Here Comes the Queen Mary II

photo: la brasaerrade du liamone

Far from the sea, a bistro with mountain specialties.

And Not a Moment Too Soon

Paris:- Sunday, 12. March 2000:- The best news of the week was the announcement of the construction of a passenger liner, the Queen Mary II. The shipworks 'Chantiers Navals de l'Atlantique' at Saint-Nazaire got the $700 million job.

A lot of the news concerned the shipyard that lost the bid, the Harland & Wolff company in Belfast. This yard is famous for having built the 'unsinkable Titanic, but was in no way responsible for the way that ship was run into an iceberg.

Chantiers Navals has come back from the brink of bankruptcy in 1997, when it was warning that layoffs of 1400 would be necessary. At the moment, Chantiers Navals has 13 solid orders for cruise liners plus a couple of frigates for the Moroccan navy.

How this plays out in Paris is very strange. One hears nothing for years, then suddenly on TV-news there is anphoto: etam, samaritaine item about some French shipyard delivering the biggest, newest, most fandangled, new cruise ship to some obscure shipping line named something like 'Carnival.'

It turns out that this 'Carnival' owns the Cunard Line, whose last new ship - the Queen Elizabeth II - was built 30 years ago.

Belfast's Harland & Wolff last liner was the Canberra, which hit the water nearly 40 years ago. This yard, which is owned by Norway's Fred Olsen Energy ASA, has been building a lot of vessels for offshore oil work.

However, the news is not about one shipyard outbidding another - it is about the idea that cruise operator Carnival has ordered a trans-ocean liner for its Cunard subsidiary.

The Queen Mary

The original Queen Mary, launched in Clydeside in Scotland in 1934, has been acting as a floating hotel in Long Beach, California. The report says it was 'retired' from service in 1967.

This may be so, but I crossed the Atlantic from Southampton to New York aboard it in November of 1964. At the time I was told the crossing was one of the last the ship would make. It is possible the Queen Mary was used for another few years elsewhere, before ending up tied to a wharf in Long Beach.

That it is still used as a hotel, says something about how it was when it was a beautiful and functioning trans-Atlantic racer, as it still was when it was 30 years old.

The public spaces were not only large, but they were extensively decorated in the sort of prolo-art deco style of the late '20's and early '30's, and everything was tip-top and shiny, even in 1964. The grand stairways were carpeted from top to bottom and from edge to edge.

Down in the depths of third class, things were a bit more functional. Thephoto: portal palais brongniart hallways just inside the outer cabins declined from bow to centre and rose again towards the stern, and curved at the same time - so the ends were invisible.

On my crossing, after leaving Southampton around noon, the ship ran into a north Atlantic winter storm about an hour before midnight. I was dancing in first class at the time and couldn't figure out why I couldn't stand up. The band slid off the bandstand.

And that was pretty much the last I saw of the other 1300 passengers. At breakfast the following morning, I had a table for eight to myself, and two waiters. A couple of other diners were about 50 metres away in a dining room that could seat about 500.

Have you even had a four-page breakfast menu with two waiters to handle the order? Have you ever been the only customer in the 250-seat veranda bar near the ship's bow, with two bartenders who could mix three different kinds of martinis - for two-bits a pop?

This ship-wide bar had a sort of mezzanine, with its highest level right by the windows in the front of the superstructure. I sat for hours watching the bow disappear beneath four-story high waves, ones that often hit the windows like a huge sea-green car-wash.

The crew ran the 80,000-ton ship through the storm like a speedboat on its own railway,photo: sans issue, dead end because it had to get to New York on time and get back, on time. It was a liner, not a cruiser.

So this is what the Chantiers Navals is going to have to 'top.' Cunard has ordered a ship just slightly shorter than the Empire State building is high, with marble staircases, a theatre, a room for a crew of 1400 and only 1310 cabins, some with ceilings 4.5 metres high.

It's mind-boggling. To build a trans-Atlantic liner; to compete not with the 707's that killed the others, but with the coming super-jumbos.

The launch date for the Queen Mary II will be sometime in 2003. I think third class will cost a bit more than it did, so I'm starting to save up for it now.

Tax Break

Following centuries-old tradition, the French finance ministry has temporarily shelved its 'reform' intentions in the hope of getting tax inspectors and tax collectors back to work.

This situation with a 'reform' is routine practice in France. France has a very important institute of higher studies called the 'ENA' which turns out administrators and bureaucrats, supposedly with diplomas asserting that the graduates know how to 'run the country.'

After worming their way up the ladders, the ENA's graduates end up as government ministers. When they reach this stage they assert themselves in turn by 'reforming' whatever ministry they are charged with managing.

A 'reform' invariably begins with a decree. In this case, the finance ministry decreed that tax inspection and tax collection services be merged into single units. The result would have seen the closure of hundreds of tiny tax offices throughout France.

The people employed in these places have been protesting - mainly by not working. Wednesday, 15. March is the deadline for 1999 tax declarations. By not working, hapless taxpayers have been without the usual aid furnished by the tax inspectors.

Also, income taxes are usually paid in 'thirds.' The first two 'thirds' are based on the final result of - in this example - 1998 taxable income, and the final 'third' is rounded off, based on 1999 taxable income.

The first two 'thirds' are due in the first half of the year and the final 'third' is due in the fall, after the computers have figured out what is owed.

While tax inspectors are making it impossible to do 1999 tax declarations correctly, tax collectors have not been accepting the first 'third' payments.

After an 'action' day - of inaction - on Thursday, the finance ministry management met with the unionsphoto: arch over impasse of the tax employees, and annulled their 'reform.' Because everything is in a total shambles, the deadline for 1999 tax declarations was pushed back to Friday, 31. March.

TV-news brought out one interesting sidelight about the activities of the tax employees. Apparently many of them are vastly over-educated for the routine work they usually do.

Those working in smaller local offices, often have time to spare to aid local mayors with expert advice for their community finance problems. It is not part of their job, but it is what they do. Closing these 'under-used' offices, would deprive many local authorities of the only expert advice available.

The 'reforms' will certainly be back in one form or another. Sooner or later.

French Web Life

Salsa Is Hot Hot Hot

In this week's feature entitled 'Music, Rum, Music, Sun, Fun and More Rum,' Linda Thalman writes about starting dancing in Cuba as soon as the plane stopped rolling. This was due to Salsa which is not a fiery sauce, but a way of life with a permanent soundtrack, featuring a lot of bongos and rum. This Web site features a quiz for those who know nothing about either bongos or rum - plus says where to get both in Paris.

The RATP's 'Cyberdeck'

Without much fanfare Paris' transport RATP authority installed four 'Cyberdeck' Internet terminals in their Port Royal RER 'B' station last August. The units are equipped with touch-screens instead of 'mice' and they have French keyboard layouts, so these are two features that take a bit of getting used to. Being free doesn't take much getting used to. The RATP plans to install the stand-up 'Net centres in other stations at Denfert-Rochereau, Luxembourg and Châtelet-Les Halles; all on the same RER line 'B.'

The 'Fête de l'Internet' Starts Friday

Every year this event is announced with some fanfare, and every year I always fail to grasp what it's all about, because it seems to be entirely 'virtual.' The actual Fête/Fiesta will take place from Friday, 17. March to Sunday, 19. March.

The Fête's organization is non-profit and it is coordinated by the AFI association. This event is not restricted to France; at the European level it is called the Fiesta 2000.

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