The Strange World of Hotels

Several people have asked the question as to how the lunatic who carried out the massacre in Las Vegas was able to stockpile so many guns in his room without staff at the Mandalay Bay hotel noticing. Well, that’s an easy question to answer: hotel staff are conditioned not to see stuff.

Even the finest hotels can be the venues for quite dodgy goings-on. Consumers of amateur porn might have noticed that an awful lot of it takes place in hotel rooms (which must be nice for the next guest), and if Hollywood films are any guide so do most major drug deals. The splendid book Hotel Babylon, an inside view into life in a upscale London hotel, gives several examples of strange things which happen in hotel rooms with alarming regularity. The author explains that people often go to hotels to commit suicide: it saves the family having to find the body and clear up the mess afterwards.

When I worked in a fancy hotel in Manchester (there’s your contradiction in terms for the day) we used to share stories of what we’d seen during our shifts. A receptionist told us she’d checked in the same middle-aged couple regularly for a number of years when one day the man turned up with a new woman in tow. A mistress, perhaps? No, the new woman was his wife. One of the shift managers said he’d brought breakfast to a rather respectable middle-aged woman only to find her in bed with another, equally respectable-looking woman, who’d checked in separately into a different room. Neither batted an eyelid and, more importantly, nor did he. Hotel guests expect discretion from the staff, and they usually get it.

There are some countries that immediately cast suspicion on anyone staying in a hotel. You must show your passport in the UAE for example, and I was rather surprised to find that the Belgian police require hotels to collect a copy of the ID of each guest. Unless things have changed since I stayed in American hotels, there is no such requirement stateside. You can be sure the Mandalay Bay had every inch of the hotel monitored by camera – it is a casino after all – and had anyone banned from the gaming floor been found wandering around they’d have been ejected within minutes. But nobody is going to pay attention to a white bloke in his fifties going in and out with a lot of luggage (I’m going to assume he dismantled his guns and put them in a holdall or suitcase, and didn’t just stroll in through the front door with a heavy machine gun and a thousand rounds of link over his shoulder, even if the cretinous European media would believe you could do this and nobody would notice). That said, if anyone from housekeeping or room service entered his room and found weapons lying everywhere, they’d tell their manager straight away and they’d keep an eye on him. My guess is he hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door and left it there, and the staff paid him no attention.

That’s not to say hotel staff aren’t observant, though. Several years back I was on a business trip to Paris and stayed in the Sofitel in La Defense: this was in the days of $100+ oil, nowadays we’d be given a horse-blanket and told to cuddle up to a tramp beneath a railway bridge. Anyway, by coincidence a friend arrived in town from London on the same morning and we met up in the afternoon. In a moment of quite spectacular dimness she’d come to Paris to stay with a friend without actually telling them in advance; when she arrived and tried to call, their phone was switched off. As the afternoon wore on it became increasingly clear her friend was out of town and she had nowhere to stay. Generous chap that I am I let her stay in the Sofitel with me: the beds are the size of tennis courts and the room is set up for two anyway. The next morning we went down for breakfast and the female maître d’hôtel sat us in a corner. She was a tall, dark woman with a long pointed nose, perhaps half-Arabic and extremely efficient and professional. I’d seen her every time on my previous business trips, so she was long-term employed and I dare say she’s still there. Anyway, we had breakfast and my friend got her act together and went back to London.

The next morning, a Monday, I come down for breakfast and the maître d’ leads me to a particular spot. With a slight grin she says:

“Zere you go, sir. Ze same place as wiz madame yesterday.”

If the Las Vegas police want to know about the movements of this headcase in and out of their premises, they probably just need to find the equivalent of this woman. Every hotel has one.

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Paris according to a credulous journalist

One of the fun things about living in Paris is reading other people write about it and wondering if they’ve ever been here. Yesterday an article appeared in the Financial Times telling us why Paris will become the first car-free metropolis. Let’s take a look.

In Lima next Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee will rubber-stamp Paris as host of the 2024 Games.

