09 May 2010

Why the French Don't Work on May 8th

If you happened to be out walking in the city of Lyon yesterday, or any other French city for that matter, you might not have noticed that the entire country was observing the sixty-fifth anniversary of the end of World War II.

There were no parades or fireworks (that's usually saved for July 14th), although it might been have mentioned, however briefly, on the 8pm news. So how, you might ask, does a country commemorate this dark passage of its history?

Easy: they take the day off.

Because May 8th fell on a Saturday this year it wasn't so obvious that people weren't working. Unless you tried to send a package at the post office. Or deposit a check at the bank. Or buy a bar of chocolate at the corner store to satisfy an intensely deep craving, like an inner itch that can never get enough scratching.

But on the farmers' market on the boulevard de la Croix Rousse, it was business as usual with shoppers loading up their two-wheeled hand carts with every imaginable fruit and vegetable in season. And despite the forecast for rain, there was a faint glimmer of summer as voluptuous mounds of strawberries, the first of the season, caught the eye of the unwary, luring them closer, promising a luscious, full-bodied kiss with each bite.

My mother in-law says that food in these same bountiful varieties didn't exist during the war years. She often talks about not having enough to eat or that her own mother had to bicycle for miles just to get staples like cheese and bread. And then there's the unforgettable story of the occupation.

She was six or seven and lived in an apartment building in the city. For fun, she used to run up and down the stairs with friends, ringing doorbells at random, then running and hiding. Nobody really minded until it was discovered that the family living on the ground floor - a Jewish family - had been removed and (probably) put on a train heading east, never to be seen again. Several Nazis then moved into the apartment to catch and deport any other Jewish friends or family that might come knocking...or ringing the doorbell.

Maybe it was the distress in their voices or the fear in their eyes that did it, but somehow the parents convinced their children not to ring any more doorbells.

I see the value now of a 'day off' as a way of keeping memories of such times alive. My wife and I lived in that same building with our two kids when we first moved to France.  Every day for five years we walked right past that apartment on the ground floor. Sometimes the kids asked who lived there; sometimes they wanted to knock on the door.

Had we not moved out of the building after a few years, they may have taken up the same game of ringing doorbells and running as they will, no doubt, one day hear the story of the family who disappeared.

They must, for we never know if one day it will be their turn to tip the balance back into the light.

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