Start spreading the news… New York is THE city I feel I belong to the most. It’s really strange given I’ve never lived there …. and yet, something about the place speaks to me. I love it, and don’t know why…I see all its faults, cracks and limitations, quirkiness, ugliness and occasional heartlessness …and yet I truly and absolutely love it. The first time I went there I fell in Love with the city instantly and, at the time, put it down to its similarity to London, where I grew up and came of age. Yet, somehow, New York is more ME than London: less majestic, less historical, equally gritty but somehow, more alive. A recent trip to London made the comparison easier this time: whereas London is my first love….New York is the forbidden steamy affair! I just irrationally and inexplicably LOVE New York. Shopping may have something to do with it. Midtown is a shopaholic’s Nirvana and during my very brief 30 hour trip I still managed an interlude to 5th Avenue…One and a half hours later I came out with a big smile on my face, one top, one pair of nice trousers, one bag and 3 pairs of shoes…. You couldn’t have enough choice for that mad spree anywhere else… So now I am enjoying my Parisian evening listening to Sinatra and musing over how cultured, elegant Paris is my home, yet New York has my superficial materialistic heart 🙂
In North America, the general fascination with Europe centres around differences in lifestyle and societal approach to life-work balance between the European and American/Canadian society.
Moreover, the reference case for such comparisons and the corollary of North American envy is France. A visit to any bookstore would inevitably lead to the dedicated corner to everything French, where in the smallest of spaces one can see a plethora of books on the broadest variety of topics relating to France and the French. The title is always prosaic and message invariably positive. Paris, the most romantic city; French food paradox: eat butter, drink wine, live happy and long! French men are great lovers! French women don’t diet! The French work 35 hours a week and enjoy the longest holidays in Europe!
Oh, let’s all move to Paris, let loose and be French!
..well, I did. Not because of those books, incidentally, and not because I believed all the hype but, truthfully, because I needed a change and was hoping for a slightly more relaxed life, with bit more time to travel and more time to myself.
Fast-forward a year and I’m sitting admiring Parisian rooftops from my apartment, paid for with the wages from my enviable Parisian job. Friends back in North America imagine me breakfasting on fresh croissants and accompanying each meal with champagne, while strolling carefree the bohemian Paris quartiers.
But the reality is this: right now in front of me I have my work laptop, and a presentation that I’m working on …on Saturday. I spent my whole day working today and I’ll be working tomorrow, too.
Monday to Friday I work from 9-9:30 to 6:30- 7, and that’s a regular day. All my French colleagues work like this. Yes, we are given 6 weeks of vacation, but that’s to compensate 46 weeks of 10-11 hour days.
How is this possible? It’s simple. France operates on a dual band workforce: those working for one type of government job or another, benefiting from long vacations (8-9 weeks) and the prescribed 35 hour week but receiving very small wages; and those working for the corporations as “cadre” … who have to opt out of the 35 hour week, work like dogs and, to compensate, have a decent wage, 5 or 6 weeks of vacation and 5-6 additional RTT (reduction du temps de travail) days off a year. For the latter, 50 – 60 hours, plus more than the occassional weekend of unpaid work, is the norm.
If you’re dreaming of moving to France in search of that easy life, think again. As an expat, you’ll only be able to get a job as a cadre. So, unless you’re independently wealthy, your simple, stress-free life in Paris will remain a dream if you come here with a job.
The 9-5 is an Anglo-Saxon concept that is not adopted here. It’s strange to me, but all my colleagues at work are jealous of my former 9-5 life in Canada….in fact, many dream of moving to Montreal. I have days when I, too, get nostalgic for what, at the time, seemed a very stressful work schedule.
You don’t have to take my word, feel free to check out some related articles about work life balance in contemporary Europe….
Not quite the stuff of dreams, is it?
Truth is, my job enables me to run around Europe at the weekends (when I don’t work) and for that, I am grateful.
But the reality of my work in Paris has killed every preconceived idea on the French life/work balance I might once have had…
One of the best things about living in Paris is that no matter where you live (other than the suburbs)…there is somewhere gorgeous you can walk to. In my case, Trocadero.
We are in June and the weather is nice, finally. The tourist invasion has commenced, and Trocadero is one of the hot spots.
Palais du Trocadéro was built on the hill of Chaillot in 1867 on the occasion of the World’s fare. The initial building was later demolished and replaced with the current Palais in 1937, for the International Exhibition. Like the Eiffel Tower it overlooks, it was built to impress, but, for me, at least, it fails to do so: I prefer my buildings to look more classical, I suppose. While the Palais houses a number of museums (Naval Museum, Museum of Architecture), most tourists come here for the vista : the Eiffel Tour in it’s glorious splendour. The locals, on the other hand, prefer the Jardins du Trocadero, the green stretch of grass in front, towards the Seine.
Today is hot and the uninhibited locals are using the Jardins to relax, work on a tan or take a dip in the fountains. No beach, no problem.
One of my first self-imposed tasks upon arriving in Paris was to go to the address where Maria Callas, the famed soprano, once lived and, tragically, died. My mother has always been her biggest fan, never once failing to shed a tear when listening to Callas’s signature aria, ‘Casta Diva’, despite having heard it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.
I have been an opera fan since my early twenties, when I used to go to the Royal Albert Hall on a frequent basis, having the opportunity of both proximity and those 5 or 10 pound student-priced tickets while attending university in London. I have been fortunate enough to see some of the contemporary greats live, including Pavarotti, Carreras, Domingo, Kiri te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballé on numerous occasions. Yet, somehow, I came to love Callas relatively late.
And so it is partly due to my mum’s undying love for Callas and in part due to my own growing into her unique timbre that I went to see the house she used to live in, on one of my very first days in Paris.
Callas’s voice, as was her life, is unique, tremendous and rather tragic. Her timbre is instantly recognisable, her powerful dramatic soprano resonance sends shivers down one’s spine, and yet, there is a sad underlining tone to her voice…and one can hear this in her early as well as late recordings, though perhaps more distinctly in the latter. Perhaps her voice encompassed a reflection of her life, whereby she came from nothing, achieved everything, and then heartbreakingly descended into nothing, yet again.
It was in reverence to her genius and unique talent but accompanied by the bitter taste of knowing her tragic fate that I went to 36 Avenue Georges Mandel, to have a look at the building that was once her home in the City. Arriving in Avenue Georges Mandel one is immediately impressed by the beauty of the surroundings: old chestnut trees line the broad avenue, old, Haussmannian buildings on each side, lilac trees adorning most building entries. It is a magnificent avenue, in close proximity to Trocadero and within view of the Eiffel Tour, I suspect, from the topmost apartments.
The service street alongside the Avenue has been renamed Allee Maria Callas, in honour of the street’s famous former resident. On the Saturday afternoon of my visit, while just 5 minutes’ walk away, in Trocadero, hundreds of tourists were applauding a Michael Jackson lookalike doing the Parisian version of the Moonwalk, there were only two Japanese tourists beside me…. on a bench across from number 36, looking at the signposts for “Allee Maria Callas”, looking up at the apartment floor, acting like they had an appreciation that this elegant and distinguished building once housed a most elegant and distinguished woman, possibly the greatest soprano that ever lived!
So, if anyone other my mother (who’s surely sobbing now), is reading this post, please do me a favour, go on Youtube and have a listen. I recomend ‘Casta Diva’.