So listen up, plague victims. Here in New York, vaccine or no vaccine, infection and death rates are so high that the mayor has finally bitten the bullet, swallowed the bitter pill, and closed restaurants to all but outdoor dining. (Lotsa luck on that, with temperatures often hovering close to freezing, particularly when it’s raining, snowing, or the wind is blowing.)
The cries of pain among New York’s restaurateurs and barkeeps are legion. But the problem isn’t just local. Or even just American. In France, the great, les formidables, and the merely modest-but-superb neighborhood restaurants are also feeling the pain of COVID-19.
Restaurants and cafés there have been ordered closed until January 20th, and then only if the pandemic subsides sufficiently, in the judgment of the authorities, to allow reopenings. Meanwhile, bars and nightclubs in France have been shuttered since October 30th, reports the publication Connexion France.
The United States, with slightly more than five times the population of France, has roughly eight times as many COVID-19 cases — but the government of France seems a bit more determined than a certain crowd at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to tamp down its nation’s infection rate even before everybody can get inoculated.
Glock? What Glock? I have
my 50-caliber Hyperbole
When Americans are told to mask up and stop eating out, they tend to reach for semi-automatic weapons and plot to kidnap the governor of their state. In France, they instead lunge for their hyperbole.
Once the piddling trickle of government loans to stressed restaurants has stopped, said an executive of a food service research company, “a massacre will happen very suddenly.” Presumably he was thinking about a massacre of the restaurant business, not of government officials. But even so.
Meanwhile, French representatives of the sous chefs in hotel kitchens also had some wild hyperbole simmering on the front burner.
"We hope to make this crazy government understand that the sector is on the verge of collapse, and that we are closer to having one foot in the grave than being able to reopen," said a vice-president of a French hotel union.
Perhaps it's worth noting here that restaurants, cafés and bars have a place in French culture that lacks a real equivalent in the United States.
Dumpy apartments and
If you’ve been to France and noticed all the cafés, restaurants, and bars that all but clutter the grand boulevards and narrow back streets of French cities, there’s a reason for it. And that reason goes back to — I’ll tell you how I know this stuff a bit further on — that reason goes back to French income taxes. Specifically, income taxes in the 19th and early 20thCenturies.
See, France, like all advanced nations, needed an income tax to thrive. But French manners — la politesse — made it a big no-no to ask people what they earned. Or for their employers to snitch on them. So instead, more than a century ago, the French equivalent of the IRS would send an inspector to your home to look around. He’d finger the damask drapes, sink his shoes into the plush carpeting, ogle the Dégas painting on your living room wall and think “These people are clearly loaded.” And then you'd get socked with a tax bill that might you wish you had both feet in the grave.
Disgust the inspector
To counter taxes and trick the inspectors, French citizens began turning their homes into dumps. The stuffing isn’t coming out of the couch? Quick, adopt a cat! The paint is peeling off the walls?Merveilleux! One has accidently spilled a pleasantly insoucient glass of Margaux on la carpette? Don’t try to blot it up. Leave the stain there to disgust the inspector.
Unsurprisingly, personal living quarters during that era became so yucky that the French didn’t much like entertaining at home. They tended to invite friends to dinner, or just for drinks, out of the house. And before you could say Ooh la la, restaurants and cafés were ubiquitous in France.
The tax laws have since changed and some French folks do entertain at home — usually a very nice home — these days. But the restaurants, the cafés, and the bars are all still there, although they're closed for the moment. Or for more than a moment if they get snuffed by the fallout from COVID-19
From fox hunts, to culture courses,
to very chi chi weddings
I learned all this stuff about eating in restaurants and its place in the lives of French citizens as a young college student, attending a way-off-campus seminar on French culture at a then-decrepit castle about 30 miles south of Paris. It was, and still is called Chateau Meridon. The educators who once ran the place, which was originally built as a French baron’s country hunting castle, have long since departed. These days, new owners have spiffed the joint up, and made it a venue primarily for elegant weddings, offsite business conferences — and who knows, maybe even a stray bar mitzvah. Although these days, Covid-19 may be inflicting pain on the chateau, too.
But I hope you'll remember that until recently, and with any luck soon again, one of the best reasons to go to France is to go to restaurants, from the Five Star Michelin gastronomic palaces, to the little neighborhood bistros.
Is there a moral to this story? Yeah, sort of. Chuck the diet. Eat while you can, for tomorrow you — or perhaps your favorite restaurant — may be dead.