The beginning of a strike march in Dijon's Place de la Liberatíon during the national train strike in November 2007
Some things are universal. No matter what city I’m in or in what country, I’ll inevitably end up in line behind someone who has to make the simple complicated. Whether in a French or an American “McDo’s,” fate will place me behind the one person in the country who walked into that oh-so-familiar fast food establishment actually not knowing what he or she wanted to order. Standing slack-jawed before “le menu”, this novice to ordering a McDonald’s meal engages in deep self-reflection over the choice between a “Royal avec Cheese” or McNuggets. Conversations with the cashier are necessary to ascertain the exact size of the soda that comes with a meal and what the options for sides are – frites? salade? un autre? Of course, this patron of fine dining waits until the last possible moment to reach for the wallet and then decides that today is the day to pay for everything with exact change, even though that requires a search in six different pockets.
Today I walked into a Dijon post office and briefly thought I was back home. It was a small office with only two clerks. It just so happened that at the exact moment I had decided to buys stamps for my postcards two men who had never mailed anything in their entire lives arrived, one at each window. My luck is the same, no matter where I am. Over the years I’ve mailed packages large and small – domestic and oversees, I’ve sent things overnight delivery, I’ve had “return receipt” to verify delivery. I’ve even sought refunds for packages that didn’t arrive when scheduled and had clerks search back rooms for packages that were supposed to be waiting for me but seemed to have disappeared. Yet I’ve never spent more than two minutes getting anything mailed. Most of my conversations with clerks beyond the weather were asking which form I should fill out or what pretty stamps they had in stock for Christmas cards. Yet if there is anybody who wants to complicate the process, you can bet I’ll be in line behind him or her.
My limited French made me ignorant of what the hold up was about. I couldn’t understand their difficulty with filling out a form, but I could understand the wonderful patience of the clerks who listened while each of these men went on at length about whatever grievance they had with the post office and how business was conducted. Arms were waved and voices were raised (not in anger but for emphasis) as each of these customers found further issues with the simple act of filling out a form to attach to their package. One of the fellows even asked to borrow the clerk’s phone so that he could call someone. While he had exerted extreme effort badgering the young clerk just trying to do her duty, he had not exerted any effort in bringing with him the address to which his package was to be sent. I had never witnessed such a grand debate over such an undemanding task as posting mail.
While I watched the ten-minute post office drama in two acts, I remembered a conversation with my husband’s mathematics colleague at Université de Bourgogne. The last time we were in Dijon a national strike occurred across the length of our visit. The main strike was a fight for certain retirement benefits. Many other “sympathy strikes” arose to show solidarity with the cause. It was clear that these work stoppages were not going to be effective, and after the first week even the general populace had given up support as they found it harder to manage transportation to work or day care for children locked out of schools. I asked our friend, Didier, why they continued the strike if it was clear that nothing would change. He told me, “It’s simple – in France, we must agitate!”
So while I didn’t comprehend the words of these two postal protesters, I could hear in their arguments the echo of Descartes and Rousseau, Pascal and Sartre – great agitators all. I just wished that I hadn’t been in line behind them today.