miss you too. What a treat to talk(and see) you yesterday. And thanks for the continuing education on France. What a great culture.