Dispatch from Toulouse, 28 October 1998

David G. Novick

After France's universal summer vacation comes the rentrée. The shops reopen and hold back-to-school sales. The hypermarkets hold their annual wine sales. Lynne and I stopped to buy picnic stuff at a village where the grape harvest at the surrounding vineyards turned out to be in full swing. In short, everyone goes back to work or back to school. Consequently, it is now possible for people to go back on strike, too. One major outbreak was a week-long series of transportation strikes in the Paris region that kept the capital tied up in knots. Train, bus and metro personnel were striking to improve security by adding more employees at isolated stations and on trains. They won government agreement to add 800 more workers. The monumental new national library is currently closed because the staff are on strike. There were also strikes by airport personnel at Orly (again), bus drivers in Lille and Chambery, and the staff of the national weather service (no forecasts that day).

High-school students across the country are also striking, closing schools and marching in favor of improving education. Among other things, they seek smaller class sizes, more teachers, and better buildings. These kinds of demonstrations are so much a part of national life that the organizers were able to negotiate special round-trip railway fares with the SNCF so that students from smaller cities like Cahors could join the big march in Toulouse, where 20,000 students participated. Incredibly, this system of organized protest actually works somewhat. The education minister, who kept his calm despite some rather coarse chants directed his way, is largely seen as a backer of the protests; this is because he apparently sees the protests as helping to overcome institutional resistance to reforms that he'd proposed last year. In the short run, in response to the protests, he's hiring 14,000 additional school personnel ASAP and is making 4 billion francs available in interest-free loans to the regional governments that take care of the schools' physical plants. The students feel that this is still not enough but they are also feeling empowered. The students, as both organizers and participants, overwhelmingly see themselves as fighting for their economic future within the perimeters of the French social order.

In between student protests, retired people had a day of mass marches across the country to protest insufficient cost-of-living increases. Five thousand customs officials demonstrated against planned layoffs resulting from the European open-borders policy. Another demonstration is took place in Lyon, where 1,500 shepherds--with 2,000 of their sheep--marched, if you will, to protest wolves in the Alps and bears in the Pyrenees. The shepherds, and presumably the sheep, too, are upset about the government's program of reintroducing mountain predators. In the entire Pyrenees, I believe that there are exactly two adult bears and two bear cubs, who all wear tracking devices. There used to be three adults but a pair of hunters shot one last year.

Such strikes and demonstrations are no doubt motivated by perceptions that things could certainly be better. In fact, an international poll of people's satisfaction with their overall quality of life found France far behind the Netherlands, Denmark, the U.S., Australia, Canada and Italy, and more like Colombia, Argentina and South Africa. The least happy in this poll, by far, were the Russians. Nevertheless, away from perceptions, another international survey found that despite--or perhaps because--of all the strikes and demonstrations, France had the world's highest standard of living, based on a set of factors like income, health, leisure time, and access to culture. And, according to a survey reported by the International Herald-Tribune, French workers are more satisfied with their jobs than the workers of any other of 13 countries studied. They are pleased with their colleagues, respect their bosses, and are least happy about their compensation. Europeans in general, though, thought that having work one truly enjoys is more important than pay. The survey found that the Japanese were the world's most unhappy workers. Americans tend to be proud of the company for which they work.

One of the good parts of my job is that I get to do the kinds of things that I dreamed about as a kid. I got a VIP tour of the Airbus factory here in Toulouse where they assemble the A-340 jumbo jet. The hull sections and flight surfaces are flown in huge, specially built planes to Toulouse, where the parts are riveted together, the systems and and interiors are installed, the engines are attached, and the finished plane is painted. At one of the jets under construction, we visited the vast unfinished passenger level, toured the cockpit, clambered around the hold, and carefully worked our way through the equipment bay underneath the cockpit. I've also been spending a fair amount of time observing flight run-throughs in A-340 simulators. While others on the team were working on some planning items, I got to fly the simulator for a while. The visuals are realistic enough that (a) you can get sick if you turn too fast and (b) it's extremely disconcerting while flying to be able to get up and walk out behind the cockpit into a world that's on the ground. I also got to appreciate first-hand how complex aircraft are and how well-trained the crews are. Finally, I had the chance to sit in as an observer during two international flights, both in Boeing 747s. The experience was inspiring. As we approached Britain at high altitude, the dawn was just beginning to break before us. The sun progressively lit up the contrail of a jet ahead of us, creating a streak glowing gray, red and then gold above the still-dark clouds. Our crew guided the plane down through the clouds, and we emerged to see Heathrow's runway shining squarely before us. One interesting fact about the 747 is that when the plane is on the ground the cockpit is 30 feet up. And, because of the angle at which the plane lands, the cockpit is some 55 feet above the ground when the main landing gear touches the runway. The result, for your inexperienced observer, is surprise that the plane has landed already when it looks like you still have a ways to go.

