Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Crooked

I'd been warned. My mother-in-law had told me he was an idiot. When I came back from the hospital emergency room and gave the assembled family a debriefing, I mentioned I'd been instructed to wait for the swelling to go down and then take myself to an eye, nose and throat specialist within a week. "You could go see Dr. so-and-so," she said, mentioning a doctor in a practice nearby, "but he's an idiot." She suspected him of caring more about his Porsche and his friendship with the high-flying, scandal-ridden mayor than his patients.

But I called anyway, figuring that a known idiot was better than an unknown, motivated as well by the fact that he had a separate number for his receptionist and, shy as I am, I wouldn't have to talk to him directly to make an appointment. And so I found myself on Monday morning, x-rays in one hand, the other extended to shake with a middle-aged man in a white coat with tousled hair and eyes that dripped disinterest and disdain.

He led me to a chair opposite his desk. In France, most doctors work individually, and they answer the door and show you into their office themselves. There's no nurse, no long wait in a tiny room with a gown and a paper sheet draped over your legs, and if you have to undress, you do so with the doctor standing a few feet away, eyes averted. A visit begins and ends in a very civilized manner across a desk, with the examination table discreetly placed in a separate corner of the room.

"I'm here because I had a running accident. I fell." The doctor stared at me, at my two black eyes, at the long scratch on my forehead and particularly at my nose, but said nothing, so I continued. "My nose was broken, but without any displacement. At the hospital, they told me to wait a week, then see a specialist, just in case..."

"Your nose is crooked." He announced, cutting me off.

"Uh, I hadn't noticed anything in particular," I replied.

"Your nose is crooked," he repeated. "They can't tell anything at the hospital, just afterwards. You don't see it?" Normally the French word for crooked, à travers, is a bit less harsh than its English equivalent, but the doctor spat it out with such force that it sounded like a curse.

"I didn't see anything different than before," I said hesitantly.

"Your nose was like that before?" he asked, incredulous. How could you go through life with such a disfigurement? he seemed to say.

"Well, I don't know. I mean," I said, suddenly unsure. I hadn't actually asked anyone if my nose was crooked. And after all, while looking in the mirror that morning, maybe I had noticed a slight difference. Surely my husband would have said something. Or was love blind?

"No one has said anything to you?"

"No."

He shrugged, got up from his chair, and motioned me to the examination table. Just like in the television series, with a slide, a flip, and a loud snap he took the x-rays out of their envelope and held them to the light. He glanced at them, then came up to me and grabbed the bridge of my nose.

"Your nose is broken. Does that hurt?" he asked, wiggling my nose and pressing his giant fingers into my eyes.

"No."

"Does that hurt?" he tried again.

"Yes!"

He moved my nose back and forth, staring at me sternly, for what felt like an eternity or at least a good five minutes, until eventually he let go.

"We need to operate," he pronounced. "To put it back straight."

"Operate?" I was stunned. I hadn't noticed anything was wrong, was in no pain, and honestly thought this would be a routine visit. Now Dr. Porsche was talking of surgery.

"So what are the possible complications?" I stammered. "What's the argument for, what's the argument against?"

"It's a one-day procedure. On the one hand, there's general anesthesia, and the possible complications of that. And you'll have your nose in a cast for a week. On the other hand, if you do nothing, you'll have a crooked nose forever." It was clear to the doctor which was the worse fate.

"Can I think about this a bit?"

"No. If you do nothing, it will heal, and it will be too late."

He was a hard sell. He gave me paperwork to fill out, an anesthetist to call, directions to his clinic in the chic suburban neighborhood of Neuilly, and his mobile phone number to let him know when I decided. He made it clear that my indecision was folly; I had no time to lose. Afterwards, I had the unpleasant sensation of having spent the morning talking to a salesman on a used car lot.

I handed over his sixty Euro fee (60€! And he didn't even take the government-issued carte vitale!) and slunk out of his office close to tears.

