Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Consumerism for the Fittest: in Paris, shopping isn’t an art…it’s war

A wise Paris-based travel writer once said that if your day’s to-do list boasts five errands to complete in the City of Light, expect to accomplish no more than two.

Despite its geographic density and efficient train system, Paris isn’t always the easiest city when it comes to getting things done. Between the crowds, (in some businesses) lunchtime closings and (in many cases) unhelpful sales staff, doing one’s errands often requires the perseverance of an athlete training for a world-class sporting event…or a soldier preparing for conflict.

This is especially true in the springtime, when the city’s feminine contingent – emerging with relief and a newborn energy from the doldrums of winter – march down to the grands magasins (department stores) to stock up on bathing suits, leisure wear and beach supplies in anticipation of the long-awaited summer break. Cutting through the throngs of tourists that ooh and ahh over the racks of celebrated French couture, these seasoned veterans know that shopping à la parisienne has little to do with starry-eyed admiration and everything to do with elbows. Leave the ooh-ing and ahh-ing to the foreigners, their rigid, purposeful demeanors seem to be saying. We’re here to get things done.

And they have a point, these beautiful – if not always courteous – specimens of understated chic: with millions of likeminded citadines all hitting the stores around the same time, finding that flattering bikini in one’s size isn’t a matter to be left to chance. All may be fair in love and war, and when it comes to shopping in the City of Light, one must be prepared for battle.

Which is why, one supposes, that Galeries Lafayette and Printemps – two of the city’s most frequented grands magasins – conveniently house their own bars. After slugging it out on the sales floor, what's more civilized than recharging over a glass of champagne?

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Come What May: France takes a break

En avril ne te découvre pas d’un fil. En mai fait ce qu’il te plaît.

So goes the saying counseling the French not to forget their pullover sweaters when venturing outdoors in April; in May, however, when sunshine tends to be more consistent than misty Parisian rain, you can pretty much dress the way you want.

In May, the French can do pretty much what they want as well, given that it’s the month boasting the most national holidays. There are a total of three jours fériés – statutory holidays – during the year’s most lusty month: la fête de travail (Labor Day); victoire 1945 (celebrating the end of the Second World War), and; la fête Jeanne d’Arc/Pentecôte. Combine all of this with la fête des mères (Mother’s Day), and it’s safe to say that this month, the French have a lot of partying to do.

Foreigners accustomed to 40-hour workweeks and only the occasional nationally hosted day off can’t help but smirk that the French, with their 35-hour workweek and five weeks of summer holidays, have certainly got it made. This year, because these holidays happened to fall near the weekend, many professionals opted to take the pont – or ‘bridge’ – expanding their break into several consecutive days (and rendering those working according to the schedules in place overseas out of luck, since many businesses are closed). While cliché and inaccurate to label the French as lazy, one has to hand it to them for dotting the daily grind with a healthy dose of repose – a practice that the oftentimes tyrannical North American work ethic would do well to take into account. One is, after all, more productive when well rested, with plenty of fresh ideas to apply to the workplace if one is given the chance, once it a while, to escape.

Which is why French President Nicolas Sarkozy – a man who preaches the merits of travailler plus pour gagner plus (work more to earn more) – has probably not even considered adding the cancellation of public holidays to his long list of proposed reforms. For the president, already criticized for his actions during his first year in office, undoubtedly wishes to avoid as many strikes and protests as he is able to, given that he already has enough public outcries to deal with. And, for all of his blustering, the hyperactive statesman is not known to shy away from taking a day or two off himself – a perfect photo opportunity during which the politician who has earned the reputation for his appreciation for all things bling-bling to show off his flashy pair of well polished Ray-Bans.