Tuesday, April 26

On The Shores of Normandie

These last few weeks have been very educational.

After leaving Rennes, I spent a few days in Brest, which is in the extreme west of Bretagne. It was interesting in that it didn't really feel like Europe. After the Allies had taken back most of France in 1944, there were about one thousand Germans still holding Brest. In order to get them out, the Americans completely leveled the city. After which, they rebuilt everything, but in an American style of architecture. So basically, I could have believed that I was somewhere in either the U.S. or Canada without much problem, ignoring of course the people. For some reason, the feeling in the city reminded me of Timmons (Ontario). I have no idea why. As well, the locals still resented the Americans for the way in which they drove the Nazis out. In a way, I understand how the Brestians (? [I don't know what to call them in English or French]) feel, but at the same time, they came across somewhat as being ingrates. At least the older ones that had lived through the whole thing and gave a damn one way or the other.

Something else that I found out is that there exists a small separatist movement in Bretagne, being at it's strongest in Brest. Seems that the Bretagnians [refer to comment on Brestians] are in fact Celtic (I saw some of them playing bagpipes on the streets !), even having a language that somewhat resembles Gaelic. Of course, the language is pretty much dead, but there's a movement to revive it that's gaining momentum. Very similar to mainland Scotland. And just like the Scottish, they were conquered and assimilated [but by the French] back in the day, with resentment being retained more and more the farther into the region you go. Still, it's much less pronounced then the separatist movement on Corsica.

After leaving Brest, I spent a few days in Mont St. Michel. Apparently this is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, second only to the Eiffel Tower. True enough, when I got there, I could barely move for all the tourists. But I have no idea what all the fuss is. It was at best a mediocre church, complete with admission booth, tickets (5€ [$8] a pop!), and a crusty security guard checking everyone before they went in. The whole thing seemed nothing less then obscene [after all, this is a _church_]. I was told that they still do masses there, but of course, to go to one, you have to buy a ticket...

My next stop was much more enjoyable. I ended up in Bayeaux, which is the closest major town (and train station) to the landings of the Allies on D-Day (June 6, 1944). There are three major sites: An American, a British, and a Canadian. Unfortunately I didn't manage to see the British.

To start with, I stayed in another monastery [or convent, I'm not really sure which]. Run by nuns of the order of Saint Benedict, it's main purpose is to act as a sort of hotel service for travelers. On the first day, I met three other people that were going to Omaha, the American landing. The first was from America, the second from Argentina, and the third from New Zealand. So we all rented bikes and cycled 25 km west to the beach and graveyard.

I've read about how many Americans died retaking France, but still, seeing the number of tombstones at the grave site was shocking. I'm told that there are about 10000 soldiers buried there. One of the things that left a deep impression was that after walking through the tomb stones for about 15 minutes [stone crosses with inscriptions of name and date of death, as well as rank and home town] something seemed seriously wrong. I only saw 4 stars of David! This I cannot understand for the life of me.

I met one other memorable person that day. The others were staying at the hostel, and after we went back there, we met another American. Whereas the guy that had gone with us to Omaha Beach was from California, this guy was from Arkansas, and the differences in culture showed quite clearly. He had just gotten back from a tour of duty in Iraq (yes, he's a soldier), and was quite loud and boisterous. For instance, it was very obvious that he liked the Argentinean girl. His way of flirting was a little less then smooth, though. Her name was Julianna, but in Spanish, the j is silent, so it sounds more like Yulianna. He kept telling her how wrong that is. She didn't seem very impressed. And later, he managed to work into the conversation that one of his fantasies was to see a girl driving a tractor wearing nothing but a straw hat... And of course, he was very much Pro Dubya. The reason that he left such an impression is that people like that hardly ever travel outside the U.S. (I forget the exact numbers, but most Americans don't even have a passport), let alone come to France.

The next day I hit the Canadian beach, Juno, but had to go on my own, as I didn't find anyone else that was interested. Again, I learned quite a bit, such as about the failed attempt to take Dieppe [A port town not far from where the Allies were ultimately successful]. The attempt was made in 1942, and instead of being a joint effort, this was a project for the Canadians alone. It turned into a complete disaster. About 1000 soldiers died, which is to the best of my knowledge the worst loss to our army ever.

Through talking to the locals and hanging out in museums, I've learned more about World War II then I expected. Plus, cycling about 50 km a day was a great workout, even if it left me sore as hell. I've met a few people that were cycling through France, and now I realize that they must have buns of steel. Those seats freakin' kill after about two or three hours...

Wednesday, April 13

Come Down

I've been kicking around Rennes for about two weeks now. Mostly, I've been looking for a job. Unfortunately, I've come to a bit of a disappointing realization.

