April 19, 2012
In the run-up to the April 22 French presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy has been promising a referendum to loosen labor policies he blames for the high unemployment rate in France. The goal is to emulate Germany, an idea that once would have seemed incroyable in a country where worker protections are as sacred as wine with dinner.
But people who love all things French—including the millions of travelers who continue to make France the number one tourist destination in the world—might be interested to note this trio of developments suggesting that change is on the horizon:
A few months ago, on February 7 to be exact, the franc officially went out of circulation. Introduced by French monarch Jean le Bon (1319-1364), it remained the coin of the realm—with occasional modifications, like the addition of the Vichy seal during the World War II German occupation—until 2002 when France adopted the (now distressed) euro. At that time a ten-year grace period went into effect so that people who stashed old bills under the mattress could exchange them for euros at a locked-in value of 6.56 francs for 1 euro, the going rate when France joined the European Union in 1999. But now hoarders and travelers who accumulated francs left over from past trips are stuck with them. Remember Antoine de Saint Exupéry and “The Little Prince” on the old 50-franc bill? Think of it as a souvenir.
The French honorific mademoiselle went the way of the franc last month when government offices were instructed to remove it from official documents because of sexist overtones inherent in a form of address based on marital status. With the single female distinction excised, only two choices remain: monsieur and madame. Whether common parlance comes to reflect mademoiselle’s demise is another question, not least because it’s sometimes used as a form of flattery for older women.
Yves Jégo, the mayor of Montereau-Fault-Yonne, a small town about 50 miles southeast of Paris, is attempting to raise $255 million to construct a theme park based on the life and times of Napoleon. If his dream becomes a reality, Napoleonland will break ground in 2014 and go head-to-head with nearby Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992 to cries of sacré bleu from cultural purists but has since become Europe‘s top tourist site, visited by 15.6 million people last year. Given “Boney’s” stature and the pressing need for jobs in France, Napoleonland may get a warmer welcome, though it’s hard to imagine the attractions. The 100 Days in miniature? A Battle of the Nile son et lumière? The Bonaparte family on parade?
Honestly, the more things change in France, the more they really change.
December 21, 2011
I used to think that shopping is an unworthy pursuit shunned by the serious traveler, who’s busy seeking out the deep meaning of a place instead of looking for souvenirs. But I used to think a lot of things and now I know better. Now I know that what’s on sale in the market—gold earrings in Dubai or red hot chili peppers in Oaxaca—is at the heart of the sense of place, not to mention a way of never forgetting where I’ve been in my travels.
To quell my consumer guilt, I started devoting my travel shopping to Christmas gift-giving, even when the holidays were months away. From Helsinki to Bali I took home presents, stashed them away and then wrapped them up for Christmas. It’s always fun to watch the puzzled faces of my nearest and dearest when they rip off the paper to uncover a Vietnamese water puppet or the ceramic face of a satyr from the Italian island of Lipari.
I love the teeming craft market in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for silks and cunning carvings; the Marrakesh souk where I once bought a pair of antique Berber rugs; Malioboro Road in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for batik and leather; Jaipur in Rajasthan, India, a center for printed cotton like the quilt on my bed; and Beijing’s Panjiayuan antiques market, full of Ming Dynasty knock-offs and genuine bric-a-brac from the Mao era.
Christmas markets generally disappoint me. I once took a Rhine River cruise calling at German Christmas markets in medieval town squares from Cologne to Nuremburg. All I could find was Third World junk that only looks good if you drink a lot of Gluhwein.
But then on a very jet-lagged weekend package trip to Brussels one December I found the Christmas market in the elegant Sablon near the Belgian Royal Palace where I bought a little ceramic figurine of three boy choristers, their mouths wide open sounding high notes in the French Christmas carol “Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle.“ I bought it for about 5 bucks, intending it for my sister’s stocking. But the more I looked at the white-robed singers, the more I knew I couldn‘t part with them. They‘re caroling on my desk as I write this. I call them Henri, Hubert and Etienne. Merry Christmas, guys.