30 October 2010

A breath of fresh air

They've done it. The law has passed, French workers have to work two more years in their life, most of the unions shrugged and Marseille is slowly getting back to normal. The start of the fall holiday season might also have something to do with it. They are actually cleaning away the garbage that was choking this city during the strike, and some places look like new, if you ignore the scorched walls where garbage has burned. The stink is also going away, but it will take a while to get back to normal garbage levels. Pictures like this one (if you'll excuse one last garbage picture) are a thing of the past - until the next strike, which might be months away.

And apparently gasoline is flowing freely again, and not just because of ruptured gas tanks. The streets are packed with cars, I ride past kilometers of stop-and-go traffic every day. The French endure it stoically, even though the buses and trains run again. The temperatures have started to fall, but while northern Europe is approaching freezing temperatures, here it's just below 20 degrees and usually sunny. The leaves start to fall, and expose the plastic bags that the wind has extracted from the garbage and blown high into the trees. Wind can be a problem - they enjoy the Mistral here around this time of the year, which can approach 100 km/h and make bicycle riding, or in fact any outdoor activity, a little touchy. But not yet.

It is windy enough to make French smokers, which huddle around restaurant doors because indoor smoking in public places in Europe isn't allowed, visibly uncomfortable. There seem to be a lot more smokers in the south of France than in northern regions.

23 October 2010

Ashes to ashes

I'd like to return to the regular scheduled programming, but Marseille is still in the grip of the strike and the uncollected garbage, and so is this blog. The strikes continues and they burn bigger barricades now. The one shown below generated so much smoke that a fire truck came; it took one look at the situation and drove off again.

Instead of just watching the garbage piles get higher and higher, people are now doing something about them: they set fire to them. This is not always a wise strategy. In addition to huge piles of garbage, we now have a foul smell and damaged trees, cars, walls, and entrances. The fire at the Marseille Rotary Club burned through a window, and the Virgin Megastore has hit on the strategy of covering up a huge pile of ashes with plastic tarps. Out of sight, out of mind.

This is on rue Saint-Ferréol, Marseille's largest shopping street, which connects the Préfecture with the bourse. Lots of fires here. Another street that got hit severely is little rue Curiol, perhaps better known for the numerous brothels and waiting ladies of negotiable affection in their loud high-heeled getups. The plastic garbage containers at the epicenter of each pile there have melted and dripped picturesque streams of plastic onto the street.

Overall I'd say that about half of all garbage piles were burned. Sometimes it's hard to see because the ashes get sedimented down by new garbage piled on top. It's going to be very difficult to clean up this mess of molten junk. The news say that they are now sending the gendarmes, who are exactly like the American National Guard except completely different.

I wonder if someone is going to decide at some point that the remaining value of Marseille is less than the cost of making it livable again, and starts working on nuke-from-orbit scenarios, just in case. There is something very wrong about the way the French go about solving their problems.

Here is what plastic name plates do when they feel too warm:

20 October 2010

Burning tires

They are still at it and neither side is going to compromise. Yesterday I saw some burning tires in front of the tram and bus depot in Marseille, spewing out big black clouds. This morning there were overturned garbage containers and burning barricades (small ones) at the main gate. Handmade signs said "contre les réformes", misspelled, referring to the increase of the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Traffic in Marseille was terrible this morning, even my little rue Saint-Pierre that I use to leave downtown was blocked, and it's too narrow to pass cars even with a bicycle. Drivers moved aside with their usual superhuman French courtesy to let me pass, but there is now so much garbage everywhere (the garbage men are still on strike) that it's overflowing onto the street, leaving even less room than usual. The city is starting to look positively filthy because strong winds are scattering the garbage.

I pass through the city of Aubagne on my way to work, and traffic was unusually quiet there - maybe because all gas stations in Aubagne and the surrounding villages are now closed because of the fuel shortage. One third of all gas stations in the country are closed. Riot police have reopened some storage facilities but the situation is very unstable.

18 October 2010

Percussive parking

Marseille was never a royal capital, so nobody went and razed half the place to make room for big wide streets where your cavalry can exercise and control the public, like Haussmann did in Paris. Most streets are narrow and crooked, and sometimes steep. Few streets are parallel, the sidewalks are narrow, and parking in scarce. To make it scarcer, and give pedestrians a chance, they scatter poles and other obstacles along the curbs, and make most streets one-ways.

