Monday, June 9, 2014

Politesse

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I just received a note in my mailbox that translates as follows:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have the honor of informing you that a team from our company will proceed to clean the parking garage on the morning of Thursday, June 12.  We thank you in advance for kindly removing your vehicles.”

It is not at all unusual here to receive official letters from banks, plumbers, or other service industries that sound like an invitation to a fancy dress ball.  However rude a clerk may seem at the post office in person, in writing that same institution will sign off with “je vous prie d’agréer, Madame, l’assurance de ma consideration distinguée,” which roughly translates as “I beg you to accept, Madam, the guarantee of my distinguished regards.” 

It is difficult for an American (particularly one that lived a long time in New York) to understand why the note in my box didn’t just say “Garage cleaning June 12, please move your car before that date,” or something more menacing like “garage cleaning June 12, all cars must be removed by sundown.” I’m used to taking orders from faceless authorities, but apparently, the French are not.  Maybe it’s a leftover sentiment from the French Revolution, when outrage over being subject to the oppressive whims of the aristocracy led to a summary chopping off of its collective head. Maybe that’s why my husband gets furious when I ask him to do something in my direct, American way, like “can you take out the trash?” instead of “my, but the trash bin is full, do you think you might be able to take it out?”

It might a stretch to take a historic view of marital squabbles, but there has got to be some explanation for the overblown importance of politesse in certain French circumstances.  After all, in neighboring Spain, perfect strangers use the familiar form of “you” (tu). In nearby Italy, locals will enthusiastically throw themselves at your baby and ask if they can take pictures. Maybe it’s a question of personal space. In France, you must wait to be invited into someone’s personal space, and politeness creates a neutral territory where the two sides can check each other out.  Maybe the French just need more time to connect, unlike Americans, who hurl themselves at each other like overexcited puppies.

That still doesn’t explain the letters, however, or why my health insurance center keeps thanking me for confidence that I have in them.  Or why the sign on the bus about ticket prices “thanks me for my understanding.” Or, for that matter, why a subway strike is described as a “social movement” on the monitors in the metro station. Oh well, I guess some things just can’t be explained.  And so, in closing, I beg you to accept my most cordial regards.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Another Velib' Update

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It’s time to count our Velib’ blessings.  It’s been almost seven years since the mayor's office set up this low-cost rent-a-bike program, and today those funky looking bikes are part of the cityscape.  Similar systems have been set up are in cities all around France. 

For years, the futuristic city cycles were almost entirely out of reach of your average North American tourist, as they required a chip-enabled credit card, preferably of European origin.  Now there are options:  you can either buy your 1-day or 7-day subscription on line, or you can use a refillable cash card, like Travelex.  You an also find out how it works on the extensive English-language page on the Velib’ website, and even call an English-speaking customer service person.

So let’s say you actually got yourself a bike and are ready to take off into traffic.  Here are a few do’s and don’ts:

1)   Check your bike before you check it out.  Are the tires flat? Do the brakes work? Is a pedal missing?  (I once tried to pedal away and to my surprise…)
2)   Wear a helmet.  If you don’t want to bring one, you get a casque (helmet) for 10€ at a Decathalon store .  Once you take to the streets, you will understand why.
3)   Get a map, preferably a handy-dandy “Paris par Arrondissement” that lists Velib’ stations, so you won’t go nuts trying to find one when you want to check in.  For the smartphone inclined, there is also an app that you can download from thewebsite.
4)   Take a deep breath.  What you are about to do requires courage, patience and a certain amount of derring-do.

Actually, while the traffic looks crazy, it’s not as bad as it looks.  As long as you pay attention, most drivers will pay attention to you.  There are also an increasing number of dedicated bike lanes (though they often abandon you just when you were starting to relax).  The bike lanes should be on those maps I mentioned, but don’t count on it.  Look for the theoretically bike-friendly bus lanes (and then look out for buses and taxis).  Watch out for motor scooters—whose drivers seem to have little regard for human life, including their own—and other cyclists, some of whom appear to be trying out for the Evil Knievel Award for Stupidest Death-Defying Risk. 

