Sunday, August 01, 2004

Cacapoum! Cacapoum!

The dhimmicrapper, with his Mac keyboard, is back. I've been absent because I went to California on vacation. During this time I came to the decision to put an end to all the guessing and reveal my identity. Here is a photo of me early last month standing on a hill top in Big Sur between Highway 1 and the Pacific Ocean.

It did me a lot of good to stop reading the newspaper for a few days, get out from behind my computer and get just enough of a sun burn to make the hairs on my forearms turn blond. I also spent a few days in San Francisco perfecting my reaction to the question, "Have you seen Fahrenheit 9/11 yet?" I didn't quite answer honestly enough to say that I preferred to avoid retching on other movie goers or that I was afraid the experience might actually kill me. Just a sharp no. The crisis of conscience I suffered in 2002 over the Iraq matter still hasn't won me any friends.

Just in time for my return from vacation, the silly season in French public life has begun. Starting to-morrow morning you'll be able to fire a cannon down rue Saint-Antoine and hit nary a moto-crotte. Bakeries, importers, restaurants, boutiques, etc., will close for weeks on end. Parking will be free on Sundays. Movie theaters will project films for empty rooms. Le Monde's readership will drop by huge numbers. TV news producers will let their less experienced presenters have a go. Popular shows, including news magazines, will go on reruns. Some enjoy the space and quiet and a growing trend of vacationers now actually vacation in Paris. But the first Monday of September, the downstairs grocery store at the Monoprix on rue Saint-Antoine will be filled with beautiful, tanned women picking through fresh vegetables.

One August, I poured beer in a miserable Irish pub which shall remain nameless. The only place I could get a job since the city was empty and I didn't have a pot to piss in. The hours on end of listening to jigs and reels in isolation got so bad ("wack faddle-a-doo faddle-a-didly-idle... fuck off!") that more than once I nearly hung myself out of boredom. I'd be on the verge of kicking the stool out from underneath me when at long last a gaggle of Swedish tourists would come in and ask for three pints of Guinness and... a green hat. Salvation.

If Paris streets are empty on an August day, imagine them at 4 am when I closed up shop. At that time of night in July or September, you might overhear couples fornicating as you passed under apartment windows. In August, they are gone. You can actually hear the gears turning in the circuit boxes that control the street lights. A footstep is audible a hundred yards away. The only cars I saw weren't so much parked as seemingly abandoned by drunks, still protruding partly into the streets, their lights and sometimes their radios left on, the windows still rolled down.

The entire north of France jams itself onto the highways heading for the south and the midi where, if one has two or three weeks to spend with the family, rain is less likely to keep them in doors 40% of the time than it might be at the coastal destinations in the north like Normandy or Brest. Provence, the Alps, Languedoc-Roussillon are popular domestic destinations.

By midday yesterday, the heaviest traveling day of the year for French motorists, akin to the Sunday following Thanksgiving, the National Center for Roadway Information, (aka Bison Futé, or the "crafty bison"), had recorded a total of 650 km of traffic jams on French highways, almost all of which were concentrated outside of major urban areas with the exception of an 8 km backup in the Paris region. Those who left in July are returning and those who left in August are departing.

This phenomenon is of course not unique to France, it is simply more pronounced and more predictable — especially since France, the world's most visited country (60 million in 1994; 70 million in 1998...), will also be receiving large numbers of foreign tourists as well. The New Statesman reports this week that British nationals own roughly 500,000 "second homes" in France.

Le Monde reported on July 20, however, that a recent study by the Tourism ministry has found that nearly 16% of the French population has never taken a vacation. In 2002, 37% never left. The definition of a vacation: "a pleasure trip of at least four nights away from home." (Note that if you visit the Web link for this article, you may encounter an animated gif advertising vacation packages: "Votre croisière à prix discount: MidiCroisiè Many American publications such as the New York Times take pains to make sure that their advertising placement doesn't suffer from such unfortunate coincidences. Perhaps Le Monde does as well but perhaps the ones responsible for this are enjoying a mediterranean cruise?)

You can keep some perspective on this problem by listing to two audio reports from the Beeb: Najma (ra 0:47), an Indian domestic, gets two days off a year and can only dream of ever traveling, particularly to America, where she understands that night happens during the Indian daytime. Eva (ra 1:22), a Kenyan hospital worker, has only taken one holiday in her life, in Mombassa, and fondly remembers the experience of having others doing for her what she does for others daily. Fewer than 10% of the world's people have ever flown internationally, according to the Beeb.

The same report from Le Monde also says that many are afraid to leave because they've spent their lives cloistered in poverty and, though they may be able to afford it, cannot conceive of traveling abroad. Michelle Rigalleau, a delegate from the association Vacances ouvertes ("Open Vacations"), wrote in a 2001 report for the National Tourism Council that some people simply didn't know how to go about traveling abroad. Le Monde quotes sociologist Jean Viard, director of the Centre d'études de la vie politique française (Cevipof; "Center for the Study of French Political Life"), as saying that "when one lives for years on a housing estate, with no horizon other than that of one's neighborhood, one can develop of fear of leaving. Often, neophytes fear being ignorant of local codes and rites and being embarrassed. So some people who may be eligible for assistance prefer not to use it, thinking that vacations are not for them." Every year, nearly 30% of the vacation vouchers issued by the national welfare insurance company (Allocations familiales) go unclaimed.

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