Chers readers – yes, you – as we converse, I look out into the near future, and see you there sitting pretty somewhere in the heart of a gleeful Paris December, the holiday season unfolding around you with its annual engorgement of foie gras, saumon fumé, huîtres d’Oléron, Veuve Cliquot and Christmas lights. But many of us time-warped journalists are still hovering over our monthly deadlines back here in ol’ forgotten November, the most joyless month in Paris. “It’s a Wonderful Life” flashes in the background of the imagination as this last column of the year falls into place.
It’s a cold Monday evening in the middle of the month and the doorbell rings. We’re trying to throw some dinner together, the kids are tearing the house down, the dog hasn’t been walked, the cats are ravenous, the mail is stacked on the kitchen table, I can spot at least two of those dreadful windowed envelopes from the Trésor Public, traffic in front of the house is stalled and horns are blaring. A lousy moment for the doorbell to ring. The phone is sure to rattle any second now too and it’ll be an upbeat voice telling me that I’ve won a free hour on a tanning machine at a local gym club. The doorbell rings again.
“Qui c’est?” I scream with that gracious sense of acceuil that I’ve learned so well by being Parisian for a decade and a half.
“Les éboueurs, monsieur.”
You can be sure when three garbagemen ring your doorbell in Paris in the evening, unaccompanied by their noisy truck, it’s going to cost you money. This year the canvassing started particularly early, the annual pilgrimage to your front door for the year-end baksheesh. The guilt money campaign is off and running.
One of the great feats of Parisian peer pressure occurs every autumn as everyone who considers that he or she has in any way rendered you even the slightest hint of service comes around to collect. Okay, it’s true the garbagemen have a tough job – but, you rationalize, aren’t these the same fellas who love to scatter your flimsy milk cartons, crumpled pages from the Leroy Merlin catalog and tattered Monoprix bags on the sidewalk and then smash the heck out of the plastic bin, abandoning it in the gutter in front of your tired building?
It wasn’t long ago, I recall, that this crew of faithful civil servants refused to collect a tied-up bag that was perched beside the can but not technically in it. And wasn’t it these eboueurs who also refused to empty out that bunch of garden twigs? Plus, how many times have we been stuck behind them as we race off in the morning?. Now they want money in November as an annual tip for the year’s labor, a season’s greeting gesture.
In France, the custom is to make a friendly contribution to your postman, your gas and electric company, the parent-teacher association, the local group of unemployed actors, the police, the fire department, the garbagemen and an assortment of other folks you’ve seen minimally during the year. The most significant year-end gift, though, must be directed to your concierge, a woman or man (or couple) that you either adore or detest.
Few people tend to be indifferent toward their concierges. As you stuff that banknote with the bare-breasted Delacroix dame on the front into the white envelope, you recall the looks Madame shot your way when you carried your mountain bike up to the fifth floor, and the night of your birthday party when you let Springsteen blare “Born in the USA” into the hall and Madame rapped on your door, shouting, “Ça suffit, il est dix heures passé.” Now, the crab needs your year-end bribe.
Back to the guys at the door … As custom has it, in exchange for your contribution of, let’s say, 50F to 200F (less is too paltry to do any good and in fact can land you a whole new year of lousy service and general grumpiness), you get to choose from a particularly hideous collection of illustrated calendars. (It’s fun being Scrooge!) Not only are the images tacky – a pannier of white kittens, a lion in a field, a cherry tree in bloom, a sailboat battling the waves – but you’re obliged to flip through the stack and comment on how each one is more joli than the last, before settling for the kittens or the frolicking colts, pleased with the choice. This may be your last major act of hypocrisy for the year. Then you begrudgingly hand over your 100F note and the same mailman who delivers your magazine to the wrong street three times a month, and never rings the bell when there’s a registered letter, utters “Bonne fin d’année, monsieur.”
And the Beaujolais Nouveau has just arrived to no one’s great delight. Our elections have come and gone and the only surprise is that loser Bob Dole has ended up hawking discount plane tickets for Air France. Thanksgiving presented the trauma of tracking down packs of airelles. The French highways are clogged with angry truckers. Eurotunnel is experiencing early burn-out. Racism rocks the right-wing town of Toulon.
It has been one heck of a year. “Et alors, monsieur? Pensez à nous.” Oh, I’d been drifting. I empty my pocket change into the barrel of my eboueurs’ hands and swallow hard. They’ve worked hard. I thank them for the lovely pocket calendar of an absolutely hideous cocker spaniel decked in a ski cap, and bless our adopted land for its bouquet of great little traditions. Another year has passed in our beloved capital.
Happy New Year, y’all.