Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stay (Away) Just a Little Bit Longer: la rentrée sees the return of Parisians en masse

For all of its carefree savoir-vivre, France is a country that operates according to a strict schedule: Sunday is for family, friends and sight-seeing (and not much shopping, because little is open); Wednesday is when grandparents and nannies tend to schoolchildren that have the day off (many attend classes on Saturday instead), and; restaurants serve according to traditional meal times (noon to 3:00 p.m. for lunch, eight to 10:00 p.m. for dinner, with the exception of a number of brasseries that boast service round the clock). In Paris, existence outside of the confines of the nine-to-five workday requires a strategic approach to getting things done, but it’s worth it if you can swing it, if only to avoid the crowds.

One of the most important annual traditions takes place in August, when the entire country goes on holiday. Many French professionals are granted five weeks of vacation, and much of this time is enjoyed in the country’s rolling countryside and seaside villages. The result: impossible traffic jams during the last weekend of July as vacationers make their escape from the city, elevated prices in the nation’s hotels and coastal restaurants and holiday destinations that are as congested as la capitale is during the rest of the year. Paris, on the other hand, is left to the tourists, as well as the entrepreneurs and freelancers that aren’t constrained by the limits of traditional schedules, and those who don’t have the means – or the desire – to get away.

Those conditioned to follow France’s collective agenda find Paris in August depressing: many boutiques and restaurants are closed, and it’s probable that your favorite fish market, fruits-and-vegetable stand, baker and butcher will take at least a couple of weeks off during this time. For those accustomed to less structured timetables, however, the advantages outweigh the inconvenience: Paris in August is quiet, almost lazy, and despite the decreased population, there’s still plenty going on…enabling one to enjoy the city without having to fight through the throngs.

Which is why some of us get wistful when we acknowledge the impending rentrée (otherwise known as France’s real ‘new year,’ when those on holiday come back home to work and school). The empty sidewalk cafés and métro cars will fill up once again, and everyone will be forced to pick up the pace.

That is, unless one’s personal planner permits the freedom of taking advantage of the reduced prices and tranquility of more relaxed destinations during the Indian summer…while everyone else is at work.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Buying Power for the Powerless: Living on the cheap is possible (sort of)

Anyone who has traveled to Paris knows that if one wants to spend time in this world-class capital, one must be prepared for a world-cost expense. With the euro priced at roughly $1.50 USD (during these times, that’s on a good day), even the best deals are only so-so. This doesn’t apply to tourists exclusively: the segment of the expat community that works for clients overseas are accustomed to thinking (and wincing) in dual currencies as well.

For those who are earning the continent’s official lucre, affairs are just as tight: as is the case across the Big Pond, prices are on the rise, and basics such as food, fuel, electricity and gas are taking up more of the personal budget. Coupled with this is the issue of the average French salary: it’s low to begin with by the standards of other developed countries, and regular raises aren’t handed out willingly. This, however, is not a new phenomenon: just about anyone will tell you that things started to get tight long before the global market began to soften, and they blame it on the currency that was designed to unite the Old World.

“It’s a challenge,” admits a French salarié. “When the euro arrived, prices practically doubled, but personal revenues remained the same.” The result: foreigners aren’t the only ones to think in monetary exchanges: the French, especially when making larger purchases, continue to calculate expenditures in francs. Whether it’s via cell phone calculator or from memory, everyone practices arithmetic on the fly…and few are delighted when they reach the bottom line.

Despite all of this, enjoying Paris on a shoestring is much easier than it is in other destinations, such as Toronto, Vancouver and, of course, New York. Parisian rents are exorbitant, but they remain lower than those in the Big Apple, and while one may choose to go out for a luxurious night on the town, one doesn’t have to…and it can still feel just as decadent. “I feel like I can never leave the apartment without spending $20,” laments an American writer who recently moved from Paris to Brooklyn. “The quality of living here in New York just isn’t as high. I have friends that are rich, but who can’t enjoy their wealth because they work 24/7, and I have others that still work 24/7, can barely pay their basic expenses and have nothing left over for healthcare.”

It’s true that for those looking to adopt a bit of savoir-vivre into their lifestyle, Paris is a good place to start. “I’m always amazed that in Paris, it’s cheaper to buy a glass of wine than it is a small bottle of Perrier,” observes one tourist, obviously pleased.

The definition of ‘quality of living’ is a subjective one, however, and for all of their savoir-vivre, most of the French will tell you that their living standards are far from perfect. Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, may have, in part, won the election thanks to his much-parodied slogan, ‘travailler plus pour gagner plus’ (‘work more to earn more’), but so far, he hasn’t succeeded in making his constituents (with the exception of a couple of old friends, perhaps) that much richer. Buying power (le pouvoir d’achat), or the lack thereof, remains a hot topic, and with the cost of living on the increase, there aren’t many who are optimistic about when the pressure will subside.

One is hopeful, then, that wine will remain relatively cheap. Drowning one’s sorrows in tough times helps to ease the financial pain…at least for a couple of hours.