When you’ve gone around the merry-go-round of life as many times as I have, all you really want for Christmas is a thrill. Fact is, I don’t need more things (though a cattle prod would make a nice stocking-stuffer; I’d use it on those people trying to mow me down with their motorized scooters). No, what I want these days is adventure, tension, risk. Unfortunately, Paris tucks away its general surliness for the holidays, the way you might return Grandma to the old folks home. Everything is placid. You’re reduced to sipping vin chaud at a brasserie, sniffing the aroma roasted chestnuts (trust me, that’s better than eating them), and admiring dancing marionettes in the windows of the Galeries Lafayette.
There was an opening for excitement the other day when I stopped in a small store. It specialized in rocks with words engraved on them. While I stood in line with liberté in my hand, the cashier suddenly realized that her previous customer had left without her credit card. The opportunity for something theatrical bloomed. I awaited her rant about idiot customers. Or, if I was very lucky, I’d watch this woman palm the card discreetly, in preparation for a vast campaign of identity theft. Instead, she dashed out into the crowded street, darting this way and that, in search of her forgetful patron.
What, I thought, had happened to Parisian disdain? The answer: the holidays.
Similarly, I take issue with the way the French sell their Christmas trees. When I was growing up, the tree furnished an important holiday ritual. The officiant for the ceremony was originally my father, although when I grew old enough to have a family of my own, I performed it as well. It consisted of planting your fir or spruce or pine in a metal stand, clamping it in place by way of an intersection of bolts, rather as if you were trying to snug up Frankenstein’s neck. Because the threads have time to rust between Christmases, the job is difficult, requiring such lubricants as WD-40 and profanity, and the final product reminds one of that tower in Pisa.
In France, however, Christmas trees are sold already planted in blocks of wood. You buy one, carry it back home, and plop it down in your living room. The process takes five minutes. Where, I ask, is the Christmas spirit in that?
You can’t even count on human misery anymore. I live in the thirteenth arrondissement, where we have our share of panhandlers, some of whom are also homeless. I find the sight of them disturbing. They are a constant reminder of the difficulties of life and of inequality. The most intrepid of these characters is a wreck of a man, an old amputee who typically parks his wheelchair outside my bakery, facing the door. Thus, as you exit with the warm bread of life in your hand (and, who knows, maybe a bag with a few chocolate macarons), you are confronted with The Human Condition, and you part readily with your small change.
But this is the holidays, and for the past couple of weeks my beggar has performed his afternoon shifts wearing a Santa Claus jacket and a red and white Santa hat. Smiling toothlessly, he wished me a Merry Christmas after my last donation, and he meant it.
I’d pretty much given up hoping for drama, resigning myself to the perfunctory task of purchasing gifts. I did this at a department store the other day, and as my bags grew heavier, my shoulders rounded with discouragement. At every stop the saleswomen wore me down with politeness. There wasn’t a beggar within a stone’s throw (even if that stone were engraved with the word liberté) and there were no wrestling matches with trees scheduled for my near future. Around me was the buzz of voices, occasional laughter, and as I exited the store, an almost birdlike chirping.
It was then that someone latched onto my elbow. I turned to find a tall black man in an ill-fitting blue suit, the word sécurité embroidered on the pocket.
“You’ll want to come with me, Sir.”
“I’m sorry? What’s this about?”
He gave me a meaningful look. “We’ll talk about it inside.”
That’s when I realized: there hadn’t been any birds chirping at the exit; I’d triggered the alarm. My bag had set things off. Probably one of the sales clerks had forgotten to remove a metal tag. Something hadn’t been properly swiped.
“109?” the security man was saying into his sleeve. “This is 110. This is 110. We have a blue.”
Another thought blossomed. Maybe, just maybe, there would be more. Perhaps one of the salesclerks had added another article to my bag—one I hadn’t purchased, one that wouldn’t be on my receipt, and that couldn’t be explained away. The police would become involved. I’d get to visit the commissariat. Who knows? Maybe I’d see the inside of a French jail.
My companion led me back inside and we headed for the office. My lungs swelled. The air was fresh, the future bright. There is a Santa Claus after all!
Scott Dominic Carpenter is Contributing Editor at Secrets of Paris. The Author of Theory of Remainders and This Jealous Earth, Scott writes often about life in Paris.