Monday, October 18, 2010

Lost pass and missed detention

We had a wonderful weekend in Switzerland at the home of old family friends. Last week, my mom and aunt were visiting us and had planned to visit these friends next at their home southeast of Zurich, near the Liechtenstein border. But, because of the ongoing strikes in France, it looked like mom and Diana would have difficulty getting a train. But Switzerland is less than a two hour drive away and the trains there are running as scheduled. Greg was also leaving town, going to Texas (luckily, via Geneva), and the thought of being alone for the weekend was not appealing. So discussions were had and a plan was hatched to drive everyone (except Greg, sadly) across Switzerland by car. We left on Friday morning.

The schools are very strict here about attendance. For Kadin’s school, where the teachers have taken several days off to strike, I just thanked them for their understanding that Kadin would not be in school on Friday. For Rees’s school, I told them that the ongoing strike had made it necessary for us to take my mother to Zurich by car. (You’re supposed to give at least 15 days notice for planned absences, but that is not how the political situation works here.)

The drive was super easy. The roads were smooth and clear. Not unlike driving in the US. In France you pay at tollbooths, in Switzerland you buy a sticker. Figuring out what this highway sticker was and where to buy it caused some concern, but turns out you can get them at any gas station. And Swiss roads are wonderful, the fee obviously used well. Viaducts fill the valleys and tunnels lower the mountains. It was smooth sailing.

The kids were shockingly in love with Switzerland. Not that it isn’t great, but it is just not all that hugely different from France. When we try to do road trips with them on weekends from Grenoble they whine and complain and act like we are torturing them and “wasting” their weekend. Everything is somehow dull and unimpressive. In Switzerland, they were eager and loved everything---even old playgrounds at rest areas. The only significant variable that changed, as far as I could tell, is that they got to get out of school to go to Switzerland.

A little before Bern we go through a long tunnel and instead of SORTIE it's AUSFAHRT. The language has changed, just like that! After that hill it was all Swiss German until we headed back through that same tunnel on Sunday. (Hard for me to put my German head on, but people in Switzerland are more multilingual and likely speak English.)

We spent Saturday touring Liechtenstein (just across the road/Rhine and it really does look like a fairy tale kingdom) and a more traditional region of Switzerland called Appenzeller where they are known for their Appenzeller cheese, embroidery, widely spaced houses, and being the last Swiss Canton to allow women to vote. I enjoy this slow kind of travel where you do one small area more in depth.

I felt so well cared for by these generous family friends that I really let my guard down. At the Appenzeller cheese factory, Kadin left his sweatshirt. Then, when I came back to buy souveniers later with the boys, the waitress pointed out that we had left Kadin’s gloves at the table. Then, after paying for the souveniers, another clerk came running after me to return my bank card that I had left in the machine. Sigh. I’ve been so vigilant this whole time I've been abroad---up to that moment!

The next day we headed out to the local castle in Werdenberg and then through Leichtenstein again to Austria where we had lunch and found another geocache at another castle. Two castles and three countries before noon.Wild game for lunch.

Mom and Diana stopped at the small border crossing to get their passports stamped each time. Sadly, Liechtenstein does not stamp passports. While they wanted more stamps, I did not feel like explaining why my kids have French passports and a different last name while I have an American passport. I also have yet to complete my long stay visa process so am happy this was purely voluntary.

Then, while they headed on to Zurich, the boys and I headed back to Grenoble. The only slight flaw in the trip was the weather, which was foggy and rainy much of the time. We did get some nice hints of the mountains the last day, but my kids will have happy, if mostly mountainless, memories of Switzerland.

All was easy and uneventful on the drive back. We stopped at the last rest area in Switzerland to fill up on gas (since there are petrol depot blockades in France and there might be shortages) and clean out the car. We would be arriving late and wanted to have everything packed and organized before it got dark. The rain had stopped and so we took a few moments to put everything in our bags, brush everything off, and dispose of the garbage we had accumulated, etc.

