Columbus Day

Statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona, Spain

Statue of Columbus for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 commemorating his first voyage to America

With the growing unpopularity of Columbus Day (the second Monday of October in the US), this might be the perfect opportunity to review why we celebrate. This statue of Columbus in Barcelona was erected for the Barcelona Universal Exposition of 1888 to commemorate his first voyage to America. His statue points seaward from the harbor in Barcelona.

Columbus was Italian, but he sailed under the flag of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They represented the crowns of Castile and Aragon, lands which today make up the northern part of Spain. Modern Barcelona was part of Aragon. Spain itself wouldn’t become a unified country until 1512.

Columbus was seeking a sea route to the East Indies (China and India and the spice islands). Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire was charging European traders high fees for those making the dangerous passage to cross by land though the modern day Middle East and Russia or across Egypt to the Red Sea. It was possible but also very treacherous to sail around the horn of Africa. Another sea route would benefit the growing amount of trade between Europe and the East Indies.

At the time of Columbus’s voyage, many educated Europeans thought that the world was round, but they greatly underestimated its size. Columbus believed it was possible to reach the East Indies by sailing west. He first landed somewhere in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, and later would make expeditions to modern day Cuba, Hispaniola Island (modern day Dominican Republic and Haiti), parts of Central and South America and other islands in the Antilles. Europeans named this part of the world the West Indies, since it obviously wasn’t the East Indies.

Columbus never realized his goal of finding another route to the East Indies, though his efforts and subsequent European exploration conferred great wealth upon Spain, brought French, English, and Dutch explorers to America, and left a lasting impact on the continents of North and South America, which we celebrate by a day named in his honor. The process of European exploration and colonization, which also involved slavery and subjugation of the indigenous peoples, produced many negative effects that continue to be addressed in national and world politics. Thus this heroic icon is taking on a new and fuller meaning of the process by which our world has developed.

The Assumption of Mary

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal - the Assumption of Mary

Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal – our destination for the Assumption of Mary

August 15th is the French national holiday for the Assumption of Mary. This religious day is celebrated in many parts of the world by about 1.5 billion Catholics, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, as well as by parts of the Anglican Church. The holiday celebrates the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life. For Catholics, it is a day to go to mass. For France, it is a day when almost everything is closed, similar to Christmas.

Yet France is one of the most unreligious countries in the world. In one survey of 2010, about 40% of the participants identified as not believing there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force, about 50% as Christian (almost all Catholic), less than 6% Islamic, and only small percentages of Jewish and other religions. The group identifying as Catholic has dropped from about 80% to 50% since 1985.

An article in Tuesday’s La Figaro showed how large numbers of believers participate in pilgrimages as part of practicing their faith. While destinations like Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain attract large numbers, there are numerous destinations in France that are also attractive. A sizable percentage of French tourism is for reasons of spiritual belief.

The Roman Catholic Church has recognized eleven Marian apparitions (supernatural appearances of Mary), five of which occurred at locations in France in the 19th Century. A line superimposed through these five locations on the map of France produces the shape of an M. One of the locations is in Paris, at a chapel I had never heard of, The Chapel of our Lady of the Miraculous Medal (Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse). The La Figaro article said that over 2 million people visit this chapel each year. It’s on rue de Bac near the Bon Marché department store, not far from our apartment. So I set out on a pilgrimage.

Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse - the Assumption of Mary

Entry Hall, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

On rue de Bac near the popular Grande Epicérie de Paris, the specialty food store of the Bon Marché, I found a doorway allowing people to come and go down a long corridor to Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. I walked around trying to photograph the outside of the chapel, but at ground level it is completely hidden from view by other structures.

Once inside I walked past displays and religious coin vending machines, statues, and welcome offices for arriving pilgrims. The chapel was at the end of the hall. A service was in progress. I entered, found a seat in the back, took an inconspicuous photo, and sat through a mass in a language I believe was Korean. I tried to participate, but was hampered by my complete lack of knowledge of Catholic traditions, customs, and liturgy, not to mention the Asian language of the service. People occasionally left something in a basket in the center of the room. I assumed it was an offering, so as I departed I walked up and put in a small donation. Too late I noticed that inside the basket were slips of paper, prayer requests! My bad.

Chapel, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse - the Assumption of Mary

Chapel, Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse

Outside again, I saw a display explaining the story of the Marian apparition. A young nun, Catherine Labouré, began her service here in 1830 with the Company of the Daughters of Charity. Their motherhouse was at 140 rue de Bac. On the 18th of July and the 27th of November 1830, the Blessed Virgin appeared in the Chapel before Catherine. She asked that a medallion be made to a design that she dictated, adding that, “All who wear this medal will receive great graces.”

It was a time of great unrest in France. The bloody 3 day revolution of July 1830 replaced the constitutional monarchy of the last of the post-revolution Bourbon kings with another conferring the monarchy to Louis Philippe of the Orleans line of the royal family. France was industrializing and becoming more wealthy, but there were few social services and the poor were miserable. The workers were dissatisfied with the status quo. It is the same setting as in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables”, a novel that above all was about the misery of poor people in France. In 1830, Jean Val Jean, the hero of that story, is living with his adopted daughter Cosette on rue de Plumet (today’s rue Rue Oudinot). This street ends almost exactly at La Chapelle de Notre Dame de la Médaille Miraculeuse. Uncanny.

Catherine Labouré reported her visions to her priest, who took two years to report this to the archbishop. Eventually a medal referred to as the Miraculous Medal was produced. In the meantime, in 1831, Catherine was sent to Enghien les Bains, to a home for the elderly, north of Paris, where she spent the next 40 years serving these largely poor and miserable residents. The church did not forget her. Following her death in 1876, her body was moved in 1933 to the chapel at rue de Bac and placed under the alter. In July 1947, Pope Pius XII declared her a Saint. It was not until 1950, via this same Pope, that the Assumption of Mary was officially recognized, though it had been part of the teachings of the church for hundreds of years before.

The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in 1952 said that the Assumption of Mary was the most significant Christian religious event since the Reformation. Finally the church acknowledged a feminine element, allowing Mary to join the three masculine religious figures of Christianity. The realization of this feminine aspect has been slow in arriving, but gradually it is asserting itself, not only in the church, but in secular life as well. Religions adapt to changes in society to offer their adherents a more meaningful view of life, but as you can see, sometimes one must have lots of patience. Bonne fête de l’Assomption!

 

August in Paris

Brenda on deserted rue Cler

Brenda at 3pm on a practically deserted rue Cler – August in Paris (click to enlarge)

Today it’s about 97°F, which has been typical this August in Paris. We have bright sun and not much wind. Since most apartments don’t have air conditioning, it’s pretty miserable in most places. The French call this weather une canicule, which comes from the latin canicula for small dog. In English we call days like these dog days. The English word canine is also related. Many French have left Paris during the traditional August summer vacation period, so it’s quiet in the capital.

