The Euro Winter Sales

photo: bd haussmann, printemps, gal lafayette

In this photo the wide Boulevard Haussmann seems impossibly narrow.

Another Once and Only 'First'

Paris:- Friday, 11. January 2002:- I really intended to do some 'Paris' story today but I was pretty sure the weather had turned boringly grey, so I was busily sleeping through it when M. called to ask me if I was asleep.

When he called earlier, I was asleep, and when I got up to not quite answer the phone, I saw how gloomy it looked outside.

The second call came at a good time - the right time to get to the regular marché on Friday, and find out the new euro prices of my favorite foodstuffs - which are mostly ham and peanuts.

This is the whole thing about the euro, which Europe has been living with since 1. January, but Iphoto: hermes, rue fgb st honore only got into last Sunday. Getting used to the actual money, the coins and paper notes, will take the time it takes. The real problem is nobody knows the new euro prices of anything.

Where oh where are the lads who were handing out free cafés around here?

It is like we are all visitors here, learning this 'funny' money. For months in advance almost everything for sale carried double prices - in francs and in euros. So far as I know, everybody with no spare time didn't bother learning the euro prices.

But, according to reports, on Tuesday, 1. January, almost everybody living here began the New Year by trying to get rid of all old money as fast as possible.

A week later, when I showed up, the first thing I noticed was all of the line-ups to pay for things had gotten longer - with the local post office having lines nearly running out on to the street.

The post offices are probably the worst, because they also have their savings bank function. Many people have their first accounts with La Poste and they keep them for life. As far as banking goes, the only thing the post office doesn't do is loans.

I found out about the lines in the post office by trying to buy one stamp at the nearest café-tabac, which was only sellingphoto: crystal st louis, rue royal them in units of ten. Luckily the post office has stamp vending machines and there were shorter lines for these.

At the supermarket, which has slow cash lines anyway, the lines of customers have gotten much longer. Before New Year the problem was a lack of franc coins - now the problem seems to be a shortage of the new euro coins.

When a sale is rung up, the amount is displayed in euros. Then the customer begins to fumble with the unfamiliar euros. The cashiers, who are well broken-in, sometimes ask for a '20 cent' piece so that they can make the change easily, but this confuses the average euro-fumbler, and the line gets longer.

Weaker-headed consumers like me, try to pay for everything with euro notes. This quickly results in a vast collection of euro coins, and sooner or later it is back to slowly turning the coins over and trying to make out their numbers.

Other consumers are trying to beat the game by paying for everything with plastic. I think my local Monoprix is encouraging this practice because it has signs saying cards are accepted for 10euro 3 sign transactions.

I saw one lady get slightly dithered while using her card, even though a Monoprix employee was at the check-out to put the purchases into bags - which is a very rare thing. The lady left her plastic in the card reader where it was discovered by the following customer when she tried to use it too.

At the outdoor marché, the usual form of payment is cash. The price of goods is usually only flashed for a couple of seconds by the scales, and if you get several items you will have hardly any notion of what the total may be. Blind trust is called for here.

I'm coming back from the marché when I run into M. on the street - about a half-hour early for the rendez-vous time. He has been looking for something rare on the Champs-Elysées, where anything 'rare' is rare, so he quickly found nothing and has come straight over.

The winter sales are on and I have been toying with the idea of getting a few items, to quit looking like a clochard around the neighborhood. I was on the Rue de Rivoli on the sales' first day on Wednesday, but didn't find anything, nor my sort of prices. Mostly what I saw was a large number of very eager shoppers.

M. is agreeable to a walk down to Gaité where there is sort of a mall containing a sports outlet and the Tati that emigrated from the Rue de Rennes. We each take a thimble of café for courage and set out.

Some sports outlets are great sources of inexpensive but sturdy informal clothing, and a couple of the chain outlets in Paris also guarantee their wares - both software and hardware.

But I don't see my 'thing' among the hundreds of jackets, coats and parkas - an incredible variety! - while M. finds and buys two full-sized wooden swords. For these he declines the shop's plastic bags to wrap around either end, and hooks the swords on through his belt.

