Thursday, March 30, 2006

express news

Like every Thursday, when I came home from work this afternoon, I found the latest issue of L'Express in my mailbox. And like every week, the currently hottest topic in French socity was presented on the front page in bold letters. Today, the title read: "Faut-il donner raison aux jeunes?", asking if the youth might be right in protesting as they have over the last month or so.

I wonder this myself, the distant observer that I am. Distant because I have not gone on strike nor participated in any manifestation or even stood by watching. I've lived my life as if nothing had happened. With the next big day of action called for Tuesday, I'm seriously considering whether that should change. Should I spend the day in downtown Grenoble following all that unfolds from close range? It might be a good opportunity to take some memorable photos providing it finally stops raining, but I doubt I'll go on strike for that. In that case I would lose a day of pay, and my pictures are certainly not worth it. Maybe I'll take the day off to get a better impression of what's currently shaking France.

As it is, these days the social and political situation is highly volatile. The demonstrations have reached an unprecedented amplitude, and all in the protest movement are firmly united in their goal. They want Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister, to shelve a recently signed law designed to curb youth unemployment by making hiring and firing more flexible. For the unions and students, no negotiations are acceptable. Details don't matter. The thing must go. With the strange dynamics that large movements often exhibit, the "must go" cry is now on the verge of being directed at the prime minister himself.

Absent from most discussions and from all banners that are being carried through French cities are alternative strategies for improving the staggering youth unemployment rate in France. And L'Express completely misses the point as well in the posing question that got me started today. The answer can obviously only be, non, il faut leur donner du travail. Work is needed. So far, de Villepin seems to be the only one with any plan.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

frau wunderheilerin

Heute mittag war ich im Internet auf der Suche nach der Sonnenfinsternis, die den wolkenverhangenen Himmel über Grenoble nicht um die geringste Graustufe verdunkelt hatte. Was lag näher, als zu besuchen.

Meine Überraschung war groß, als mich anstelle der mondverdeckten Sonnenscheibe Frau Professor Sofi Tachalov konfrontierte. Neugierig geworden, klickte ich weiter und bekam eine sehr professionelle Flashanimation geboten, in der sich eine gepflegte, würdig dreinschauende Dame, eine Professorin für Alternativmedizin, präsentiert. Verwundert rieb ich mir die Augen. Haben sich die deutschen Universitäten nichttraditioneller Heilkunde geöffnet? Sind Wunderheiler in der akademischen Mitte angekommen?

Nein, Professor der Scharlatanerie kann man an der Cooperating University of America werden, einer Titelverkaufstelle in North Carolina, mit deren Angebot geschmückt man in Deutschland seinen Schindluder sicher nicht treiben, aber offenbar im Internet Eindruck schinden darf. Ähnliches gilt zur Weltakademie der Wissenschaften zu sagen, deren Mitgliedschaft sich die Frau Wunderheilerin rühmt. Die angebliche Akademie ist ebenso respekteinflößend wie inhaltsleer, hat sie doch nichts mit Wissenschaften zu tun und existiert noch nicht einmal im Internet, geschweige in der Wirklichkeit.

Was treibt Sofi dazu, sich mit einer Atmosphäre heißer und äußerst streng riechender Luft zu umgeben? In ihrem Metier, dem Geschäft mit Wundern, zählt nicht nur Schein mehr als Sein, nein, Schein ist das Einzige, das zählt. Sie ist auf Rattenfang, gaukelt Leichtgläubigen und, schlimmer noch, Verzweifelten Autorität vor, um deren Vertrauen und schlußendlich Geld zu erschleichen. Mich erstaunt, daß das mit solch plumpen Mitteln (dicke Worte auf Flash) offenbar möglich ist. Ein Besuch bei Tante Google bringt alle schlumprig errichteten Fassaden zum Einsturz, aber offenbar machen zu Wenige davon Gebrauch. Muß in der Schule Googlen gelehrt werden?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

safely back

With immaculately polished shoes but exhausted and somewhat crumpled I returned from Istanbul last night. A friend from highschool and I spent one week in this chaotic, overwhelming giant of a city, mostly following the path beaten by millions of tourists before, admiring mosques and learning about history. What stood out were exploring Kadıköy and spending time with lovely Turkish women, and doing both together on our last day was the culmination of our stay.