Now that I’ve made you nervous, I’d like to point out that riding around on a Velib’ is a truly delightful way to see the city. As long as you stay off the big boulevards, you can glide around with relative ease, humming the theme to the movie “Amélie” as you take in Mansart-roofed vistas and quaint neighborhoods you never knew existed. You’ll cover plenty of territory in a short distance (this is a relatively small city, after all) and avoid plunging into the Métro on a nice sunny day.  If it’s not a nice day, well that’s another matter.  It’s up to you how much cold, rain and wind you can handle.  And remember, while you are having fun on your bike, you’ll be working off all those pastries and croissants—and making room for more.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Just Say "Non"

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I went to the covered market this morning, and like every Sunday, the Communist Party was out there campaigning, in this case, for the European Union elections next week.  Or maybe I should say against, since the prominent word on their posters was the word NON (i.e., “no”).  As in say “no” to the uncaring European Union, who doesn’t give a damn about the workers.  OK, I can see their point, but isn’t it just a wee bit negative to use the word “no” as a campaign slogan?  How can you tell people to go out and vote (this was indeed a “get out the vote” campaign) for an institution that you are simultaneously declaring isn’t worth a hill of beans?

European Union elections are historically ill attended.  Apathy or downright animosity keeps people away from the ballot box, as does the generalized fuzziness about what exactly one is voting for.  For if everyone regularly complains that the “bureaucrats in Brussels” make undemocratic decisions that filter down and muck up the life of the common man and woman, they also are allergic to electing the deputies who at least give a semblance of democratic process.

But in France, this seeming contradiction bothers no one, since complaining is an age-old tradition and saying non is often the only honorable way to respond to a question.  For example, let’s say you ask a store clerk if they have bananas.  They will not equivocate like an American shopkeeper, who might say with a sad smile, “oh no, I’m sorry we don’t but we should have some tomorrow,” or  “gee, I just sold the last one, and boy were they tasty” (both comments geared to getting you come back another day).  No, they will look you squarely in the eye and say: non, or even more emphatically:  pas du tout (not at all).   Because in France, equivocating and unnecessary smiling are considered signs of weakness.  That shopkeeper may have lost a sale, but she has saved her honor, and what’s more, she has defended La Gloire, that is, the glory of France.

The general rule here is when in doubt, say no.  It may be clothed in other words, however, like “maybe.”  It took me years to figure out that when my sister-in-law responded to a question with pourquoi pas? (“why not?”) she in fact meant “no, anything but that.”  Being direct is also frowned upon (unless you are a shopkeeper or the Communist Party), so “maybe” or “why not” sometimes have to do the job of “no.”  If all this sounds complicated, it is, at least for a foreigner.   

Fortunately for me, the elections aren't an issue, since I don’t have the right to vote.  Because after 14 years country I still don’t have the nerve to face the red tape involved in getting dual citizenship. And perhaps this is where I must admit I’m turning a little bit French: when I think of going to the Préfecture and facing that bureaucratic madness, my instinctive response is: non, non, and pas du tout.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Christmas Underground

Forget the eggnog, Christmastime in France is when everyone pulls out all the stops and stuffs themselves with the most luxurious foods around: lobster and smoked salmon, caviar and champagne, fois gras and chocolates—it’s as if the holiday table were a buffet at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year is no exception, crisis notwithstanding. Supermarkets are at war over who has the best deals on oysters, towers of chocolates loom over store displays, and your waistline expands just browsing the aisles. That said, all that stuff adds up at the checkout counter, especially since when it comes to holiday entertaining, France is a friendly country, and those who don’t invite at least a dozen people over on the big day are considered slouches.

How to pay for all that without going into hock? There are ways. For one, I have detected a Christmas underground. There is an untold volume of undeclared traffic in holiday goodies. For example, friends of my in-laws, who are otherwise virtuous, church-going upholders of the law, seem to be the leaders of a chocolate smuggling ring. The details are shady, but every year a large Tupperware box of excellent chocolates appears at my in-laws courtesy of this couple, who do mysterious pickups at non-descript parking lots, and then sell their goods to their friends at bargain rates.