A French friend tells us that all the beautiful people have left, but in truth many of us common folks depart also for the seashore, the mountains, camping, or just to visit family outside the hot confines of the city. News media cover the Grands Départs en Vacances in July, including reports on the heavy traffic conditions and breathless interviews on the steps of the Palais de l’Élysée with the departing cabinet members. French President Macron and his wife have gone to Le Fort de Brégançon, the traditional summer vacation spot for French Presidents near Toulon on the Mediterranean.

movie screen at Parc de la Villette

Giant inflatable movie screen at Parc de la Villette. Cinema under the stars.

For those left behind

Ourselves, we’re back from a week’s vacation on the French Rivera in Nice. The seaside was lovely and our room had air conditioning. Now we’re back dealing with the canicule. The plumber came in the heat yesterday to fix the toilet. Thursday the man comes to read the utility meters. Still, it’s fun to be in Paris when everyone has gone on vacation. You don’t have to wait to cross the street, and there are some amusements for those of us left behind.

Paris Plages is a beach scene that attracts thousands down by the Seine and along the canals in the North of Paris. It simulates the beach with swimming, sports, dancing, eating and drinking (but no longer is there sand since there is a world-wide shortage). The other night we joined thousands more at the outdoor cinema set up at Parc de la Villette. They have a giant inflatable screen that allows a big crowd on folding canvas chairs or on blankets on the grass to sit back and enjoy a movie under the stars.

Our group met for a picnic and champagne ahead of the film, which was a classic 1965 Jean Paul Belmondo film entitled, «Pierrot le Fou».  It was from the era when artists were trying to find deep meaning in Campbells Soup cans; the storyline was a bit hard to follow. They gave us each a blanket with our chairs, and I was thinking what possible need would I have when, sure enough, I needed it in the suddenly cool night air. Back home later it was still the same old hot apartment, but guess what – maybe there’ll be a big storm tonight. Temperatures are supposed to fall into the 50’s by Thursday.

In a couple weeks all this heat will dissipate, and we’ll be wishing that August in Paris wouldn’t end. In the meantime we’ll be here, in the heat, sipping cool cucumber infused ice water and eating chilled watermelon. Happy August!

US Passport Renewal in Paris

Where to do passport renewal in France - US Embassy Paris

The US Embassy, where Americans in France complete passport renewal, stands demurely behind tall trees and iron gates at the corner of the largest square in Paris.

A small insight into life for Americans in France. We are in the process of passport renewal for our 10 year US passports. In the US you would fill out a form, send it with a check in the amount of the renewal fee to the State Department, along with a new passport photo and your old passport. They mail you back your new passport. In France you fill out this same form and mail it with your passport to the US Embassy. However, the Embassy neither accepts US money in the form of a personal US bank check nor a personal check from a European bank (nor a credit card of course). You need a French bank cashier’s check (chèque de banque).

When I went to the nearest branch of my bank, HSBC, presented my bank ID card, and requested a chèck de banque in the amount of 94 €, they told me they couldn’t do that. I would need to contact my bank counselor to make arrangements. So I went home and called my counselor. The counselor never answers the phone, so you talk to the person who answers. He asked me for my name and ID number, then had me input a secret code that verifies I’m really me, and then asked what I wanted. I told him I needed a chèck de banque for 94€ to renew my passport. We discussed that it must be made out to the US Embassy. He told me that it would be ready at the branch near us on the following Saturday morning (2 business days).

On Saturday morning Brenda and I went to the bank branch and asked for our cashier’s checks. They had no record of our order. We presented our bank ID cards and personal identification in the form of passports and residence cards. We filled out forms indicating our names and checking account number, the payee and amount. The bank teller told us the checks would be ready on Wednesday (2 business days), but to call first since our order might not be ready in that amount of time.

The US, like France, is very particular about passport and ID photos. However, the rules for background, size, etc., are different. Though there are photo booths all over France for ID photos, they aren’t correct for US passports. Thus we had our photos taken at Walgreens in Spokane when we last visited the US. Dodged that bullet.

Should we ever get the cashiers checks, I think we will be ready to make application. Since we have to send in our current passports, we need to make sure we don’t need them for at least 2 weeks in the future. That means we can’t travel to other countries or even within France. We will want to send in our forms by traceable mail just in case they get lost.

Unlike in the US, where the State Department sends back your passport for free, in France we must send a self addressed prepaid envelope of a certain type with our forms so that the new passport can be returned to us. It must be a Chronopost for France, or Collissimo, or a Lettre suivie 500g size A4 only. Chronopost is the French mail system’s package delivery. Collissimo is a private delivery service affiliated with the postal system. Lettre suivie is a prepaid, trackable envelope that you can purchase at the post office. I chose lettre suivie because I found the right envelope in the post office rack, but I don’t know if it’s the best choice. Each prepaid envelope cost about $8.

The destination, the US Embassy, is within easy walking distance of our apartment, but it’s guarded like Fort Knox, and you need an appointment to enter. Only plan a visit if you need emergency passport renewal. Don’t try to take a photo either; the French guards will start blowing their whistles and all hell will break loose.

Snow in Paris

Snow painting the entrance to the Musée de l'Armée

Snow painting the entrance to the Musée de l’Armée

It doesn’t snow in Paris very often, and when it does, we see the flakes falling but nothing accumulates on the ground. Paris, although it is at the same latitude as the northern-most parts of the US, has a mild, temperate climate similar to Seattle. The relatively mild winter weather is both because of its position in the European land mass and due to the influence of the Gulf Stream on the weather of northern Europe. The Paris urban area is always a couple degrees centigrade warmer than the surrounding areas. This often spares the city from effects of cold weather even when it produces snow in the suburbs. Typically, the temperature here in winter is in the 40-45 °F range. Freezing weather is rare.

Thus it was significant when 12-15 cm (5 or 6 inches) of snow fell in Paris Tuesday night, turning the streets, the parks, and the building tops white. It was the biggest snowfall in Paris since 1987. No one from a snowy winter climate would be impressed with the magnitude of the storm, yet for Paris, the snow creates two effects: it renders the city quiet and magical and it turns city services into chaos.

No shoveling on rue Cler

le Malabar

Not much doing at Le Malabar

About a year ago I purchased an Apple Watch, which has a couple of fitness programs I use, Nike Run Club and the Activity App. These drive me nuts because I have goals every day to stand up often enough, burn enough calories through movement, and to get enough minutes of exercise. It’s relatively easy every day to stand up enough and to get 30 minutes of walking or running, but on days when I don’t run it’s difficult to get the 550 calories of activity. It usually takes about 90 minutes of walking to get there. Oh – and the watch can’t detect when you are doing pushups or squat thrusts, so you can’t achieve the goal by going to the gym. It bugs me not to reach my goals, so every day there is this reckoning.

Eerie quiet in the snow on the Champs de Mars

Eerie quiet in the snow on the Champs de Mars

rue de Belgrade

All is quiet along rue de Belgrade

Tuesday night at 10 pm I still needed about 125 calories, so out I went into the snow storm. I stuffed my 35mm camera into my coat, put up my hood, and walked around. Every once in awhile I stopped to take a photo in the swirling snow. Hopefully I’ve captured some of the calm, the quiet, and the mess. If you click on the pictures you can see a larger version.

