Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Comeback Kids

On Monday morning I awoke early, walked the dog, and got myself ready for the first day back to work. I grabbed a jacket on my way out the door and reluctantly covered my rapidly-fading tan.

In the subway it struck me with unwelcome force that summer was fully over. SLAM!

On my left I spied leather boots and tweed. On my right: scarves as far as the eye could see. The billboards were peddling their back-to-school wares and I had a strange hankering for root vegetables.

La rentrée, dear friends, is in full effect. And the effect is substantial, as are the vacations from which the French are returning.


The brows of my American readers are pinched. Let me explain:

Vacation [vey-key-shuhn] - noun
A period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel.


I know: it’s a difficult concept. French workers (those with a real contract, anyway) are entitled annually to five weeks paid vacation. In practice, however, the French take closer to seven paid weeks every year.

“But that’s almost two months!”

This figure is almost impossible to understand for Americans who, at all levels of employment, have a very different orientation to time off.

Nearly a quarter of American workers, particularly those in part-time or temporary jobs, are not offered any paid vacation. I spent many years waiting tables, during which time I was obliged to locate a replacement for every day of (uncompensated) “missed” work. If I couldn’t find a replacement, I couldn’t go. Vacations, as a result, entailed economic hardship and were limited to summer weddings and a few days around Christmas.

When paid vacation is offered, it’s usually a pittance and dependent on the number of years employed by a company. Because American workers change jobs more often than their European counterparts, their vacation eligibility is kept relatively low. Nine days per year is the average for workers with one year at a company. What’s more: these precious days are often “spent” by workers with health problems or care-giving responsibilities after their small allotment of “personal” and “sick” days has been used up.

Finally, there is a class of American worker who, despite a more generous benefits package, chooses not to take vacation. A recent survey showed that among workers who are entitled to paid vacation, 36% were not planning to use all of it. These are the people who “do not have the time” for a vacation, who feel their whole professional universe will crumble when they leave their desk. Often these unspent vacation days are translated into a monetary pay-out at the end of the year or when the worker changes jobs.

French workers and their families leave town for three weeks minimum in late July and August. The obvious result is that businesses are closed or operating with minimal staffing during this time. The workers may be traveling or spending time at the family country home - the important thing is that they are not working.

As a result (or perhaps cause?) of this time away, the French tend to be much less work-oriented than Americans. At a French dinner party you will not be asked about your profession. At least not until after the more-interesting topics (including your last vacation) have been exhausted. By contrast, I often found myself in Boston wishing I’d brought a stack of resumes to hand out at social events. “Where do you work? What degrees to you have? From where?...”

My Boston salary, it should be said, was more than double what I now earn. And thus we stumble upon the main argument against French vacation: that it just costs too much.

But is that true? And moreover, so what?

My salary, while low by American standards, is sufficient for my life in Paris. This is helped by the fact that I don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars every month for health insurance, car insurance, car loan, and gas. If I didn’t have student loans, which the French don’t, I’d be living even higher on the chestnut-fed hog. Same goes for “if I owned my own apartment,” which many Parisians do.

To experience serious salary increase, the French would have to barter away the things that make their lives better. And the overwhelming majority of them are unwilling to trade this for the contestable glory of consumer living.

So they sit, well-tanned and talkative, on the first-Monday Métro. Smiling contentedly that they still have something from which to return.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Applause, please

I learned today while troweling the depths of Site Meter that I was selected as one of Expatica’s “Favorite France Blogs.” It just goes to show that blowing off work really does pay off.

In the spirit of “giving back,” I offer the following advice, gleaned over the course of seventeen posts, to young writers struggling to incorporate blogging into a well-rounded life:

#1: DO install and use a Site Meter. This will allow you to monitor site traffic and divine whether former boyfriends are reading your blog.

#2: DO pepper your text with sexual innuendo, especially when discussing local produce. This will yield a 50% increase in visitors who are key word searching for porn.

#3: DO NOT guilt-trip friends for not reading your blog. Track their behavior and punish them later.

#4: DO cease all external communication. Direct friends and family to the comments section of your blog.

#5: DO mistake traffic for accomplishment and link-adds for friendship. This will help to sustain the overblown ego required for your task.

#6: DO NOT listen when your techie friend tells you that 50% of visitors are in fact machines.