To cap off our day of 5 border crossings, 4 countries, and 2 castles, at around 9:30pm, we pulled into the parking garage in Grenoble where we were supposed to return the car-share car. Just a short tram ride between us and our beds. Then we discover that Kadin has somehow lost his transit card during the drive. Outside of Zurich I had asked him if he knew where it was, and he showed it to me in the car. I told him to put it in his pocket, and that was the last we saw of it.

It wasn’t in his pockets, it wasn’t in any of our bags (which we methodically searched). Rees did an excellent job of checking every nook and cranny of the car (found a water bottle---ours---and a comb---not ours) to no avail. Kadin could not remember for the life of him what he might have done with it. It just wasn’t anywhere. We searched through every book and sheet of paper, every box of crackers. The boys were very patient and indulged my obsession about this. "Mom, it's not in the car," Rees truthfully pointed out. It might have fallen out of Kadin's pocket at a playground at a rest area or, more likely, it had fallen onto the garbage bag on the floor of the car and been inadvertently thrown away.

Well, it was a long walk home, so we figured we'd take our chances on the tram anyway. It was Sunday night, about 10pm. The trams don’t run that often at that hour, so we walked to the next stop while we waited. The tram finally came and, just as we were about to board, I could see that while there were not that many passengers on the tram, there were about a dozen controllers. Just our luck! So we let the tram pass and hiked it home with our bags. Kadin really couldn’t complain since Rees and I did have our passes at the ready!

This morning I again walked Kadin to school and later went out to get the card replaced. This was another successful, if not beautiful, conversation all in French. I told her my son had lost his card (so glad that I am now feeling comfortable with the past tense!). The woman asked me when and where it was lost, so I told her yesterday, in Switzerland. She laughed at this and agreed it probably was good and gone, but she said they would put a block on the card so it couldn’t be used and if it hadn’t turned up in 5 days they would issue a new one for a 7 euro fee. In the meantime, she gave me a ticket good for 5 days of tram riding. Standard procedure. Live and learn.

Meanwhile Rees came home for lunch today and said he was soooo glad he did not go to school on Friday. Apparently in 8th grade geography class (includes all of the 8th graders at the small American School), things had gotten out of control while they were painting their paper maché globes. Two people had apparently put blue hand prints on the walls with the paint. One fessed up, but the other didn’t, so as punishment, the whole 8th grade will have detention until the guilty party comes forward. Everyone, that is, except Rees and another 8th grade student who was away in Paris on Friday. Phew! Fascinating enforcement....(and is it any wonder that the French high school students are now the ones out marching in the streets?)

You win some, you lose some, but it's not dull.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Broken honor

Like in most European cities, the buses and trams in Grenoble work on the honor system. You don’t need to pay when you get on. You have a card or a ticket that you validate. To keep people honest, there are spot checks. If you don’t have a valid ticket, you get in trouble and have to pay a fine. The idea is to save time, increase ease of use, and decrease the number of transactions at each stop.

Which sounds really good. And, for someone like me who can afford to buy a pass and doesn’t want to get into any hassles, it works.

What I don’t understand is the enforcement end. It is done by people called “controllers,” who circulate on the transit system.

On his recent visit, Bart asked me how often I have had my ticket checked. Well, I take the bus at least 4 times a day and have been here 30 some odd days. I’ve seen controllers board my car 3 times and had my ticket checked a total of once. One out of at least 120. I have no idea how much the fine is, but if it was about 50 euros, then it would be a toss up whether it is worth it to ride legally. (I also have other reasons to ride legally, but that’s not true for everyone.)

Ideally, to keep the honor system working, you need swift, enforceable consequences that everyone agrees upon. I’m not sure how that would work, but from what I’ve seen, it would take a big culture change for that to be the norm. I don’t understand what is going on at all, but I can tell it is not good. The enforcement end here looks broken, and it is causing unnecessary tension.