Long before I looked into the details of coming to France, I realized that it would be an uphill battle finding a job, as France is a very closed society. I expected most employers wouldn't want to hire foreigners.

For the last while, I've been hitting as many employment agencies as possible, and what I've learned is that for almost all jobs here, you need a 'specialized' diploma. For instance, to work as a cook almost anywhere, you need a diploma for cooking, and one from France, at that. Fine. But it gets worse. To be a bartender, same deal. To work at the front desk of a hotel, as well. Or to be a temp. And of course, working in sales is pretty much impossible if you don't speak French like the locals (as I learned the hard way).

This diploma is certainly not intensive. Quite the contrary, I'm convinced that it's just to lock immigrants out of most jobs. For instance, I was talking to a French woman who was studying to be a florist. This struck me as being nothing short of retarded. Making bouquets isn't exactly rocket science. Yes, some training is required, but making a year long course mandatory? This is completely over the top.

As a consequence, the only way that foreigners get by around here is by opening their own restaurants. This took a while to sink in. For the first while, I thought that not seeing anyone but pure-bred French working in unionized jobs was a coincidence. But after having seen the majority of the country, I'm beginning to see that it can't be anything less than a big plan.

The saddest part of all is how organized the discrimination is here. The government is what drives it. The diplomas example that I gave for instance; France is the only country that I know of that requires such silly programs. Diplomas for working in a hotel? More than just strange. Still, although it is annoying, for the most part it just makes me feel sad and disappointed with the way things work here in general.

Mind you, this isn't to say that I'm giving up. In the worst case scenario, I'm sure that I can find something in Paris. And I'm told that it's rare to find a job without looking for at least two weeks, which is all that I've done. Still, I'm getting tired of Rennes. The biggest problem here is the amount of homeless people. I'm not going to use the word poverty. The simple fact is that it's not the problem at all. Just get a diploma and you're fine. Instead, as near as I can tell, it's just exceptionally 'cool' to be on the street. This is nothing new. I've seen this in Canada, and in my more depressed days, I've even thrown in with these kind of groups. But here they're so freakin' aggressive! They come at you from all sides, acting all charismatic, giving various spins on the usual 'spare a few cents?' line. If I'm walking with a friend, it's sometimes so bad that they butt in between us, interrupting the conversation. Sometimes they absolute mob you. And with the number of social programs here, they don't want or need for food and shelter. It's all available free of charge. It's just some sort of bizarre trendy way of fitting into an image that's thought to be cool, or bad assed, or whatever. The weird part is that it's only been in this city.

Now, I was intending to go on about the positive things in France, but I got a little sidetracked... Now that all of that is off my chest, I'll repeat what I wrote last time. Rennes IS very pretty. Just a combination of little things is giving me itchy feet again. As well, I should mention a few of the numerous things that I like about this country. After all, if there weren't good points, I wouldn't stay here.

a) Pretty much everything is sold through specialty shops. For instance, to get bread, go to the bakery. To get fruit or vegetables, go to the produce shop. Meat is from the butcher's shop. Any style of clothing is in a clothing shop of just that one fashion. Although the same thing exists in other countries, there's a much heavier emphasis on it here. Big department stores or grocery stores are much rarer here than in other countries that I've been to. And all of this adds a feeling of class to buying even small things. Getting a baguette is more of an experience. Of course, it takes longer to get things done. But as a consequence, people are much more relaxed.

b) There's hardly any emphasis placed on violence here whatsoever. This again adds to the feeling of ease. It's strange, but the obsession in America carries over more heavily to Canada then we suspect. Here, people seem to have nothing more on their minds then sex. America is almost as bad, but here it's much less paradoxical. Sex is fully embraced, and nudity isn't shunned at all. Sex is fully explained to children in a classy and healthy way, so as not to confuse them. In America, the story line in every movie or sitcom seems to center around people 'sleeping' with each other, but as soon as you show a nipple, the whole country goes apeshit. And the only form of sexual education allowed is to preach abstinence. Then the kids turn on the latest big show, like Friends... No wonder there are so many problems there.

Moving along, I've been following the news in Canada, and Prime Minister Paul seems to have really stepped in it this time. For once, government workers have been caught red handed being as corrupt as anyone who thinks about it should already have realized. Seems like a bit of a Watergate. What's strange is how naive Canadians seem to be. With hardly doing any reading in between the lines at all, his (and the Liberals) level of corruption has been more than clear for years. To give just one example (there are MANY), when he was running for the leadership of the Liberal party, Pretty Boy Paul had two opponents. John Manley and Sheila Copps. After the convention was over, he drove them both out of politics altogether. In the case of Manley, he was offered the job of ambassador to the U.S. Manley was Chrétien's second in command, and it's no secret that the Chrétien Liberals weren't exactly popular with Dubya. This was as close to saying 'Ha ha, fuck you' as could be. For Copps, her riding was 'amalgamated' with another, and after a corrupt vote to see who of the former two ridings' MPs would get to represent the new one, her ass was shown the curb. And amalgamations don't happen often. Just so happens that after she challenged Mr. Martin...

