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

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.