What I see is teams of controllers boarding buses/trams in groups: a pair through each door. But there are not enough of them to completely cover all the doors so it would be easy, if you didn’t have a valid ticket, to just get off and wait maybe 3 minutes for the next bus/tram.

The agents do not look happy. They look mean and annoyed, chest puffed out, defensive smile. They are waiting/asking to be challenged. The car takes on a palpable coolness, people close down, eyes lower.

Every time I’ve seen them board, they have quickly found someone without a valid ticket. A discussion with this person ensues. This person begins to sweat. I have never seen any exchange of money or identification. I have just seen long, heated, tense discussions, and so has everyone else in the car (with most of the other people in the car actually able to understand the discussion). After this lengthy discussion, either the passenger or the controllers get(s) off.

There is just waaaaay too much negotiation going on, no matter what it is about.

This puts everyone in an awkward position. The controllers spend their days in annoying discussions and the tariff dodgers spend their days thinking if they can just keep up a good enough argument for long enough they can get where they are going or just catch the next bus.

This makes it like a game.

The system is ripe for all sorts of corruption. If you need to pay the fine on the spot, does that mean the controllers are walking around with wads of cash? What if you don’t have the cash? And if they are walking around with tons of cash what is keeping them from taking a cut? If you need to pay later, then you need to identify yourself. What keeps you from giving a false name or saying you don’t have ID?

As a foreigner, I could just pretend (or not!) I don’t understand. What would happen if I didn’t understand that he wanted ID? That I didn’t understand how to validate my ticket? That I didn’t understand the fine? Etc. etc. They might just let me off, too much hassle.

Perhaps they are telling people this is a warning, but if they are caught again… This might theoretically work since Grenoble is not such a big town. I’m sure everyone knows the controllers and the controllers know most of the frequent transit riders. (Even I am now recognizing people whom I see over and over again.) If you were out and about all day looking for trouble makers, you’d probably get to know that segment of the population pretty fast.

But the negotiation is bad. It shows everyone riding that they too can negotiate. It opens the door for prejudice and stereotyping in a big way. It enables the agents to pick on different people. It allows their emotions in the door. From what I’ve seen, if you are black, don’t expect any leniency. Even if everyone were treated equally, it would still enable people to see the patterns they expect to see.

It’s not unlike people who give out parking tickets. Universally disliked, but accepted none the less. Now imagine if every parking ticket involved a face to face confrontation? Not the happiest job to begin with, add constant negative interactions, and you’d cultivate mean people. Hate would inevitably grow.

The personal confrontation part is really bad. It encourages the controllers to be bullies. It becomes part of a cat and mouse contagion. What kind of person would want to be a controller? At a party when someone asks you what you do, who would want to say, “I’m one of those obnoxious intimidating people who checks your ticket”? Well, only obnoxious, insecure bullies would want to do that! And then, for the dodgers, it becomes a source of pride, a source of stories of bravado and stealth. They feed off each other. Broken system.

And I don’t know how to fix it. But just as I was thinking all this (had my pass actually checked for the first time on Tuesday), Greg comes home to say that once again, the trams are not running. This time, due to an “incident” that had caused “perturbations.”

So I google “incident, tram, Grenoble” and find that the night before, in the early hours of October 7th, a team of controllers had been assaulted by a gang of youths in the area of town where there were riots last July. (Kadin and I had actually been on that same tram during the day that day. It’s one of the most well travelled areas.) Six of the officers were treated for minor injuries and 2 people were arrested.

The next day, the tram drivers exercised their right of “retrait” (withdrawal, one of the numerous French worker’s rights) and stayed home for the day. Perhaps they feared for their safety, perhaps they wanted to show solidarity with the controllers? Not clear to me. But once again, transportation was disrupted.