Short as the trip was, the return didn’t come one day too early. My pinky toe had developed a blister two days earlier and was by Saturday completely surrounded with a shapeless bag of jelly, the little bone moving around aimlessly and most painfully. The morning of our departure I moved in a way that would not even have tricked the most gullible of apes into trying to walk upright.

Before a full account of the vacation appears on my webpage I want to share one story that is only peripherally related to Istanbul. Why is it that security checks take place in the most uncoordinated of ways? Upon leaving the plane in Milano, I had to pass a metal detector, but there was no way I could have obtained a bomb on board. Similarly, there were two checks at Atatürk airport, despite the conspicuous absence of weapons in the duty free shop in between. I would like to think that security is an eminently important aspect in air travel, but it is administered in such a haphazard and illogical way that I can only shake my head. But at least I made it back with no problems.

Friday, March 17, 2006


About a month and a half ago I was totally ecstatic that I wouldn't have to pay for phone calls anymore. As part of their ADSL package, Neuf Telecom offered a nine-euro-a-month flatrate for phone calls to the European Union, the US, and a bunch of other countries that might or might not exist. Anyone I'd ever think of calling suddenly lived in my home zone. I've given my phone a good workout since then.

Today I got the first bill since changing my service, and if my heart were any weaker, I'd have suffered cardiac arrest. Quite correctly, the monthly charge has increased, but that alone couldn't explain the 275 euro total. I took me a few minutes to go through all the sheets itemizing outgoing calls that were part of the bill before figuring out that I had spent 190 euros on international calls. It seemed that Neuf had not modified my account accordingly. Apoplectic rage had me scream at my modem and finally rip the bill into shreds the size of nanoparticles, but that didn't make the charges go away. I could still see them on my online account summary.

Extraordinary measures needed to be taken. I picked up my phone, this traitor, this soulless machine that's trying to hurtle me into deep poverty, into impecunious misery, and called customer service. During a prolonged tug of war of confused misunderstanding and repeating of numbers and internet addresses, the representative explained to me patiently that I just didn't sign up correctly. I needed to banish France Telecom from my line and let Neuf take over completely, a process called "dégroupage total". This would actually bring my monthly charges back down by seven euros but, more importanly, let me finally garner the full power of ADSL.

That I am an illiterate fool who doesn't read instructions is nothing new, and I probably got justly punished for leaving the phone on while playing scrabble online for hours. But I can't take the full weight of the blame. I was able to sign up for the "unlimited calls" offer without being reminded that, as I did it, the offer would only extend to France. Neuf Telecom, those sneaky bastards, screwed me.

All complaining won't change a thing. I'll have to wait for the dégroupage to be effected. How lucky I'm going on vacation tomorrow. Delicious baklava and Turkish coffee will mellow my mood for the next week. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

contre l'embauche

France is up in flames again. This time it's not the disenfranchised kids of immigrants burning cars and throwing bottles at the police. No, it's college and highschool student occupying places of higher education and throwing bottles at the police. What's this all about?

It's the "first employment contract" (contrat de première embauche, CPE), a contract designed to entice employers to hire those fresh out of graduate school or apprenticeship who have never held a job before. As I understand it, the contract has no time limit but a two-year probation period during which the new hire can be terminated with no reason given.

The unemployment rate for the 18 to 25 age group is 23% in France, almost three times the average for the entire population. Obviously, something needs to be done. Trade unions, students (who have a union themselves) and apprentices think the CPE is not the right way, and they base their claim mainly on the perceived increased "précarité". How can you buy a house (the biggest craze in France for several years now) if you don't even know that you'll have a job in two year's time?

It's undeniable that a two-year probation increases precariousness over the permanent contract that every French aspires to and that most will hold eventually. But it's equally undeniable that a job is better than collecting unemployment benefits, and it cracks me up to see unions mobilize the masses to protest this.

Only in France would organized labor oppose employment. And the country will be on strike tomorrow.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

powder and fry sauce

A friend had come over from London for the weekend to enjoy the snow in the mountains. Today it was my turn to accompany her on the slopes. In striking difference to the days before, it didn't rain in the morning, the roads were dry in the valley, and it looked like a nice day lay ahead. But it was cold.

We met at the main bus terminal to catch the shuttle up to Chamrousse, but by the time we both got there, fifteen minutes before departure, it was already too late to get a seat. The bus was full, and we were not on it. The alternative that was offered promised a leisurely day. Take the next bus an hour and a half later and go to Sept Laux. We enjoy the intervening ninety minutes at a nearby cafe drinking expresso and cappucino.

