Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Firemen's Calendar

One evening last week, just after C came home from work, the portail phone rang. C answered it and sounded puzzled. He turned to me and whispered: It's the pompiers.

I was puzzled for a moment, too, then I remembered: it's calendar season. Last year I bought calendars from the firemen and the postman and I don't remember who else. It's organized tipping. Instead of leaving a photocopied letter in the mailbox or delivering the mail at dinnertime, French postmen and firemen and garbage men and anyone else who wants a Christmas tip print up a calendar.

C went up the driveway with the folding money last week, and came back with our 2009 calendrier de pompiers. I think that, if you really want to carry through on the ritual, you have the pompier / postman / whomever in for a drink, but last year, I was home alone when the fireman, who was about 25 with bedroom eyes and a warm and friendly smile, all decked out in his well-cut fireproof suit with reflective stripes, knocked on the door. My imagination just couldn't stretch to sitting this man down at the kitchen table and giving him a pastis. This year, it was dinner time and the girls had a raft of homework. So, again, money and no drink. (Maybe next year they'll come on a Saturday afternoon and we'll manage the drink as well.)

What we get is, technically, a calendar, but it's different from the heating oil company calendars that used to hang in my grandparents' kitchen. The ones with a photo of Scenic America (covered bridges; Mount Rushmore; the Golden Gate Bridge) each month on the top half, and the calendar marked out in neat squares, with plenty of room to note when you planted the peas and your doctor's appointments, on the bottom. The calendrier de pompiers lists, on the left side of each month's page, the days of each week, by initial (in English, it would be S M T W T F S), the date of the month, and the saint whose feast day it is. (Today is Saint Delphine, if you didn't know.) Then, to the right of the list, there is a photograph of the pompiers in action.

On our 2008 calendar, the photos showed the firemen lined up in different uniforms: here are the firemen in their hanging around the firehouse clothes; here they are in their water safety gear (there's a lot more to firefighting in France than you might think); here they are in the uniforms designed by Dior for making end of the year calendar calls. This year, the photos show Firemen At Work. I leafed through the calendar when C brought it into the kitchen. The photos may have been taken professionally, but if so, the photographer should probably consider a less visual line of work. More likely, they were taken by whoever remembered to pick up the camera on the way out the firehouse door: there are a lot of elbows that haven't been cropped out, a lot of blurry bits, sometimes a few spots of rain on the lens.

In February, you see the pompiers standing around in their orange reflective vests, presumably conferring about the best method for moving the Renault that has just backed through an iron gate and up onto a heap of concrete blocks. (I didn't think a Renault could do that.) May brings a photo of the firemen--orange vests again--roping in a car that has gone off the road and is resting precariously on its side at the edge of a significant drop. (Where's the driver?) In June, a twisted bicycle is on the pavement in the foreground, with another Renault stopped at an awkward angle nearby while--really--the pompiers wheel the bicyclist, who is strapped onto a gurney and wearing an oxygen mask--away to the waiting ambulance.

It's the calendar equivalent of dead chickens still wearing their heads and feet in the butcher's case. Here is a dead animal for you to eat; here are firemen responding to traffic accidents and fires. There's nothing coy or sentimental; the chicken breasts are not packaged so that you can forget where they came from, and the firemen are not shown as either neighborhood heroes in the Labor Day Parade or as saints with sooty faces. They're guys doing their job, and sometimes it's a difficult job, and sometimes it's dangerous. The calendar isn't about selling the firemen (and they are all men, by the way) as saints or heros. It's about men working, working men, who'd like a tip at the end of the year.

And who wouldn't turn down a pastis with madame.

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