Underfoot in the snow, Paris becomes magical. The snow gives a different look to every familiar scene, and the weather keeps most people away, so especially at night the streets and public spaces are lightly trafficked and sometimes deserted. The normal noise and bustle becomes quiet and serene. No one moves quickly. Traffic slows down. Everyone proceeds carefully, looking for solid footing, except the kids who revel in the sudden chance to have a snowball fight.

slushy rue Saint Dominique

Not much activity on slushy rue Saint Dominique

Garden out our apartment window after the snow

Garden out our apartment window after the snow

All this calm belies the inability of the city to cope with even a minor snowstorm. No one has even a shovel. In walking extensively through the city streets, I saw one small green city truck with a snow blade, pushing a narrow path up a busy street. Most streets were eventually cleared by the grinding of the slushy snow under wheel and gradual melting. Curbside there were slush and deep puddles everywhere. Merchants and the City spread salt and sand to improve traction along the sidewalks of the main streets, but other than a narrow path near the doors to the storefronts, the slush and snow remained as a hazard out to the curb. Flights were cancelled. Metro trains and the bus service stopped running. The Eiffel Tower was closed. The city forbid large trucks from using the highways and encouraged people to stay home. Hundreds spent the night in the airport or in a train station. I stopped short of trying to achieve my calorie goal.

By Thursday there was sun but still freezing temperatures. I could sense the extra strain on our apartment’s heating system in the colder weather. Some sidewalks became passable, some almost clear. Others remained slushy and slippery.

The flood waters are subsiding

Snow and ice on Voie sur Berge Rive Gauche

Voie sur Berge Rive Gauche still packed with snow and ice

Snow capped Le Zouave wears his life jacket

Snow capped Le Zouave wears his life jacket

Down by the river the walkways were thick with ice and treacherous. At Place Saint André des Arts I nearly fell several times walking across the slippery brick surface. The flooding that surged into Paris a couple weeks ago seemed to be subsiding, though the roads and walkways beside the Seine are still covered in water. The Crimean War statue called Le Zouave, the city’s unofficial flood gauge under Pont de l’Alma, was outfitted with a life vest. Though the water level looks about 2 feet lower than it was at its peak, perhaps the citizenry still fears for Le Zoave’s safety as this new storm moves through.

Champs de Mars in the snow

Champs de Mars shows no willingness to give up the snow after 3 days.

The days are getting longer. Soon all this will pass and spring will be here.

 

Happy New Year 2018!

Hugh Nelson and Brenda Prowse at Vaux le Vicomte

Apologies to our readers. We have fixed the security device that was blocking comments to our post.

We did a lot in 2017, but one thing we didn’t do was post to this blog. Our experiment of living in France is now almost five years old, and 2017 was no less active than any of the other years. To start the new year out right, here is a small effort, neither too long nor too inclusive, to convey something about the past year.

We traveled a number of places, the most impressive being a trip to Cuba in May. In sum, Cuba is both a country with a totalitarian government and beautiful place with ingenious people who manage as best they can, have happiness where they can find it, and hope for a better outcome in the future. Around every corner of Cuba there was surprise and fascination. It was our privilege to visit with and learn from some of its citizens. We also vacationed on the Greek island of Corfu, which was beautiful, historic, educational, and fun. We went to Barcelona, one of the greatest tourist attractions in Europe, to meet friends from Australia for the second year in a row. We flew back to the US to visit family. The natural beauty of Washington is as good as any other place on earth. We spent time last August in Nice, France, our first experience on the wonderful Mediterranean beaches and towns of France.

We finally moved our furniture from Washington into a Paris apartment. It was a saga and an ordeal, but at least it is done. Apartment hunting, financial contract arrangements, and moving our furniture all took much longer and were much more difficult than we could have imagined, but we’re happy with the result. One conclusion, despite getting rid of as much as we possibly could before leaving Washington, we still shipped too many things that we didn’t need – our bed for instance, which the movers thought was a piano.

We were robbed a couple times. Once I was pickpocketed on the Metro. And one of the movers made off with a few thousand in gold jewelry. None of this was recoverable (except for my French ID card), but it impressed upon us that though France is relatively safe, there isn’t much trust between people.

We stopped taking French lessons. We are still not very fluent, yet our French is many times better than when we arrived. I liken it to failing 3rd grade. Try as hard as you can and come up short every time with no hope that proficiency will ever be attained – yet things seem to be getting better. There is no switch that flips so that suddenly you know French, yet every effort to learn and speak in French makes the experience here better. French self study is still a daily activity.

We have lost some dear friends this year, people who have influenced our lives in the past and continue to do so today. I keep in mind that this life does not go on forever and that every new day presents opportunities to honor the past and to make something of the gifts we have received. On the other hand, we love hearing about the new members of our families, and we’re proud of the efforts of the next generation and want for them every success in raising a new group of children.

The good fortune of our time in France is that we have been befriended by a French family and have been invited into their world. We see them every week and often go on vacation together. This has been a cultural exchange that has enriched our lives immeasurably and has made every inconvenience of living here worth the pain.

So another year begins. We wish you and your family a safe, prosperous, and happy new year!

What did you do in 2016?

Hugh and Brenda on Pont Alexandre III with la Tour Eiffel in background

Hugh and Brenda on Pont Alexandre III with la Tour Eiffel in background

Joyeux fête de fin d’année! (Happy new year’s eve celebration!)

With Greg and Lauren Meyer on New Year's Eve 2016

With Greg and Lauren Meyer on New Year’s Eve 2016

Friends in the US and people we meet here ask us what we do in France. When we tell them we are retired, the French always wonder how we could possibly have chosen France, since our dream is not necessarily their dream. The Americans ask, “What do you do with your time?”, and often we stumble telling about the mundane day-to-day and probably don’t give a very compelling answer. We haven’t posted to this blog very often recently, so consider this an attempt to catch up about what we did with our time in France in 2016.

We spent New Year’s Eve 2015 with our dearest French friends Cat and Jacques and also with our friends Greg and Lauren Meyer, who were visiting Paris from Poulsbo. It was fun to share our friend’s French family celebration with American friends who love the culture here.

Atlantic Ocean from beach on east side of Cozumel Island

Atlantic Ocean from beach on east side of Cozumel Island

On February 3rd we successfully renewed our residence permits for a 4th year in France. From February 14-29 we got away from the Paris winter with our friends Cat and Jacques by going to an all inclusive resort at Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun, Mexico. While there we visited Chichen-Itza, Tulum (about the same time the Pope visited), Cozumel, Cancun and one of many cenotes called the Grand Cenote. All in all we had a wonderful time and great weather.

Celebrating our 27th Anniversary at Les Papilles in Paris

Celebrating our 27th Anniversary at Les Papilles in Paris

On March 5 we celebrated our 27th anniversary by dining out at Les Papilles, a reasonably priced but very good restaurant in Paris 5th arrondissement. On March 24th I took the train to Brussels to renew my retired military ID card. This was just 2 days after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport, so the city was locked down. However our financial advisor Brian Dunhill ferried me around to get the ID card renewal completed (and for Mexican food and beer), so everything went smoothly.