"Your nose is crooked," he assured me one more time for good measure as he saw me to the door.

I rang at my in-laws' apartment across the street. I knew that if anyone could look at things rationally, it was my mother-in-law.

"Do you see anything wrong with my nose?" I asked when she answered the door, barely choking back a sob.

"Well... hmm..." she studied me closely. "It may be a little, just a tiny bit, curved to one side."

"Crooked?" My voice cracked, despite myself.

"Wasn't it like that before?"

While I panicked and searched for close-up full-face pictures of me stored on their computer, my mother-in-law repeated, "He's an idiot! I knew it! Quel con celui-là!" Eventually I found a series of pictures taken on le Petit's six-month birthday. We both sat in front of a cake, me looking directly at the camera, le Petit on my lap bewitched by the lit candles. I had a giant smile.

I looked beautiful. Happy. Consumed with joy, I'd even say. Yet as I looked closely it was clear as day: my nose was curved to one side. I'd never noticed it before.

Dr. Porsche, though he has probably given up hope by now, is still waiting for me to call back.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Blog access issues

For those of you who haven't been able to connect to my blog recently, the issue should be fixed. (Obviously, if you're reading this, you've figured out how to access the blog, but my available communication channels are limited.)

The problems only concerned the "old" URL, http://parisiennemaispresque.blogspot.com, which gave either a 404 error or a "Site Not Hosted by Blogger" error depending on your browser. Now this URL should redirect to the blog just like it did before.

For future reference, you can also access the site from the (easier to remember, if not type) http://www.parisiennemaispresque.com URL. And, I'm proud to say, a good ol' fashioned Google search for "Parisienne Mais Presque" will bring up my site right away!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Teaching diversity

We were standing in line at the supermarket when le Petit pointed at a store employee standing nearby.

"O-ba-ma!" he said loudly, overjoyed and ready to jump out of his stroller.

I've mentioned before that le Petit is a huge fan of President Obama. Every week he flips through our copy of The Economist looking for him. He recognizes his picture on Parisian billboards and can pick him out in a photo of G20 leaders. I somehow managed to transmit my joy and optimism over Obama's election, and now le Petit idolizes him, or at least searches for him everywhere. Recently he's started mistaking most of the black men he sees for Obama.

Much to my embarrassment, the employee overheard le Petit, but he just smiled with amusement and said, "Ah, so he thinks all black men are Obama, huh?" He exchanged a look and a laugh with the cashier, a black woman.

"Yes, well..." I said hesitantly, "He loves Obama and looks for him everywhere." After all, I decided, being mistaken for the handsome American president, who's uniformly admired in France, may not be such a bad thing.

While bagging my groceries, I explained to le Petit, no, that man isn't Obama, but yes, his skin is a similar color. The cashier complimented le Petit's language skills, and I proudly explained that he was learning to speak both English and French (and, it went without saying, some American patriotism, too -- after all, he can name our president.)

We paid and said goodbye, le Petit with a big wave and an "au revoir." As we walked back home, I started into my standard speech for such occasions.

"You see, people come in all different colors. Some people have darker skin, like Obama. Or like M [le Petit's nanny]. Or like mommy's friend R. Other people have very light skin, like Mommy's friend A. A also has blond hair. Mommy has brown hair. Mommy has blue eyes, and you and Daddy have brown eyes. Some people are tall, and some people are short..." and on and on, listing people he knows, in my stock, matter-of-fact explanation of the diversity of physical appearances.

I have no idea if I'm going about this the right way. My goal is to confirm what he's starting to observe, that people do indeed look different, believe different things, and speak different languages. That families come in different configurations. That what we have in common is far more important than these differences. I use every opportunity I can to teach this. I was on Facebook last night when he crawled onto my lap and we looked at a friend's pictures together. "See, that's Baby L. She has two daddies. See, there she is with J, her daddy. And there's B, her other daddy..."