But people still need to park, so they find ways. It just takes a little more enthusiasm to get your car into that impossibly small space. That's what bumpers are for, move until something rattles, then reverse. I haven't heard a car alarm since I moved here, nobody bothers, it would go off all the time. The sidewalks are so narrow that you'll impede traffic even if the car is only centimeters away from the wall, but that's ok. Pedestrianized streets see less traffic than normal streets. And I have seen fear in friends' eyes when they had to make a 180-degree turn up extremely steep and narrow hairpins between parked cars and 16th-century houses without sidewalks, using manual transmissions.

Consequently, there are very few new or fancy cars in Marseille. They all drive old compacts, and most have substantial body damage, like this guy:

I didn't go and choose a particularly old or damaged car, that sort of thing is normal. Marseille doesn't suffer from an SUV infestation like Los Angeles, anyone trying to drive such a thing around here would suffer a nervous breakdown after five minutes and collapse in tears. They do like Smarts, those Swiss/German two-seaters that are no longer than other cars are wide. Très pratique.

One consequence of Marseille's anthill approach to traffic is that rental cars are very expensive, like twice as much as elsewhere. I guess the rental agencies don't really expect to get their cars back after letting tourists hurl them through Marseille's daily demolition derby.

At the same time, French drivers are almost infinitely patient and polite. They'll wait if you need to crunch your car into a parking space, they'll let cars turn or cross, and they'll let cars turn in ahead of them from side streets even if they have spent the last half hour in stop-and-go traffic. Quite remarkable. Maybe a beaten-up subcompact doesn't make a good ego extension to be defended at all cost, but maybe the French are just nice people.

Except the scooters. Scooters are the plague of French cities. Scooters deserve their own posting.

16 October 2010

Vive la grève!

Marseille is not the cleanest city in the best of times. That habit of dropping garbage where you stand is hard to break for many Marseillaise. The city cleans up as fast as it can but it's heavily outgunned.

But these are not the best of times. I have to write another strike article because the French are still at it. For a week now, they are protesting president Sarkozy's new law that raises the retirement age from 60 to a shocking 62 years (still the lowest in Europe; 65 to 67 is typical). Well, in fact a big reason is Sarkozy's arrogance on the subject - it has to be done, l'état c'est moi, shut up.

So the trains don't go (the trains are always the first to stop), all twelve refineries in France are on strike so fuel is running out, and without fuel the planes don't go either. People have begun to hoard gasoline and food. As a nice extra touch, the garbage men are on strike too. Which brings us back to Marseille.

When I went on my garbage safari this morning, I got a lot of comments. Clearly I was a journalist, the world travels to Marseille to look at the garbage. C'est Marseille. Marseille, the cultural capital of the south. The Marseillaise take it with humor. And they try to be neat about it. Each trash container now sports a carefully balanced trash pyramid on top, palettes and cardboard boxes are used to build impromptu walls, and in a pinch a car makes a nice retaining wall for garbage. For a while, until the garbage overflows. I have seen a motorcycle about to be swallowed by a ravenous garbage pile, only the front wheel and handlebars still stuck out. I wonder if it will still be there when the garbage is finally cleaned away?

And with three-meter piles of garbage in the street, surely nobody minds if they add a few mattresses and refrigerators and other jumbo junk that normally wouldn't be picked up. It's going to become worse too - the strike is open-ended, so I expect the garbage to attain critical mass in a few weeks, become sentient, and begin to hunt humans for food.

You can't have a strike without a nice protest march. The French are good at this. The police closes a few roads, the protesters line up under the colors of their unions, and they bring signs, whistles, and trucks playing music. First come the red shirts (communists complete with hammer and sickle flags, and Attac), then the white shirts (FSU), then the orange shirts (CFDT), and finally a forlorn bunch of blue shirts (UNSA) who have strapped a badly sagging blimp to the roof of a truck for some reason. Where else can one see communists these days, now that North Korea has become a hereditary monarchy?

Mixed in are some brave student groups; at a rally in Paris last week a 16-year-old lost an eye to a rubber bullet after which the responsible minister promised to use "less violence" in the future. But in Marseille everyone is relaxed, there isn't even tear gas. The leaders of each group carry a wide banner with the name of the union, which serves the same purpose as those divider bars on supermarket checkout belts. Clearly these people are pros, they have done this many times before and they will do it again. Like, maybe tomorrow.

Me, I ride my bicycle to work. Let the traffic self-destruct, I don't care.

BTW, a puzzle: was the reference picture below taken in Marseille, France, or in Chennai, India?