Tasha Moretto and new baby Emma

Tasha Moretto and new baby Emma

From April 20 to May 5th we were in the United States, Brenda starting by visiting friends in Poulsbo, Washington and me starting in Pekin, Illinois visiting my brother Chris and wife Michele, and niece Tasha and her husband Dustin and their new baby daughter Emma. I spent much of my time scanning old family slides and photos, since Chris and Michele were in the process of moving to Florida.

Brenda and Beth resting after Bloomsday

Brenda and Beth resting after Bloomsday

Then Brenda and I met in Seattle to travel to Spokane to see her mom, Beth Shaw, and to run the annual Bloomsday road race, where each year we check if we can still make it around the 12k course. On our way back to Paris, we returned to Gig Harbor and stayed with Patty and Bill Wilson (Jr), allowing Beth to see her good friends Edie and Bill Wilson (Sr), who live in a retirement community there now.

Brenda at the dome at The Reichstag building, which looks down on the German Parliament.

Brenda at the dome at The Reichstag building, which looks down on the German Parliament.

In May we received a visit from our Poulsbo friend Don Merry, who stayed a few days with us in Paris before he and Brenda headed out on a Rick Steves tour of Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. This was magnificent whirlwind tour that exposed Brenda and Don to a wide swath of European cities and cultures. Brenda loved Prague and Vienna. Upon Brenda and Don’s return for a few days in Paris, we took a day trip to see the King’s herb garden (and other attractions) at Versailles on a guided tour with our favorite cooking school, La Cuisine.

At the outskirts of Tataouine, Tunesia, heading towards the Sahara - the end of the world.

At the outskirts of Tataouine, Tunesia, heading towards the Sahara – the end of the world.

In June, almost as soon as Don departed, we were off on another all inclusive resort vacation with Cat and Jacques, this time to Tunisia, on the Isle of Djerba. It was very hot when we arrived (50°C one day with no air-conditioning yet in the rooms), but for the most part the weather was wonderful. In addition to visiting some of the local towns on the island, we spent one day going to the end of the world (south into the desert) and visiting the village of Tatouine, as well as a troglodyte city started by the Bedouins in about 1100 AD. Brenda fulfilled her dream to ride a camel. This was our first time in Africa and the Magreb, and it was a wonderful experience.

Brenda, Allison, and Dean with Saint Peter's Basilica in the background

Brenda, Allison, and Dean with Saint Peter’s Basilica in the background

In early July we traveled to Rome to meet Brenda’s friend Allison Fankhouser and her husband Dean. Brenda and Allison had taught school together in Australia in the ’70s, and just found each other again a few years ago via LinkedIn. It was our first time back in Rome since the early 2000s, and was it fun! We did some sightseeing, toured the Coliseum and ruins, hung out at the Trevi Fountain, visited the Pantheon, shopped, and dined out. We watched Euro Cup soccer matches in the evening at the hotel. The last day we visited Saint Peter’s Basilica and saw the weekly address by the Pope.

Later in July, we were off with Cat and Jacques to the Brittany region of France, first stopping at the fabulous Mont Saint Michel, then along the coast to Saint Malo, then Dinar, and then inland to the town of Dinan and the Port of Dinan running along the river of the same name.

Just before the start of the Bastille Day fireworks in Paris

Just before the start of the Bastille Day fireworks in Paris

We went to the Bastille Day fireworks at the Eiffel Tower on July 14th. Brenda set down blankets and kept a space in the field from early afternoon until the show started at 11pm. Hugh came at about 6pm with Poulsbo friends Chuck and Cheri Gerstenberger and brought a picnic dinner so we could enjoy the live concert that precedes the fireworks. It was a typically stunning event, and the weather was perfect. You may remember that at the same time some 500,000 people were watching the show on the Champs de Mars in Paris, a madman was driving a truck through the crowd after the festivities in Nice, killing 86 and injuring 435 people. So the evening ended as a somber occasion.

Brenda, Barbara, Terry and Martha at a cafe in Frankfurt.

Brenda, Barbara, Terry and Martha at a cafe in Frankfurt.

At the end of July we traveled to Frankfurt, Germany to visit our friend Barbara Hoehfeld. Friends Martha Pendergast and Terry Campbell from Hansville, Washington, met us there. We stayed at the Hotel Senator near Barbara’s apartment in the heart of town. We spent some time walking along the River Main and admiring the European Central Bank. The wait list for tours there was months long. We spent half a day or so traveling to Darmstadt to see the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, where Martha continued her quest to see all the Pieter I Bruegel (the elder) paintings in the world. There we saw the Magpie on the Gallows. We also toured the Städel Museum and attended a concert by a multinational group from Morocco, toured the Palmengarten and rowed in the pond, and had several unique and wonderful dinners. One day Brenda and I went over to the US Army Base at Wiesbaden, where we were able to update her military ID card. This was an important step in making sure that we continue to have medical coverage here in Europe.

At Berck Plage in Nord Pas de Calais, France

At Berck Plage in Nord Pas de Calais, France

Late in August we went with Cat and Jacques to Le Touquet Paris Plage, a beach community in the French Department (somewhat like a state or county for administering the affairs of a region in France) of Nord Pas de Calais, a region north of Normandy lying along the English Channel. The first night we came to a nearby beach town and joined a parade in progress where the crowd was marching behind the band. Periodically the band would stop, turn around and play a song. We ended up at the beach, where we saw a skit by two women playing employees at a bank. It was a very professional act, cutting and very humorous. Then we slipped next door to the casino, found a table by the window to see the sunset and have dinner, and then watched France lose the European Cup (soccer) to Portugal. Another day we visited the beach at Berck, where we had a very nice lunch and then spent the afternoon laying on the enormous beach in the warm sun. Berck is a fun word to pronounce.

Carl Swanstrom and Linda Gagnier at our apartment in Paris.

Carl Swanstrom and Linda Gagnier at our apartment in Paris.

Early in September our Seattle friends Carl Swanstrom and Linda Gagnier visited Paris. We spent a couple days touring the town on foot, plus making the trip to Montmartre, where I tried to do the professional tour route in reverse as we came back down the hill from Sacre Coeur. We really enjoyed meeting Linda. Carl used to terrify us taking us down the steep slopes on ski trips so it’s good to see that there is someone who can slow him down.

Chantilly

Chantilly

In mid September we traveled with Cat and Jacques to Chantilly, one of France’s most beautiful and iconic Châteaux. We spent the day touring the castle and wandering the gardens in beautiful late summer weather.

Joanie, Brenda, and Beth in Idaho celebrating Beth's 90th.

Joanie, Brenda, and Beth in Idaho celebrating Beth’s 90th.

Later in the month Brenda headed back to the US. She and her sister Joanie, who made the trip up from California, both came home to Spokane to celebrate their mother Beth’s 90th birthday. They got to go mom’s exercise club to swim and work out, spent a day visiting friends in Idaho, and saw some beautiful gardens in Spokane. Brenda attended a luncheon where an old boyfriend (from 1st grade), Bill Moos, now Athletic Director at Washington State, was the guest speaker. Brenda also visited Poulsbo and stayed with her friend Randi Strong-Petersen (up in Hansville). While there she was able to meet with as many of our close friends as possible and find out how things were going.

