When I am on holiday, I make a point of never reading or listening to the news. So it was only when I returned from vacation this week that I discovered somebody had dropped a neutron bomb on Paris.
I soon realized, of course, that it was not a neutron bomb. In fact, it must have been a cunning refinement that kills only French people, leaving buildings and foreigners unscathed. For there were some passersby in the streets; it was just that they were all tourists speaking English, or Dutch, or Japanese.
They were not going to be of much help to me in mending the lock to the front door of my apartment building, which I found to be broken. Nor in redecorating the foyer, where a leaking pipe has blotched and blistered the paint work. But the landlord is nowhere to be found (nor is any other resident), and the locksmith around the corner has stuck a note on his door: "On annual holidays August 1-28."
The month of August. From beginning to end. The classic French holiday, which empties the capital of its residents, still shuts down the government, most business, and much social life every year.
To be honest, the city was as completely dead as it was when I returned because Tuesday was the Feast of the Assumption, a huge Catholic holiday, and everyone was taking Monday off - "making the bridge" in local parlance - to give themselves a four-day weekend.
Of the 28 commercial establishments that do business within two blocks of my home, just three were open: a laundromat, a Chinese mom-and-pop grocery, and one of the most expensive butchers in the city.
The rest had simply pulled down the blinds, and left a notice in the window - some handwritten, some printed, some brief, some more expansive - telling customers when to expect them back.
My butcher, for example (we do not patronize the expensive one), has been gone since the end of July, and will be back on Aug. 24, his note says. Kindly, he directs clients to two other butchers in the neighborhood who are open.
The ptissier next door has taken the whole month off, the fishmonger two shops up has taken two months off - the whole of July and August.
"My customers have all gone away - it's not worth my opening the shop," he said when I last saw him - in June.
His neighbor, the shoeshop lady, is less extravagant, and more polite: She has taken only the last two weeks of August off, and the notice she has written out telling you so ends with a bright "happy holidays" in capital letters.
The cheese shop is closed: Thick blinds shade the window displays that normally boast the wide variety of cheeses and other farm produce that are still advertised: 'Wide Choice of Farmhouse Goat cheese," or "The Prince of Paris Cooked Ham."
But frustrated shoppers can still visit the shop's Web site - www.lelann-sell.com - says a notice in the window - to slaver over pictures of the cheeses they yearn for.
The optician is closed, the haberdashery is on short hours, the dry cleaners are closed, the Chinese deli and takeout is closed (but only for a parsimonious week), the cobbler is closed. At night, in the six-story apartment block across the street from me, there is only one light on.
But I'm at work. I hope my editor has noticed. Otherwise I'm going to join all my neighbors. On the beach.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society