Thursday, January 29, 2009

Grève Générale

Living in France requires learning very quickly which strikes you can ignore and which you can’t. Every week, some union or other calls for a strike; there are posters stuck up on buildings and flyers handed out at the market but nothing interferes with my life at all. So I’d gotten out of the habit of actually reading any of the posters, since the dates on them would usually come and go without the slightest change to my daily routine.

Well, that came to a stop this morning, when our doorbell rang while I was in the shower, getting ready for my 10 am class. A friend of Olesya’s, a student at the lycée, came up to the apartment and explained that the students had blocked the door of the school and no one could get in, so no classes today! But before giving in too much to that old snow-day feeling (there is nothing quite like it in the world) I called my teacher to make sure. “Oh no, it’s not completely closed! You can sneak in the back way – just take Rue des Minimes instead.” Grumble grumble grumble. I told her cheerfully that of course I would be right over. (Note to self: when the signs say "Grève Générale", pay attention - that means the buses don't run either, and even our notoriously lazy and strike-averse school gets into it.)

As soon as I walked out my door (a good 7-minute walk from the school) I could hear the shouting. Part of me wanted to go to the front door of the school, just to see a real French strike, but the sensible part of me that didn’t want to get étripée (gutted) told me just to head up Rue des Minimes. Which I did, to find an older man and a few students, one of whom was mine, standing outside a locked door. “Can we get in this way?” I inquired in French, thus blowing my cover for the student who was there (hey, desperate times, desperate measures). “Yes, someone’s going to come open up for us.” Except that when the door did open, the older man entered and they shut the door in our faces. “But… but… I’m a teacher! I swear! I know I look 18 but really I’m 22 and I’m a teacher!” A few minutes later the door reopened to let someone out, whereupon they let the rest of us in. I still don’t understand, but hey, ours not to reason why, ours but to sigh and say “Welcome to France”.

I made my way to the photocopy room, where the shouting was even louder since it’s near the front entrance. I peered out the window to see a fairly large crowd of students milling about and shouting. There was no organization whatsoever, and the only coherent slogan I heard was “Tous ensemble” (all together). Some of the students were banging on the metal scaffolding near the entrance, just because it made a huge racket with very little point or purpose. So I printed out my lesson plan and went calmly off to the staff room, where everything was just as normal. Michèle and I headed off to class, where there were no students to be found. “Little buggers!” she said. “I saw some of them outside!” Five minutes later, there were still no students to be found, so we decided to head back to the staff room and have coffee. I asked why students were striking – I mean, it’s not like they get paid, or need health insurance, or anything – and the teachers informed me that they want more class hours.

More time spent in school. They’re striking because they want to spend more time (and they already spend 40 hours a week) at school.

Really, the French are beyond comprehension. I love them dearly, but the reasoning behind their whims escapes me, and always will.

I had two more classes, one where half the class showed up (we watched part of Obama’s Inauguration speech – I’m going to have it learned by heart if this continues) and one where none of my three students came, so I used the time to write this blog entry. I also got suckered into coming in on Saturday to make up the class that nobody came to today, so now I have to remember to wake up Saturday morning, after an evening at Emilia’s house where we may or may not play a new drinking game wherein every sentence you utter must contain at least one word in French and one in English. I promise to try to remember the best Franglais to report back here; I have a feeling it’s gonna be good.

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