o car, and, importantly, no driver’s license—this state describes many more people than you might imagine living in Paris and its environs. What’s a person to do? Or to put it another way, “Who you going to call?” The answer is, of course, Uber. Not only will you get where you are going (maybe) but you will also find yourself deeply immersed in world culture.
Even those of us who have cars and licenses often call Uber when we’re about to travel for a few weeks in the glorious month of August, when many French people and us teachers have vacations. I remember being snugly tucked into the back of an Uber on the way to the airport and thence to America, listening to folk music in a language I couldn’t place. “Serbian,” the man replied when I asked him. History flashed before my eyes. Remember the Yugoslav Wars with the infamous Slobodan Milosevic, the first sitting head of state to be tried for war crimes?
The thing is you are vulnerable in a taxi. I was not about to say, “What do you think of your war criminal president who died before he could be sentenced?” Right?
Well, I happened to have taught history, which may have saved my life that day. Many of you remember the alliances that crisscrossed Europe during the time of World War I? And you remember the man who assassinated the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the spark that started WWI? He was a Serb. Now if you had been paying attention in class, and your life may one day depend on that, you need to be able to answer the following question: Who was Serbia’s ally? Thick as thieves: Serbia and Russia.
So, when the taxi driver remarked that Putin was probably the world’s best president, I was ready. “Yes,” I said, “Russia protected Serbia during the Premiere Guerre Mondiale.” (First World War). Why does this matter? Well, it turns out that that very day there was a strike by the “real” taxi drivers. By staying on the good side of Serbia I had a chance of making my plane. (Not guaranteed.)
Now there are two ways to get a taxi license in France. One is for free. After about 14 years of driving, you are awarded a license. Can you imagine waiting 14 years? The idea here is that during those years, your income would be lower, but after you had the license you could sell it for your retirement. The second way to have a license is to buy one, which is a financial debt many drivers shoulder for some time. Then along comes Uber.
As you know an Uber driver independently establishes himself or herself. There’s an App, which “real” taxi drivers don’t have, which logs in your credit card, so payment is a click away.
Now the “real” taxi drivers and the Ubers don’t always get along. It’s a little complicated to get an Uber at the airport because the “real” taxi drivers are protected, but the prices overall are much cheaper.
Imagine a taxi strike at the airport. Signs were posted on the taxis: “Macron is corrupt.” “Stop economic terrorism.” Why? Because the “real” taxi drivers were protesting, in fact, Uber. Now imagine me trying to get to the airport. Traffic was horrible. Airport buses even were held up. People were actually walking along the busy road, their suitcases trailing behind, in their frustrated efforts to get to the airport on time.
The Serbian chatted with me about the food his family liked. (Serbian.)
Well, my Serbian said to hang on. He turned left and right and left again. We were enjoying farmland with fertile fields, at which point I had given up all hope of catching my flight. I wondered if I were headed to an unmarked grave. (Is this really something to joke about?) Suddenly, the airport came into view. We had come in the back way. Imagine if I hadn’t known about Serbia and Russia and told the man what I really thought about Putin? I made the plane with minutes to spare. When you think of somebody living in France, you think of living the dream, not suddenly needing to know World War I alliances to be able to get to your plane on time!
After the World Cup of 2006, I undertook a poll of taxi drivers about the outcome of the FIFA World Cup that year. My question was this: Did the captain of the French team do the right thing?
One of the greatest soccer players of all time, Zidane led France in the 2006 World Cup final against Italy. In the final minutes, the match was tied 1 to 1. An Italian player grabbed Zidane’s shirt. Zidane is reported to have said, “I will give you my shirt later,” meaning he’d win. The Italian said, “I’d rather have your sister than your shirt.” This was amended to be, “I’d rather that whore that is your sister.” And even “I’d rather have that terrorist, your sister.”
Zidane reacted like lightning; he head-butted the Italian in the chest, knocked him over, got kicked out of the game and never played for France again. (Basically, he had come out of retirement for this World Cup and then retired again permanently). The Italian was kept out for two games and had to pay a fine. I have heard that the Italian has graffiti on his house bragging of his victory.
Meanwhile, the game ended in a tie and so went into a penalty shoot-out, where five different shooters from each team try to make a goal, with only the goalie on the field. Italy won in the penalty shoot-out 5-3.
This poll of mine was conducted with “real” taxi drivers, most of whom, as it turns out, were from Algeria, the birthplace of Zidane’s parents. (Uber didn’t arrive in Paris until 2013.) Every single one of my large sample of about ten gentlemen assured me Zidane had done the right thing. His loyalty to his family came before loyalty to his team. All my students, the seniors, agreed with the taxi drivers, except one. Do you agree, reader? As I say to my students, “You may now talk among yourselves.”
Zidane is heralded as one of the all-time greats, right up there with Brazil’s famous Pelé. The day I showed the excellent biopic of Pelé to my younger students, it turns out that Pelé was in France for medical treatment. We all admired the Instagram photo of Pelé with one of the young French players, Mbappé.
I found a video comparing Zidane and Pelé, and, while being terribly long, it is thrilling to see the Ginga moves from Brazil where, for example, the ball bounces off the player’s thigh and back and there is lots of fancy footwork. It is a part of the martial arts called capoeira which was practiced by the fugitive slaves hiding in Brazil’s interior. Frowned upon and banished from “real” soccer where the ball remains on the ground, Pelé reanimated this technique, winning many matches. He himself said that Zidane was one of the soccer players most similar to him. Coincidentally, their jerseys both boast the great number 10.
Our tramps do not seem to go very far afield in their play, so they’d have little need for a taxi. Although it is not inconceivable that they are basically not going anywhere, well, first, because there is nowhere to go, but secondly because they may well have been taxi drivers before we meet them, hyper on the go. They may also be waiting for that taxi license!
The great French writer Racine is said to have remarked that creativity is making something out of nothing, which is what Samuel Beckett does in his play. And since the nothing is always there, creativity abounds!
Well, soccer is not something to read about!
So here is a link to the preview of the biopic of the young Pelé.
And a short trailer for the Netflix documentary:
Let us not forget Russia!