I was thinking, if this approach seems natural to me, why am I so uncomfortable when le Petit mistakes someone in a store for Obama? Why does it make me feel like somehow I've failed? I guess that's because it shows that talking can only make up for so much. Le Petit clearly lives in a world that is smaller and more homogeneous than I'd like. Most of the people I list in my great explanation of diversity live far away: R in New York, J and B in Chicago, A in Delaware. Le Petit only knows them from pictures on the computer or tacked to the refrigerator, and to him they're about as real as President Obama.

Of course, this says a lot about my hermit-like existence in Paris. After six years of life here, I can count my close friends on (a couple fingers of) one hand, and I still don't have any mom friends with toddlers for play dates. For many reasons, we need to get out and meet more people. But still, that feels like an inadequate excuse.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Seeing stars

Don't ask how it happened, because I honestly don't know. I was running with my husband in Troyes on Sunday morning when we rounded a corner and suddenly gravity got the better of me.

As I fell, I saw the phone I'd been holding go hurtling out into the street just in front of a passing car. Then, in the moment of helpless clarity that accompanies my stupidest accidents, I knew my face was headed for the pavement. I had enough time to think with dismay "not the head, oh no, not the head..." but no time to order my limbs to do anything about it.

Boom. Ouch. I pulled myself up to my knees, my husband retrieved the telephone from the street (in three separate pieces but otherwise working -- those Blackberries are tough) and came back to look at me with a gasp. I looked terrible, but I was doing pretty well for someone who had just been hit over the head with a section of sidewalk. My husband called the medics, and several passersby stopped to help as I sat on the curb, a Kleenex pressed between my eyes and a ring of stars circling my head.

In no time at all an ambulance arrived and three handsome firefighters solicitously helped me inside. I was thankful I'd made a slight effort to put on nice-looking running clothes that morning, and decided to tell my single girlfriends that a minor sports injury may be a very good way to meet attractive men.

"Where are you from?" they each asked in turn.

"See-ah-tul," I said, making sure to pronounce my hometown à la française. One of the men's faces lit up, for he knew the city well from watching Gray's Anatomy. I didn't tell him that my knowledge of American pop culture has so suffered in six years of living in Paris that I didn't even know the series was set back home. It turned out that he played American football, too, and had named the Troyen team the French equivalent of "Seahawks" in honor of his favorite American city.

I was whisked through the streets of Troyes, the siren sounding at each intersection, to be led minutes later into the ER. One of the firefighters pulled up a rolling chair for me while the others chatted with the hospital staff about the wait. "I hope you don't have any plans this afternoon," one joked. As suspected, I'd been rushed across town just to wait for hours to see a doctor.

Three hours, two x-rays, some surgical glue and a short list of prescriptions later, I was free to go. My nose is slightly broken, but other than a very bad headache that miraculously disappeared overnight, I'm OK. I was warned that as the swelling on my forehead went down, the blood would drain to the area around my eyes and give me an attractive double black eye. Sure enough, this morning I came to work with two yeux au beurre noir, earning the pity, disbelief and amusement of my colleagues in equal measure.

Some consolation

Whenever I think about just how boring, repetitive and unimportant my job is I think to myself, "At least I'm doing it en français."

Some part of my ego is consoled by that, because there was a time when I thought that people who were fluent in a second language were borderline superhuman. I remember watching (not listening to, for my skills in the language were by that point atrophied to uselessness) one of my favorite professors give a lecture in Spanish. To think, there were people -- other students, like me -- who dared to sign up for an entire semester's worth of such classes. Unthinkable.

Now I fix programs that no one uses, write documents that no one reads, and respond to urgent e-mails concerning technical problems that will soon be ignored or forgotten, but I do it all in French. And that makes it cool. Almost.

I also know now that anyone can do it if they put their mind to it, or if they are lucky enough to be seduced by the right foreigner. But I don't let my ego in on this discovery.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Little Guy no more

Le Petit and I were cuddling on Friday morning when he announced something I couldn't understand.

"What's that, hon?"

