Monday, 22 August 2011

The Cruellest Month

T.S. Eliot had it all wrong, you mutter indignantly. April is not the cruellest month: at least, not in Paris. It is August.

Your favourite bakery/pastry shop shuts down; actually, all your favourite bakeries shut down. Most restaurants – good, bad and gourmet – are of a similar mind, except the ones in the heart of the tourist’s trajectory. The grocer follows suit.

The local bank begins to implement “summer hours”. So does the neighbourhood pharmacy – if you are lucky enough to have one that remains open all through the month.

Machines at the laundrette are out of order and there is nobody to come and repair them.

Technically, all these essential services are supposed to follow a rota system that would leave at least one open at any time of the month in every neighbourhood; but this policy seems to have met the fate of most technical manuals — at the bottom of tottering piles.

Buses and metros decide to ply at almost half the usual frequency — during peak hours.

News bulletins are filled with chartbusters from 1949 for want of current material. And when news there is, it is usually a litany of gory murders, kidnappings and arson in every other village in the country leading you to wonder if you should flee to safer environs, like atop the Anak Krakatoa.

All your doctors take off on vacation and the locum gets the heebie-jeebies at the thought of a disorder he can’t spell. Worse still, the doctor’s stand-in secretary has just stepped out from another dimension (possibly the one harbouring socks vanished by washing machines): she announces that since she cannot identify you on her database, you cannot possibly exist. Would you like an appointment on November 30th, she enquires.

The Internet/telephony service-provider you hired for the office at a very steep price responds to a crisis from his deckchair in Croatia: oh, it is a hardware problem, he confirms, impossible to solve long-distance. Could we wait until the 27th of August?

If the house agent has also taken off for a month – along with the concierge and every other housing union representative – leaving only the Great Grey Spirit of the Seine to come to your aid when domestic calamities like possessed plumbing or crashing range hoods seize the day, there is strong immediate threat to continued sanity.

Then, as the rant – usually made to another, fervently nodding Parisian – reaches fevered pitch, you stop abruptly as the other interjects, almost despite himself, “But it is so nice to see the city almost deserted, isn’t it?” Deserted? A fly on the wall might ask. Deserted, with hordes of tourists from every cardinal point thronging the city, for once transforming Paris overnight into a polyglot capital where you are almost as likely to trip over tendrils of Japanese, Bangla and Flemish as run into thickets of French? But, yes, deserted. Because Paris without Parisians – however populated it may be with denizens of other climes – feels deserted. Gorgeously shorn of our collective high-octane irascibility, of the unrelenting sense of hurtling through time towards yet another deadline and of the need to withdraw into oneself lest you tread on an inch of someone else’s space.

A strange thing happens to the remaining Parisians, the ones who choose to spend August here. Whether from indigence or ill health or indolence or overwork is immaterial: you opted to remain here, and the consequences will be palpable.

You expand: take up more space on earth. Breathe outwards. Smile enviously, later indulgently, at tourists. Drop the near permanent half-scowl or the equally mandatory blank gaze donned in the metro and the street. Dare to ask your formidable postman if he enjoyed his vacation. Stop at Gare du Nord to watch a newlywed Japanese couple have their photo session in front of Thalys trains coming from Cologne, Amsterdam and Brussels. You respond to the casual speculation of a fellow Parisian – also unused to this strange new skin of voyeur and flaneur – on why that couple would celebrate their new life at a railway station. You catch yourself saying softly, because it is a place where journeys begin, refuting her unconvinced suggestion – a last-ditch attempt to retrieve the Parisian cynic’s garb – that it must be a photo shoot for an ad campaign. No, you respond, they are too jubilant for that, too indifferent to perfection.

And despite all the attendant discomforts and dangers of absent bakers, plumbers, pharmacists, electricians and doctors; despite exasperation at unreliable metros, a part of you is content and grateful. Deeply grateful to generations of workers and activists and politicians who – against the received wisdom of the day (and of today) – fought long and hard to make compulsory paid holidays a reality for the entire working population. Content to live in a corner of the world where the right to leisure is recognised and defended for all sections of society, although the murmurs against it, especially in the corporate sector, are crescendoing along with complaints that this kind of image diminishes the country’s credibility in the international arena. It may not behove Parisians to be overtly appreciative of their benefits, but, in this, you just cannot keep the carapace on.

You wake early, and watch the sky shed layers of night, patch by uneven patch. You recognize day shivering inside, still a little tender, and you feel something close to kinship? You are resigned about the weather, not unhappily so. Facebook statuses are no longer a tirade about the cold. Instead you post a lost and found notice in the hope that the prodigal will come home. Lost: a summer. Prematurely born, small but sprightly. Blithe and noisy. Blue, white and green with a few streaks of amber. Finder will be well rewarded.

Yes, Paris in August can be a rare and wonderful beast. More faun than unicorn, though: it tries you and teases you and then, in small and imperceptible ways, transforms you.

More on that later: you still need to scour the city for an electrician.