Given our work schedules, Lynne and I have been doing less touring lately. We have had, though, occasional glimpses of French life. Toulouse, ancient capital of the Languedoc, lies adjacent to old Gascony. Auch (pronounced "ohsh", not "ouch"), Gascony's capital, is only about 45 miles away. One Sunday we ventured into Gascony to visit the nearby town of Cadours so we could catch the annual violet garlic festival. Indeed, Cadours has an appelation controlee for violet garlic and the area turns out to be France's chief producer of garlic. Among the announced festivities was a "parcours pedestre," which turned out not be the casual walk we expected but rather a full marathon, run in teams of four. We arrived in Cadours during the race's conclusion, and we sat at a sidewalk cafe along the finish line drinking pastis as we watched the runners' final meters. As at many French events, there was non-stop commentary, information and encouragement provided by a host with a wireless microphone. The organizers provided each of the 200 finishers with an aperitif--either a pastis or a kir--and an enormous braid of garlic. Women runners also received a bouquet. So along the street, heading with family and friends for their cars, were tired and tipsy runners clutching garlic braids and flowers. Lynne and I wandered up the street to the main exhibition hall, where different kinds and presentations of garlic had received prizes. There was also garlic art, with garlic-based models of, among other things, an Airbus jet and a nearby chateau by which the marathoners had run.

We also paid a number of visits to Auch. The old part of the city, which has the warm grandeur of a hill village in Tuscany, is surmounted by an enormous cathedral and its former ecclesiastical buildings, all constructed of a soft golden limestone. A grand, complicated set of stone stairs leads down from the cathedral's heights to the Gers river far below. We were lucky enough to attend the benediction concert for the cathedral's newly restored organ. The instrument had been built in 1694. And now, three hundred years later, d'Artagnan's descendants--le tout Auch--packed the cathedral for the organ's rededication. Among the best parts was the procession of all the clergy and altarchildren. At the tail of the procession came the archbishop, quite resplendent in his miter and robes. The altarchildren, some holding candles, looked very serious up to the point where you noticed that they were all wearing athletic shoes under their white robes. The archbishop held a kind of "conversation" with the organ, in which he would ask the organ to uphold some value and the organ would respond to each request with a different piece of music. The ceremony in Auch was part of the Toulouse-les-Orgues festival of organ music, which brings an international collection of performers and listeners to Toulouse and the region each year.

One of Gascony's great glories is armagnac, the older and perhaps slightly more rustic version of cognac. Armagnac tends to be made by small, artisanal distillers who grow their own grapes, ferment the wine, and distill and age the armagnac. With some French friends who served as guides, we visited a distillery located in a chateau that used to be the summer residence of the bishops of Condom. The owner-distillers live in the chateau, looking out across the vineyards. We tasted armagnacs that had been aged six, twenty and forty years, which were progressively milder and tawnier, nearly to the point of being syrupy. We liked best, and could afford a bottle of, the twenty-year-old. Like other producers, this chateau also sold Floc de Gascogne, an aperitif combining armagnac and wine. Distillers of cognac, and to some extent armagnac, are up in arms because of steeply falling demand. The Asian financial meltdown has led to decreased consumption of luxury products, aggravated by the effects of revaluation of local currencies. As a result, there's something of a cognac glut at the moment.

Speaking of drinks, Lynne and I almost always have an aperitif before dinner these days. The two main aperitifs in Toulouse, as in Cadours and most other parts of France, are pastis and kir. Pastis, which usually comes from Marseilles, is an anisette--a descendant of absinthe without the wormwood. Lest you think otherwise, this is the sort of robust stuff drunk by dockworkers at harbor bars, by ruddy-cheeked, beret-wearing older men watching their village petanques tournament from a tree-shaded cafe terrace, and by rowdy rugby-playing students at their local watering hole. It's 90-proof, served at room temperature in a glass with an ice cube and a pitcher of water. As the water is added, the pastis turns cloudy and swirly. There are a lot of brands of pastis, each claiming to be the most authentic. A kir is more upscale, a blend of white wine and creme de cassis, a black currant liqueur; the proportions are typically 4-1 or 5-1 wine to cassis, depending on taste. Normally the wine is white burgundy (i.e., mostly chardonnay) but we were introduced to the kir with muscadet (a light dry wine from the Loire valley usually served with shellfish) in Brittany once and now it's our mainstay because the tartness of the muscadet offsets the heaviness of the creme de cassis. We also add a twist of lemon rind. Popular variations of the classic kir often use a peach or blackberry liqueur in place of the creme de cassis, and both can be wonderful. And to stave off any possibility of aperitif fatigue, we have bottles of Campari, Floc de Gascogne, Malaga (it's like port), and the regionally produced, medieval aperitif Hypocras on hand. The French often drink whiskey as an aperitif. And we see people drinking other mysterious beverages at bars--some kind of green stuff, for instance--so maybe someday I'll be able to extend the list.

Postcript: The International Herald Tribune publishes an electronic edition daily at http://www.iht.com. Airbus's Web page, at http://www.airbus.com, has information on and images of their aircraft, including a QuickTime VR walkthrough of a cockpit. Information about the Toulouse-les-Orgues festival is available at http://www.toulouse-les-orgues.org. The main Web pages for tourism information for Gascony are at http://www.gascogne.fr.


Return to Dispatch index

DGN, April 4, 2003
Copyright 1998 David G. Novick