#7: DO spend all your money doing “cool” and “interesting” things that can be written about.

#8: DO delight your friends by constantly taking photos and using “blog” as a verb.

#9: DO NOT instruct your husband every midnight to “guess how many visits I had today!”

#10: DO get back to work, you f*!#ing slacker.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


It’s been well over a decade since I’ve found myself at a music festival. I’m not counting South by Southwest, the showcase that blooms annually between the hay bales and BBQ pits of dozens of Austin, TX bars and restaurants. I’m talking rock en masse, or in this case, Rock-en-Seine.

My last festival was probably HORDE - or something similar at which I could, with approving looks, perform the dirty hippie dance that was all the rage among middle-class college kids in the early 90s.

Imagine my surprise, then, to see this and this yesterday. Where were the hemp bracelets? Where was the falling down behavior? To be fair, not all attendees at Rock-en-Seine were wearing scarves and pantyhose. The British were also there.

Beyond fashion, here are some observations about French music festivals, based on a statistically representative sample of one:

1. Bands are selected based on their ability to pull Londoners and/or perform crowd banter in French. How else can we justify the presence of Kasabian and Nada Surf?

2. Morrissey is bored. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are delightful. This is not particular to France, but very true.

3. French people do not scream “Whooooo!” like I do. “Whoo hooo hooOO!!!” How else am I supposed to get Alec Ounsworth to notice me?

4. The refreshment options at French festivals are superior. There was virtually no waiting in line for a 3 euro Heineken or a 5 euro grilled sausage topped with onions sautéed in white wine. This enabled the consumption of five pints and 3000 calories over seven hours.

5. Trying to squeeze 20,000 drunk concert-goers into one Métro station is a bad idea. It’s perhaps better than sending them into their cars, but still TERRIFYING.

In conclusion, 40 euros to see Clap Your Hands (Morrissey excluded for not playing my favorite songs) is too much. I think I’ll stick to the smaller clubs from now on.

Speaking of which, here are some upcoming September shows to consider:

Sept 7: Pierre Guimard, Roland Shanks, and others at La Fleche D’Or. Free.
Sept 11: Grizzly Bear at Nouveau Casino. 15 euros.
Sept 15: Peter Bjorn & John, the Sugars, and others at La Fleche D’Or. Free.

Other suggestions? Post a comment! Go on, do it.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Tout nu or not to nude?

That is the question.

Whether t'is nobler in the mind to suffer the stings and stares of jellyfish and fellow swimmers while clothed, or to bare arms and legs against a sea of turquoise...

Hamlet, remember, was European. One can deduce, then, that he had no problem exposing his (royal) family jewels while on vacation.

For an ameriçaine, however, going natural is anything but. And thus I found myself recently wrestling with the question along the crystal blue waters of Naked Cove. A secluded spot on the southern tip of Istria, we found this place following a vigorous bike ride past the tourist hordes through pine stands and berry-laden brush.

Our group, composed of 2 Americans and 2 Europeans, had discussed this on the previous day. "You will see me naked in Croatia," said the Austrian, his tone carrying a finality that promised no escape. True to his word, Bernhard was the first among us to doff his drawers, splashing into the sea in the way that God intended. This reasssured the naked Slavs who had been eyeing us warily from their spot several hundred meters to the right. Upon seeing genitalia they returned to smoking and playing with their dog.

I, meanwhile, was warily eyeing my toes. And everything north of them, egad. Was I really qualified for this?

"Americans believe that nakedness is sexual," Bernhard told me. Yes and no. Americans believe in the perfectability of the body. And every freckle and roll is a reminder that we have not worked hard enough, will not be going to heaven, and deserve neither sex nor sunshine. Whether this reminder is personal or shared depends on the alcohol available.

Fueled only by lemonade, I was taking a particularly long time with my bikini.

It was the only child in me, the competitive one who tries to out-cliff jump the boys, who won out in the end. There was no way I was going to be left behind on the safe and sexless shore. So I dropped them. And then ran like hell into the protective waters of the Adriatic.

Hours later, after seeing my scraped and sunburned companions pulling themselves gracelessly over sharp rocks, I too settled into a state of corporal indifference. I put on my flippers and mask, and set out for some naked snorkeling.