It should of course be noted that Martin's first leadership bid was against Chrétien, which he needless to say lost. Afterwards, Chrétien made Martin Minister of Finance, the second most powerful portfolio, next to [of course] the Prime Minister. Compare the policies.

Still, it's come as a big revelation that the government is corrupt. Well, I'll be naive for a moment and hope that this will finally motivate people to clean up our politics for good. But this is the only scandal likely to get attention, even if others are right under our noses.

I guess I really am kinda jaded. And of course, our politics are incomparably better than our southern neighbors...

Friday, April 1

Start Again

I've been touring around for a few weeks now, spending a few nights in each province, but now I think it's time to settle down and start looking for another job.

I've been in Rennes for a day now, which is in the province Bretagne, in the north west of France. Ever since I left Marseilles, this was my ultimate destination. I've had a feeling that this would be a nice city to hole up in for a few months. And from what I've seen so far, my intuition was about right.

The architecture here is very beautiful, and the people here are all very nice, much more approachable than in the south. I'll give a few examples. Yesterday, I had a craving for a falafel sandwich, and went to the tourist information center for directions. One of the locals, an older lady, overheard me asking at the desk and offered to personally walk me to where it is, about five blocks away. Or today, at breakfast, it was just much easier to approach people staying at the hostel [most people that stay at hostels in France tend to be from not too far away, and are in town for a short time for either work or school]. All little stories, but things like this add up to an overall feeling of friendliness in a city. This seemed to be lacking in the south. Sometimes I'd ask someone for directions on the street and be completely ignored.

Still, on the way here, I was very tempted to stay in Bordeaux. I'd have to say that it was my favorite city that I've seen in France. Very pretty, clean, and more importantly (and subtly) it had a vibrancy that was lacking in most French towns. I really don't think that I can describe how the vibrancy feels, but most towns that I've been to give off an aura of fatigue, if not depression. Despite liking it very much, I was more curious to see the north, as I've spent virtually all my time in the south, both on this trip and my last. In the end, I don't regret having moved on.

It's strange, but writing this blog has gotten a bit trickier. Before, it more or less wrote itself, as I had more than enough zainy adventures to fill it two times over. Lately, though, things have gotten much more conventional. Not that I'm complaining. Quite the contrary, if things had kept going at the same pace as when I first got to Europe, I'd probably be completely nuts by now. Still, it's strange that the pace changed so much, as I tried to do things any differently.

So this means that I get to rant for a little while longer than I usually allow myself. Here's something that's been on my mind for a while...

Things that bug me about France:

a) This I find completely disgusting. There are WAY too many public washrooms in this country that don't have any soap in the sinks. To make matters worse, a lot of what people eat here is designed to be handled (ie crossants, chocolate breads, bagettes, etc). I'm sorry, but every time I touch a doorknob in a bathroom, I cringe. Am I neurotic? Probably. But for fuck sakes, a bar of soap costs 30 cents! Maybe I should buy some and leave a bar on the restaurant counter on general principle.

b) Every French city that I've been to has a political demonstration every freakin' day. Sometimes they only attract 50 people, but they still manage to close the main street to any traffic. And what they're protesting is usually so minor that I've stopped even asking why they're there. Don't get me wrong, it's wonderful to be politically active, but with things that rely on shock value, making them common place completely defeats the purpose. The Quebeckers are much more likely to do these sort of demonstrations than other Canadians. But they do them seldom enough that when you see people marching in the streets, it still attracts enough attention that you bother to think about their cause.

I'll ramble on about the things that I like in the next post. But having brought up protests, there's something that I've been reading in the news that confuses the hell out of me. In Québec, apparently most of the students are currently on strike. Now, that sentence just doesn't make any sense to me. Being a student, you have paid for your classes. Deciding to not go would seem to just be voluntarily wasting your money. The point of a strike (or at least from what I understand) is that by not working, you're showing society how important your job is, and thus that by being neglected by whoever, you're deciding to neglect society. As a student, you're not really doing a service to society. You're building up your own future earning potential, or in the purest case, pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Either way, it's a pursuit that's very much for your own benefit.

But what do I know? I'm probably just out of touch.