When I moved to France to teach English, the organization’s cultural coordinator warned me that if I only learned two words of French those words should be manifestation and grève: the French words for protest and strike. “Strikes,” he warned, “are France’s national sport, second only to soccer.”
His words were a precursor to a truth I’d eventually learn about traveling: if you travel enough, strikes become an inevitable — and sometimes exhilarating — part of the process. Over the course of my time in Bordeaux, I experienced strikes everywhere: bus strikes, tram strikes, train strikes…even my students went on strike.
Some countries tend to go on strike more than others. France, Greece, Argentina, and Italy have all earned reputations as nations where the default form of communication between workers and government is to stop work and take to the streets. In Italy, train strikes are frequent enough that Trenitalia, the country’s main train operator, tracks local and national strikes on its website.
That said, however, strikes can happen almost anywhere. For example, in 2009 engineers on Via Rail, Canada’s railway went on strike, shutting down service for three days. In Toronto, garbage workers went on strike for more than 36 days during the height of the summer tourist season. This year almost 40-percent of Iceland’s workers — 70,000 people — threatened a nationwide strike that would have affected everything from healthcare to transportation to food supplies.
While I lived in France, I went to a protest in opposition of the Contrat première embauche, or first worker’s contract, a law that would have made it easier for employers to fire workers who were younger than 26. Earlier in the day I’d arrived at the school I worked in only to find it barricaded by desks, chairs, and whatever the students could get hold of. In the administration building, I found that the teachers had thrown lesson plans aside, and had covered the long conference-room tables with poster board and markers. They too were protesting.
Before then, my only context for protest had been an anemic animal-rights rally I’d been dragged to in high school, and the 2003 New York City Iraq War protests. Neither experience prepared me for a protest in France.
It isn’t always easy to tell from the outside whether a given protest is inconvenient or life threatening. Last year’s protests in Bangkok, for example, lead to a downturn in tourism. Just a few months before my students went on strike, Paris had burned: more than ten days of rioting had followed the electrocution deaths of two Afro-Muslim teenagers — Bouna Traore and Ziad Benna. By the end, there were hundreds of arrests, more than 2,100 cars had burned, and the fever had spread to Lyon, Strasbourg, Rouen, and even the suburbs.
For this protest, I decided to come along. Camera firmly in hand and passport photocopy tucked in my pocket, and apprehension on full display, I went because going felt as much a part of the French cultural experience as macarons, canelés and baguettes.
How to approach strikes while traveling
Strikes are navigable. The key is a bit of targeted pre-trip preparation. Strikes rarely just happen — there’s almost always some news chatter in the days leading up to a big strike. Your first line of defense is the State Department’s website, but I also like to set up Google Alerts a week or two before I travel to keep me alerted to any impending strikes.
When I setup Google Alerts, I don’t just use the country or the city name — I set up alerts for both. For example, if I had an upcoming vacation for a trip to Madrid, Spain I might set up the following Google alerts:
I do this because sometimes strikes are nationwide, while other times they’re local. And setting an alert in the local language also helps because not all international strikes get reported in English. If an alert pops up in a foreign language, I can always toss it into Google Translate for a rough translation. The beauty of a Google alert is that you’ll only be emailed if Google finds something. No alert? No email. If there is an alert, you’ll have time to create alternative plans so the strike doesn’t disrupt your travel. If, for example, as happened in Paris in 2013, you learn that the workers in your hotel are going on strike, a week’s notice gives you enough time to find suitable alternative accommodations rather than undergoing a last-minute scramble.
And, nothing beats asking a local. They’ll know which strikes pose a real threat, which are likely to totally unravel your travel plans, and which are merely a bit of local culture that post-travel will reside in your memory, nestled between museums and meals.