Monday, June 01, 2009

Pentecost Monday

This morning an ominous calm ruled the streets as I walked through my neighborhood to the Métro. It was sunny and warm, the first real summer day I can count in Paris this year, but the café terraces were empty and the front steps of the office buildings, where smokers usually gather clutching their morning cups of coffee, were deserted.


I was pretty sure I had to work. It was Pentecost Monday, but as far as I knew it was no longer an official holiday and my boss had assured me that my presence was expected. My husband had the day off and was planning a busy solo day out, since I had casually checked with the nanny that she would be able to take care of le Petit on the day after we returned from vacation. But the silent streets made me wonder if I'd miscalculated. My neighborhood is roughly half office buildings and half residential apartment buildings, but neither families with kids nor businesspeople in suits were out today, making me worry that we were the only Parisians left in town. Everyone else was clearly still on weekend, packing the car for the long drive back stuck in epic highway traffic jams. My husband called me a little later, and sure enough, he'd arrived at drop off to find the other family's apartment empty, and the nanny wasn't answering her cell phone.

Pentecost Monday officially lost holiday status a few years back when it was designated "day of solidarity" after the 2003 heat wave which killed many of France's old and infirm. The government, in a quest to fund programs to prevent such a catastrophe in the future, decided to make everyone work one extra day a year. The income generated from the sacrificed holiday would presumably buy quite a few much-needed air conditioners.

But implementing change in France is a tricky thing, especially change that touches an acquis social, or acquired employment benefit. Bitter complaining and difficult labor negotiations ensued. Tourism professionals wrung their hands over the lost revenue of a long weekend. South westerners fretted that there would no longer be three full days to devote to the bull-fighting and partying of the traditional Pentecost férias. The transport and teachers' unions protested, just because that's what they do best.

Luckily, thanks to the national pastime of carefully crafting exceptions to a rule, a system was soon devised that no one could navigate. Private businesses would be open but the schools would be closed, leaving working parents perplexed. Some companies would use up the day as a mandatory "RTT. " The SNCF, or national rail service, came up with the most inventive solution: their employees would work an additional one minute, fifty-two seconds per day throughout the year to make up for the break. My employer decided to drop the holiday. My husband's employer decided to keep it.

That was 2005, and four years later, solidarity is waning to the point that I wondered this morning if I was the only one in Paris unfortunate enough to be on their way to work. The Métro was empty except for a couple of Korean tourists lugging suitcases and a group of giggling American high school students in flip-flops. The trains ran on their Sunday schedule and there was no bus, so I walked the last mile and half to the office. I briefly wondered if I had been mistaken and would arrive to find the front door locked, but no luck. Everyone was there -- except, that is, the half of my colleagues who were trying to use up their vacation days before they expired at the end of the month.

All this for a holiday that an increasingly secular France seems to have otherwise forgotten. I once quizzed a colleague on the meaning of Pentecost. "It means you don't have to come to work on Monday," he told me. So the day has gone from sacré to une sacrée anarchie: from sacred to a sacred mess.

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