Spend any time speaking about French culture, and no more than three minutes in, you’re bound to bring up France’s fondness for la grève. Here, outraged unions exercising their need to ‘stick it to the man’ and strike is largely seen as just the way of life, if not a small nuisance. It has actually become quite comical how many French people have turned to me making sure I understood what it means to faire la grève, certain that this new vocabulary would be crucial to my survival here.
While today is hardly my first encounter with la grève, it is most definitely the first time it has really irritated me. On other occasions, for example, I would hear or read ahead of time that the regional line to my university in Nanterre would only be running 1 train out of 2 for the day. So, I would wake up about 45 minutes earlier, undoubtedly a tad cranky, but I’d get to class, later perk myself up with a chocolate croissant, and life would carry on as normal. For some batty reason, I thought this good luck might actually continue and that I’d be able to spend my semester in France without having to endure the insanity that surrounds a major strike. “Mais, non,” I can hear the union workers insist. “We would never deprive you of a classic French experience! To understand and survive la grève is to understand a major institution!”
Though this figment of my imagination speaks the truth, this strike couldn’t really come at a more annoying time. Since Monday, the SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, or the National French Railways Society) workers have gone on large strikes, mostly affecting the TGV trains that have stops in the south of France. Train stations in Paris are getting ugly; with only about 1 out of 3 scheduled trains running, it is impossible to book tickets on any train heading southeast this weekend, and travelers (both with and without valid tickets) are shoving their way onto the few trains that are running, all sense of order and decency be damned. A rightfully exasperated 66-year-old woman even told a newspaper, “I’m getting on the next train or I’m killing someone” (http://www.francesoir.fr/emploi-politique-social-transports/sncf-la-greve-pourrit-les-vacances-des-francais).
And of course, in my own slightly obnoxious way, I’m all wound up because tomorrow is the start of my spring break – a fabulous two-week sojourn that was supposed to kick off in Nice, with daytrips to Monaco and Cannes. The overnight train that I booked with my friends has already been flat-out cancelled (which is disappointing in its own right, because that train boasted a car that turns into a discotheque at night – something I figured I’d only be willing to do now when I’m young and stupid…). Airfares have skyrocketed, buses from Paris to Nice are virtually nonexistent, and our only 21-year-old traveler cannot rent a car because her wallet (with valid driver’s license) was stolen a month ago.
So, what are my options for recourse? (That is, assuming I don’t take my dad’s facetious suggestion of hitchhiking to Geneva seriously.) Pack up, head over to Gare de Lyon earlier than planned, and hope it doesn’t come down to me versus that 66-year-old, I suppose. Though if I were a betting woman, I’d like my odds; my varsity basketball days are over, but my boxing-out skills are still pretty mean.
The funny thing is, it could all be worse. I distinctly remember threats of a full-on metro strike in late January. When a friend of mine asked her host mother what Parisians did when the metro lines and buses weren’t running, she answered matter-of-factly, “We walk.” Given that it takes me about 40 minutes to get anywhere on the train, I’m sure that predicament would’ve trumped my current one. And around this time last year, it wasn’t the trains that were striking, but the universities. Not for days, but for weeks and months. In some extreme cases, students and professors completely blocked access into buildings so it was practically impossible to attend class. Students from a few other study abroad programs (not any of Georgetown’s) had to forfeit the semester and many returned home – now THAT would be something to complain about.
I suppose the light at the end of the tunnel is that I will, undoubtedly, start mes vacances at some point in some wonderful, new place. In exchange for a bit of a hassle and a few more worry wrinkles on my forehead, I’m getting (yet another) valuable lesson on how I can’t control everything, some insight to a standard French cultural phenomenon, and fodder for an interesting (if not whiny) blog post!