Pianist Emil Reinert with two friends

Pianist Emil Reinert with two friends at the Romanian Cultural Institute, Paris

While Brenda was gone, Hugh had an invitation from Pascale Velleine to hear her son, Emil Reinert, perform a piano concert at Romanian Cultural Center in Paris. Emil is the grandson of Barbara Hoehfeld, whom we had visited in Frankfurt earlier in the year. He is also a terrific classical pianist, one of a handful young performers invited to play in a series of 1 hour concerts that ran throughout Paris Journées du Patrimoine this year. Barbara came from Frankfurt, and we all, along with a number of other friends of Emil and Pascale, went to lunch afterwards at a Romanian Café just down from the concert hall.

French Prime Minister's desk, Hôtel Matignon, Paris

French Prime Minister’s desk, Hôtel Matignon, Paris

The Journées du Patrimoine are cultural heritage days where in cities throughout Europe, the government and other buildings and gardens not normally open to the public are opened for public viewing. It’s a way to educate the population about the history and functioning of their government and associated facilites. After the concert Hugh was able to get into the Hôtel Matignon, the residence of the French Prime Minister, then Manual Valls, who is now running for President. The expansive garden behind the hôtel was a wonder to behold – one would never imagine it exists when regarding the hôtel from the street.

Patty Wilson and Brenda at the Eiffel Tower

Patty Wilson and Brenda at the Eiffel Tower

In early October, about a week after Brenda’s return, Patty Wilson visited us from the US. We had stayed with her and husband Bill Jr. at their Gig Harbor home in May. Patty had been to Paris a number of times before so she was capable of getting around. Brenda took her shopping at our local market and then cooked at our place. We visited some of Paris’s covered passageways and walked and took photos along the Seine and down by the Eiffel Tower at night. The girls went shopping and sightseeing in the Marais and at the Jardin du Luxembourg. Patty took us out to for an excellent dinner at Le Bistro Paul Bert, a fine restaurant where we had not dined before.

View from breakfast at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, Bali

View from breakfast at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, Bali

As Patty’s stay in Paris was ending, we took off for vacation in Bali with Cat and Jacques. First we took a flight to Doha, Qatar on the Persian Gulf and then caught a connecting flight to Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. In case you don’t know much about Indonesia and Bali, Indonesia is the 4th largest country in the world (250 million) and the largest Muslim country. It consists of a long chain of islands south of the equator. Bali, a smaller island in the middle of the chain, is still more than 80% Hindu with a population of over 4 million, mostly concentrated in the south part of the island. Except for rising problems with over population and development in the south part of the island, Bali has preserved much of its Hindu character and life style despite the modernization that has occurred elsewhere in the country. Indonesia was a dutch colony (Dutch East Indies) from the early 1600s until World War II, when the Netherlands gave up possession to the Japanese. After the war it became an independent country and, after a long period of authoritarian rule, held its first direct presidential election in 2004.

By the Bali Sea on Lembongan Island, Indonesia

By the Bali Sea on Lembongan Island, Indonesia

We stayed at two different hotels, 5 days at The Mansion Resort in Ubud, towards the quieter north central part of the island and 9 days at the Artotel in Samur, on the east coast of the heavily populated south part of the island. Both hotels were beautiful, the Mansion old and traditional, the Artotel brand new, open, and modern. We interspersed days at the beach with days of sight seeing and hired a guide named Willy to manage the tours. He spoke both French and English and was constantly enlightening us on small facets of Balinese life and Hindu traditions. We saw two traditional dance shows, several artisan shops, and several important and beautiful Hindu temples. One tour provided lunch at a windy restaurant atop one of Bali’s volcanos, and another a beach fish fry where the surf kept chasing us from our seats to farther ashore all night long. On our own we toured Sacred Monkey Park at Ubud. Brenda volunteered to feed the monkeys, which was as easy as buying bananas from the lady and holding them high over your head. The Balinese monkeys take care of the rest – they climb you with their sharp little nails. We heard that the best way to see how Bali used to be was to take a fast boat off shore to one of the nearby islands (30 minute ride), so one day we went to Lembongan Island and hired a driver to take us around the bumpy island roads. Along the way we visited a mangrove and a spectacular beach with giant surf pounding against the rocks, then sunned ourselves and had a great lunch at a restaurant and pool near the beach before beating our way back across the waves to Bali. Some days we just went to the beach and ate at local restaurants. One negative was that Hugh contracted some kind of dysentery towards the end that made him very ill for 10 days or so (7 of these back in Paris). He got to meet the hotel doctor and go to the hospital to get the blood test for Dengue fever. Fortunately no Dengue. All in all, the Bali trip was a grand adventure that went very smoothly.

Brian Dunhill with Brenda at the American Club of Brussels for Thanksgiving

Brian Dunhill with Brenda at the American Club of Brussels for Thanksgiving

It was nearly November when we returned from Bali, and with Hugh’s continuing illness, the US Presidential Election, and the Washington Huskies trying to win the Pac 12 football championship, there was lots to keep us busy. We intensified our search for an unfurnished apartment, trying to narrow down the neighborhood, price, and essential features. We’ve been pretty slow with this step and our stuff from Washington remains in storage here in Paris. At the end of November, we took the train to Brussels for several days and stayed in a fancy hotel near Place Louise (Wilcher’s Steigenberger). The highlight of our trip was Thanksgiving Dinner at the American Club of Brussels held at the downtown Sheraton Hotel. We were guests of our financial adviser, Brian Dunhill, and his company Cross Border Planning. Brian is also President of the American Club, so he is a busy guy. Like last year, the dinner was superb, with a turkey for each table prepared by the kitchen staff according to the special recipe of one of the club members. Everything else was very good. It was a traditional meal for this very traditional holiday. We also walked around city center to see the Christmas decorations and the beautiful light show at night in the town square. Another night Brian suggested for us a local Belgian restaurant near our hotel, Le Chou de Bruxelles, that served excellent mussels and fries, a Belgian specialty, and fine, fine everything else. We also spent a wonderful afternoon visiting the European Union Parliament’s Visitor Center called the Parlamentarium. It provided numerous educational exhibits describing the history and operation of the European Union.

French friends Cat and Jacques at our apartment

French friends Cat and Jacques at our apartment

It’s December now and the year is slipping away. When we haven’t been traveling, we’ve been doing what we usually do with our time in France, French lessons twice a week, usually by Skype, twice a week to the local market for food, running workouts every other day, with long walks on the off-days, Hugh keeping up the Poulsbo Rotary web site, keeping up with life in the US by listening to KPLU (now KNKX) in Tacoma, calling Brenda’s mom twice a week, spending time on Facebook, doing the laundry without having a dryer, spending every Sunday at the movies with Cat and Jacques and then staying for dinner and playing scrabble (in French) until 2am, and other stuff like that. Study for the French lessons consumes lots of time since we learn about France as well as the French language. And we have to cook and clean house. Hugh has run about 700km over the past year, and Brenda has run a bunch too, plus she works out with her personal trainer Margaux once a week. We have a little home gym with a yoga mat, several stretch bands of varying intensity, and a core bag. Margaux has taught Brenda plenty of ways to get a good workout without need for a weight set or exercise machines. Hugh just copies.