Which, it turns out, is better than heaven.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Limited Time Offers

Where does the time go?

Paris, for weeks on end, has been lifting up her summer skirt and showing off the warmer wares. And I, like a bad boyfriend, have hardly noticed the show.

Well, time and Paris’ patience are running out. The city’s skin, sex & spectacle will soon be packed away for another season. Currently on the outs:

Last skin: Like hair-filled sand through the hourglass, so are the days of Paris Plage. If you haven’t yet taken your bikini for a walk along the quai, you have until August 20 to do so. Look forward to rain and average temperatures of 69 degrees.

Last sex: Desire is creepy year-round in the Place Pigalle, but you only have until September 3 to see Cindy Sherman. Her retrospective show at the Jeu de Paume isn’t all about sex pictures, but it’s her series of the same name that draws the most open-mouthed stares. Note to Cindy about an obvious follow-up to Masks and Clowns: why not Bloggers?

Last spectacle: A city with this much arts funding is never really short on spectacle. But Machines of Spectacle will last only through Sunday. Le Grand Répertoire show at the Grand Palais is an odd amalgam of sculpture, street theater and suds. Top off your visit at le Sale Verre de la Peur (the dirty glass of fear) – the little bar/perch on the mezzanine offering a perfect view of the Canon à neige.

Other ephemeral delights:

Outdoor movies: the Cinéma en Plein Air festival at the Parc de la Villette will conclude August 13 with a showing of Imamura's L’Anguille. The Cinéma au Clair de Lune runs one week longer, to August 20.

Tropico-Vegétal: Lost in Paradise. This bizzaro program at the Palais de Tokyo’s “Site de Création Contemporaine” will breathe its last on August 27.

Usually wary of art that's accompanied by a DJ, I found myself quite enjoying James Cochrane at the Point Ephémère. The aeresol pointillism, in particular, is pretty great.

Bar Ourcq. One of my favorite places in the city along the Bassin de la Villette, I heard a rumor that this will be its last summer. Can anyone set me straight?

Outdoor (world) music. In parentheses because the Scenès d’Eté series, set to finish August 20, will soon be replaced at the Parc de la Villette by outdoor jazz. More specifically, by an outdoor jazz series called (in English) “Black Rebels.” Which sounds, I expect, much cooler if you’re French.

With so much bared for my summer enjoyment, I feel compelled to show Paris a little love. Make her feel like she didn’t shave her legs for nothing...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Ring My Bell

Today's episode in nincompoopery unfolds with our heroine pedalling happily to work along the Canal St. Martin. The sun is shining, but not hot enough to warm the unwelcome smells of the sidewalk. Everything seems to be perfect...

When all of the sudden, Old Man appears in the bike lane. "Pardon!" I chirp, but the white hair doesn't see me. "Excusez-moi!!" I yell with more force as the distance narrows between us. It is only when I begin to squawk "Ding-DING! ding-ding-ding!!!" that Monsieur raises his head and takes the necessary steps to avoid being flattened by my machine of terror.

Moments later, it occurs to me: "I could buy a bell." Epiphany strikes just as I am crossing the doorstep of Atelier Go Sport, a bike repair shop along avenue Richard-Lenoir.

I wheel my bike in and say bonjour to the repairman who is airing some tires. I select my bell for 2.90 and join the line of women at the register. It's slow-going, as each customers' purchases are taken out of the package and attached somewhere on their bike. After 20 minutes, I'm up:

"Hi," I say in french. "Would it be possible for you to mount me?"

Eyes widen. I repeat, "C'est possible de me monter?"

"You're not shy," he tells me.

Shall we review a little french?

Vocabulary: monter - to assemble... to organize, set up (hey, that's right!)... to climb; to ride (oh, Christ.) as in a horse; to go upstairs.

Grammar: direct object pronouns - the bell receives the action. Not le Meg.

What I should have said was "C'est possible de la monter pour moi?"

What I did say inaugerates a new Blagueur series, the Weekly Gaffe. Tune in next week as I continue my reign of error among the people of Paris. Ring-a-ding-ding!

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Cage with Golden Bars

Aurore, the other night at dinner, turned to Ken and asked, "so what do you think of Parisians?"

To which he replied, "Well, like anything kept in a cage, they're not friendly, they often bite, and they don't know how to feed themselves."

