Who could blame her for laughing? Not a giggle, but a guffaw held in so tight that tears welled in her eyes. My wife, a big muckety-muck at a French fashion house, thought she had seen it all. But never had an employee come to her and demanded a pay hike in quite the same way. He deserved the extra 10 percent, the young man said, not in reward for burning the midnight oil while his co-workers cavorted in Cannes--but because he needed the extra dough so that he could, too.
It's like this, he explained with a straight face. Prices in St.-Tropez are out of control. He could barely afford a parasol at Nikki Beach, much less the moelleux au chocolat chaud at Restaurant Joseph. Nor was he going to sleep even one night on a sponge mattress in an unrated hotel. He wanted lavender-scented sheets and thought his boss should bump him up to four stars.
After dabbing the mascara off her cheeks, my wife calmly reminded him that the company had already given him three weeks of sick time for "stress" as well as two extra vacation weeks for working more than 35 hours a week throughout the year. In her Cruella De Vil voice, she suggested that he learn to spread the confiture more economically on his baguette--or else learn how to pitch a tent in Brittany.
As an American living in the south of France, I secretly sympathize less with my wife, the tough boss, than the bossee with his taste for fine whines. Before taking on my current job as part-time bus driver and chef de cuisine Chez Nous--I'm a househusband with two kids, in other words--I worked for two Silicon Forest Internet start-ups. You know the drill: work 24/7 until the IPO, then retire rich at 30. (In my dreams.) Vacations, even the standard American two weeks? Everyone boasted about not taking them.
But after three years of living in France, hey, we do "vacathalons"--looong stays in Corsica or Ile Maurice, often stretching a month or more. Never mind me. What's remarkable is that my wife rarely, if ever, "touches base" with the office, as she would daily in America. Nor does her office expect her to "be in touch." She never interrupts her summer reading to send an e-mail on her BlackBerry. She doesn't chart organigrams or review budgets. She simply relaxes, guilt-free--helped by knowing that everyone else in her office is enjoying the same month of corporate laissez faire.
Pity the poor Americans, even as they frown at us "lazy Europeans." You see them rushing about on their one-week holiday, trying to relax during frantic anti-aging, lymphatic-drainage sessions in the spas of Dordogne while we locals hang out on the beach. They race from chateau to chateau along the Loire, scampering along moats and clambering up ramparts, while we "French" mark our territory with large umbrellas (to ward off predatory Germans or Italians) and perhaps hunt octopus and small fish to make a bouillabaisse. In the evenings, while they force down obligatory eight-course gastronomies prepared by celebrity chefs at Relais & Chateaux resorts, we contentedly order the plat du jour at a little bistro not far from our humble two-star hotel--simple economies that help make our vacation savings last our four-week estivation.
We have a problem, though, that Americans blessedly do not. With me not working and only one income, how are we to afford this winter's vacation (already booked) in Chamonix? The thought plagues us, intruding on the perfect ambrosia of salt air and suntan lotion. Then inspiration strikes. My wife will ask her boss for a 10 percent raise to cover the cost of the trip!