Halloween isn’t a big deal in France, being more of an Anglo-Saxon and Celtic celebration than a French one. My first year in Paris I did see a few sad ghouls on the metro – probably transplants hoping to spread a little holiday dismay in their adopted country. But Halloween is generally just another day in France, without the rush of costumed kiddies on the streets, the trick-or-treating or the parties.
One Halloween, I did happen to catch a glimpse of a special themed exercise night at my gym, however. The salle was darkened, orange-and black streamers were draped over the walls and the instructor was dressed as a scarecrow. The people doing exercises also sported Halloween-ish getups. It was a sort of step class. One woman, wearing a cocktail dress and perhaps more eye shadow than usual to mark the macabre occasion, was gamely stepping on and off the step deck in her stilettos, a little hesitant but determined nonetheless to work those legs. French Halloween: halfhearted exercise in festive if inappropriate attire.
A more important holiday following Halloween is the next day, November 1, for All Saints, or la Toussaint. France might be a lay country, but most Catholic religious days are also observed as jours fériés, or bank holidays. Not that anything special is done – other than perhaps, among some mindful souls, visits to the graves of loved ones – it’s a day off, and that’s it. Halloween doesn’t mark that shift between lingering summer and looming Thanksgiving as it does in the United States. Like July 4 in France, it’s a holiday for elsewhere.
I didn’t and don’t mind a non-Halloween in France, and I’m glad if I happen to be in France for Halloween. I’m not in France to forget my Americanness but neither do I want to recreate American customs related to the undead or to lose myself in gory gleefulness beyond the grave. In any event, I’m not a big fan of Halloween.
But during that first year in Paris, I was certainly aware of the fleeting nature of life. To my astonishment I’d seen three fatal accidents in the course of a few months. The first was when I was walking along the Rue du Louvre, near the Rue Jean-Jacques-Rousseau, near Les Halles and the Bourse de Commerce. A blind corner there creates a dangerous walkway for pedestrians and unsuspecting drivers. One morning, heading toward the gym, I noticed a crushed motorcycle lying on its side. A shaken truck driver stood dazed, near his vehicle, talking to the police and the emergency unit. And what I took to be a body covered with a white sheet that seemed be spotted with a blotch of red waited on the street to be taken away. This was, I assumed, the motorcycle driver.
In fact, each accident I’d come upon involved a motorcycle and a truck or van. In each case it was the motorcyclist who lost. The second accident I saw was near Denfert-Rochereau, where the van and its driver seemed fine (relatively speaking), while the motorcycle, tossed beyond the intersection, and the now-lifeless driver, rested side by side near the entrance to the Catacombs. The third accident was near the Place du Châtelet, and I mercifully was spared the sight of the mangled driver, as a group of policemen, and some tourists, huddled around the corpse.
Urban accidents aren’t unusual, but I hadn’t expected to come across such lethal ones so close upon each other that year. Paris, like many European cities, has a large number of motorcycles (and motorcycle accidents). I would often see neighbors I’d recognize from my building or neighborhood alighting from their motorcycles, or mounting them and roaring off to work.
For many Parisians motorcycles, or even scooters, are a viable alternative to crowded metros, or to offices ill-served by public transportation. The roar of motorcycles contributes to the noise of the city, of course – but to my surprise, motorcycles are also parked everywhere like automotive litter, and cyclists often ride the sidewalks searching for parking spots. Pedestrians have little right of way next to them.
Driving in Paris, in any event, is not for the faint of heart, whether in a car, a truck, on a motorcycle or a bike. But I wonder at the tradeoff between dangerous zipping among traffic and unhappy huddling with commuters in the metro. Or even celebrating Halloween in a ridiculous way (which is certainly that part of Halloween that certain French have adopted, at least at that particular branch of my gym) and risking death for convenience.
The woman doing step exercises in her high heels was certainly in danger of having a twisted ankle, but nothing like Sophie, an ex-neighbor of mine whom I would see from time to time as she zoomed past on the street, booted and helmeted and equally oblivious to pedestrians and trucks as she single-mindedly hurried to her office a 20-minute walk away. She’d already, she’d told me once, had a few narrow scrapes, but like most people who dismiss risk, they had amounted to nothing more than the kind of middling fear, or perhaps the tingle of seasonal sadness, that you get from seeing a jack-o’-lantern smashed to pieces on the street.