Sunday morning, I decided to take the coastal route to the market in central Plañwour (Ploemeur), even though the market is not on the coast. It took me two hours to get to the market, but I saw many wonderful things along the way…beaches, a megalith, ancient crosses, and the old fortress in Keragan (Fort-Bloqué).
I’m going on strike Tuesday.
If you happen to catch a video of the strike held in Lorient that day, be sure to look for my face in the crowd. I’ll be wearing my brown sunglasses.
A little background:
There have been a number of strikes and protests in France since I arrived here six weeks ago. This has interrupted public transportation and other services across the country. Strikes are, of course, something of a way of life here in France. But there have been an increasing number of strikes, and I imagine that this will go on at least through the end of the year.
Why all the strikes this fall? The French government has recently voted to change the retirement age from 60 to 62. And this is just the beginning, as the government plans to make the retirement later and later over time. The government claims that, unless people begin retiring later, it won’t be possible to continue to maintain retirement funding. Many French citizens do not agree with this. As my friend J the comptroller explains it, the French government could easily afford to pay for it by creating one cent taxes on certain financial transactions, thus taxing the rich and the corporations, one cent at a time, to defray some of the retirement system’s costs. Click here for more info on the retirement issue and recent actions in France.
Ah—if only the retirement age were that early in the U.S.! If only our unions were as strong and as numerous. And if only the American public were equally motivated to get out there and protest.
The retirement age change act has already passed through both houses of parliament, but the people and the unions of this nation have not given up. Hence, the mini-strike and other protests in Lorient and other French cities on Tuesday.
So what does this have to do with me? Well, last week in class, my classmates were talking about the strike, deciding whether they wanted to participate in the strike event in Lorient, the city right next to Ploemeur, where we are. They took an informal poll during break time on Wednesday, and apparently everyone said that they wanted to participate. I was doing something else at that moment, because I hadn’t noticed the conversations going on. Then one of my classmates turned to me.
Classmate: Do you want to go on strike on Tuesday?
Classmate: Everyone in class is planning to attend the strike midday Tuesday. So, if you stay here, you’ll be the only one in class.
So I decided to go on strike with my classmates. No need to force an instructor to teach an individual class for a few hours. And hey, I’m happy to join in, in solidarity with my classmates. Should be an interesting cultural adventure. Maybe we’ll even shout our protests in Breton. And I can’t help thinking that my father, a stalwart union man, would be proud.
With my father’s death, I felt the need to step back for a few weeks to give myself the time and space to deal with my grief. If you’d like to know a little more about my father, Rex Adkins*, the SF Chronicle ran an obituary that you can see at the following url:
Meanwhile, I’ve also been preoccupied with travel plans, getting ready for a trip to the U.S. to attend my father’s memorial. And of course, I’ve also been trying to get into the rhythm of being a full-time Breton language student. It’s been a busy few weeks.
On with the blog….
I thought I’d start by sharing some of my comings and goings over those days following my dad’s death.
It started with a phone call from my brother, S, on a Tuesday morning. I was awake and writing in my journal about a dream. He began to say something and then fumbled for words midsentence. I waited for him to finish what he was trying to say, but inside I knew what the call must be about—my father must have died.
Dad’s health had been becoming worse for months. The last time I had seen him before heading to France, he’d been terribly frail. As I hugged him before leaving his house, I fought back tears and had trouble speaking. Short phone conversations with him and with his wife since then had let me know he was heading downhill fast. So, I knew that it was coming. But it is always a shock, always painful, when someone close to you dies.
I don’t remember in much detail about those first few days after my father’s death. A slight sniffle turned into a full-blown cold that Tuesday, so I stayed home from class for three days in a bit of a cold-medicine-and-grief-induced haze.