Brenda on Rue Cler at Christmas

Brenda on Rue Cler at Christmas

So that’s what we’ve been doing to stay busy. We want to thank everyone who has visited or allowed us to visit all through the year. I know I haven’ t mentioned all the guests we saw here in Paris, but thanks for your visit. Our lives have been the richer for it. We wish you and your family a Happy New Year and hope you will have a fun, healthy, and productive 2017. Bonne Année!

Eisenhower in Paris

The only President I’ve ever seen in person was Dwight Eisenhower. It was 1956, and we lived in Peoria, Illinois. You might think that a 5 year old would not remember much of what happened back then, but I already knew who he was and what he looked like. He was revered in our family for being a great leader in World War II. Fortunately we have the Internet to help with the details – Eisenhower spoke at Bradley University on September 25, 1956. Election campaigns back then didn’t start two years before the election. Before the event there was a parade up Main Street, and my parents took my brother Pete and me to see the President. I remember the cold night air and eventually after a cavalcade of other cars, the President passing by, waving from the back seat of his limousine. That was it – I saw the President.

At his speech in Peoria that night, President Eisenhower recognized Senate Minority Leader Everette Dirksen, who was from the nearby town of Pekin, and also Robert Michel from Peoria, who at that time was running for Congress from Peoria’s Congressional District. Michel would be elected and would eventually become the House Minority Leader. He was also the Congressman who in 1969 gave me my appointment to the Naval Academy. I have an old letter from Senator Dirksen congratulating me upon my appointment. Eisenhower died in March 1969 after a long illness, and Dirksen died in September of that year. My brother Chris and his wife Michele raised their family in Pekin, and both my parents lived there at the end of their lives. Many times I’ve run by the statue of Dirksen in Pekin’s Mineral Springs Park. Many aspects of my future life were represented in the President’s 1956 speech in Peoria.

Building where Eisenhower lived in Paris in 1928, now 68 Quai Louis Blériot

Building where Eisenhower lived in Paris in 1928, now 68 Quai Louis Blériot

Nearly 60 years have passed since I saw President Eisenhower, but recently I received an email from my friend and former colleague Monty Bolstad. We used to work together at the Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington. He was reading a biography of Dwight Eisenhower by Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace), and he asked me if the experience described in this quote about Eisenhower was my experience with trying to learn French: “Eisenhower initially relished his post to Paris. He and Mamie commenced daily French lessons, and Ike set out to explore Paris on foot. After three months of daily instruction, Eisenhower became proficient at reading and writing French, but the spoken word eluded him. ‘Major,’ said his French teacher, ‘you are one of the best readers of French and translators of the written language that I have among my students, but you are the worst candidate as a French linguist I have ever tried to teach.’ Ike persevered for a year, but his effort to speak French proved hopeless. Mamie, for her part, began enthusiastically but soon lost patience.”

Eisenhower had come to Paris when he was assigned to General John J. Pershing’s Battle Monuments Commission. His job was to create a guide to the American WWI battlefields in Europe. It was a complete history, battle by battle, of the American war on the western front. When the job was completed, Eisenhower was the best informed officer in the Army on the strategy and battle tactics that Pershing had employed, other then Pershing himself and his director of operations, Fox Conner.

Eisenhowers lived upstairs in this photo of the apartment at 68 Building where Eisenhower lived in Paris in 1928, now 68 Quai Louis Blériot

Eisenhowers lived upstairs in this photo of the apartment at 68 Building where Eisenhower lived in Paris in 1928, now 68 Quai Louis Blériot

In July 1928 Eisenhower and his wife Mamie arrived in Paris, Mamie taking a plush apartment in the 16th arrondissement about a mile downstream from the Eiffel Tower and close by the Bois de Boulogne. The apartment was on the 1st floor (2nd floor US) at 68 Quai d’Auteuil, owned at the time by the Comtesse de Villefranche. It was beautifully furnished, and the Eisenhowers soon became the social center for their friends in Paris and guests visiting France. Because of exchange rates, Paris was then very inexpensive for Americans, and the apartment was far more elegant than the Eisenhowers could have afforded on his salary in the US. The quai where Eisenhower lived is now called Quai Louis Blériot, named after a French engineer and aviator who invented the first headlamp for trucks and who also was the first person to fly across the English Channel. The adjoining quai is Quai Saint-Exupéry, so after the war they must have renamed some of the streets after French aviators. Eisenhower would walk to work each day to Pershing’s headquarters at 20 rue Molitor, a few blocks down the road. I walked there one day and took photos of both buildings, still today much as they must have been back then.

View across the Seine near the old Eisenhower apartment

View across the Seine near the old Eisenhower apartment

Though the area on the right bank hasn’t changed much, the Eisenhower’s view across the Seine has changed markedly. The Citroën factory that used to be across the river is now Parc André Citroën. It has the world’s largest hot air balloon, tethered so that groups of tourists can rise up and take in the city, and then re-descend without an uncontrolled flight over central Paris. Many of the other left bank buildings in this area have been torn down as part of modernization that started in the ’60s and ‘70s.

I had always assumed that though Eisenhower graduated in the middle of his West Point class and was a middling officer very junior in the army leadership at the start of World War II, his meteoric rise to Supreme Allied Commander was because he performed successfully in the war whereas many more senior to him had failed. It turns out he had been on this trajectory for many years before the war.

In 1920 he met George Patton, 6 years his senior and already well known for his heroic service in World War I. Together they worked on radical new strategies for tank warfare, so radical that they incurred the wrath of the Army for publishing ideas that conflicted with existing doctrine.That same year Congress reduced the size of the Army to 288,000, about one tenth of its 2.4 million wartime strength. Eisenhower was promoted to the rank of major, a rank he would retain for the next 16 years. The tank core was abolished, and Eisenhower decided to return to the infantry.

Balloon airborne above Parc André Citroën

Balloon airborne above Parc André Citroën

Before the officers parted company, Patton hosted a party in the honor of Brigadier General Fox Conner, and Eisenhower’s were invited. Conner came to the party to meet Eisenhower as a result of the high recommendation of Patton. Conner had a long discussion with Eisenhower and asked him many questions about his views on armored warfare. In 1922 Eisenhower was assigned to the 20th Infantry Brigade working as a staff officer for Fox Conner in Panama. Conner spent many hours during that tour educating Eisenhower about history, warfare, and the Army.

Conner had been on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) staff working for General Pershing. Conner helped Eisenhower to receive orders in 1925 to Command and General Staff School (CGSS), where he studied the problems of military command. Eisenhower finished ranked first of 245 in his class. Conner then helped Eisenhower to receive assignment to the Battle Monuments Commission, headed by General of the Armies John J Pershing. Pershing, who had already served in the Army’s senior-most position, Chief of Staff, was at that time the only 6 star general in the US Military. Eventually Congress also conferred this honor on George Washington.

Pershing's quarters and office at 20 rue Molitor

Pershing’s quarters and office at 20 rue Molitor

When working for Pershing, Eisenhower met George Marshall, who would eventually become Army Chief of Staff and Eisenhower’s boss throughout World War II. He also worked directly for Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and later worked with MacArthur to train and equip the Philippine Military. Thus starting in about 1920, Eisenhower met and impressed a series of most influential seniors who helped guide his career to the pinnacle of army leadership. In little more than 10 weeks in 1942, he moved ahead of 228 general officers of greater seniority to become a lieutenant general (3 stars) and command the Allied invasion of North Africa. In 1943, he was promoted to full general and directed the invasion of Sicily and Italy.