It’s a powder keg. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


Rees is a picky eater and seems to subsist on a diet of white carbohydrates (you know the four food groups: bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes). The other day, however, he was in the mood for a hamburger. He rarely eats meat, never beef. He is 13. We were out and about all day and, when a teenager is hungry for protein, he gets protein. So Greg agreed to take him to the dreaded Quickburger (aka “quality burger restaurant”) to get a…quick…burger. I guess this was inevitable. Kadin decided to tag along too. Rees ordered “un cheesburger” which was pretty straightforward. For Kadin, Greg ordered “un hamburger.” But this the woman didn’t understand. “Quelle sort? Il y a du….” and she started in on a whole list. "Non," said Greg, “un hamburger simple.” This was apparently not one of the options she had rattled off, not one of the items on the menu. After much discussion back and forth, they finally figured out what it was that Kadin wanted: “un cheeseburger, sans fromage.” Well, okay then!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Repair or replace

So this morning I noticed the sun streaming into the living room and saw that the curtains in the bedroom were still closed. I went to open them and couldn’t. The string was stuck. Upon investigation, it was stuck because it had frayed and would no longer glide in its track.

Now I am not a curtain person and know very little about their care and maintenance. At first I thought it was a simple matter of replacing the string. But alas, it turned out to be the sort of thing where the string goes deep inside a track all encased in metal and there was just no quick fix.

So I manage to remove the track and switch the big heavy curtains onto the still working track of the liner curtains. So we still have curtains, just no liner ones. But I have the broken track in my hand and I had just been in a store down the street that sells all sorts of fabrics and upholstery and curtains and ribbons and buttons. So I plan to head there first. I look up the words for “repair” and “replace” and memorize several synonyms (in case they are used in a response).

First, however, I have to wait for this week’s protests to clear out of the street. Today, the syndicates are trying another tack to protest the retirement and pension reforms. They are having protests on a Saturday so that salaried employees and students and families can participate. Instead of starting in the morning, they have started after lunch (2pm), I guess so everyone can still do their Saturday morning shopping. And it is funny to me how they disrupt the very same public transportation that they took to the protest and that they will subsequently take home again afterwards. It is all carefully choreographed.

Once again, I do not understand the protests even as their grievences are being blasted at me from the street below. I don’t even get the basics, much less the subtilties. Chants, drum, horn, siren, vuvuzela reprise!

Meanwhile, Greg and the boys have gone out to the Bastille again. I call them to see if they can bring home a couple of rocks or pieces of concrete or bricks to use as bookends. Greg says they have a great view of the protests and the boys are imagining the crowds are orcs, swarming below, preparing for battle....

So while I’m waiting, I sew a scarf on the treadle machine and this time I even manage to wind a bobbin. I am super impressed by the 100% mechanical workings of this old machine. It is so cool!

Just after the marchers pass there is an uncanny silence. It is the brief pause between the protests and the time when the traffic returns. It’s nice.

Then I grab my curtain rod and head out on my mission. At the store, I find a group of clerks and give them my prepared spiel, which probably sounds something like this: “Hello, um, this work not. Can I repair such or do I need replacer?” The clerk nearest to me shakes her head, but she understands. The verdict is replace.

“You have?” I ask. She nods and takes me to the curtain track section. There is something about how the one I have is too old, so they don’t have the exact same thing, but they do have something similar in white plastic. She asks me some questions about whether there are one or two drapes on the track and she measures the one I brought in. She wants to know if I need brackets. I don’t think so. I’m all set with the track.

I also want to look for some webbing for a bag and some trim for my scarf, so I tell her I want to look at more things. She says she’ll leave the curtain track for me at the register. This is all going so swimmingly! I get it!

I manage to buy 1.5 meters of webbing from another clerk and then she marks a remnant for me that I somehow explain was unpriced. I do none of this gracefully, but I do it successfully. I leave with exactly what I came to get. The thrill is strong.

You know the feeling when you go to McGuckins (awesome Boulder hardware store) with a question and find a clerk and describe your problem and what you want and they find what you need? You know how good that feels? Well, it is even better in a foreign country, in a foreign language.