Paris Is Dead, But I’m OK with That

Right now in Paris it’s a very special time.

I knew something was different when one day about two weeks ago I stopped hearing my overhead neighbor’s phone vibrating on the floor and her footsteps creaking on the floorboards at 7am every weekday. It happened once…and then again. And again.

And then, I started seeing these signs appearing EVERYWHERE and I knew…Paris is dead. Or at least for August:

Paris vacances Aout

Paris vacances Aout

Paris vacances Aout

Paris vacances Aout

Yes, that’s right. CLOSED from August 1 to August 24-ish. Three weeks. Just like that.

Known as “les congés annuels” or just simply “estivale,” it’s an annual right in France. Sort of like their Sundays, when everything is also notoriously shuttered.

Right now, Paris is void of Parisians. Instead, they’re usually replaced with a flood of tourists (which is probably why Parisians choose this month to peace out in the first place). Although this year, that flood has been more of a trickle, sadly, with many Americans in particular spooked by the terrorist attacks of the last year (mind you, in reality you’re probably 100 times more likely to get shot in a school or your car in the U.S. than you are to be in a terrorist attack in France, but fear is really bad at assessing relative risk).

Now, I would say it sucks when, say, you tell a friend visiting from the states to meet you at a restaurant for brunch one Saturday, and that restaurant (though there is NOTHING on the website or on their answering machine clarifying this) is shuttered, and then you have to mutter an apology for being an idiot American who still doesn’t know her way around the city and wander aimlessly past a dozen more empty restaurants to find one that’s open. Or when you need to grab some food for a picnic and you realize your usual store is closed so you spend an hour wandering around trying to find one that’s open, just to be half an hour late.

BUT. I am actually in full support of the summer congé in France, even though I’m not taking it, and here’s why: This is what makes France, France.

When I lived here 10 years ago, one of the reasons I fell in love with the city was the appreciation for life outside of work. Even when Parisians are working long hours (and they do), they still make it a priority to spend time with their friends and family. Unlike the U.S., work is not an acceptable topic of conversation at a party.

There was discussion a couple of years back about forcing stores to open on Sundays. It would be better for businesses during the ongoing economic recession, and it would be much more convenient for Parisians. But then there was a huge backlash. (Excellent: Protesters chanted “Yes Weekend,” which to them sounds like Obama’s “Yes We Can” campaign slogan. Ha!)

Many people agreed with the concept. But others, including some of our friends, thought that these breaks are so fundamentally French that it would change the society. Instead of being forced to spend time catching up with friends and family on Sundays (or all of August…), people would be forced to work. And that would make France become more like…gasp…the United States.

I love the U.S. I think no one can beat our drive and ingenuity. But I think we are on the far other end of the spectrum, not always to our benefit. Cultures like France keep some balance and perspective in the world.

And besides: Now that I know the deal, I’m totally taking a congé next year.

So…vive la congé! Get it, French people. Show the world how well you can sit around sipping cafés and eating baguettes. And let the world be jealous.

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