Eisenhower became the Supreme Allied Commander for the D-Day invasion and for the eventual ending of the war in Europe. With the exception of Marshall and MacArthur, he had more political experience than any officer in the American Army. He was chosen because of his political sensitivity. He worked successfully with military and civilian leaders of the US, Great Britain, France, Russia, and other countries involved in the war effort. He was not a great tactician, and in fact made several blunders during the war that cost lives and time in completing the effort. But he was unrivaled as a decisive, organized, leader with a deft political touch, effective communications skills, extensive knowledge of history, and extraordinary common sense. He kept a diverse coalition working in harmony. He was, incidentally, the only one at the Potsdam Conference who felt the US should not drop the atomic bomb.

After the War he served as Army Chief of Staff. He then retired to become President of Columbia University, but went back on active duty and returned to Paris to lead the effort to start NATO. Then he campaigned successfully and was elected the 34th President of the United States.

He was the only 20th Century President to preside over 8 years of peace and prosperity. He negotiated an end to the Korean War, opposed segregation and integrated the nation’s schools and institutions, successfully opposed the red baiting of the McCarthy era, contained the communist threat, balanced the budget, continued social programs of the New Deal, sponsored building of the interstate highway system and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, successfully opposed the French and English effort to seize control of the Suez Canal from Egypt, twice refused requests of the Joint Chiefs to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, warned against unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex, and promoted peace and understanding as the way forward.

View of Paris from the bridge by Eisenhower's 1928 apartment

View of Paris from the bridge by Eisenhower’s 1928 apartment

In the ’70s I remember visiting Eisenhower’s home in Abilene, KS, and in the car reading Is Paris Burning by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. It was about the German plan to blow up Paris when the Germans retreated as the Allies were advancing. German generals defied Hitler, ignoring his order to defend the city and refusing to blow it up. Eisenhower didn’t want to spend the resources to liberate Paris, but was convinced to do so by Charles de Gaulle, for whom he had great respect. Eisenhower deftly outmaneuvered President Roosevelt and the State Department, who did not like and refused to support de Gaulle. He allowed the French Army to liberate the city and allowed de Gaulle to establish leadership in what otherwise could have been a fractious battle for control. By providing a civil affairs agreement and recognizing de Gaulle as the de facto head of the French state, Eisenhower avoided the problematic issue of establishing administrative control over liberated France.

So we get back to that question about whether I had the same problems as General Eisenhower in learning French. In 3 months of daily lessons the General could supposedly read and write very well in French, but struggled to speak understandably. We know that he was renowned for his excellent memory and that he possessed extraordinary drive. For me (after 3 years), understanding the spoken French is the hard part. They seem to be able to understand when I speak. Still, if General and former President Eisenhower were to speak French to me, I don’t think I would have any complaints about his accent.

French Labor Protests

French Labor protest being organized at École Militaire near our apartment

French Labor protest being organized at École Militaire near our apartment

In our neighborhood of Paris, we’ve already seen two large, well organized French labor protests. There are now violent protests throughout France against proposed changes to the labor laws. The government is trying to improve the economy – why is there such strong opposition?

Economic Problems

France has a number of economic problems. The rate of economic growth (% change in gross domestic product (GDP) – a measure of how the economy is doing overall), has been very slow, 1.2% or less for 4 years. Unemployment has been at about 10% for 4 years, worse than unemployment has been in the US since the Great Depression. Youth unemployment has been about 25%, and about 80% of those youth who have jobs are working under temporary employment contracts, where the employer is under no obligation to keep them after a certain date. Government spending is 56% of GDP, 2nd highest in the EU, compared to about 45% in Germany and 40% in the US. The budget deficit has been more than 3.5% of GDP for the last 4 years. The public debt is more than 95% of GDP. The original rules for EU membership required countries to keep public debt less than 60% and deficits less than 3%, or pay fines. Since then there have been numerous accommodations, but the French are under pressure from the EU to reduce their deficits to below 3%.

At first the Socialist government of President François Hollande tried to raise tax rates to increase tax revenues from the rich, which was expected to lower the deficit. However, at the same time they lowered the retirement age back to 60 years and cancelled previously approved reductions in employment, thus restoring 60,000 jobs recently cut from public education. These measures added back government spending that had been previously reduced. After the government missed their goals for deficit reduction and after continued weak economic growth, France promised the European Union in 2014 that they would reevaluate their budget to find reductions of 50 billion euros over the next 3 years. Therefore the government of France must increase tax revenues by growing their economy or increasing taxes, or they must reduce spending to limit the deficit.

To deal with this, François Hollande shuffled his cabinet and named Manuel Valls his Prime Minister. Valls made other changes, including naming an economist, Emmanuel Macron, as his Minister of the Economy.

France is ranked 141 out of 144 countries on “hiring and firing practices” according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report. Companies face high taxes to hire each new employee, and when they want to lay off employees for economic reasons, the decision on compensation goes before a judge who may award the employee pay for an unlimited period of time. Therefore it is an onerous task for a company to hire a new employee.

French labor protest

Another view of the labor protest forming up to march

Regulations also permit unions to negotiate agreements with employer federations who represent sectors of industry. Thus a union representing only a fraction of all employees can negotiate an agreement that applies to all the employees and employers in a given sector. For instance, labor unions for technology and consultancy employers negotiated an agreement to limit work time through cell phone communications during the leisure time of all employees in these industries, these communications being considered to be an unwarranted extension of work time. This agreement affected some 250,000 workers. Each day some 80,000 French commute to better paying jobs in Luxembourg. This is the largest cross border workforce in the EU.

Government Proposed Reforms

To reduce the burdens of current regulations, the French government has proposed that companies be able to negotiate with unions on working conditions and salaries, where current law ties their hands. They propose that management be able to sign deals only with organizations where at least 50% of the workers participated in union elections, up from the current 30%. This would bring such negotiations closer to the individual company level. The government wants more flexibility for employers in setting employee working hours, allowing increases above the 35 hour limit under certain conditions with certain restrictions. The government also wants to make the rules for layoffs for economic reasons more flexible. They also want to limit the total possible cost to an employer for an employee layoff. The government contends that these changes would bring France into line with the rules in other European countries.

The measure has divided France’s ruling Socialist Party. After the government was unable to reach a compromise to ensure passage of the bill, it invoked a special measure of the French Constitution, article 49.3, to allow passage in the lower house (Assemblée Nationale). The bill must still pass in the French Senat.

French Labor Protests

Police barricades

Police barricade the streets along all routes to the protest

Trade unions have declared that all these changes are unacceptable, and have been organizing widespread protests, some of which have been violent, trying to force the government to give up the cause. Dozens of police as well as participants have been injured in protests involving hundreds of thousands of workers. Fuel shortages have been created by fuel blockades and a transport strike. 16 of 19 nuclear power plants have voted to go on strike, which could potentially create power outages. Unions have further plans for rolling strikes on the Paris Metro system starting June 10th to potentially disrupt the Euro 2016 soccer matches that are to take place throughout the country over the course of the following month.