Oh, lucky Parisians! Can I be the first to predict pictures emerging in 2028 of a derelict aquatic centre that cost €3bn to build, the pools full of weeds and covered in graffiti captioned with “This is the pool where Michael Flipperfeet won his 38 golds in 2024”.

By the time the Games begin, Paris will be transformed. “Vehicles with combustion engines driven by private individuals” could well be banned from the city by then, says Jean-Louis Missika, the deputy mayor, whose responsibilities include urban planning.

“Could well be”. Those words are going to be doing a lot of heavy lifting in this article, easily enough to win a gold medal in the snatch, clean, and jerk.

“Every inch of that road surface has to be maximised,” says Ross Douglas, who runs Autonomy, an annual urban-mobility conference in Paris. “The first thing the city will want to do is reduce the 150,000 cars parked on the street doing nothing. Why should you occupy 12 square metres to move yourself? Why should you use a big diesel engine to pollute me and my family?”

“Why should the workers have more than one pair of shoes?” said the Commissar. “Why should they eat meat which could be used to feed others?” 

Naturally, it doesn’t occur to such people that those 150,000 cars represent the residents of Paris deciding for themselves what their needs are and how they should spend their meagre salaries after careful consideration. Put it this way, nobody owns a car in Paris unless they really need it; a lot of my colleagues don’t have one, for example. Also, the French are not show-offs when it comes to cars and money, owning a car doesn’t imply status as it does elsewhere. In other words, anyone who owns a car in Paris and parks on the street has a pretty good reason for doing so. And no, they don’t have “big diesel engines”. The average car parked on a Paris street is a small compact with at least three dents in it. A big car won’t fit in the parking spaces.

By 2024, driverless taxis will be making ride after ride, almost never parking.

Firstly, anyone who says driverless taxis will be technologically possible in 7 years’ time is selling snake-oil. Secondly, I seem to recall Parisian taxi drivers rioting, tipping over cars, and burning tyres when Uber came to town, leading to the government caving in by lunchtime and banning the app in Paris. Presumably they’re going to take the introduction of driverless cabs without a murmur.

Paris’s parking spaces will become bike or scooter paths, café terraces or playgrounds.

Oh, so we’re going to replace cars with scooters, are we? There are already about a million of them in Paris as it is, and let me assure you they do not make for a silent utopia where children can frolic freely. Also, a lot of Paris’ car parks are underground. Will they become playgrounds or cafe terraces? Either sounds lovely.

The second reason Paris can change fast: France’s car industry has been steadily shedding jobs since the 1980s. It’s now too small to lobby hard against the future.

Okay, the reason Parisians own cars is not to keep people employed at Peugeot or Citroen. I think the author has spent rather too much time hanging out at the Sorbonne.

Third, France has a 39-year-old tech-savvy president.

You mean he owns an iPhone. What does he know about vehicles?

Whereas his predecessors spent their energy saving dying industries, Emmanuel Macron intends to grab pieces of new ones, such as driverless vehicles.

Oh yeah? Let’s see, shall we. He hasn’t experienced his first strike yet, and he’s already rapidly back-tracking on the promises he made when elected.

Fourth, Paris doesn’t need private cars because it already has the best public transport of any international city, according to the New York-based Institute of Transportation and Development Policy.

Then there’s no problem, is there? There’s nothing left to do if nobody needs a car. Only the very existence of those 150,000 cars mentioned earlier seems to contradict this statement somewhat. Like I said, nobody in Paris owns a car for fun, and most would much rather do without. But hey, what do they know? Surely a clever FT journalist knows better!

Visitors from clogged developing cities ride metro trains here goggling in amazement.

They do? Shit, even the French complain about it, and I know: I work in a building of 3,000 people, many of whom use it to get to work. I have spoken to people from KL, New York, Caracas, Moscow, Istanbul, and a dozen other cities all of whom complained about the Paris Metro. It’s usually two things: the lack of air conditioning in summer and (more importantly) that it’s extremely difficult to access with a pushchair. Most of them prefer the London Underground which has improved massively over the past 10-20 years, particularly in regards to disabled and pushchair access. The Paris Metro isn’t bad, particularly Line 1 which uses driverless trains, but let’s not pretend people ride it “goggling in amazement”. I’m wondering if the author has actually used it himself. You can be damned sure deputy-mayor Missika gets chauffeured around in a massive car, and will do so long after the plebs have their own cars confiscated.

