Dec 21, 2019

Paris is Corked: Au Bouchon


It's been over two weeks, and it's well beyond what most Parisians can comfortably take. Yet the strike goes on. What with the impeachment dominating America's news, and the elections and ramifications for the impending Brexit dominating British news, and devastating wildfires polluting and endangering Sydney and dominating Australian news, it's quite possible that whatever English-speaking country you're from, you're barely aware of the massive, debilitating transportation strikes in Paris and France right now. Somebody (and I'd love to give credit but don't know where this originated) redrew the iconic Paris metro map to reflect the new reality:

A French friend -- who is married to an American and has lived in San Francisco for about a decade and, therefore, has the same detached perspective of his own country that I often have of the US -- made an interesting comment: The Frenchest thing about these massive strikes is that they are happening BEFORE talks and negotiations have even begun. So it's not that the government and labor are at an impasse and this is their way of trying to break through. No, this is the prelude to the talks which are set to start January 9, just as Gigi will be arriving in Paris for the month. That should make it an interesting visit for her, especially since she's supposed to be running around the city doing research for a project. At this rate, she may very well have to run around the city.

What's it like on the ground there now? Here's a message from my BFF (that's Best French Friend), stuck in Paris until she and her family are able to get the *#$&* out of there tomorrow for a Christmas vacation in St. Petersburg:

"Bordelle totale ! Tout le monde s’engueule : les vélos, les piétons, les trottinettes électriques, les voitures...Mais bon il y a quelques bus, quelques métros le matin et le soir... on oublie la voiture et on marche."

That translates to: "Total chaos! Everybody's yelling at everybody: bikes, pedestrians, electric scooters, cars... Well, at least there are a few buses, a few metros in the morning and at night.... We've just given up on the car and we walk."

Something to keep in mind when understanding the panic about pensions is that -- yes -- the French are the least-hard-working people in Europe, if you go by hours (and from what we've seen, the productivity is equivalent). One of Anthony's favorite facts, that he learned in Belgium's mini-Europe park, is that "at 1573 working hours per annum in 2012, the French are the least industrious people in Europe." So working until a retirement age of 64, as Macron is proposing, in some cases raises the retirement age several year and up to a decade and seems like, well, a lot of extra work. 

But the other thing to understand when seeing how upset the French get about their retirement funds and pensions is that their salaries are actually relatively low. Salaries in Paris can often be half to one-third when compared to the same job in a major US city like NY or San Francisco or LA. We know this to be true because Anthony had to decide whether to stay on his San Francisco salary or take a local French contract. We know this to be true because our friend went from being an American lawyer, with his American lawyer salary, to a lawyer at a French firm for about a third of the salary (and yes, probably about half to two-thirds of the hours). Historically, it's worked out that French salaries were lower because they haven't needed to pay more than a pittance for things like health care (national), education (free and universal and high-quality, including college), and retirement savings. So to lose those pensions and retirement benefits really is insurmountable; you can't be expected to save what you never even earn.

The map seems like something of an exaggeration -- a very sangfroid joke. But in fact at the lowest point, there were only 2 of the 16 metro lines operational in Paris. This weekend, eight of the metro lines in Paris are closed. Even on operation lines, there are fewer than usual trains, especially outside the target of "better service" they're trying to hit between noon-8pm (for the metro) or 1-8pm window (for the RER, local ground trains).

At the peak a few days ago, only 10% of the SNCF trains (national long-range trains) were moving due to the strike, and the number has only "improved" to around 40% this weekend.

Only half of the scheduled TGVs (bullet trains) are operating this weekend, and the regular non-bullet trains are equally fubarred. I'm fascinated by the fact that SNCF has set aside 14 trains for unaccompanied minors (ages 4-14) who need/want to travel for the school winter break, presumably to a grandparent's house in the country because where else is a 10 year old going to go alone? Also, why don't older high school-aged kids get to go on these trains? It's a mystery, as is why they would strike before they've even tried to negotiate.

Since the trains and metros are unreliable, why not take the car (if you've got one or can rent one)? Probably because everybody else is doing the same thing, and recently there were traffic jams of 500km -- that's around 300 miles -- getting into the city during a Monday morning rush hour.

Wanna visit the Eiffel Tower? Fughedaboutit -- it's closed too. If you happen to be visiting Paris right now, you may not be getting the most glamorous version of the city, but you sure are experiencing authenticity. Anybody who's ever lived in France has had to deal with some strikes. I remember -- not so fondly, but somewhat nostalgically -- the infamous garbage strikes of the summer of 2016

With the infrequency I've been writing and publishing on this blog recently, you might think that I too have been on strike. But no, I've simply been preoccupied with kids and life and other work and earning money, which even includes -- not coincidentally -- some research and writing about cheese. 

THE CHEESE: Au Bouchon

Au Bouchon, which basically means "The Cork", is a cheese that really respects its name. There's literally a cork stuck in the middle of each cheese wheel. Made from pasteurized cows' milk in the Perigord (western France), it's a creamy, mild cousin to a Camembert.

It's a gimmick, but at least it's a unique one. As for the cheese itself, it's enjoyable but perhaps not quite so unique, with its basic salted butter notes and slightly sticky texture.


First of all, what better cheese to pair with a story about everybody being totally stuck and unable to move because of crippling transportation strikes and unimaginable traffic jams than one with a cork in the name and in the cheese itself. The French even use the word "bouchon" ("cork") to describe a traffic jam. 

Au Bouchon would have been great for a story about some sort of wine or champagne, but there's one more thing that I like about pairing this cheese with these strikes. On the back of the cheese carton is a handy timeline for eating your cheese that I think works very well for a metaphor for Parisian suffering through the strikes right at holiday time: at 40 days before the sell-by date, this cheese is "tangy". At 25 days before the date it's "balanced". And at 10 days before the date, when it's gone about as long as it can, it's "intense".


  1. I have been a longtime reader of your blog. I love it, so informative and I loved visiting France a few years ago. Hoping to come back soon. I live in Melbourne Australia ( the fire storms here are horrendous in the rural areas and our big cities are blanketed in smoke). Sadly instead of celebrating a new decade I think we are all just 'appreciating' and hoping our world leaders start listening to the people about what matters most. Thankyou for continuing to blog and shar your thoughts and knowledge - merci beaucoup.


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