Labor protest marchers arriving

Marchers arriving to participate in the protest

Polls show that a majority of the public is opposed to these reforms. It’s obvious why unions would be opposed, but why French youth are vigorously opposing these reforms is not obvious, since it appears that youth employment opportunities would be improved. Some critics say that the government’s bill doesn’t address the changes that are needed for the 21st Century. No doubt this is true, but it’s not obvious that these changes would be embraced any more than the current proposals.

While the government is standing firm and international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund have been calling on France to enact these types of reforms, it’s anybody’s guess how this struggle will turn out.

Visit to the Swedish Club

Our group “meet up” at Lili et Riton in Montparnasse

Our group “meet up” at Lili et Riton in Montparnasse

Last week we received an invitation from an acquaintance to go to a mixed French and English group get together at a local Paris cafe, Lili et Riton in Montparnasse. It was followed by a light dinner and jazz music fest at a place called Cercle Suédois (Swedish Club). Brenda and I showed up at the cafe well after the get together had started. Brenda sat down across from me and started speaking in English and French with the man next to her. Another man arrived, still bundled in wool coat, scarf, and hat and sat down next to me.

His name was Didier, and he was most interesting. We had a wide ranging conversation – first me telling him in French about our lives and how we ended up moving to Paris, then him telling me about being a Parisian who moved to paradise, which for him was the west coast of Florida near Naples. He said in passing that his life with women in Florida was thus far a disaster. His French breeding was somehow holding him back. He spoke about nuances of French language – what words you choose and how you present yourself are very important. He noticed that I still had the price sticker on my 2 euro notebook – sign of a person who doesn’t pay attention to appearances. He pointed out that if you say, “je suis à la retraite” (I am retired), people will think you are old and living on a state pension, whereas if you say, “j’ai pris ma retraite” (I have taken my retirement), it conveys that you were able to retire by choice when you were younger. He asked me whether the requirement to be appointed to West Point or the Naval Academy by a Senator or Congressman meant that only the sons and daughters of aristocrats could go to those schools. I assured him that that wasn’t the case. We talked about currency exchange rates. His opinion was that the value of the dollar was largely dependent upon the strength of the US Military. Think about that. When he departed I thanked him and wished him well. He asked me to convey his goodbyes to the others so he wouldn’t have to interrupt their conversations – yet another sign of good breeding in France. After he left, others in the group asked me who he was. Nobody knew him.


Short video of Jazz ensemble at the Cercle Suédois

Enjoying the evening at Circle Suédois with jazz group playing in the background

Enjoying the evening at Circle Suédois with jazz group playing in the background

The group conversation went on some time longer, then we all departed for the Swedish Club, located on the 2nd floor of a building on Rue Rivoli between Place de la Concorde and Place Vendome, one of the tonier neighborhoods in Paris. On Wednesday nights the club has live jazz and serves light fare for dinner, all for a very reasonable price. Our host Frederick helped our group of 10 crowd around a table near the band. The food, conversation, and music were delightful. A grand evening out.

There was something else about the Swedish Club – a door to another room with the label plate “Nobel.” Someone in our group told me that Alfred Nobel used to have an office there where he awarded Nobel prizes. I took a photo of the room (which looked like a dining room) and the label plate. I did some research and found there was much more to the story.

Site of Nobel’s former Paris house on Avenue Raymond Poincaré

I finally found out that Nobel’s Paris house on Avenue Raymond Poincaré had been torn down to build this now famous art nouveau building

Nobel was a very rich Swedish industrialist and entrepreneur. Over his lifetime he became one of the richest men in the world. Though born in Sweden, Noble’s family moved to St Petersburg, Russia, when he was 9. His engineer father moved his business there, invented the rotary lathe used in the manufacture of plywood, and the underwater mine. He also started a profitable factory making explosives in Russia. Alfred and his 3 brothers received a first class education -learning several languages, poetry, chemistry and physics. Because his father wanted him to work in the family business Alfred was sent to Europe and the US for further training in chemical engineering. Alfred met an Italian chemist, Ascanio Sobrero, who invented nitroglycerin, a highly volatile and explosive material. For many years Alfred tested compounds to mix with nitroglycerin in order to make a stable, usable explosive. In 1867, he succeeded, patenting the material under the name dynamite. Yes, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite! The new explosive coupled with other inventions at the time drastically reduced the cost of major construction and could be readily applied to military weapons technology. Nobel became rich and extremely busy founding factories and laboratories in 90 different locations in 20 countries.

Nobel loved Paris. In 1875 he moved there and bought a house at what is today 59 avenue Raymond Poincaré. The original house was completely rebuilt in the Art Nouveau style by a subsequent owner. In 1876 Nobel advertised for a personal secretary, and hired an Austrian woman named Bertha Kinsky. She only worked for him a short time before deciding to return to Austria and marry Count Arthur Von Suttner. In spite of this Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner remained friends and kept writing letters to each other for decades. Over the years Bertha von Suttner became increasingly critical of the arms race. She wrote a famous book, Lay Down Your Arms, and became a prominent figure in the peace movement.

Room where Nobel signed his will

Nobel’s last will and testament was signed in this room at Cercle Suédois

In 1890, Nobel was accused by the French government of treason for selling advanced explosives to Italy. He decided to leave Paris and move to San Remo on the Italian Riviera. In 1895 he returned to Paris, and on November 27th composed his last will and testament before four Swedish witnesses at the Swedish Club in Paris, in the very room where I took the photo. The will was a paragraph just 300 words long. No lawyer was involved. In that document he directed that upon his death all his assets would be converted to cash, invested for a safe return, and the capital would be used to fund annual prizes to those who contributed the most to benefit mankind in the preceding year. The equal shares were to be distributed in following categories: physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of peace and the fraternity of nations. It is believed that his choice of the last category was influenced by his long relationship with Bertha von Suttner. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905.

Upon Nobel’s death in 1896, the will specified that his wealth was to be given to a foundation that did not yet exist. His executors, two engineers he trusted, did not know they had been so named. It took the Swedish Academies and the Norwegian Parliament (assigned in the will to grant the various awards) two years of debating before they formed a foundation. Then there were a great many challenges to this will from the governments of France and Sweden, various family members, and academies within Sweden. Eventually all questions were resolved, and in 1901 the first prizes were awarded.

There is also an annual Nobel Prize in Economics, though this was not part of Nobel’s original will. The prize was established in 1968 by a donation from Sweden’s central bank, the Sveriges Riksbank, on the bank’s 300th anniversary. Although it is not one of the prizes that Alfred Nobel established in his will in 1895, it is referred to along with the other Nobel Prizes by the Nobel Foundation. Winners are announced with the other Nobel Prize winners, and receive the award at the same ceremony. In 2001, Nobel’s grand nephew Peter Nobel asked the Bank of Sweden to differentiate this award from the original five categories by declaring it “in Alfred Nobel’s memory”.

And lastly, if you’re in the Naples, FL area and meet a nice French man named Didier, there’s more to him than meets the eye.