Already, nearly two-thirds of the 2.2 million Parisians don’t own cars, says Missika.

Yeah, which implies the third who do actually need them.

True, the 10 million people in the suburban towns outside Paris rely more on cars. But, by 2024, most of them should have been weaned off.

Should?

Wander around almost any suburb now, and somewhere near the high street you will find a billboard saying: “We are preparing the metro site.” Grand Paris Express — Europe’s biggest public-transport project — is going to change lives. It will bring 68 new stations, and thousands of homes built on top of them.

Yes, they’re upgrading the Metro – but to the extent nobody in the far-flung suburbs will need a car while adding thousands more homes? This is rather fanciful.

The Olympics will help ensure it’s delivered on time.

Because nothing speeds up complex infrastructure projects in major, developed cities than adding a giant politically-driven infrastructure project which an inflexible completion date to the mix.

New electric bikes will allow suburban cyclists to cover two or three times current distances, making long commutes a doddle.

Should be fun in winter with two kids to take to school.

The Périphérique — Paris’s ring road, which now cuts off the city from the suburbs — will become obsolete, predicts Missika. He looks forward to it turning into an urban boulevard lined with trees and cafés.

Because Paris is short of urban boulevards lined with trees and cafes. And has he actually been along the Périphérique? It goes through some of the worst areas imaginable. Who’s gonna want to sit there drinking coffee?

By then Paris and the suburbs will have merged into a single “Grand Paris”. Missika points out that the Olympic stadium and athletes’ village in 2024 will be outside Paris proper, in Seine-Saint-Denis, one of France’s poorest departments — just five minutes from Paris by train, but currently a world away.

Would that be the same Saint-Denis that was supposed to be rejuvenated in 1998 by the FIFA World Cup and the building of the Stade de France? The one which nobody wants to go anywhere near unless there’s a game or concert on, and the modern office blocks built nearby remain mostly empty? So what will be different this time?

Missika says, “For me, the Games are above all the construction of a Grand-Parisian identity.”

That’s all the Olympic Games ever are, a manifestation of a politician’s ego, funded with taxpayer cash.

I asked Missika if he expected Brexit to benefit Paris. He replied that he considered London and Paris a single city, “the metropolis”. You can travel between them in less time than it takes to cross Shanghai. Anyway, he adds: “I have the impression Brexit won’t happen, since the English are pragmatic. The moment when they say, ‘We were wrong, we’ll take a step back’ will be a bit humiliating, but it will be better than doing Brexit.”

At least if all these grand plans go horribly awry we won’t be able to blame it on hubris, eh? Such down-to-earth people these French politicians, aren’t they? But we knew that already. The real question is, why is a British newspaper felching them so?

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Diana Revisionism

I’ve managed to avoid any TV programmes and articles on the subject, but we’ve recently had the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death. I remember it well, particularly the shameful “outpouring of grief” that followed, whereby millions of seemingly sane and ordinary people with no connection to the promiscuous princess wept in the streets. Since then, the mass feigning of grief in order to feel part of something has become a recurring theme in British life, and has spread to other English-speaking countries (witness the embarrassing scenes in Australia following the death of cricketer Phil Hughes). For me, the death of Diana (or rather, what followed) marked a turning point in Britain becoming something of a joke. I always found it hard to take the British public seriously after that.

I have a Ukrainian friend who for some reason has a strong interest in the British royal family. She was rather surprised when I told her that before she died, Diana was an unpopular and rather divisive figure. Many people, myself included, thought she was an embarrassment and I was particularly annoyed with her muddle-headed campaign to ban land-mines, a subject she knew nothing about. She went to Africa and encountered victims of the millions of Soviet and Chinese landmines scattered willy-nilly around the continent’s many war zones, then returned home and harangued the British Army – who carefully map their minefields, and use them only for essential defensive purposes – into giving them up. My initial reaction to her untimely death, before it transpired she’d got into a car driven too fast by a guy who was drunk, was that she’d stepped on the toes of somebody with a considerable interest in land mines.