And then we had our little chuckle.

Complaining about Parisians seems to be a favorite pastime among those living in Paris. This isn't limited to expats. A large proportion of residents are not native to the city, and many who are born here don't consider themselves Parisiens.

American stereotypes about the French en masse are strikingly similar to the way in which les provinciaux describe native Parisians. Our Auvergnat and Breton friends have much in common with disappointed American tourists when they start throwing around words like "arrogant," and "rude."

Living here does not make one Parisian. This is entirely different from New York, which rapidly absorbs the newly-emigrated into its clubby fold. Address affords identity in NYC, but Parisians are rarely (if ever) made.

So what is it about Parisians? I can't claim to be an expert, and I hope that the comments will expand upon this, but I will begin with one stereotype: comme il faut.

Being in accord with conventions and accepted standards is, for a real Parisian, the mark of a life well-lived. This trait is widely applied but especially apparent with language and dress. To flout or be ignorant of convention is to reveal that one is pas très bien élevé (poorly-raised).

In language, this means speaking French - the good French of the Académie française. A provençal accent will raise eyebrows in many quarters, and the integration prospects among banlieue children are measured in part by their speech.

The standards in dress are narrow and change each season, but certainly exclude track suits, safari gear & fanny packs. Shifting styles are taken very seriously, and trends transcend different age groups. It was not uncommon last year to see 60-year old women wearing fishnets. This year it's Converse.

Whether or not one is fully successful with the particulars of the style sheet, one must at least make an effort. Sarah Turnbull, in her largely terrible book Almost French, got it right when she realized in horror that she could never again leave the house in sweat pants.

Standards exist in every society, but Parisians seem to have a particular affinity for them. While entrepreneurs and ingenues are greeted with indifference, the celebrated Parisian is one who has successfully executed a series of well-known steps.

Bohemians, punks, and avant-garde types seem to be flourishing in Toulouse, Marseilles, and Lille. The adolescent years of Paris are so far in the past, however, that the city has forgotten how to make fun of its squares. Even teenagers take seriously their role as standard-bearers for the republic.

The cage of Ken's joke could be the city itself - asphalt and crowding, all that. But convention, too, is a trap. French standards, born and bred in Paris, are enforced by Parisians who police both outsiders and themselves. Which puts them, to quote Henry from Barfly, in "a cage with golden bars."

Lucky for us, it's quite possible to avoid Parisians while at the same time enjoying the products of their self-discipline (art, lit, film, food...) Moreover, there are plenty of natives who through travel or cross-cultural marriage have discovered a world beyond their cage. And they, because they have a sense of humor and know where to eat, are often the best (post-) Parisians of all.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Crush of the week: Eloïse Decaze

Look at little Eloïse. Pink-cheeked and beaming, she looks normal enough in this photo here.

Don’t be fooled.

This girl is anything but ordinary. Haunted and uninhibited, she climbs upon the stage and gets medieval on your ass – channeling troubadours from the period with songs about childbirth, betrayal, and the sea. A cappella or alongside the remarkable Sing-Sing, Eloïse seems almost guileless – as if she, too, is pleasantly surprised by the sounds erupting from her small frame.

The aforementioned Sing-Sing (a man who actually introduced himself as such) is no slouch. Tall, dark and wild-headed, Sing-Sing has a collection of songs à la nouvelle chanson which stick in your head for the whole bike ride home. A sight it must have been to witness two Americans and one German weaving through the dark Paris streets at 2 am warbling half-remembered french songs.

The deal was sealed with Eloïse when she launched into an extended sea gull imitation during a shanty with Scott Taylor on accordion. My usual complaint about french girls taking themselves too seriously doesn’t hold water here.

There’s talk of Eloïse recording something with either Sing-Sing or the equally charming Scott Taylor. Until this happens, you can look for her at Au Limonaire, a sweet little club for nouveau chanson in the 9th. The lineup for Friday & Saturday August 11/12 features Sing-Sing, Eloïse and Benjamin Abitan.

Shows at Au Limonaire (click here for photo) start at 10 pm with free entry. A hat is passed at the end of the performance. You can eat here prior to the show by reserving at 01 45 23 33 33. Eating before-hand seems to be the easiest way to ensure a seat – our last visit was standing room only.