These networks seem to be very intimate, word-of-mouth operations. Just the other day, I was surprised to arrive at the home of an acquaintance and see a table full of vacuum-packed whole smoked salmons. Wondering if they had decided to have a bagel-and-lox-a-thon, I asked what was up. No, despite the recent frenzy for bagels (including an – urp – bagel hamburger) that was not it. It was another black market Christmas affair: I order a ton from my secret source, and you buy top quality at cut rates. I felt a pang of envy and wished that I was in on the deal. I wondered whose hands needed to be greased, and what the secret password was. I’m not usually one to defy the law for illegal or mind-bending substances, but good smoked salmon is an entirely different matter. Sign me up for next year.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Right to Shop on Sunday


There’s been a lot of talk about “repos dominical” around here lately.  Every time I hear the phrase I imagine a priest having a late afternoon cup of tea, but it really refers to the right of French people to relax on Sunday, and (most importantly) not work.  Worker’s rights have always been a hot subject in France, but this week the issue is not the right to work, but the right not to work.  While the original idea was to observe the Christian Sabbath (I wasn’t so off base with my tea-drinking priest), the holiness of this day now revolves around the idea that the government should keep workers from being overworked.  Thus, almost all stores and businesses are obliged to close on Sunday. 

When I first moved here from New York City, the thought of a store-free Sunday was frightening.  After all, I was used to being able to buy a toilet brush at 11pm on a weekday.   Then one Sunday I looked out the window and saw entire families strolling down the Promenade Plantée and it struck me that I rarely saw entire families doing much of anything in the Big Apple.  I thought, maybe it’s worth not being able to buy thumbtacks at a moment’s notice if it means strengthening family ties and upholding cultural traditions. (This was before I learned that those same traditions can turn around and kick you in the butt when you are married to them.) I got used to organizing my life differently, and enjoyed the quiet ambiance of a city Sunday.

Anyway, here’s what happened:  when the court ruled that certain giant DYI chains do not have the right to open on Sundays, said monster hardware stores defied the powers that be and opened anyway.  It was a sort of anti-strike, where instead of refusing to go to work, employees refused to not work.  You see, these mega-stores have been open on Sundays for some time now, due to a recent softening of regulations.  But one of the smaller chains did not get the same dispensation and went to court to complain that it was unfair.  Instead of saying, “gee, you’re right, why do only the big chains get to stay open?” the court simply closed down the big chains too.   Not surprisingly, the big chains were outraged, saying that not only would they lose money, but the workers would also lose precious pay.  Thus, the anti-strike (see ABC news article for details).

It all seems pretty ironic to me.  The government, and the unions (who seem to have taken over from the church on the Sunday question), both trying to protect the worker, are keeping the workers from working.  Which seems like a strange stance to take in the middle of a huge financial crisis when unemployment is a national problem.   Not that I’m a big fan of huge chain stores, mind you.  I’d prefer to pay a little more and go to the local hardware store where I won’t have to wander around for an hour looking for a package of screws.  But I think all stores, big and small, should be allowed to open on Sunday.  Not only would it provide jobs, but it would take a load off your 9 to 5-er, who currently has to do all his or her shopping on Saturday (note to tourists: avoid shopping on Saturdays in Paris unless you enjoy hand-to-hand combat).  True, it means that Sundays would lose their hallowed Sabbath status, but if they can handle it in hyper-Catholic countries like Italy and Spain, I think they can deal with it in “secular” France.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ode to an Apéro

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I’m a mom with a kid just out of French primary school.  This means that for the last eight years, a gong has been going off in my head at 4:30, when school gets out.   If there’s study hall, the gong gets postponed to 6.  But when it goes off, someone needs to be at school for pickup/childcare, and since I work at home, I am usually that someone. All of this points to one grim fact:  no late-afternoon apéro for me. 

I realize this may seem selfish and petty, but on the rare occasions when I’ve actually been in the city in the late afternoon when the sidewalk cafés are crammed full of people enjoying an post-work drink, and watched the sun slanting through golden globes of Belgian beer, I have felt a profound and lasting envy.