When we finally got to the resort it was late enough that an afternoon pass was all we needed. We geared up, took the main lift up the mountain, and entered a different world. At the top, it felt like we had taken the extra long lift all the way to the North pole. An arctic storm with violent gusts was blowing over the crest, the biting cold crept into my gloves almost immediately, and thousands of little ice crystals beat our faces bright red. It was so cold that, as I discovered later, the water in the tube of my CamelBak, safely hidden underneath my GoreTex shell, was frozen solid.

The blizzard had another disconcerting effect. Many slopes were bare of the fresh snow that had apparently fallen plentifully and were decorated with insidious patches of ice that invariably outmaneouvered the dull edges of my seven-year old board, never sharpened before. We got our satisfaction mainly from braving the gruesome conditions.

We finally found fun when I spotted an off-piste slope, protected from the weather, steep and powdery looking, that ended in a lovely maze of little spruce trees. Diving into the waist-deep powder reminded me of snowriding in Utah. Like Honeycomb Canyon before the lift out was built, our hidden treasure treated us to a floating descent with impeccable turns, only to spit us onto a long and painfully flat crawl back to the base of the resort.

The memory was so vivid that I couldn't help but add another element to it. When we were eating burgers and fries in one of the bars in the village at the end of the day, I made fry sauce, this uniquely Utahn condiment consisting of ketchup and mayo in similar amounts stirred until the color reaches a pale pink. Under the doubtful glances of my friend, I created my "little bit of Utah" high up in the French Alps. Delicious.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

kenyan green beans

Today I went to the grocery store to get comestibles for the weekend. I like green beans, but they're not exactly in season in March. Enter globalization - better matching supply and demand. Two weeks ago, I bought haricots verts from Morocco, and they were really tasty. Today, those from Morocco were still there, slowly boring themselves to death, judging from the sad shape they were in. They were joined by infinitely fresher looking beans from Kenya.

Beans from Kenya, some might wonder? Articles and TV shows mentioning food and Kenya these days usually emphasize the lack of the former in the latter. One of the worst droughts in recent history threatens millions with starvation. Now, how ethical is it to buy food from Kenya when people are dying there for lack of it? And, more poignantly, how ethical is it of the export company to pay huge tariffs to enter the European market, surely one of the more protective in the world, instead of selling back home? Or do Kenyans not like beans?

The conclusion is imposing itself that one of the aggravating factors in the current tragedy is, as so very often, government incompetence like misregulation of markets or failure to make the resources available to those in need. Interestingly, the single biggest donor to the World Food Program's operations in Kenya is - Kenya. These guys are outsourcing feeding their population, a decidedly weird concept, but better than doing nothing.

As a side note, when I was little and didn't finish my dinner, my mom would remind of others who were not as lucky as I and who would be happy to eat everything I couldn't. Having Kenyan beans as part of your meal adds a whole new dimension to the discussion.

Beyond discussion is the need for help of those suffering. Be generous with your favorite aid organization!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

new york, new york

Sunday night was Oscar's night. Thankfully, Canal + kept me from watching it as they broadcast the show encrypted. If you don't pay you don't have to suffer through it. Fair enough, especially considering that it didn't start until two in the morning.

What I learned in the next day made me happy. The best movie of the year won the award for ... Best Movie of the Year. Go figure. I've said it before, and I'm happy to repeat it to whoever cares to ask that for me, "Crash" was the outstanding movie of 2005. In honor of the occassion, The New Yorker, Best Magazine of the Year for five years running as far as I'm concerned, put their review of the film back online. Read it and go see the movie.

I cannot help but recommend another article that has been retired from retirement, scavenged from the dustbin of the history, in other words retrieved from the deep bowels of the New Yorker's archive. In it, some dude (no idea who he is but presumably important judging from whom he gets to talk to) retraces the recent history of Iran. Since the article was written at the end of 1978, it's not so recent anymore, but all the more insightful. There are plenty of books that try to make sense of the past, with the power of hindsight, but this essay reports history in the making. Written less than a year before the Islamic revolution, it analyzes the political situation and offers predictions that one is surprised to hear, 27 years later. Like that Khomeini isn't popular, just crazy, and that that the communists are taking advantage of organized religion to overthrow the Shah. If you had gone to bed with this article and woken up a few years later, and you would not have recognized the world.