The idea that Diana was universally loved and adored is pure revisionism (see PCar’s comment here for example). In the months preceding her death, Viz ran an amusing series called “The Queen of Hearts” which used photos of her with fictitious captions. One of them was of her holding the leg of an African child in a hospital:

Diana: Is this your leg?

Child: Yes.

Diana: Is it supposed to be that colour?

Child: Yes.

They also took the piss via spoof collectible offers, such as The Lady Diana Pubic Soap of Hearts.

Then there was this incredible correction issued by the National Enquirer after news came in that she was dead:

The switch of stance typifies the tabloids’ reaction to Diana’s death, and since then there has been nothing but whitewashing.

The other thing I find annoying about Diana, one a bit closer to home, is the way her sycophantic admirers have hijacked the Flame of Liberty in Paris:

The Flame of Liberty (Flamme de la Liberté) in Paris is a full-sized, gold-leaf-covered replica of the new flame at the upper end of the torch carried in the hand of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) at the entrance to the harbor of New York City since 1886. The monument, which measures approximately 3.5 metres in height, is a sculpture of a flame, executed in gilded copper, supported by a pedestal of gray-and-black marble. It is located near the northern end of the Pont de l’Alma, on the Place de l’Alma, in the 8th arrondissement of Paris.

The Flame of Liberty became an unofficial memorial for Diana, Princess of Wales after her 1997 death in the tunnel beneath the Pont de l’Alma (see death of Diana, Princess of Wales)[3] The flame became an attraction for tourists and followers of Diana, who fly-posted the base with commemorative material. Anthropologist Guy Lesoeurs said, “Most people who come here think this was built for her.”

They’ve even had to add a separate plaque nearby half-acknowledging the monument’s unofficial role as a Diana memorial. However, this annoyance is tempered somewhat by recalling the response of the French authorities when it was suggested that the design of the Alma Tunnel was unsafe and contributed to her death, along the lines of:

“There’s nothing wrong with the tunnel if you don’t drive through it at suicidal speeds.”

With characteristic French stubbornness they resisted calls to alter the tunnel, and it remains unchanged to this day.

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In defence of Charlie Hebdo

There was much wailing on Twitter yesterday after French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo came out with this cover:

“God exists! He drowned all the Texas neo-Nazis!”

The complaints were mostly in the manner of:

1. After this, don’t expect sympathy when your offices are shot up again.

2. How many Texans died saving you from real Nazis?

3. It’s easy for you to mock us when we don’t hit back.

That last one makes the mistake of thinking Charlie Hebdo stopped lampooning Islam after the massacre in their offices in January 2015: they didn’t.

To be fair, I didn’t read anyone saying Charlie Hebdo should be silenced over this – most of the complaints were from the political right, not the infantile left. But they kind of miss the point.

Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine, and their MO is to publish the most offensive take on whatever the leading story is that week. They do this to shock people into understanding what thoughts might be out there, and remind everyone that people are free to hold them. Anyone who looks at the front cover above and thinks “Oh my God, they think Texans are Nazis and they’re laughing at the dead!” doesn’t understand Charlie Hebdo or satire. Whereas I have no doubt most of those at Charlie Hebdo are politically of the hard-left which dominate institutions in central Paris, you’d be mistaken if you believe their magazine exists to promote their political views. They’re a scattergun, take-no-prisoners outfit proving points which most people would rather shy away from acknowledging.

In the aftermath of the attacks, I never thought Charlie Hebdo was looking for sympathy. Rather, I think they wanted the assurance that what they were doing was perfectly okay and the attack they suffered was in no way justified. Instead they got weasel words, obfuscation, crocodile tears, and people saying perhaps they deserved it. One common opinion was that publications which deliberately go out of their way to offend people ought not to complain when there is a reaction. This misses the point: so long as Charlie Hebdo can continue to do what it does, everyone else is free to speak, write, and draw as they please. Once we enter into the territory of differentiating between deliberate and inadvertent offence, it becomes a negotiation with those who don’t recognise our right to do either and would rather silence us completely.