A few memories from that time:
Around ten that morning, I texted my friend N, who lives not too far away. She came over, gave me a hug, and talked with me about my dad, and asked me what I needed. She also brought me lunch so I wouldn’t have to worry about food, and later that day she also drove me to her house so that I could use her wifi and phone. Her moral and logistical support at that time made the distance and isolation much more manageable: we spent a great deal of time together that day, and the day after that, she took me shopping in her car—a treat for me, as I live a distance from the main town and having no motor vehicle of my own. At her house, via computer and phone, I was able to communicate with loved ones back home those first two evenings. In the peace and quiet of her home, I was able to find out what had happened and when a family gathering might be. I was worried that I’d miss the funeral or memorial, if it happened right away, and it took many conversations with different family members for me to determine that no family gathering would happen right away. While at N’s, I even managed to upload a brief blog post and a status update on facebook about Dad’s passing—via the responses I received, I was able to feel supported by friends in faraway places.
I also got a great deal of support from my sweetheart, J, who called me often over those first few days. I’d texted her as soon as I heard, and she called me almost immediately, even though it was the middle of the night in Oklahoma, where she was. Fortunately, she’d already been awake (or had been about to get up—I can no longer remember exactly), as she was preparing for a trip. Unfortunately, that meant that in a few hours, she was scheduled to get on a plane for Japan, to attend a conference. Still, despite the time differences (-7 to OK, +8 to Japan), she called and texted me regularly to check in on me and to offer support over those first few days.
To help myself, I went on walks daily. That first day, I took a walk down to Perello Beach, there being only a handful of people there for a change. From the beach, I headed west along trail that circumnavigates the coastline. I passed the old fort, and meandered off the main trail down a dirt path to say hello to a horse and miniature pony that live in a field there. On a previous walk with a friend, we’d walked by, but this time I walked over to the field and called to the animals. A pair of older couples was walking by now and then. I was not in the mood to interact with people. Fortunately, they were too busy talking with each other and ignored me.
I also had some visitors to my house. I’ve often found one of the neighbor’s cats in my little garden since moving here, and over those days, I remember looking out the window and seeing one or the other of the cats sitting in my garden, staring at me. That Wednesday evening, I think it was, I opened my front door to find a toad sitting on my doorstep. It was the first toad I’d seen anywhere around here. (Two days ago, I found a baby toad on the doorstep, so maybe my place is a hangout.) The toad was quite still and did not move an inch—not even when I reached behind him to close the storm windows. I remembered hearing that you’re not supposed to touch toads. Something about poison. So I didn’t try to pick him up or touch him. He was so still that I wondered if he was actually alive. I checked in the morning, and he had left, so he seemed to be fine.
The third day that I stayed home, I began to feel more ready to interact with people again, and I decided to return to school the next day, Friday. My neighbor-slash-classmate, M, and his friend who was visiting from Norway, K, suggested that we all go out to dinner that evening. They picked me up in M’s car, and we drove west up the coast. I hadn’t been along the western coast of this quasi-peninsula before. The sky was clear, and it turned out to be a gorgeous evening to follow the sun as it was lowering in the sky.
We parked the car when we got to Fort Bloqué, a medium-sized tourist enclave. Fort Bloqué is named for the old fort that sits out on a rocky landmass just off the coast. The tide was out, and we could see the causeway out to the fort. When the tide comes in, the ocean submerges the causeway. I’ll have to go back soon and see how it looks when the fort is surrounded by water. The sun was just starting to sink below the ocean as we got out of the car. We walked along the coast for a few blocks, heading towards the restaurant, and paused as the big, orange-yellow orb sank into the sea.
I thought of my father as the sun set, and felt sadness in my heart. Then I remembered another occasion in which I had watched the sun set after someone’s death, many years ago: I was with my brothers and sisters and my stepfather, B. My stepmother, P, had just died the night before. We all walked from P and B’s house up the hill to an open space where the view of the San Francisco Bay was particularly good. Staring out towards the water, we stood there in silence as the sun set behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Another sad loss, another beautiful sunset—many years and miles away.
*A note: As a rule, I’ve decided to not publish full names in my blog—just initials. Not that I’m planning to say terrible things about other people. It’s simply that, given that this is a public blog, I think it’s better to leave others’ names out of it, and I’m just using initials. Given my father’s passing, I am including his name here, but that is an exception.