I made him repeat himself twice. He said it with such authority it seemed important that I catch it, but I couldn't decipher it at first, perhaps because he unexpectedly said it in English.

"I'm big now."

I paused, took it in, and checked to see if it would bring tears to my eyes. It did.

He is getting big. I'm proud whenever he steps on the scale (just like Daddy!) and, still unable to read the numbers, shouts triumphantly "KI-LO!" But I hope he won't mind, because as far as I'm concerned, "le Petit" he'll stay.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Bilingual baby

First, a giant thank you to all of you who shared your advice and experiences about long-haul plane travel with a toddler. I still haven't made up my mind -- I'll let you know what I decide!

"Le train est tombé!" I hear le Petit yell from the living room right before I hear the staccato padding of pajama-clad toddler feet round the corner into the hallway. I'm in the bathroom getting ready for my day, and I extract the toothbrush from my mouth to splutter in amazement.

"Did you hear that?" I shout to my husband. "He said, 'le train est tombé!'" My husband shouts back, "Mmm-hmmm." He's not surprised, but I am.

All of a sudden le Petit has started constructing real complex sentences, mostly in French, and I'm impressed as only a non-native French speaking mother can be. It took me years to remember to pair the verb être with the past participle of the verb tomber, to fall. It is one of the exceptions that you learn by rote in beginners' French class and despair of ever remembering.

Yet here le Petit was, at not even two years old, putting a verb correctly in the past tense, using the masculine article with train, all to announce that his toy train had dived off the tableside cliff onto the floor.

Our strategy from le Petit's birth, if you can call it a strategy, has been for me to speak to him primarily in English and let everyone else speak to him in French. I did absolutely no research on the subject, other than asking around among friends and acquaintences who had raised bilingual kids, and I have no idea if it is the right approach. It may just be the lazy approach. I was warned that he would probably understand English perfectly but refuse to speak it with me; to keep him practicing properly, I was advised to make sure he spent some time back home "au pays" at regular intervals.

Yet le Petit's first real world, "dada," was in English, as were many of his early words. I would beam with pride any time anyone noticed this, and give myself a big pat on the back for successfully promoting early language skills, telling myself that those hours I spent with him and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" when he was three months old were certainly to thank.

Slowly, however, his French started to eclipse his English, and now he seems much more comfortable in la langue de Molière than in Shakespeare's tongue. I rarely hear a sentence as complicated as "the train has fallen" in English, and as far as I've noticed, he never uses the definite or indefinite articles "the" and "a." Once I thought I heard him tack a French la onto an English word just to try it out. He sounded a little unsure of himself, and I couldn't stop myself from chuckling.

Don't think for a moment that I'm concerned. I'm just a fascinated observer. I plan to keep on reading to le Petit in English, rediscovering with him all the books I loved as a kid, and let the rest follow naturally enough.

I am concerned, however, that his daily instruction in conversational French leaves something to be desired. While I plead, beg, and threaten, my husband still can't manage to moderate his language around le Petit and he's picked up a few undesirable expressions.

Lately he announces "Foutre [le riz, les pâtes, l'avocat] par terre!" whenever he notices the mess he's made under his high chair at mealtime. Unworthy of a direct translation, know that it is a *very* familiar way of declaring something has been thrown on the ground.

I gently correct him and try my best not to scold, smile or giggle. "We say, mettre le riz par terre," I explain, and he'll sometimes repeat it once, but it never sticks. I lament to my mother-in-law, who is half sympathetic and half amused, that le Petit will wind up trilingual, speaking French, English, and French slang with equal fluency. It may come in handy -- but not, I'm suspecting, at the local école maternelle.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Do I stay or do I go?

So, we have a few minor logistical problems here at chez parisienne. The first is that our nanny has to take six weeks off this summer to go back home to Côte d'Ivoire to deal with some administrative problems. So, for the last two weeks of August and the first four of September, we have no child care.

