From the 28th October, 2010…

I’ve arrived in Paris. I haven’t a clue the name of the area I’m in, yet, but I know I’m in the north of the city. The bike has been running perfectly. Today was a sleep in, a short ride to the museum of modern art in Lille, where I’ve been staying, and then a five hour mostly enjoyable ride to Paris.

Francois and Emilie have been fantastic to stay with. I met Francois in my supervisor Andy Bennett’s office at Griffith Uni about six months ago. He was there researching young people’s use of public space, as part of managing a masters program in cultural studies. I emailed him to see if he knew of somewhere in Lille that he could recommend staying, and he offered his place. It was only two quick nights in Lille but I wish it could have been longer. It’s an amzing little city with lots happening. It’s an arts haven, with theatres, museums, galleries everywhere you look, all housed in incredibly beautiful buildings hundreds of years old.

I met with Emilie to talk about the Soup Festival. When Francois first told me about this event and that his partner was involved, I imagined something small, very local and possibly not appropriate for the research. I was wrong. The Golden Ladle Soup Festival [La Louche D’or] is an amazingly creative event based around the concept of making, sharing and tasting soup, mixed with all forms of arts performance, games, installations and workshops. Soup actually stands for Symbol Opening and Union of Peoples Europeans. The festival emerged from the need to find ways to showcase local musicians, who were strugging to find venues as well as find new ways to promote interaction in an era of gentrification and commercialisation of public space. Today, the festival also happens in five other places, including Madrid, Bologna, Nicaragua, Barcelona and Berlin, with a network formed to ensure the original aims and aspirations remain in place and are regularly reviewed. On one level, people can enjoy all sorts of soups, socialise, enjoy performance and join in themselves. On another, the festival animates the streets of the inner city with colourful displays and installations and up to 50,000 people who attended in 2009. On another, local artists have an opportunity to perform and share their skills, anyone from the local area can volunteer to help design and organise the festival, and there are workshop programs to develop performance and theming. It’s an amazing event, combining a fun interactive event with the chance to increase skills and networks in the area, driven by an activist framework by the managing organisation Atacafa.

Anyway, I missed the marches in Paris. What was to be a ride to get there just in time, turned out to be a 5 hour marathon. At first I was going to take back roads, stretching out the ride to Paris to five hours, but when I got on the bike I knew I wanted to join in. I was making good time too when my petrol light came on. No problem, the GPS could plot a course to the nearest station, seeing as how my calculation of when I would need to refuel was obviously off. Three kilometres apparently. Great. Reaching the toll station, I had to pull over to get gloves off, find the ticket and then head to the operated booth. The card didn’t work. Probably because I’d jammed it into my pocket at the last toll booth which was just an automated ticket dispenser that was an absolute nightmare with gloves on. The first ticket slipped between my leathered fingers and flew under the car behind me. So I had to wait until the boom gate dropped and a new ticket could be dispensed. The guys in the truck behind me were laughing so I didn’t feel any pressure. Life on a moto is completely different, a whole other world, another way of breaking down the little things associated with getting around a place, complicated by language miscommunications.

When I realised that the GPS was leading me 32 kilometres to fuel now, and heading me back to the toll gates, I shut it down and went and asked some workmen, two of whom spoke French and another who spoke Italian. Four kilometres away they suggested pointing the way my bike was facing. This was not the first time I experienced happiness or comfort based on the misguided, miscommunicated or misinterpreted directions of others. Pulling off the highway I found another toll gate. Not surprising in France apparently, with most of the main rolls tolled. Which kind of makes sense to me, having road users paying directly for it, so long as this results in tax income being spent on alternative forms of transport, like bicycles and public transport.

The toll gate guy spoke English and, after charging me the minimum toll, because I’d taken a lane with witches hats [moto privelege – I’m working it out…] and so didn’t have a ticket from the toll gate machine, told me there was petrol a few kilometres away in Boucquy. Unable to see the station immediately and being dangerously low on fuel, I asked two teenagers who happened to be walking on the quiet street. The girl spoke a little English but didn’t know where fuel could be found, while the guy knew but spoke so fast she found it hard to translate. I got the gist and headed there, finding a service station with one pump working….diesel.

The rally I was heading to was aimed at the Sarkozy government and, at least in the media’s eyes, legislation to raise the retirement age to 60 from 62. This simplification of why people are moved to not only protest but take deliberate, direct action to shut down ports, roads, public transport and fuel movement is typical of mainstream media, so keen to project the people’s struggle as misplaced and ideological.

