Monday, September 04, 2006

Mairies Mortes

The big news here is that the oyster fisheries have been forced to close due to test results indicating possible health hazards to consumers. It all began about a week ago, starting with a single port on the bassin. But since then the entire basin has been closed to the oyster fishermen.

The mechanism for assessing possible health hazards is a mouse-test. Chemicals are extracted from oyster samples and injected into three mice which are then put under observation for period of 24 hours. The most recent test resulted in two dead mice and the subsequent closure of the bassin (they actually waited for the weekend to be over, claiming that they needed to inform all of the involved governmental agencies before taking action...the fishermen are skeptical).

The oyster fisherman have demonstrated publicly expressing outrage over the closure. They have criticized both the methodology (why observe the mice for 24 hours? why not 5 hours?) and the legitimacy of the test (how do we know those didn’t die of something else?…old age perhaps?...sorry, couldn’t resist).

My favorite quote so far – “Comment peut-on arriver à mettre en danger une profession à cause d’une souris.” (How can it be that an entire means of making a living can be put en peril by a mouse?)

They also claim to be the victims of selective regulation. Why not ban swimmers and pleasure boats as well? The locally elected mayors have gotten into the act and have publicly supported the fishermen. Yesterday there were some “manifestations” (protests), some “baggares routiers” (road blocks) on the busy highway from Arcachon to Bordeaux, and some “operations escargots” (traffic slowdowns). But my favorite was the “degustation d’huitres” an event that combined fresh contraban oyster-tasting with petition-signing….the oysters were free to anyone willing to put their name down. Talk about putting your mouth where you money is.

I bring this to your attention for two reasons. The first is that it is topical and newsworthy, around here anyway. The second is that it offers a glimpse into cultural traits of the region and perhaps the country at large.

This being Monday, Beth and I had planned to go to the Mairie (city hall) to take care of some official business that had been mailed to us from the Prefecture in Bordeaux. We dropped off Tess and Colm at school, drove another two blocks and parked between the La Poste and L’Hotel de Ville (another name for the building which in every French town houses the mairie or city hall). As we approached however it was clear that the building was dark inside.

On the front door we found a typed note with this heading in large font, “Mairies Mortes” (Literally - dead city halls - bit more poetic than that however)

The text of the note follows below. (my translation)

“The absurd and unreasonable closure of the oyster fisheries ordered by the Prefectorate has lead us (the locally elected officials, mayors and the like) in solidarity with the oyster fishermen of the area to close down the city halls and all their annexes and operations for the entire day.”.

As Beth and I read the note and assimilated not just its contents but the changes it would effect on our plans for the day (not very large, in truth) a couple of other people came up, did likewise, shrugging their shoulders and moving on.

One of the first things Gerard told me about life here was that people operated on a different clock. He called it the "quart d'heure d'Aquitaine" I think... basically it means that many if not most things have a tendency to begin about fifteen minutes late...perhaps it would be more accurate to say that fifteen minutes late is pretty much right on time. I've been told however this will not apply to my classes. In any event, I see that it may not be wise to be too rigid about timelines or plans and the like...all in all, a good thing in any case, I think.



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