Charlie Hebdo is on the front-line of free speech, and they set out to prove it week after week. They don’t care about sympathy from Texans, they only want to make the point that if they can publish something as heinous as this then so can you, and if they are thinking such thoughts then so are plenty of others. Unfortunately, Charlie Hebdo is ploughing a lonely furrow. As I said in the aftermath of the attacks on their offices:

Nothing highlights the cultural gap between France and Britain more than the uncomfortable suspicion that Charlie Hebdo would not have lasted more than a year in the UK before being hounded out of business by the state and its backers in one form or another, as this article makes clear.

For all their faults, the French seem to take a more robust view of free speech than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. There is no way Charlie Hebdo could be sold in Australia or Canada, and if the past few years is anything to go by, they’d likely be shut down in the USA too. People like to imagine that the French are thin-skinned, but you don’t see the sort of hand-wringing over offensive speech and ideas here that you do in America and Britain. They prefer to ignore it and focus on more pressing concerns – like which wine to have with tonight’s dinner.

Rather than getting upset about Charlie Hebdo’s puerile and offensive front covers, we should be glad that at least someone is putting them out there. If they weren’t, how could we be sure that speech was still free? And how would we know that what we said was not going to land us in trouble? It’s startling that the French understand this and can answer these questions, but those in the US cannot.

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Crunch time approaches for Macron

News in from France:

When centrist Emmanuel Macron was swept to power in presidential elections last May, his big platform was a reform of France’s rigid labour laws.

Let’s be honest, the adulation received by Macron from politicians and journalists across Europe when he won the presidency was based on his being a nice looking chap who wasn’t that nasty Le Pen woman. Establishment elites aren’t interested in actual policies, save for those which maintain the status quo and their own cushy positions. Note that those who squealed hysterically like teenage girls at a pop concert have gone awfully quiet recently.

But his popularity has since waned, and the measures to be revealed on Thursday will be a big test for his presidency.

He is facing mass protests next month, although one of the biggest unions has decided it will not take part.

Jean-Claude Mailly argued that the Macron team had backed away from “ultraliberal” reforms, justifying his union’s decision not to take part in a day of street demonstrations on 12 September.

What’s French for deja-vu?

Mr Macron wants to free up the French economy by making it easier for employers to hire and fire staff, and negotiate working conditions.

An earlier attempt to modernise France’s labour laws by François Hollande’s Socialist government largely failed in the face of left-wing opposition. However, Mr Macron has already won parliamentary backing to push these reforms through by decree.

I’m actually hoping he succeeds. Since his election I’ve warmed to Macron, mainly because he pissed off a lot of the wet lefties outside of France by doing things differently, e.g. getting on with Donald Trump and poking Merkel in the eye. He is also upsetting people in the EU, which is always a good thing in my book. But how he will hold up once the protests start and the notoriously fickle French population withdraws its support I don’t know.

President Macron has pledged to reduce unemployment from 9.5% of the workforce now to 7% by 2022. But last week, on a visit to Romania, he complained that France was not a “reformable country… because French men and women hate reform”.

And he was absolutely right. By their own admission the French are very conservative and resistant to any kind of change. Even the ones who know reforms are necessary don’t actually want to see them brought about, and would rather kick the can down the road. When Macron was elected a lot of people said “it’s now or never”, but the thing with France is it’s been like that for quite some time. The French say they want to change, but reject any change that’s proposed.

A separate poll on Wednesday showed that while nine out of 10 French people agreed that their country’s labour code had to be reformed, 60% were worried about the Macron plan.

See what I mean? What odds on Macron succeeding?

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Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

Last Saturday I went with a friend to visit Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, about 45 mins south of Paris.

Built between 1658-61, it was the first in what became known as the Louis XIV style, which is now arguably the “typical” look of a French chateau.

