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Blog Posted in avatar   Johnny Summerton's Blog

How New Year in France can mean ending up with too many calendars

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By Johnny Summerton
Posted Jan 3, 2011 in Lifestyle
New Year in France witnesses the tradition of "les ├ętrennes" or gifts given at this time of year to postal workers, firefighters, rubbish collectors (think that is just about as non-sexist as you can get in describing the jobs) and (where they still exist) apartment block concierges or gardiens, perhaps most accurately translated as janitors or caretakers in English.
As far as concierges or caretakers are concerned, "To celebrate the New Year," writes Christine Henry, a reporter for the daily Aujourd'hui en France - Le Parisien, "It's customary to slip a small envelope (with cash) or offer a box of chocolates or a bottle of champagne to a concierge as thanks for services rendered throughout the year."
Those services include ones not necessarily stipulated in their employment contract such as watering plants, walking the dog or simply being (extra) friendly!
It's also, as Henry points out, a tradition as much in decline as the job itself as the French are counting the centimes and some at least are reluctant to dig very deep into their pockets.
A report on Sunday evening's edition of France 3 news suggested that the amount given, or the form the gift takes, is no longer to be taken for granted. And while most of those interviewed happily agreed that les ├ętrennes were by and large deserved, they reserved the right to determine their exact level and nature.
So much for the concierges, What about the sapeur-pompiers, or firefighters who right now are busy knocking on doors offering their 2011 calendar?
Well, the problem with the calendar they're "giving away" - apart perhaps from the fact that it has nothing remotely "Dieux du Stade" about it, which might come as a disappointment to those fantasising about men (and women) in uniform - is that there's nothing very voluntary about the contribution you're expected to make for a calendar you don't particularly want.
But you'll end up buying it, unless you're a complete misery, because of the 250,000 firefighters in France, almost 80 percent of them are volunteers and you could well owe your life to them at some point in the future.
And similarly you'll probably already have been offered - and made a contribution to - the Almanach du facteur or the Postman/woman's calendar.
What in the past might have featured pictures of historical figures and events is nowadays more than likely to contain photos of cute kittens, puppies and meaningless landscapes.
Once again even though it's free, a contribution - left to your discretion - is expected. And you can hardly refuse to "buy" one.
In all fairness, certainly in rural parts of France, those delivering the mail provide a service above and beyond the proverbial call of duty.
Posties have been a Godsend to many an elderly person stranded in their homes during the recent cold snap.
Finally there are the rubbish collectors. They too are traditionally entitled to "a little something" but more and more local authorities have clamped down on the practice in recent years because "fake dustmen" have been going from door-to-door pretending to be collecting on behalf of the real ones.
The main problem with all this less-than-warm-hearted virtually institutionalised giving is that nobody really seems to know how much to give or whether to give at all come to that.
And while for some concierges and gardiens the cash received, for what is after all a low-paid job, can constitute a welcome 13th month of salary, there is surely a limit as to what use they can make of so much chocolate or champagne.

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