August 26, 2014

Yes, We Have No Bread

As summer winds down, it's the beginning of a difficult two week stretch. While many people are trying to squeeze out the final joys before school starts on September 2, we are staying local in Burgundy. It seems, however, that we will be largely without quality bread. A few days ago, I was buying our daily loaf from preferred bakery number 1. Taped on the glass door was a sign saying the bakery would be closed for two weeks for annual vacation starting August 25. These people work hard, rising before the sun to make baguettes that go for around a dollar a piece. They deserve some time off. I would just go to preferred bakery number 2.

No bread
Alas! When I stopped in over the weekend, they too had a sign: closed for annual vacation starting August 25! I chatted with the owner, snapping a picture of the sign and explaining that, as an American, this is highly unusual. U.S. small business people usually hire a small team of people, enough to ensure that the store stays open year-round. Here, hiring is so expensive that many boutiques, bakeries, garages, and other small businesses are one or two person operations. When vacation time comes, the business just closes down. 

Really, no bread
Recently, a Frenchman asked me what differences I noticed the most between France and home. (David Sedaris answered this question at a reading in Boston by saying, "Boy, you really have television everywhere here." By contrast, I am yet to find a café or restaurant in rural France with a TV.) I explained that in the U.S., as long as there is the hope of a customer with money in his pocket, stores and businesses are generally open. In small towns and big cities, it is a safe bet that a store is open at least six days a week from 10-6, if not longer. If you need batteries or baking soda, toilet paper or tile cleaner, you can generally find it at a 24 hour convenience store within a fifteen minute drive of your home. 

Don't let your car break down for these two weeks.
Here, by contrast, it is better to expect something to be closed instead of open. Everything is closed Sunday and most things are shuttered Monday as well. Nothing opens before 10. Between noon and 2:30 every day, rural France is closed for lunch. After 7:00pm, if you need a cup of milk, some dish soap, or kitty litter, you are out of luck. Life is closed until the following morning, provided that morning is not Sunday, Monday, summer, the holidays, a Catholic holy day, or a full moon.

Want a good library book? Not in August. Closed.
The bank closed the day after a national holiday so the employees could have an extra long weekend. The local garage turned the lights off for two weeks. On Monday afternoons in the summer, be advised that the post office will not be open. A jewelery store in Beaune was closed until mid-October "for health reasons." The mechanic from whom I bought a used car has been on "congé" every time I email him a question about the car. The artisan jam store on the main place in Arnay-le-Duc is only open on Saturdays, sitting dark six days a week. If you need to talk to your insurance agent, don't attempt it Monday afternoon. They're closed. Don't lose your credit card at lunch! The bank is only open for walk-in traffic in the mornings; in the afternoon, you have to have an appointment.

Closed. Period.
These closures and vacations are engrained in French life, in French law, and in the French spirit. Yet, every French person seems to agree that it is absurd that businesses in downtown Dijon and Beaune, the largest commercial centers in the area, are closed from 12-2, when all the workers have time to shop. The tension between tradition and modernity is real, and the country is clearly struggling with its old habits and the pressures of a new, global economy. While they figure it out, I think I'll have a long lunch.

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