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My husband, Phil, and I happened to be in Paris in May 1995 when Jacques Chirac was inaugurated for his first term as President of France. We stood amidst the cheering French on the Champs-Elysées, thrilled with the pomp of the post-inaugural parade and joining in the shouting as the newly-installed president rode by in an open car, waving victoriously to his countrymen.
We happened to be there again in May 2002 when President Chirac thanked the citizens of France for granting him a third term in the recent general elections by declaring a national holiday.
I love Paris anytime—except when the city shuts down for a holiday. With a visit of usually not more than a week, I can’t afford to take a day off with the French. Avoiding known holidays is an important part of our trip-planning. But who can predict a presidential “thank you?” It’s not on the French calendar; you won’t find it in guidebooks. Even the French Tourist Office is not privy to presidential whim. Since we don’t read a French newspaper and rarely turn on TV when in Paris, we weren’t aware of the holiday until we set out with a shopping list early in the day and found the shops shuttered, the bistros bustling, and the parks packed.
We had left our shopping for Monday, our last day. The plan was for me to get a quick hair-repair job at a walk-in salon, chosen because it was across from one of the best flower shops in town, where Phil, a passionate gardener, would wait out my blow-dry. When we arrived, the salon had a “Fermé” (closed) sign on the door, right next to the “Open Lundi” (Monday) sign. We chose to believe the closed sign was a mistake, until we crossed over to the flower shop and found a Fermé sign on its locked door.
Hoping they were just late openers, we moved on to our next stop, a discount porcelain shop that I had discovered earlier in the week but had decided to come back when I had more time and get an early start on my Christmas shopping. I groaned when we met with another Fermé sign, I so wanted the Limoges hors d’oeuvres plates and exquisite cocktail forks in the window, so near, yet so out of reach. Still hoping to cross something off our list, we headed for a children’s clothing store where I had seen the perfect present for our granddaughter, a dress in the softest shade of lavender, its folds embroidered with dainty, ribboned rosebuds, almost as sweet as she is. My heart sank when I saw the Fermé sign in the window. I realized too late that I would pay dearly for not heeding the first rule of shopping: Buy it when you see it!
There we were with a list of gifts we couldn’t buy, surrounded by shops we couldn’t get into. When we learned at last that the reason for all the Fermé signs was the benevolence of President Chirac, we decided to be good sports and take our lead from the joyous Parisians around us. Now, the French know what to do with a day off. I’m always amazed at how seamlessly they segue from work mode to holiday spirit. So unlike Americans, who need two days of a weeklong vacation to wind down before they feel it’s okay to do nothing but have fun.
We tore up our shopping list and settled in for a leisurely lunch at a popular Marais bistro where every table was filled with celebrating locals. Nobody was in a hurry on this holiday Monday, including the waiters. Service was slow, but no longer having an agenda for the day, time meant nothing to us, either. We drank up and joined the fun. We could get used to this.
After lunch, we headed for our neighborhood park, the elegant Place des Vosges, which was “open” but in a way I had never seen before. Ordinarily a genteel respite from the frenzy of city life, it throbbed with activity on this unexpected holiday. Its lush lawns were barely visible between the end-to-end picnic blankets laden with lunches of stuffed baguette sandwiches, juicy paninis wrapped in waxed paper, oozing cheeses, and bowls of olives. Everywhere, standing tall, were bottles of red and white. Who but the French drink wine in the noonday sun and walk away without a wobble?
Phil left me on a bench on the perimeter of the green and went to make a reservation for dinner. Alone, I easily lost myself in the lively scene around me. Rosy-cheeked babies lolled contentedly in strollers, their plump bare feet dangling over the sides. Toddlers played tag on tricycles, scooting into each other with glee. Behind me, outside the fence that encloses the park, a violin quartet entertained the holiday crowd. Life was good on this break from work and school and the harried pace of visitors whose time was running out.
“We have a reservation for eight o’clock,” Phil said when he returned.
“I thought we agreed on seven,” I said.
“I tried,” he replied. “The man at the desk laughed and said, ‘Who eats at seven! Come at eight.’”
We went at eight.
Cathy Fiorello is a foodie and Francophile who shares her love of Paris with BonjourParis readers, for which we’re grateful.
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