When I was a kid, I spent some time in Philadelphia, a large city on the East Coast of the United States. I was part of a very religious Jewish community, and we didn’t handle money on the Sabbath–that’s Saturday. This left Sunday for buying baseball cards, karate magazines, and the other necessities of a young boy’s life. Problem: a set of laws known as the Blue Laws restricted what items could be sold in the city on Sundays.
Blue Laws are meant to enforce religious standards, and Christianity is not happy about doing business on Sunday. It’s pretty common in the US to have Blue Laws restricting the sale of alcohol on Sundays. The laws in Philly at the time were far more restrictive–shoelaces were off-limits, as I recall. The alcohol-related laws are still alive and well in many of our states, but the many other restrictions are mostly gone. (Bergen County, New Jersey is a notable hold-out—the residents like their Blue Laws, which currently forbid the sale or purchase of “clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies and appliances” (quote from this Wikipedia page). (Hold-out and some of the other obscure English vocabulary items in the post are discussed at the bottom of the page.)
As a bazillion expats in France have noted, usually with unhappiness (I’ll admit to having participated in this myself): not only does everything close in France on Sunday, but everything closes in France in the evening, too. This is not a Blue Law thing (nor are the Sunday closings), but a reflection on the typical French value of family and one’s own life over making a bit more money by staying open later. The package of changes to the labor laws that is provoking demonstrations and the occasional riot in France right now includes a plan to let some stores in heavily touristy parts of the city stay open until midnight. There’s far, far more to the anger than stores staying open late, but it’s certainly part of the zeitgeist.
I admit to having participated in the whole expat why-the-hell-can’t-the-stores-stay-open-late-enough-so-that-I-can-work-late-and-still-buy-a-nail-file-on-the-way-home-from-work thing myself. That was early in my French adventures, though. At this point in the game, I get it, I think. I can see that the guy who sells nail files wants to be able to spend time with his family, too–if I want to stay in the lab late and I really need a nail file that fucking bad, I can pick it up on the way to work in the morning, right? But, if you are a tourist, the Parisian evening can present a challenge—so much so that John Baxter wrote a whole book on the subject: Five nights in Paris: after dark in the City of Light.
Dinner: this is, of course, the most obvious evening activity of all, but it bears some consideration nonetheless. Some things to keep in mind: (a) Americans typically eat dinner much earlier than French people, and the restaurant that is full of tourists at 6 PM may have an entirely local customer base at 9; (b) it is most definitely possible to get a crappy meal in Paris, so check Yelp or otherwise plan ahead; (c) Paris has amazing ethnic food, especially from North Africa; (d) see this blog post for some advice on how to interact with Parisian waiters and the whole dining-out experience might make more sense.
Movies: the cinema is very popular in France, and that includes movies in English. France values its own cinema so strongly that it negotiated the idea of the cultural exception in international trade, which allows a country to use quotas and subsidies to support culture-related industries even when the international trade laws don’t allow it to use quotas and subsidies to protect anything else. France taxes movie tickets and uses the proceeds to subsidize film-making in the country, and as a result, French movies are famous for their high quality. Around 50% of the movies in France are American, but they may be subtitled; if you want to see them in English, look for VO (“version originale”) on the schedule. (France subsidizes its own film industry because the French like American movies so much, not because they don’t!) There are movie theaters all over the place in Paris; I especially like the ones in St. Germaine (6th arrondissement) because it’s so easy to find a place to have a dessert before or after.
Theater: the theater scene in Paris is incredible–really, there’s no other word for it. There seem to be little theaters hidden all over the city–I think my own arrondissement might be the only one in which I haven’t seen a play! You can see live theater every night of the week in Paris, and it doesn’t have to cost very much, either. The variety of stuff that you can find in the city is incredible—this spring I saw Lysistrata, three plays by Molière, Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Ionesco’s La cantatrice chauve, and a ton of other things—one-person shows, poetry readings, all kinds of stuff. I like the BilletReduc.com web site for cheap tickets. As in any city, note that matinees might be full of kids. Almost all theater in Paris is in French—if your French is not up to a two-hour play, try How to be Parisian in one hour, which is entirely in English and quite funny. (You’ll see plenty of French people there, too.)
Music: before coming to Paris, I had no idea how orgasmic it could be to hear baroque music in an old stone cathedral. Paris also continues the love affair with jazz that it’s been carrying on shamelessly since the First World War–John Baxter’s book Five nights in Paris: after dark in the City of Light has an entire chapter on the phenomenon. There’s an enormous amount of free or inexpensive music in Paris in the evenings. Some options for finding it:
- Keep an eye open as you walk around town and you will notice posters advertising musical events, mostly classical and mostly in churches, pretty much everywhere.
- There are web sites galore that list musical events all over Paris, usually searchable by type of music, by date, by price, etc. Note that Entrée libre means that they will pass the hat.
- Check the web sites of some of the really special locations–St. Germain des prés, Sainte-Chappelle, La Madeleine… (Note that Sainte-Chapelle can be really cold at night in wintertime. Dress super-warmly, and bring a blanket.)
Shakespeare and Company: the most famous English-language bookstore in Paris is open until 11 PM.
Rocky Horror Picture Show: if you know what this is, I can tell you that seeing it in Paris will be one of the more memorable experiences of your life. If you don’t know what this is: seeing it in Paris would still be one of the more memorable experiences of your life, but you would be totally lost for two hours.
Notre Dame: after dark is actually the best time to see Notre Dame, as far as I’m concerned. Walk around to the back of the cathedral and you’ll find that they illuminate the flying buttresses at night–and that the view is truly special. Pro tip: the movie theater that shows the Rocky Horror Picture Show is in the Latin Quarter just across the river from Notre Dame, and so is Shakespeare and Company, so combine these last three suggestions.
The cafe at the Musée Branly: I’ve heard that the view of the sun setting behind the Eiffel Tower from the cafe at the Branly is amazing. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what time of year the cafe would be open at sunset. I’ll also leave it to you to figure out how the sun could be behind the Eiffel Tower if you’re at the Branly–it doesn’t seem physically possible to me, but then I am lost even in as few as two dimensions.
Everything in France has its “in theory” and its “in practice,” right? In theory, there is stuff to do seven nights a week in this town. In practice, I’m usually too beat to do anything after work but go home, eat a TV dinner (admittedly a much more pleasant experience in France than in the US), and go to sleep. I drag myself out to listen to jazz at the cafe downstairs on Monday evening, but otherwise, my wild nightlife mostly takes place on the weekends. Well, the occasional Thursday night at the Philharmonic… and sometimes Franglish on Tuesday evening… maybe a play on Wednesday… Sometimes there’s a café philo on Thursday… Life in this town truly does not suck.
- hold-out: someone who resists making some change that others have made. One of the definitions on the Merriam-Webster web site puts it this way: a person who continues to do or use something after others have stopped doing or using it.
- zeitgeist: the spirit of the times.
…and some French:
- Paname: a slang name for Paris. (My French sucks so badly that until I went to YouTube this evening to look for a recording, I thought that Edith Piaf’s song Padam, Padam was Paname, Paname.)