Monday, 28 March 2011

How different is different?

I still find it amusing that, after thirty years of travelling the globe, I still encounter people who believe that their country is unique. I’ll be specific : this concerns the national psyche and front gardens, euphoric highs and pre-revolutionary lows. Confused ? You won’t be once I’ve finished.

There’s a common myth that the French don’t care what anyone thinks of them. They do ; they just don’t care what you personally think of them. And they’re right. This belief in their own product has resulted in France becoming the world’s number one tourist destination, despite crooked airport taxi drivers, a monolingualism that would make even an In-ger-lund supporter blush and those insalubrious, hole-in-the-floor lavatories which, should you wish to eventually rejoin your friends in the cafĂ©, require you to do an imitation of a Denis Bergkamp goal celebration. In-ger-lund supporters will know what I’m talking about. For the rest of you, there’s always YouTube.

Despite this seeming bravado, you only need to listen to any morning radio phone-in to realise that French navel-gazing is not exclusively positive. They will not always paint themselves in a positive light, claiming that a particular attitude, point of view, course of action is « typically French » and immediately praise the enlightened path pursued by any of its neighbours (with the possible exception of Belgium). Does this sound in any way remotely familiar ? Of course it does. Whether you’re English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish or anything else, you’ll recognise this automatic self-denigration and may be surprised that other nations go in for the same thing. One of my favourite moments in my early days in Germany back in the 1980’s was when a native friend, following copious refreshment, confided this irrefutable truth in me : « Fingers, you know, the Germans love their front gardens. They will spend hours, days and weeks making sure they look beautiful, and then they will never use them, except for exercising emotional pressure on their neighbours to be as tidy as they. You only find this in Germany ». I nearly choked ; ‘and in Britain’, I told him. Twenty-odd years on and I could add a slew of nations to the list with no fear of contradiction. Many French gardens, like many British ones, are also pigsties, but apparently you’ll only encounter this phenomenon between Lille and Perpignan ; every other nation being horticulturally far more advanced than Sarkoland. At the same time, a self-satisfied, elegantly-phrased gallic explanation as to why your French car’s cruise control failure at 130kmh on the motorway will suffice to extinguish any suspicion of engineering incompetence, one perceives a lone voice from Stuttgart wondering if the new Siemens dishwasher’s capacity to clean a family of four’s daily crockery use with only two litres of water could not somehow be improved. Self-criticism is selective…

It’s now been four years since Nicolas Sarkozy was voted in on a reformist ticket, promising to enable people to ‘work more to earn more’, thus freeing them from their 35-hour week shackles and finally join the unapologetic big earners. A mere year after his triumphant election, France was faced with The Merry Month of May, which, depending on how Easter falls, can provide the French worker with between two and four public holidays a mere handful of weeks before the whole nation goes horizontal for the summer. As dress rehearsals go, it’s pretty impressive. However, in 2008, May Day and Ascension fell on the same day, causing employers to hastily offer another day off as compensation, which most people took…immediately ! Armistice Day (May 8th) was quickly followed by Pentecost (May 12th), so the whole country was involved in ‘Doing the Bridge’, explained in a previous post on this site (Bridge of Sighs, I think...). Everyone forgot why they voted for Le petit Nicolas and reverted to type, i.e. complaining they had to work so much, so this is why I’m interested in seeing the reaction this year…

Just a few weeks from now, May 1st, that staunch, worker-orientated public holiday, will fall on a…Sunday. OK, maybe this won’t be considered so bad. However, a mere week later, France, which still celebrates their 1945 ‘victory’ over Germany (with a little help from their friends, but we don’t mention this, of course), ceremoniously downs tools on the 8th. Oh ! So close ! The 8th is also a Sunday ! This means the man on the street will treat us to one of two options :

« Good thing, too. It’s about time we moved on and forgot all that. In any case, we have so much time off anyway that it’s about time the French knuckled down and actually did some work for a change »


« It’s disgraceful. We work hard all year and then this calendar thing denies us our right to celebrate May Day and Armistice Day appropriately. The government should immediately grant us two extra days’ holiday. After all, it’s what our parents and grandparents fought for ».

Place your bets, but don’t hold your breath.

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