We've decided on a classic French solution: we're going on vacation! I am using up my vacation time practically all at once, taking two weeks in August in France and three in September in Seattle. This will leave one week at the beginning of September still unaccounted for, but I'm hoping blindly that grandparents or telecommuting might take care of it.

Why complain about five weeks of vacation, you ask? Well, my husband only has four, and there lies the problem: I had originally planned to leave for Seattle alone with le Petit one week early and my husband would join us a week later.

So I started researching car seats for the plane. Our current seat is so heavy and bulky, with its huge metal stabilizing foot, that dragging it through an airport is unthinkable. Alas, taking car seats on planes doesn't appear to be a European concern, since none of the manufacturers offer anything like an FAA approval sticker and none of the models on the market look compact or light enough for plane travel.

In my research about toddler plane travel I stumbled upon this blog entry and this article which make me shake in my boots. Le Petit is no big sleeper, and I fully expect ten long, loud, squirmy and restless hours on that mercifully direct flight from Paris to Seattle. Will angry passengers like the ones described and self-described in the numerous comments mob us and throw us from the plane?

On the one hand, I miss Seattle. Three weeks back home would give me plenty of time to catch up with family, catch my breath, and get over the staggering nine hours of jetlag before heading home to face a largely vacationless rest of the year.

On the other hand, there are so many ways this could be misery. I could lug a car seat to the gate only to find it won't fit in the seat, then be forced to somehow confine le Petit to his adult seat for the duration of the flight. I could find myself sitting near some of the people who consider having to put up with children on flights to be the ultimate injustice. I could be asked to drug my child with Benedryl and be unceremoniously ejected from the plane when I refuse. To say nothing of all of the details of diaper changes and baggage wrangling I can't as yet picture doing by myself.

As you can see, I'm having no problem picturing the worst case scenario. I'm hoping that you, dear readers, can provide me with a reality check. Le Petit will be 26 months old when our trip is scheduled. Am I nuts? Or is this workable?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Jigsaw theory

I've been trying to figure out how to best write about le Petit these days. He's changing so fast and learning so many new things that it's hard. I want to describe "snapshots" of each new thing and post them to the blog, and ideas come to me three or four times a day, but they escape me just as quickly. It's not unlike trying to take a real photograph of le Petit: his energetic toddler self flees the frame before I can focus.

But I finally decided that all you need to know about le Petit right now can be learned from watching him do jigsaw puzzles.

He loves jigsaw puzzles. Not wooden puzzles with holes, but real jigsaw puzzles with big cardboard pieces an inch and half across. My husband, who himself was a puzzle fanatic as a kid, brought home a big box for le Petit a couple of months ago. I was skeptical: the box was marked "ages two and up" and le Petit was only 20 months old. I figured it was a recipe for frustration, and what fun it would be for me to track down all the chewed-up pieces once they got thrown around the room.

Imagine my surprise when within a week le Petit had figured out the whole theory of jigsaws, and could do four-piece puzzles BY HIMSELF with absolutely no help. Soon the six-piece puzzles were just as easy for him, and he went on to master nine. Last week my mother-in-law brought him a box of animal puzzles for ages three and up. Now I have to brag, because he can do at least one of the twelve-piece puzzles all by himself.

What impresses me most is the process he applies. If an animal has a clear set of eyes he will often put them together first, but he otherwise barely looks at the entire pattern. When I try to explain that he should look for feet or an ear, he cries out at me in frustration. Instead he looks at the shape of each individual piece. Although I'm sure his memory helps him, he doesn't simply memorize how a puzzle goes together. He figures it out again from scratch each time, methodically trying pieces and looking at the negative spaces between them.

He doesn't appreciate help. He works best on his own, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from offering incomprehensible advice.

A few days ago he started talking himself through the puzzles. Now he picks up the pieces one by one and says "c'est peut-être ça." It might be that. He tries, and if there's no fit, he says, "c'est pas ça." That's not it. At least once I saw him flip a piece around and, at last finding the right fit, declare "Le bon sens!" The right way! He fishes the pieces out of the box and lets us know if any are missing. "Il manque un morceau," he tells us, dragging us away from whatever we're doing to come search.