Current protests are aimed at deconstructing Sarkozy’s blatant support for the super rich over the working class. While tax benefits for the rich help empty the public coffers, this government is doing what it can to dismantle the social security system that emerged after World War II on the pretext that it cannot be afforded. Under Sarkozy, France has sought to reduce social costs, support corporations and those with money through fiscal benefits and increased market accessibility, and to project the need to adopt these measures as a necessity, where there is no other choice.

The other side to this argument is that productivity in France has risen significantly over recent decades, and that these rises should offset pension costs, even if there are unemployment issues presently. The problem, however, is that as productivity has risen, wages have stagnated, with additional profits merely skimmed by corporations without adequate investment. The recent financial bailout by the French government in response to the so-called Global Financial Crisis shifted funds from public to private to support these same corporations, representing an even greater movement of power from workers to bosses. Logically, preserving the pension system would require a raising of wages…..hardly fitting with neo liberal conceptions of political and economic management and hardly possible amid the current deindustrialisation seen in the west, with production being moved to cheaper locations. This quote by Dianna Johnston sums it up perfectly… “Only the financiers can win this game.  And if they lose, well, they just get more chips for another game from servile governments.”

Arab and African residents of the banlieues, as the suburbs are known, have been in an angry, mood since Sarkozy described young delinquents as “scum” and “thugs” in 2005. His comments were widely believed to have contributed to the most severe violence in France in almost four decades, when 10,000 cars were burnt in a rampage of rioting.

And the recent expulsion of Romany people from France, despite they’re EU citizenship, has raised concerns that build on his “crackdowns” on “illegal” immigrants from when he was interior minister. All of this made more toxic by his claims during the election which brought him to power to “liquidate” the May ’68 culture of protest – the very culture that allows people to air political differences on the street, another example of what union bosses have called a “Thatcher-style” effort to castrate them and sell their country into free-market slavery.

The French people I have met are proud of their egalitarian roots and ability to organise against unwanted decisions from those in power. The tradition of disillusionment with the ruling elite goes back a long way – the French Revolution, the Paris Commune of 1870, May 1968 protests, the 2005 protests and riots and the continuing annual and festive May Day marches.

So, back to the story…

There happened to be someone at the station filling up with diesel. He said “Carrfore” with a point down the street in such a way that it seemed it was just around the corner. He didn’t speak English so I set off, carried by his ambiguity. People’s relationship to distance has been an ever-changing barometer of these travels. In Amsterdam people would talk of enormous treks, across towns, suggesting public transport for what turned out to be a ten minute walk. In London, I found that people would describe directions as though they were so simple and the destination so close, in what would turn out to be a treasure hunt for clues that might lead in the right direction. In Lille, a man told me to follow the street for a particular store and that it was about 300m away. When I eventually gave up and went into a travel agent to ask, they printed out a google maps page that involved about half an hour’s walk and half a dozen different streets. People express their relationship to their place through these conversations, the overestimators seemingly used to amazing public transport and bicycle prioritising, the underestimators familiar with their locality, deleting the inclusion of explicit directions to strangers.

After a while I just didn’t want to risk running out of fuel alone without a phone. I just can’t imagine people stopping for a random person with a bike here. Just instinct…trust instinct. So, I turned around, heading toward a caryard I’d seen with two guys who looked like they might be washing them. One, Ju, spoke English. There were two stations, both around 10 kilometres away. My reserve, which is what remains once the dreaded light comes on, has about two litres, meaning around 30kms, maybe 35. I was getting close to having ridden that already. Without hesitation, Ju offered to drive me to a station, finding a five litre bottle to take. I would never have found it. And with five litres I could get to Paris, so I just relaxed and didn’t worry too much about remembering the way. We talked about his life and about Paris mainly. He was a political refugee from Laos thirty years ago, when he was a child. He said that he had left the communist country, with his family, as being a practising Muslim was not tolerated. He had migrated to France and now ran a car sale yard. A generous and caring man, he talked about France and the social and economic problems he felt the country faced. He spoke a little English – somehow we worked it out, aided by a few hand gestures here and there.

He gave me a five litre everyday plastic container to use, which was no problem at the station. France is very different to the regulated nightmare that Australia’s become.

The ride into the city was through some pretty interesting looking areas, full of people on the streets, most appearing from african or middle eastern origin, lots of crowded little bars and colourful shops, busy little parks, the Seine, conversations through car windows as traffic slowly chugged along.

Now, suddenly, I’m in Paris…content….and wondering about what’s out there….