The other day an elderly man noticed that I was carrying a baguette and wanted to know where I had bought it. This is not the kind of question you’re usually asked by Parisians of a certain age, who surely have long had their favorite boulangeries right near their homes.
But it’s different in summer. In this neighborhood, all three boulangeries within a three-block radius were closed for their congés d’été, or summer break.
This is hardly deprivation for the average Parisian. Paris has as many bakeries and patisseries as New York has nail salons. Yet it upsets the routine for people who don’t leave town at the same time as their fellow citizens.
I explained to the gentleman that if he walked just five minutes from where we were standing – I pointed across Avenue Wagram and toward the Rue Poncelet – he’d find the bakery where I’d bought the bread. “Ce n’est pas la meilleure,” I told him, it’s not the best. “Quand même,” he said, smiling with a shrug, meaning, It was still a baguette. He was grateful. And I, to my slight disconcertion, realized that I had turned into someone who would offer an opinion on local baguettes to a Frenchman.
I’d actually had a similar encounter, this time with an older woman, a day or two earlier. This woman had also been appreciative of at last finding a relatively nearby boulangerie where she could get her daily bread, but after thanking me she added, “You’d think they’d arrange it among themselves so that at least one stayed open during vacation.” This couldn’t have been the first time she’d found herself similarly inconvenienced, looking for a baguette only to discover that her local bakery would be closed for a month. But I figured that neither was it the first time she’d voiced a complaint about the cabal of boulangers who don’t consider the plight of the person stranded in Paris looking for bread while they and other inconsiderate bakers were far away seeking shade along sunny coastlines.
It’s not that Parisians are so lost without a baguette to accompany a meal (though baguettes are pretty much essential to dining here). What surprised me is that the annual closing of the bakeries seemed to take so many natives by surprise. And, of course, it’s not only the bakeries and patisseries that shut their doors for a month or so in summer. Many of the small shops and businesses post “summer vacation” signs at some point in July or August.
It’s the nature of summer in France, and another part of French life that I needed to adjust to.
I’d quickly learned shortly after my arrival in France that most supermarkets are closed on Sundays, and those that are open shut their doors around 1 p.m. (Recently, the government has decided to allow certain stores to remain open a few Sundays a year, to accommodate demand, but in general, Sunday is still for the most part a day of rest here.) Butchers might do business Sunday mornings, but not the afternoons. Similarly bakeries. And open-air markets usually only run until 1 p.m., even on weekdays. I’d been accustomed in New York to everything being open pretty much all the time, from drugstores to supermarkets, so I had to accommodate myself to a different pace. As well as to different priorities.
Especially regarding vacations. America is stingy with days off. Vacations are not mandated by the U.S. government as they are at the national level in so many other countries. In the U.S., it’s the employer who decides whether you get one or two weeks, and even whether you can accumulate more the longer you’re employed there. (I was lucky enough toward the end of my stay with the Wall Street Journal to take as much as seven weeks of vacation a year, though never all at once, and often not entirely used from year to year.)
But that attitude toward work is very different in France. Vacations are in the blood of the French. And summer is when life slows down.
I agree with this way of work-life balance. I’m still rather too conditioned by my American upbringing and years of toiling away ceaselessly (and at the same time fearful that if I were to have taken more than a certain amount of time off for myself someone else would have come along to replace me) to appreciate the deep need for repose that is not only taken granted here, but insisted upon. It’s a healthier attitude. Despite the encroachment of some American ways of doing business in France, such as being on call for email all the time, I hope that France continues to promote the long summer vacation as a necessity for one’s well-being.
New York gets quieter in August, too. But I have the feeling that it’s the domestic tourists who have left, particularly visiting American families from states where school resumes before Labor Day. New York might seem a little slower in summer (at least among certain professions), but it’s nothing like the calm that descends upon the streets of Paris (except perhaps in tourist areas, such as the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, which is, in any event, usually avoided by Parisians at all times of the year).
The people searching for bread the other day didn’t deny the different bakers their right to a summer vacation – they simply questioned the simultaneous timing of that vacation.
But even that irritation was voiced with the understanding that one might have to make do with an inferior baguette from time to time, so that someone else can actually get away.