His puzzle narratives just make me melt. I think he's a genius. I can sit on the couch and do nothing but watch him. Granted, the first instinct of any toddler mother who suddenly finds their child absorbed in some quiet activity may be to sit on the couch and do nothing just to catch their breath, but never mind.

We went to Ikea today to buy le Petit his very own pint-sized table and chairs, and now he can do his jigsaw puzzles comfortably seated instead of spread out on the floor. He watched with great interest as I assembled his furniture. A giant jigsaw puzzle for adults! Complete with a wrench and a screwdriver! Whether or not all these puzzles lead him to a brilliant engineering career, he’ll at least be prepared for his first unfurnished apartment.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Lectoure chez moi

Remember my Gers dream house that vanished abruptly after an early maman wake-up call?

Well, I've just been to Lectoure and back and I can report that the house is still there. And, alas, it's still not for sale, but snapping a few photos of it is probably more in line with my budget, anyway.

There it is, perched in the heights of Lectoure, eyes planted on the Pyrenees

In good company, huddled next to the neighboring houses, old friends


A balcony looks out over the city walls

From what extrapolating I could do discreetly from the sidewalk, I'm guessing it has a small walled patch of garden. The balcony is just crying for flowerpots with trailing blooms, and I would ditch the satellite dish: when I'm in the Gers, I have much better things to do than watch television, anyway. The foundation and what looks like a windowless bottom floor are built into the city ramparts, and if there are any rooms hidden behind, they would make a perfect wine cellar.

From the name on the mailbox, I'm guessing some lucky British expat currently owns it. I hope they take good care of it for me, and when they are ready to sell (say, a trade for 600 square feet just outside Paris?) they'll look me up.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Le gîte

As usual, cooking was a scavenger hunt for a knife that could cut. Or at least cut straight without the handle shaking. The cutting boards were in sad shape and made me almost glad the light in the kitchen was poor, for they were also impossible to get truly clean. And as in every French gîte, or rental house, there was one of those rustic corkscrews with a handle made out of a chunk of gnarled grapevine. More than one vacation has been cut short by a heart attack provoked by the incorrect use of one of those, I'm certain.

The cupboards were populated with useless kitchen cast-offs, like ice cream glasses and tiny forks, but there were no potholders and only three proper wineglasses, plus two champagne flutes which were promptly broken.

The bathroom was just as thoughtfully equipped, with a useless bidet but no useful towel racks. There was an old musty armoire filled with hangers that kept falling out. And naturally, there wasn't a shower curtain. I've determined that the French detest shower curtains, and I believe we've the only family in the entire country to own one.

Then there was the leaky kitchen sink, that went from slow drip to swimming pool over the rainy Tuesday we spent inside. The plumber promised he'd arrive at five o'clock but showed up closer to eight, then stayed to chat about bullfights and bricolage until nine.

But stumble out the back door and none of that mattered. The house owned the hillside, the well-tended lawn curved down, and the view stretched forever. There was a château on the hill across the way, endless grapevines and fields of nascent sunflowers. And the house itself was beautiful, despite the funky kitchen and the faulty plumbing. It was a 12th century chapel, according to the rental announcement. I had my doubts, and the gothic-arch windows seemed a bit too perfect to be old, but the warm Gers limestone was genuine.

The location was perfect, what's more: halfway between Condom* and Montréal, hiking distance from the fortified village of Larressingle, and a stone's throw from the Way of Saint James. During le Petit's nap time, I spread out under the locust tree outside the front door and decided that those who had named Gascony le pays de cocagne were right.

* Yes, that is a real place name. One of the biggest towns in the Gers, in fact, although that doesn't mean it is a big place by any stretch. The pronunciation is closer to condo, though, so don't giggle.

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.

Uh-oh.

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.