jeudi 20 décembre 2012

Les Etrennes

My concierge has been making herself more and more visible lately which can only mean one thing. Actually, two things: the building's lobby is perpetually being cleaned, and it is the moment for the annual étrennes. Les étrennes, or strenae as the Romans liked to call them, is cash given at the end of the year to service personnel. My evenings are currently interrupted by knocks on the door by the Firemen (who, in exchange for their cash, gave me a sexy Firemen 2013 calendar), garbage collectors (no token offering given, thankfully), the Postman (old La Poste calendars are seen by some as collector's items) and sewer-cleaners (just take my money and go away...please).

The envelope given to the concierge (now called la gardienne, a more politically-correct title) is a sizeable one. Although fewer and fewer Parisian apartment buildings maintain a fulltime gardienne, (the cost of her salary and housing is borne by the building's inhabitants and it is now cheaper to outsource her duties), those of us who have an onsite gatekeeper know that it is in our interest to stay on her good side. Flowers, wine, chocolates-- while nice gestures (and never refused throughout the year)--these won't do it. You have to give her cash and a fat wad of it. If you neglect to slip her these alms, you can be sure that your mail will go astray, your guests will be directed to the wrong floor when they come to visit, your garbage will not be taken out with the rest of the building's and your Fedex deliveries refused. Les gardiennes are frequently uneducated and often barely literate, but they are powerful players in the neighborhood. They know everything--"être concierge" means to be a gossip--and will make your life miserable if you don't pay them handsomely.

Traditionally Portuguese, with the job handed down through family or word-of-mouth, my gardienne is French, which makes her a rarity. Still, she personifies the concierge mentality, with her loge, or dwelling, filled with kitchy bibelots and beaded curtains. She spends much of her time talking with the older people in the complex, complaining about various building-related incidents (the latest being fingerprints on the brass banisters). She seems to have her eyes everywhere and holds on to potent information like an embittered wife.

Still, with the absolution offered by the annual giving of the étrennes, the odometer gets set back to zero. That noisy party I held over the summer? That cardboard box I neglected to flatten before putting it in the garbage can? The joyful sounds my children make as they enter the lobby? A thick envelope of crisp new bills and all will be forgiven. For this year, at least.

Culture-specific dreams

My youngest likes to tell us her dreams at the breakfast table. They are complicated, as dreams tend to be, especially when recounted by a child. They often feature castles. Today she spoke of a menacing lavoir, a communal washing hut which was central social point of France's villages centuries ago. There was one in the town where her grandparents' country house was, and the girls loved to catch tadpoles in the stagnant water there. It still shows up in her dreams from time to time.

I also dreamt of castles as a child. But mine were castles out of fairy tales, unseen in waking life. My children grew up in the shadow of Versailles. They walk through the Louvre, touch the archways of the Palais du Luxembourg as they rollerblade through its arcades. For them, there is nothing unremoved about the markers of nobility. They live in its vestiges and its archetypes appear, unremarkable, in their dreams.