Thursday, September 2

September 1 - KEYS TO FRANCE

It’s time for Jose Melendez’s KEYS TO FRANCE.

In his ongoing quest to search his personal history for blog material, Jose reaches his third foreign country, France, one of our most maligned and mocked allies. Whether its body odor, or rudeness or military incompetence, France has something for everyone!!! (Note: Or so the joke goes. Jose does not indulge in stereotypes, except of Samoans). Jose has been to France two to three times. First at the tender age of sixteen with his family on is first trip to the European continent, second for a single day while living in Germany’s Black Forest and third (if one wishes to count it) on a plane layover on the way from Boston to Vienna.

Jose does not think of himself as a Francophile. He speaks no French, dislikes much of French literature and finds Gerard Depardieu to be a complete bore (Note: Though "The Return of Martin Gere" was good), yet he would desperately like to live in France. Is it the famed French cuisine? No. The fine French wines? Tempting but not enough. The prospect of love in "The French Style?" Not even that. Jose would like to live in France because of the remarkable extent to which they have institutionalized laziness. Jose enjoys relaxing as much as the next man, probably more…the next American man that is…but he has much to learn from the French. As best Jose understands, the French, as a matter of law, limit most workers to a 35 hour work week. Compared to the ever expanding American work week, which seems to be a minimum of 40 hours these days and rapidly stretching towards 45, this is profoundly appealing.

Jose’s parents know a fellow who was a prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, working nearly 100 hours a week. After a while, he left to make money, like all good ADAs and went to work for Microsoft for comparably absurd hours. With time, Microsoft transferred him to Paris along with is wife and baby so he could work on their European operations. He dove into his new work with his typical zest. But one day, he received a visit from the French labor police who promptly demanded to see his time cards.

"No, no monsieur," they exclaimed. "Zis weell not doo. In France, zer ees a law zat says, you may not work more zan zee thirty five hours."

"There must be a misunderstanding, you see," he replied. "I can’t get everything done in thirty five hours. What is my employer supposed to do?"

"Zey weell hire more people," the officer explained. "You can not doo eet all." Also, you must take zee six weeks vacation."

So the lawyer went to his superiors and explained that they were being monitored for compliance with French labor laws and that further violations would be taken quite seriously. This left him with weeks more leisure time then he’d ever had before and more time to spend with his wife and child. He spends much of his free time thinking about how to avoid getting transferred to a country with more relaxed labor laws.

The funny thing is that while Americans would view this as a recipe for unemployment and economic disaster, which it probably is, the French view it as a solution to unemployment. If one does not allow people to work longer hours, they reason, companies will simply have to hire more people.

Jose knows of only one occasion when this was seriously advocated by an American politician and this stretches the definition of "seriously." In 1996 and 1998, the Republicans ran a candidate for Massachusetts’ famously liberal eighth congressional district named Phil Hyde. Hyde was something of a socialist Republican, to the extent that such things exist. (Note: He used the pink elephant as his campaign symbol. Really.) Hyde’s one and only issue was timesizing, in other words the French labor system. He was a native Canadian, which Jose figures is the only way he could have come up with the idea. Jose thinks he eventually founded the "Massachusetts Timesizing Not Downsizing Party."

So until Phil Hyde is elected President, which since he is a native Canadian won’t be until after the Constitution is amended to allow Shwarzenagger to run, Jose will have to hold on to is fantasy of a leisurely life in France.

2. Next Jose must address the issue of the famous French rudeness. To be honest, Jose has never really experienced it, save for one McDonald’s cashier who was furious that young Jose couldn’t figure out how to order. (Note: Pulp Fiction was still two years away so how was Jose to know that a Quarter Pounder with cheese is a "Royale with Cheese"). But aside from that, Jose didn’t experience a single incident of rudeness in the total eight days he has spent in Paris, Normandy and Strasbourg. (Note: Though Jose has a sneaking suspicion that Napoleon inside his tomb was flipping Jose off. Jose just can’t prove it. Yet.) Certainly, he experienced less rudeness that one typically sees in say, 90 seconds on the Green Line. Jose is open to the possibility, just the possibility that people may have been taking advantage of the fact that he does not speak a single word of French (Note: Excluding sacre bleu) to mock him behind his back, but the French wouldn’t do that to Jose. Would they?

3. Jose would like to take a rare moment to be serious. Jose’s favorite place in France was Normandy. The people are nice, the food is drenched in cream sauce, the prices are lower and it is a history lover’s dream. Jose does not tell people what to do too often, but in this instance he will make an exception. Every American, every free European, should visit Normandy if only to reflect on the magnitude of the sacrifices made for our freedom.

Jose has visited battlefields at Lexington and Concord, Bunker Hill, Bull Run and not only are they dwarfed in magnitude of combat by the beaches of Normandy, bit in symbolic impact as well. Even Gettysburg, the site of the most devastating battle in our history, christened in the blood of two armies of Americans, does not convey the enormity and tragedy of war and the nobility of sacrifice like the beaches of Normandy. To stare down at the brown sandy beaches from the ruins of a German machine gun nest, to imagine crossing the rain soaked sand through storms of bullets, fences of razor wire and the chaos of battle, is to forever change ones conception of "just a few hundred yards."

And then there are the cemeteries, green French fields dotted with small white crosses for mile after mile, each representing a young life, an American life, not so different from mine, stopped in midstream, ended in violence. But each of those crosses symbolizes more than a lost life, it symbolizes the willingness of human beings to protect each other from torment and terror and tyranny, the willingness of regular people to stand up for what is right and good and make sacrifices to protect it. This is, of course, only one part of the story of Europe and indeed the world. While the cemeteries of Normandy are a monument to the willingness of normal men to fight evil, the concentration camps elsewhere in Europe are monuments to the willingness of normal men to perpetrate it.

For all of the rhetoric and, perhaps, reality of French dislike and resentment of Americans, Jose could not perceive it in Normandy. While no one ever said thank you (though it was almost 50 years after, thanks enough had been said) the warmth towards Americans was palpable. The Normans, reminded every day of the sacrifices of our country by those rows of little white crosses, by those little symbols of compassion and honor, seemed to send the message "We were happy to see you Americans then, and we are happy to see you now."

I’m Jose Melendez, and those are my KEYS TO FRANCE.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jose, you got the part about strict adherence to the 35 h work week right. My request for access to my office on a Saturday (it was my first week of work in France!) was greeted by a group e-mail to the entire workplace from the director threatening to lock anyone IN the building if he/she dares to get into it!! yeah, they take their off days seriously! Do not mess with them on that front.

Also, one cannot take up two jobs if one makes certain amount of money! This, of course is not a problem for everyone, but what is a scientist looking to hookup with a few French girls by working part-time as a bartender supposed to do, if I may ask? (Of course, the scientist's Italian girl-friend does not know the real reason for him seeking this additional employment!).

You did also forget to mention the French affinity for public nudity. There is hardly a beach or a lakefront that does not have a multitude of barenaked ladies lounging around casually at the slighest hint of sun in the horizon. I bet Jose would not mind this.

Sox Fan in France