Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Snow, Rain, Heat, and Gloom of Night

These harsh elements can do nothing to keep US postal workers "from the swift completion of their appointed rounds". Unfortunately, a slight drizzle, a soft breeze, or even an unexpectedly warm day in December would be enough to deter French postal workers from doing their jobs.

I recently made an online purchase -- yes, Virginia, there is e-commerce in France -- but alas the book did not fit the mailbox in my apartment building. So, the letter carrier (or "facteur") left me a note to collect it at the post office (or "La Poste").

There is a list of reasons on the note why the delivery could not be made. The reason selected -- the first one on the list -- was that the address on the package was incomplete, so the facteur did not know where to deliver the package. Hold on -- he could not find my mailbox when he had the package in hand, but miraculously figured it out when he put the package down and started to fill out the note for me? Of course not! The facteur just cannot be bothered to spend time choosing between 5 reasons (plus "Other"). It would make more sense if La Poste replaced the six choices with a single one that reads, "Oh, who knows, who cares? Just come collect the stupid thing before one of our light-fingered employees decides to make off with it." Harsh, but much more believable!

The note said I could pick up my package after 9am the following day. That's quite interesting, considering my local branch of La Poste opens at 9.30am. But I figured that gives them 30 extra minutes to ensure my package is ready for delivery... well, pick-up. So, I arrived promptly this morning at 9.35am -- this is the week between Christmas and New Year's, so I don't have to rush to work.

I presented my note with a cheery "Bonjour, madame!" and a smile. She grunted back, "euh, ouais, bonjour" and put her reading glasses on. She handed the note back to me with a sigh -- a normal, apathetic one, not a heavy, "I'm pissed off at you" one -- and said, "I'm sorry sir, but this package won't be here before noon today."

"Oh, I'm sorry," I apologised for following instructions, "I thought it might be here by now since the note says 9am, which was 40 minutes ago."

She peered disinterestedly at me over her half-glasses and said, "Yes, but 9am really means noon."

"Well, then, why not just put noon on the note and avoid confusion?" I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, trying to show her that this seemed like a silly system, but that I would never question her authority.

By this time, I could tell she wanted no more of me, as she sighed heavily, "Because, monsieur, noon means 3pm."

Defeated, I smiled, nodded, took my note and said, "Merci, madame. I will see you tomorrow then."

I just hope it doesn't snow tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Noël Cowards

A big difference between France (and much of Europe) and the US is the way we shop.

The US is a much more consumer-driven economy, where the shoppers' wallets drive the market. So, the vendors have learned to take back control of the market by inventing needs that the consumers never knew needed to be filled! (Hello, Chipwich anyone?)

In France, there are those who supply and those who demand. There's a product or service, and if you want it, you buy it -- end of transaction. And, most shocking to most Americans, there are very few sales BEFORE Christmas. After all, why should a store lower the prices on goods at the time when people most want to buy them!

Sales are in fact planned by the Ministry of Finance and the Departmental governments! If you can read French, you can click here for the Winter 2007 schedule. In Alpes-Maritimes (the department where I live) the sales start on 10 January (always a Wednesday, thank you) at 8am (promptly or thereabouts), and end on 10 February. End of discussion.

Another big difference is that in France you are not allowed to shop on Sundays. Or rather, you can't shop on Sundays because stores are not allowed to be open. According to the Code du Travail (Labor Laws), work is forbidden on Sundays. End of discussion. Well, except for hotels, restaurants, bars, cafes, bakeries, tobacconists, museums, DVD and video rental shops, garden centers and computer helpdesks. Oh yeah, and food stores and markets can open until noon. And, of course, if you own your own business and run it with family members (who are not classified as "employees"), you can pretty much do your own things. But, other than that, work is forbidden.

So, what is to be done in a year when Christmas and New Year's Day fall on a Monday? How are French people supposed to do their last-minute rushing around on Saturday, then spend all day Sunday doing nothing but going to a hotel, restaurant, bar, cafe, bakery, etc.? Well, luckily, the Code du Travail allows for five (go on, count them) Sundays a year where one of the non-excepted business can be open. This year, shop keepers saved their wild card Sundays for December 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31! (Oh, so THAT'S what's meant by "in a month of Sundays"...) And, on these shopping days, designated as "exceptional openings" (and which are usually quite lackluster), there are no parking spaces available, and the shops are a mob scene!

Why, then, is there not a bigger push to abolish this law? After all, it's certainly not the Church that is demanding Sunday be treated as the Lord's day, as France has legally been a secular country since 1905! No, in fact, it is the consumers themselves who don't want it to change! In some strange sense of solidarity with their fellow French workers, they would not want Pierre and Marie to be forced to work on Sunday if they preferred to spend the day at a museum, stop off and buy some potting soil on the way home, then sit on hold for 90 minutes trying to get help on their Internet connection.

Or, maybe they're just afraid that one day they'll be the ones forced to work on Sunday, sharing their surliness and apathy with the rest of the French public.

Monday, December 18, 2006

End of an Ear-a

This morning, I used the last Q-Tip from a box of 500 that I brought with me to France. Assuming you use one Q-Tip every day, that's almost a year and half's worth of clean ears!

Now, of course, I've read the warning label on the box, and I know they say you shouldn't put anything in your ear but your elbow, but nothing beats the feeling of a fresh Q-Tip after a hot shower.

You don't really think where you will be in life when you open a fresh box of Q-Tips, though. I mean, how do you plan 500 days in the future? Think about the next 71 weeks, what you'll be doing at work, how you'll spend your weekends, where you'll go on vacations. I'm sure many people have good time-management and planning skills. Hell, even the Soviets had their five-year plan! But, damn it Julie, call Schneider because I'm taking life one day at a time!

Tomorrow, I will open a new box containing 625 Q-Tips. If anyone can give me an idea of what I might be doing on/around 4 September 2008, I look forward to your feedback!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Bienvenue sur la Côte d'Absurd

Welcome to my blog! This is my first foray into this online expression, and I hope you find it entertaining to read about life in France (and elsewhere) from my perspective.

I'm an American living in Antibes, France, which is situated on the Mediterranean between Nice and Cannes. This area of France is known as the Côte d'Azur, hence the funny name of my blog. (Insert laugh track... here.)

How can an American live in France and not go crazy? I'm glad you asked. For starters, who said I wasn't already crazy before I got here? (Gotcha!) But, before I moved here, a very good friend gave me two useful pieces of advice:
  • You might see things done in France that are done better than in the US and done worse than in the US. But, this is France and this is the way things are done, so there's no use in arguing why. Just accept it and move on.
  • No matter what happens, don't take anything personally. If the cashier at the supermarket is rude to you, it's not because you're an American. If you notice, he or she is probably rude to everyone.

Whoa! Wait a minute! Things in France done better than anywhere else in the world? Impossible! Well, for starters, the government has a website where you can download every form you could possibly need -- and they have tons of forms in this country -- so you don't need to go from place to place, only to be told you've been waiting in the wrong line.

Is that the only reason to live in France? Well, no... Fresh food -- bread, cheese, wine, vegetables, meats -- prepared by innovative chefs. You leave the table after a 2+ hour meal feeling very well-fed. Plus, fashionable clothes and wonderful perfumes and soaps. Beautiful countrysides, breathtaking mountains, and bright seas and oceans.

OK, OK! So these are not unique to France, but I get 6 weeks vacation, plus tons of other bank holidays and saint's days, so you learn very easily to put up with all the rest of the crap! And, to be fair, "the rest of the crap" isn't all that bad. There is always an adjustment period when you move to a new location, whether or not it's in your own country or your own language.