Short for apéritif, the apèro is the French version of cocktail hour, without hard liquor.  In theory, it involves lightly alcoholic beverages and crunchy things to nibble on.   In reality, American-style cocktails are becoming quite fashionable, as are Spanish-style tapas, so the Parisian apéro experience can be many things, but for the sake of argument, let’s stick with tradition. 

I was first introduced to this tradition in Provence, where the apéro has been raised to an art form.  On a sunny afternoon, the cafe terraces in Avignon are filled with happy customers sipping bright yellow panachés, green perroquets, and red diabolos (which sound exotic but are actually beer flavored with sweet syrups or lemonade).  At the time my son was a baby and I wouldn’t have dreamed of indulging in such non-maternal behavior.  Recently married, my French mother-in-law was already shocked that I frequented cafés.  Apparently, in the old days, virtuous women did not drink coffee unattended, and here not only was I sipping in public, but I was exposing my tiny tot to my unorthodox behavior.  So a late-afternoon pastis was definitely out of bounds.

This year, my son has entered collège (junior high school), and not only does he get to and from school on his own, but he would prefer that I stay as far away as possible during his commute.  He has his own keys so I don’t have to be on hand when he arrives in the afternoon.  All this points to a new reality:  I can indulge in non-maternal behavior.

And so, yesterday, when a beautiful Indian summer afternoon presented itself, I took the plunge.  A friend and I parked ourselves on a café terrace and ordered an overpriced demi of rosé and indulged in a full-blown Parisian apéro.   We gulped down our doubts about our continued usefulness as mothers, and toasted our newfound freedom.  We felt young, daring and debauched. 

Then we both ran home to make dinner.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The French Grand Tour

Back in the 18th century, upper class Europeans were fond of making a “Grand Tour” that included visiting France, Italy, and Austria, with a little bit of Spain or Germany thrown in for extra flavor.  It was a rite of passage, a way of furthering one’s cultural education, and of showing the folks back home that you were a worldly sort. 

Today, at least in France, the Grand Tour has headed west—to the Far West, to be exact.   It seems like every French person I meet who has the means has been to, or is planning to go to, the American Southwest.  At first I thought this was due to an overabundance of cowboy movies being broadcast on French TV.  I still vividly remember the first time I saw John Wayne speaking fluent French in a dubbed Western—a shock like that leaves psychological scars that can take years to heal.  But I now think this obsession goes beyond Hollywood, and speaks to the mythic image of the US in the minds and hearts of millions of French people. 

After over a dozen years in this country, I’m still amazed when I realize how many people here and in other places see Americans as essentially cowboys.  And no matter how many times you tell people that your grandfather was a hat maker from Vitebsk, when they look at you they still see someone blonde and freckled who grew up on the Great Plains. 

But there’s another essential reason that tens of thousands of French people trek halfway across the planet to roast in southern Utah—it’s frigging gorgeous.  This fact was unclear to me until recently, when I got so tired of hearing about the Southwest from the French that I actually went there.  Aside from a visit to the Grand Canyon when I was five (when my main interest was avoiding falling in), I’d never been, a fact that made me burn with shame when faced with so many delighted reports from my neighbors.   So a couple of years ago, I packed up my French husband and son and took them on a mini-version of the French Grand Tour.  I say “mini” because we didn’t have the time to do the classic tour, a Herculean event that takes at least three weeks and includes the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Parks, Monument Valley, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Yosemite—and for the truly possessed—Death Valley.

We settled for the Grand Canyon and Zion, with a side trip to Joshua Tree on the way back to California.  We were enchanted, enraptured, enthralled, and every other over-used adjective you can think of.  Even though I grew up about an hour from the Mojave, I never appreciated the desert until adulthood.  A decade in the confines of New York City probably had something to do with my newfound appreciation of wide-open spaces.  In any case, I became hooked on red rock, and this past summer we made another excursion, this time to Monument Valley, Arches and Bryce Canyon.  The only part of the tour I take issue with is the obligatory stop in Las Vegas, but I will complain about that in a future post.  

So, thanks to the French, I am now a one-person promotional campaign for the American Southwest.  Go!  It’s beautiful.  You’ll never see cowboy movies the same way again.