It was built as the personal home of one Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s superintendent of finances in 1657. That’s right: the chap in charge of the France’s money built himself that house a year after taking up the position. Audits and oversight might have been a bit more lax in those days.

Setting the standard for what would follow in many French chateaus, M. Fouquet didn’t skimp on the gardens.

Alas, things didn’t work out too well for our intrepid superintendent of finances:

[T]he king had Fouquet arrested shortly after a famous fête that took place on 17 August 1661…The celebration had been too impressive and the superintendent’s home too luxurious.

Building yourself a house like that when you work for King Louis XIV is a bit like Roman Abramovich’s accountant buying a mega-yacht several metres longer than that of his boss. Probably not a good idea if self-preservation is top of your agenda.

Jean-Baptiste Colbert led the king to believe that his minister’s magnificence was funded by the misappropriation of public funds.

Ya think?!

However, Louis XIV was suitably impressed and ordered a similar chateau for himself at Versailles.

Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is now privately owned, administered by three brothers, the descendants of those who bought the place in 1875 after it had stood neglected for 30 years. It is open to the public, and you can rent a golf buggy to drive yourself around if you’re bone-idle (we are, so we did).

In the 19th century somebody built a golden statue of Hercules at the far end of the garden.

One of the main attractions of the chateau is the candlelit evenings they put on each Saturday in summer. They lay out a couple of thousand candles around the gardens and chateau and everyone stays until sundown and says “Aaaaaaaah!”

It was worth the wait, although we didn’t hang around for the 11pm firework display. If you can make it one day, it’s worth doing. It is nicer than the Palace of Versailles in my opinion, which I thought was too big, lacking character, and too full of tourists.

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Two Quotes

Two quotes, totally unrelated.

The first from Streetwise Professor on Emmanuel Macron, with which I agree and wish I’d written myself:

I must confess that I may have misjudged M. Macron. I pegged him as a cipher whom Merkel would dominate. But if anything, Macron is proving to lean more towards Napoleonic ambitions, labeling himself “Jupiter” who aims to overawe the petty squabbling political nation.

Macron left some angered, and others nonplused, by his bonhomie with Trump during the president’s visit to France on Bastille Day. This actually makes perfect sense, and is the best demonstration of his intent to be his own man, rather than a Merkel flunky. As Empress Angela’s pretensions continue to swell, Macron knows that he needs a counterweight. He further knows that Merkel disdains Trump, and Trump don’t think much of her either. So the clever thing to do is to build a relationship to Trump. It signals independence. It will aggravate Angela. And it will provide Macron with some muscle in his dealings with Germany, and with the EU.

The second is from the comments at ZMan’s concerning one of Barack Obama’s attempts at appearing cool. I quote this simply because I found it amusing:

My favorite “Race to the bottom” moment with Obama was when he invited a bunch of rappers to the White House for the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which was designed to help keep young black men free from entanglement with the criminal justice system. Obama was giving a speech, when the ankle bracelet of one of the rappers present started beeping. Rick Ross (the rapper in question) had been charged with kidnapping earlier in the year.

Heh!

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France as a balance between order and chaos

One of the biggest attractions of France for me is that it sits on a nice balance-point between the ordered Anglo-Saxon/Germanic northern Europe and the chaotic Latin south. I have often said I find the UK sterile and over-regulated, and recently complained about the Germans micro-managing people’s lives. On the other hand, I don’t miss the utter chaos of Africa much, nor the lesser-chaos of Russia and Asia. I’ve never lived in Italy, Portugal, or Spain but from what I’ve heard and seen on visits the laid-back Latin culture can be infuriating at times, especially to those from northern Europe. I still remember the remarks of my German mate when he attempted to hire a car in Italy on his honeymoon: he wasn’t impressed.

Of course, the balance point between order and chaos depends very much on where you’re from originally. I have a Venezuelan mate who thinks the Barcelona-Taragona region of Spain is about as ordered as he wants it, whereas a Norwegian might find it bordering on anarchy. For this Brit, France is right in the middle, and indeed the European transition from order to chaos appears to happen across France. Lille is more Belgian than French, and people from there think Marseilles might as well be in Africa. In France you can keep heading south until you find the mix of order and chaos that is perfect for you.

