Monday, April 26, 2010

Country quiz - Where are you?

You walk into a shop and are expected to greet the shopkeeper, the assistant, and the dog?

The Metro’s on strike and the stranded passenger’s faces would express; anger, resignation, or no expression but a shrug and expelling air from pursed mouths?

A person you meet for the first time kisses you on both cheeks, converses for twenty minutes, and after he leaves you realize you don’t know his name.

The toilet paper is magenta and of newspaper-like smoothness.

You’ve grown accustomed to the smell of baking bread and diesel exhaust mingling on small narrow streets.

Drinking small cups of espresso, expressing opinions about everything while leaning on cafe counters seems a national pastime.

Your parked vehicle, wedged so tightly between other cars it’s impossible to move, needs voluntary assistance from male passersby in soccer shirts to extricate your vehicle to dented freedom.

Saying taking care of one’s own onions means mind your own business. Like these people would like you to.

If you said the land of the Gauls like those men above you are correct.

May Day is a big deal in France. A national holiday--the workers' holiday--to be exact. In fact, celebrating the cause of workers on May first is a custom that originated in the United States in the 1800's when the labor unions were at the peak of the fervor and righteous battles against abusive labor conditions. The celebration had a distinctly left-wing--even communist--flavor, and perhaps that's why in the US the date was quietly moved to early September and the name of the holiday changed to Labor Day.

But in a country where going on strikes is a national pastime and the left--if delusional--remains somewhat a force to be reckoned with, the Fête du Travail is sacrosanct. Besides, it kicks off the merry month of May, which in France is all the merrier for having more official holidays (thus, time off work) than any other month. With the Fête du Travail, and the Catholic holidays of Ascension and Pentecôte all being official national holidays and thus mandatory days off, the national preoccupation becomes "making the bridge" between the official day off and the nearest weekend. Making the bridge (faire le pont) means scheming to take yet another day or two off to connect the official holiday with the weekend and thus being able to leave town for a real mini-vacation.

Need I mention that nothing much of importance gets done here during the month of May. However, the French do usher in this month by buying for oneself or one's loved ones or friends a pot or bouquet of lily of the valley (muguet de bois). Lily of the valley is referred to as a "porte-bonheur"--literally, "bringer of happiness" or perhaps what we would call a good luck charm.

A few days before May Day, you begin to see vendors popping up on every corner selling lily of the valley. Although at all other times of the year, selling any kind of flowers or anything else on the street requires paying for a permit, merry May Day is exempted from this evil tax, and anyone can sell the blossoms anywhere without being tithed by the city. And of course, every florist has pots and bouquets of lily of the valley dominating their outdoor displays. The pots for lily of the valley are always deep and vase-shaped, another tradition. Commuters are everywhere clutching their lily of the valley, to be offered to girl- or boyfriend, husband or wife, dinner host, boss, you name it. Even the Metro is perfumed.

Cara - Tuesday


  1. Happy May Day! Is that a picture of Miles Davis or just a look-alike? Awww. So cute! Am so glad he survived that drama in Murder in the Palais Royale!

  2. May Day has a whole new meaning for me now. And Lily of the Valley as a good luck charm, nice. Hope you have a wonderful May Day.

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. Thank you Mason!

    Harvee, that's a Miles Davis lookalike spotted in Lille.
    Just found out there's another holiday on May 8..fete de la Victoire...


  4. I remember when a friends 2CV was blocked in a parking space (by another tenant who thought that space was HIS), a handful of us lifted it out. That's not quite that small a car, but....

    My lily of the valleys are nowhere near out. And they really are so nice. I'm glad the powers that be forgive the lack of license for sellers.

  5. I knew none of this and am glad to now know more about France...What little cars--how wonderful! I watched 'Paris je Taime' yesterday, and one couple actually falls in love in one of those tiny cars, parked in a tiny space in Montmarte.