Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Impressions Of Paris

Unfortunately, work has me under the gun now that I am back in the office. Apparently, two days off is the equivalent of a crisis. Either way, I thought I'd pass along a few of my thoughts on my recent jaunt to Paris.

First, the obvious: The food was exquisite (down to the little baguette sandwiches you pick up on the street corner) and I ate too much of it. The wine was magnificent, and I drank way too much of it. And physically it is one of the most, if not the most, beautiful cities in the world - bar none. The architecture put me in a trance. All in all, the people were much friendlier than I anticipated - with most showing a merciful attitude to my crude attempts to piece together a sentence in French.

The Parisian subway system, the Metro, was extremely user friendly - especially coming from the slightly esoteric NYC version. That being said, I was a little taken aback when the doors would sometimes swing open while the train was still moving, heading into the station. My first thought, because of my profession naturally, was that trial lawyers would have a field day with such an anomaly. That and the fact that many of the doors had a mechanism that allowed them to be opened manually (at any point) - which accounted for some of the mid-ride openings. Every year in NYC, there are a handful of homicides attributed to people being pushed on to subway tracks ahead of oncoming trains. I shudder to think of what would happen if people had the option to open the doors mid-ride and jettison a passenger.

What also struck me, though, was the number of children, particularly newborns. It was as if the City of Lights had become the City of Enfants. This was unexpected, to say the least, because I had heard so much about Western Europe's notoriously anemic birth rates. What I was unaware of, however, is that France trails only Ireland in terms of birth rates in Western Europe, owing in large part to a series of government funded incentives to would-be parents. Here are some examples:

From conception to the age of 20, children in France entitle their parents to a welter of subsidies, allowances and tax breaks. Breeding for France is also one of the free leisure activities that has benefited most from the 35-hour working week and high youth unemployment.

Families with incomes of more than Euros 125,000 can reduce their tax bill by around Euros 2,000 per child and by more for a third child, who takes the size of the family above the replacement rate.

Furthermore, anyone living with at least two dependent children under 20 is eligible for family benefits of Euros 1,351 per year, rising to Euros 3,082 for three children. There is no means testing.

But making it easier to have children starts much earlier. During pregnancy the state will pay for Aids tests for both parents, a medical examination for the future father, seven pre-natal examinations and eight birthing classes. Nor is it a coincidence that French hospitals are so inclined to recommend epidurals. Pain-free birth is taken as a right, symbolic of the desire to limit the stresses of producing and raising children.

Mothers can take 16 weeks paid maternity leave for the first child, rising to 26 weeks for the third child. During this time, the state will pay the average of the woman's salary over the previous three months, less 20 per cent in social security charges, up to a monthly maximum of Euros 2,476. It is illegal to fire a woman who is pregnant or on maternity leave, except for "grave error" or if her contract can no longer be honoured for financial reasons unrelated to the pregnancy.

Last but not least, the government heavily subsidises childcare costs. On top of a cash payment that ranges from Euros 500-Euros 1,500, the state will allow 50 per cent of the cost of nannies, au pairs and special tutors to be tax-deductible. So get breeding.
And these policies are getting results, as France's birthrate is 1.8 children per woman, which is well above Europe's average of 1.4. It pays to have children in France. Which might explain, at least in part, why I met a couple (friends of a friend) who had lived in NYC for the past 10 years but had decided to move back to France when the woman got pregnant.

Another facet of Parisian life that stood out to me was the dominance of American pop culture. From the moment I boarded the bus set to taxi passengers from the tarmac to the terminal at Charles De Gaulle, I heard nothing but American music - mostly hip hop and modern R&B, though plenty of Top 40 thrown in. Without fail, no matter where I traveled, every bar and club was churning out hip hop and R&B to a bevy of Frenchmen unabashedly basking in their whiteness on the dance floor. On the streets, hip hop fashion was ubiquitous amongst the young - with brands like Sean John, Roc-a-Wear and Ecko reminding me more of New York City than Europe. On top of that, billboards for the latest American cinematic releases were plastered everywhere - like "Les Frerres Grimm."

Also, a pet peeve: the way I understand things, Americans suffer from an affliction that compels us to ask, within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone, what they do for a living. On top of that, we tend to talk more about money than our foreign counterparts - so gauche. Personally, I've always been slightly annoyed at the predilection to shift the conversation to professions. Most of the time, I don't really want to hear about someone else's boring job. I have my own to keep me satisfied, thank you. I would rather discuss almost any other topic - music, film, literature, sports, politics (obviously), the weather, etc. But that's why it annoyed me to no end that every French citizen I met in Paris (at two separate apartment parties) showed the same reflexive urge to almost instantaneously ask what I "do."

Maybe they were launching preemptive strikes against the American, anticipating the same query from me, but that seems unlikely. After the perfunctory resume recitations, most went on to rail about prices in NYC, the cost of living in France, money woes, etc. Some went as far as to declare that I was obviously "rich" because I live in Manhattan - a contradiction of sorts because the same folks were bemoaning the high cost of real estate in NYC that drains the better portion of any New Yorkers paycheck. It was bizarre to me. Am I wrong to observe this?

No worries though. I took comfort in the copious amounts of vin rouge.

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