Paris is Paris and hardly representative of France, but it still holds a nice balance. That said, when you need to deal with the local prefecture you dearly wish the Germans or Dutch were in charge because it feels like you’re in southern Italy. Even the French complain bitterly about the levels of service they receive in a prefecture. I’ve not spent much time in the south of France, but I’d probably find the Mediterranean way of life annoying after a while, despite the weather. Annecy seems to hold a very attractive mix of Swiss efficiency with a large dollop of French creativity thrown in, making it highly liveable but not as dull as Geneva (is anywhere?). A Swiss standard of living with French restaurants is pretty good on most measures, but people from southern Europe might find it too boring.

France’s diverse geography is probably its biggest asset, but the cultural change as you go from north to south is another. It’s often overlooked amid talk of weather, wine, and food but it probably explains why France is so highly regarded as a place to live and visit: village by village you can fine tune your preferences until you find somewhere you like.

Note that I said live and visit, not work. Working in France is another matter entirely, one which falls quite some way from any balance-point that a Brit would find desirable. On this I shall make no remarks.

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A warning from Air France-KLM

Sometimes blog posts just write themselves:

A clash of national cultures and an inability to understand each other’s languages threatens to make the merged Air France-KLM group of airlines unmanageable, according to a leaked internal company report.

Surely not!

“The French have the impression that the Dutch think only of money and are always ready to fight for profit. They are not afraid of anything,” the researchers reported.

“The Dutch think that the French are attached to a hierarchy and political interests which are not necessarily the same as the interests of the company … The extent to which employees are disillusioned is shocking. People are pessimistic, frustrated and burnt out because they feel that this is not listened to.”

But this is consistent with crude national stereotypes! How can it be true?

Okay, a little more serious now:

Air France managers are also said to feel that they look more at what is best for the whole company, while KLM managers only worry about what is good for KLM.

Hmmm.

KLM managers, on the other hand, think that their French colleagues only worry about keeping jobs at Air France.

So each party thinks the other is looking out for themselves? It being a near-certainty that this is the case, my only questions are how many top managers are surprised by this and when are they being fired?

Among the petty grievances, there is irritation that a KLM employee working in Paris is charged €10 for lunch in the canteen, while an Air France colleague pays only €4.

The reason for this is French companies are obliged to provide their employees with a subsidised canteen (or lunch vouchers), but secondees and visitors don’t get the subsidy and have to pay full price. We have the same issue in my office when people are seconded from outside, and it’s actually more serious than it sounds.

Some years ago I had an Australian boss who was a very smart chap, particularly so considering he was a Queenslander (I think he might read this blog occasionally). He was also a very good boss, partly because having come up through the ranks himself, he knew that small niggles can have a detrimental effect on an employee’s happiness way out of proportion to the actual problem. If left unchecked, seemingly minor issues cause all sorts of discontent in a department which results in a bad atmosphere and reduced productivity. If your staff are spending half the day bitching about free coffee being stopped, you’re better off just reinstating it.

A decent manager like this Aussie would have spotted immediately that the unequal canteen charges would create a rift in the organisation which would cost the company a lot more than €30 per person per week. He would have been on the phone sharpish to get approval to reimburse the Dutch, and if that were refused he’d run a little wheeze to do so anyway. Managers like this are like hen’s teeth in a modern corporation, and seemingly absent altogether from Air France-KLM.

The Dutch managers don’t trust the French economy, and see Air France as a “time bomb”.

“One questions whether the alliance can survive given the long-standing mutual incomprehension between the Dutch and French camps within the group,” one researcher was quoted as writing.

If two airlines cannot merge without divisions opening up along national lines amid a clash of cultures and widespread mistrust, one wonders how much truth there is in the EU’s claim that all 27 members unanimously agreed on the Brexit negotiation strategy in under 15 minutes. I think the whole Brexit negotiation process will put the unity between the member states under considerable strain, and I’m expecting to see plenty of leaked memos full of similar sentiments to those in the Air France-KLM report.