The place has been nearly deserted and Tati isn't much different. It doesn't even look devastated like the Macy's I saw in New York. Here are items for low pricesphoto: hediard, pl madeleine even when they are not 'on sale' - but seem to be unattractive on the first days of the country-wide winter sales.

I am not a trouble-maker and neither is M. but I am kind of anticipating getting bounced by the shop's security people on account of M's swords - there's bound to be some rule against carrying a couple of them while shopping.

My 'find' in Tati is an all-plastic sweater for 10euro 3 sign. This will get me through the breezy winter climate inside my apartment, and replace the very ratty jam-smeared one I've been using for years.

On coats I don't have much hope, but we go a bit further into Montparnasse to the Galeries Lafayette beyond the tower, and I'm sure we set all of their security red lights to flashing 'dangerous characters' as soon as we cross the threshold.

Just to confuse the issue, we do a tour of the entire store because we don't know where anything is. Once found, the men's clothing is not overcrowded. Some male shoppers seem to have found fair bundles of utility clothing, like socks.

Waiting until the sales are on to buy a year's supply is good sense. Men who let their wives, mothers or girlfriends do it at any old time, usually regret it. 'Why are there clocks on my underwear? Why on the socks?'

There is a fair selection of coats available and I snoop through them all while M. places himself where he can be picked up clearly by the store's video cameras. The security people - 'Forget that guy with the rainbow sweater and the swords - watch his unassuming accomplice stealing coats!'

The coat I choose, because I do find one, is about 30 percent below its original price - which is on its ticket in francs and euros. It is not a horrible color - black! - but it is a bit too good to just wear 'around the quartier.'

Nevertheless I declare that the 'East-European-Smuggler' or the 'Taxi- Driver-Look' is no longer in fashion. All you 'men-in-black' are passé! Black has no place in our new Euro-millennium.

Flanked by M. and his two wooden swords, we quit the department store without incident and get ourselves to a café for refreshment.

Saturday - Central Paris

TV-news has shown free café being distributed to 'Les Riches' who are suffering the indignities of standing in line for their turn to assault some of Paris' swankier shops, most likely in the area of the Rue Royal and the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

M. and I saw nothing like this in low-key Montparnasse on Friday, so I have decided to make a personal inspection tour today. I begin this at the corner mentioned above, but do not see any distribution of free cafés. I do see the usual double-parked Porsches.

At the same corner there is a small herd of roller-people who do not look as if they intend to do any serious shopping at all. None of the shops around have lines outside them. I imagine that the few 'Riches' available today are inside them, ripping them apart.

By the Madeleine there are more shoppers, but on the Rue Tronchet the crowds start getting serious. Here are the little accessories, like some neat gloves, for only slightly more than 100euro 3 sign - only a miserable 10 or 15 percent off.

A block before the Boulevard Haussmann it looks like Paris' entire suburbs have decided to be in town to plunder and see how far euros go with discounted prices. Except for it not being night, the hordes seem to equal the throng in Times Square on New Years Eve.

My imagination tells me what it must be like inside Printemps, C & A or Galeries Lafayette - absolutephoto: madura, rue tronchet chaos total! - so I elbow my way through the river of shoppers pouring down the Rue Caumartin towards Saint-Lazare. This would remind me of the mob outside Macy's in Manhattan if I had ever seen it, but I haven't.

Taking the Harve Passage pushes me into the fnac outlet. I'm not aware that this sort of media store would even be having any sort of winter sales, but it is jammed to the rafters even though modern shops do not have these architectural details these days.

Getting out of the place is no easier than getting in was. When I reflect on the situation, I decide the métro is the place for me and pretty soon I am back in what seems to be the pleasant and faintly rural area of the 14th arrondissement.

For all those who have yet to experience the winter sales in Paris, I will only say this - they continue to about Valentine's Day, which is only slightly before spring is scheduled to arrive - but seldom does.

After the winter sales are over, we will get a look at spring's new fashions - and see what they cost in un-discounted euros. This is actually something to look forward to because there should be oodles of free elbow-room.

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