The French Work Ethic – Something to Sing About

The French often get a bad rap for their work ethic, or, rather, what the outside world sees as a lack of one.  They are usually shown demonstrating on the streets of Paris and other major cities; striking or threatening to do so or just plain old vacationing.

The French take to the streets - often.
The French take to the streets – often.

(After all, they have between five to nine weeks a year during which they can spend their free time.  And they do spend it, proudly.)  The French also take long lunches; hardly work on Sundays (since Labor Laws prohibit them from doing so) and are not ashamed to call in sick. Good for them.

With all this free time to enjoy themselves, it seems strange not to see smiling faces when you walk around the city.  That’s a Parisian paradox I still don’t understand – the fact that the French can stay home from work and get paid for it should make them jump for joy.  But that’s just not the case.  They are a discreet, dressed-in-black, serious bunch.  Last night, however, I saw about two thousand French men, women and children dancing and singing like crazy.  What were they all excited about?  Work, of course.  Well, actually, not working.  But smoking, lots of smoking.  Let me explain.

It was a Pink Martini concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris that inspired this fit of French celebration.  Firstly, let me tell you that the Olympia Theater in itself is a French musical icon of the highest order.  It opened in 1888, founded by Joseph Oller, the creator of the Moulin Rouge.  As you might have guessed, it is very red and has a sublime art deco theme. All the people who work there are extremely pleasant, doing their best to make you feel welcome.

The iconic Olympia Paris concert hall.
The iconic Olympia Paris concert hall.

The Olympia hosts rock bands, pop music, jazz and comedy.  I will name just a few of the legends who have played there and you will understand how important this stage is to the musical world – Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Marlene Dietrich, the Beatles, Charles Aznavour, Josephine Baker, Diana Ross, the Grateful Dead and on and on.  And last night, it was Pink Martini.

Pink Martini is an American jazz/pop/eclectic musical orchestra based in Portland, Oregon, whose first album, “Sympathique” included a song in French that rejoiced in not working.  The title means “Nice” in English.  The chorus, the popular refrain of the song translates to: “I don’t want to work, I don’t want to have lunch, I only want to forget and so, I smoke.”  The intro describes a hotel room in the form of a cage and the sun that’s filtering in through the windows – and the urge to light up a cigarette.

Some of the lyrics to “Sympathique” (also known as “Je Ne Veux Pas Travailler”) were taken from a poem called “Hotel” written in 1913 by the famous French poet,

Apollinaire's take on happiness.
Apollinaire’s take on happiness.

Guillaume Apollinaire. The rest of the lines were penned by the Pink Martini bandleader, Thomas Lauderdale, and the group’s singer, China Forbes.  However, the smoking instead of working idea was definitely Apollinaire’s.  “Sympathique” quickly became an international phenomenon, nominated for the “Song of the Year” award and France’s “Victoires de la Musique” in 2000.  The French car company, Citroen, used it for the soundtrack of an extremely popular television commercial for its Xsara Picasso model. (You can watch the video of that ad at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiDoOMXNdg8).

In the course of the evening, Pink Martini performed many wonderful, catchy numbers but none of them could get the French spectators out of their seats and into the aisles of the gorgeous Olympia concert hall. Staying put is pretty much business-as-usual for French

Pink Martini - the group that got the French moving.
Pink Martini – the group that got the French moving.

concert-goers.  They don’t move much.  In fact, they usually yell at the people in front of them who stand up and start gyrating.  They want them to sit down and stop twirling so they can sit comfortably and see the musicians on stage.  In this case, in the “I-don’t-want-to-work” theme song case, the French audience really got into it.  They spread out.  They were everywhere.  They ran from the balcony to the orchestra seats and onto the stage – singing and dancing, dragging their children along with them.  It was fun to see them so happy and exuberant.  Even if the inspiration for this was all about not working and even if they would be snarling in the streets the next day.  For one night, just this one night, they were all happy campers.

The French Bus Whisperer Gets Angry

I have changed myself into a bus commuter these days.  I realized that the French public RATP bus system is really quite good – a bit slower but much less stressful than the Parisian metro – and I get to see Paris unfold before me on my way to work.  I always take the same line at about the same time so I have started to run into the same faces.  Some of these familiar faces even share a polite nod of acknowledgement with me.  Some of them don’t.  The Bus Whisperer is one of them.

A Self-Appointed Chastiser
The Bus Whisperer is a 60-ish ordinary-looking, French lady who I suspect is retired and doesn’t want to admit it.  She rides the “92” bus around 8:30 AM Monday through Friday and has taken it upon herself to enforce cell phone etiquette (as if such a thing existed).  She chastises offenders with a sharp whisper like a parochial school nun would use on her students light years ago. I bowed to her self-imposed authority the first time she got me.
“Psstt, Madame,” she whispered.  “Vous n’etes pas toute seule ici!”  Basically, she was telling me that I wasn’t alone on the bus, which is French for “Shut the hell up!”  Her comment surprised me in the way it made me think of my third grade teacher Sister Mary Humilitas.  I hung up on my boss immediately and texted him an apology.  I also put my phone on “silent”.  The Bus Whisperer was satisfied, grinning smug, righteous satisfaction.  I had made her day.

Her Daily Yell
Since then, I have witnessed her whispering technique on several occasions.  She’s pretty good at what she does.  I have even come to enjoy it since it helps pass the time on the way to work (now that I don’t dare to talk on my cell phone).  She gets to yell at someone almost daily.  I watch her closely and can almost predict, to the second, when she will jump in.  Some people give her dirty mind-your-own-business looks but that doesn’t stop her at all. She continues to harass them, her whispers increasing in sound and intensity.  The Bus Whisperer ultimately wins.

When Whispers Come to Blows
The Bus Whisperer met her match one day in the form of an arrogant French teen-age girl who would not bow to her authority.  The girl was talking quite loudly that morning so this time I was on the Bus Whisperer’s side.  She ignored about four of the lady’s searing whispers and then interrupted her conversation (but not ending it) to tell the Whisperer to go do you-know-what to herself.

RATP bus 92
Here is Parisian RATP bus 92 - the Scene of the Crime

The Bus Whisperer got out of her seat. All the passengers (about 20 or so) turned their heads to watch how this conflict would play out.
And play out it did.  When she realized that the girl would not yield to her whispery warnings, the Bus Whisperer got louder.  She made a bee-line for the offender and pushed her towards the door.  She yelled about the teen-ager not respecting her fellow passengers.  The teen-ager yelled back – calling her a crazy old lady who should leave her alone; mind her own business.  The fiery exchange lasted about two minutes.  The driver kept driving; the passengers kept watching and the ladies kept yelling.

And the Whisperer Wins!
The Bus Whisperer pushed the girl harder and harder.  No one stepped in to stop her.  When we came to the next stop, the adolescent hopped off quicker than an Easter bunny.  I’m sure it wasn’t her stop, but, to her credit, she could not push the Bus Whisperer back.  She took the high road and left, cursing all the while.  The Bus Whisperer put a snarly grin on her face.  Someone’s cell phone rang.  No one answered.