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A Trip to Nantes

The city of Nantes in the Pays de Loire region consistently ranks highly in the lists of best places to live in France, probably because it is big enough to have all the amenities of a city, yet it is surrounded by countryside and only 2 1/2 hours from Paris by train. Possibly the biggest attraction is that you have a dozen or more beaches and seaside towns within an hour’s drive, making the place great in summer.

The town itself is nice enough and reminded me a lot of Bordeaux: lots of little side streets, cafes, bars, and students. There were also a lot of unwashed hippy-types sitting about in bare feet holding pieces of string with a dog on the end. I’d not seen many of them in France before, but Nantes had plenty. Probably the best thing to do when arriving in Nantes is to walk around the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany and then find something to eat and drink: being a former port town whose shipyards closed long ago, Nantes is nice but not beautiful.

The mirror above was pretty neat. In front was a football pitch laid out in a curve such that the mirror would reflect it as a perfect rectangle.

One of the main attractions of Nantes is Les Machines de l’île, a permanent exhibition of animatronic animals built in the steampunk genre in an area of reclaimed dockyards near the city centre. The most famous of the exhibits is a giant mechanical elephant which carries passengers on a journey of a few hundred metres every hour or so.

It’s both a fantastic work of art and feat of mechanical engineering. Driven on wheels by electric motors, hydraulics make the legs move giving the impression it’s walking. A combination of pneumatics and hydraulics make the head, ears, and trunk move. Were this in Australia the people following would be stood two hundred metres away behind barriers, but in France people are still allowed to have fun so everyone walks alongside or in front, with the kids getting sprayed with water from the trunk. A security guard sort of ushers people out of the way, but otherwise you can get pretty close. To be fair, the thing moves pretty slowly and you’d have to be trying pretty hard to get hurt.

Inside there were some smaller animals, including a mechanical ant which I’d seen a year before at the Paris Maker Faire.

There was also a caterpillar, a heron, and a giant spider each of which could carry a handful of passengers who, by pulling various levers, could make the animals’ appendages move in a realistic fashion. The whole exhibition was an excellent combination of aesthetically pleasing arts and complex engineering, something which is never easy to pull off.

Afterwards I went for a short walk along the slipways of the old docks, where the city has adopted and preserved an old crane as a reminder of its industrial heritage (If you look carefully you can see the elephant on the left).

That evening I watched footage of the flypast in Paris and Trump causing lefty heads to explode by complimenting Macron’s wife on her figure. I was hoping he’d rumble down the Champs Élysées in an Abrams tank, crushing a few vehicles on the way, but instead he turned up in a limo. Back in Nantes, the municipality laid on a firework display in the castle for the Bastille Day celebrations. Judging by the crowd, the entire city turned up to watch them.

The next day I headed to the harbour town of Pornic, which sounds a bit like an app connecting amateur pornstars with budding directors in your area. Naturally, the first thing to do was eat some oysters at the grand price of 6 for 10 euro.

France is probably the only place I’d eat oysters, and the Atlantic coast is the only place I’d make a point of eating them. Meaty, cheap, and delicious they were. As I found with other small coastal towns in France, the visitors are almost exclusively French so you can safely eat in a restaurant which looks “touristy”. You’d not want to do that in one of the more famous towns like Etretat or Le Mont Saint Michel, where the menu will be laminated and in sixteen languages with Russian and Chinese near the top.

Pornic was a nice place, even with the tide out.

On the way back to Nantes I stopped at the Réserve Naturelle de Grand-Lieu, which is basically a lake.

It was nice enough, but what I most enjoyed was coming across a field of mowed hay and taking in the smell of it. Then a tractor pulled up with a hay-turner and I stared long enough for the driver to hop out and ask me if I was wanting anything in particular. I explained that I’d grown up around farm machinery and, living in Paris, I missed it. He sympathised, but not enough to immediately put the thing into action for my entertainment. On the drive back I passed a dozen or so fields of wheat being harvested, dust flying everywhere.

Just for fun, here’s a pic of me with the elephant.

(The rest of my photos from this trip can be seen here.)

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