Thursday, December 3, 2009

Annoying Christmas

It's too late to complain about how fast Christmas stuff started showing up in the stores, and with no Thanksgiving to serve as a demarcation line, no Black Sunday to think about, and no hideous weather to contemplate, it would seem that Christmas in Montpellier, or the preparations for it, is a relatively benign time.

It's not, of course. The mall where lurks the Inno supermarket I visit daily is in high gear already, as is the Inno itself, unpacking those €49 blocks of foie gras and the oyster openers. (I might splurge on one of those myself). Outside, since this is a city where it almost never snows, the little kiosks where the Festival of Vines lived last weekend are busily being stocked with tchotchkes in preparation for the weekend's opening of the festival called Les Hivernales. There will no doubt be bad music, enticing smells, and pickpockets. The line of kiosks extends all the way down the Esplanade to where the huge ice rink has been set up.

You can get a taste of this by checking out the city's huge Christmas-tree-shaped light-show, which is conveniently located right in front of the tourist office's fake webcam. (I say fake because it records a loop at given intervals, then plays them back. It's not live.) This is, of course, best viewed at night.

But I had business in the old town earlier this week, and discovered that to push the holiday cheer just a bit further, the city has taken thousands of long twigs, stuck them in cement, inside a large flower-pot, then spray-painted the whole thing white. They are, I suppose, intended to resemble bare trees covered with snow, but what they are are eye-level sticks jabbing at you as you try to negotiate streets that are already tight for a horse. Unsurprisingly, these impediments to pedestrians in the pedestrian zone are getting hammered, so that not only do you have to watch for twigs poking at you, but you have to be careful not to slip on shards of broken flower-pot.

The good news is that all of these impedimenta -- the little huts cluttering the Comédie, the flower-pots, the weird blue disco balls strung over the streets, the strange computerized lights which simulate dripping icicles -- will be gone four weeks from tomorrow. Meanwhile, watch your step.

* * *

Another holiday problem is vampires. Or, rather, that's how I've come to think of the relentlessly cheery young people who step in front of you and try to relieve you of money for the causes they support. No, they're not looking for a euro or two; they want to sign you up for regular drafts to come out of your bank account. It's hard to walk to the Polygone mall or up the rue de la Loge without running into these folks, and I sometimes challenge myself to get from A to B without being engaged by them. They represent a variety of causes, from the Red Cross to the World Wildlife Foundation to a charity I've never heard of called AIDeS.

I got attacked by these people in Berlin and figured, hey, 15 marks a month. That couldn't hurt. Except it did. I reached a point where every little bit counted, and I'd have enough to pay a bill or my rent or maybe buy food for the weekend when...I'd check my bank account and the Red Cross had sucked money out of my bank and now I didn't have what I needed. Yes, I was short by 15 marks, but that meant the difference between having the money and not having the money. Nor could I find anyone at all to tell them to stop: at least ten of my 15 marks must have gone to paying people at desks whose job it was to pass the buck. Finally, a friend had the brilliant idea of telling my bank not to let them do it any more, and was kind enough to accompany me to the bank to speak German to them and help me out. The lady at the bank was appalled that I was blocking the Red Cross, but she did it.

So no, happy young person with the red windbreaker, I'm not going to stop to discuss this with you. It just ain't happening. I don't have the money, and if I did, I'd find a more direct way to deal with your sponsor. Or maybe another charity doing the same thing: anyone who can afford to hire these folks probably has a huge overhead. Red windbreakers don't grow on trees.


  1. In Britain we call them "chuggers", short for "charity muggers"

  2. If it's any comfort, the chugger phenomenon is even worse in the parts of Paris where there are more locals than tourists. I find the whole approach vaguely threatening and ultimately counterproductive to the public image of the charities involved, no matter how broad their smiles are.

  3. I made the mistake of pretending I couldn't speak any French, and spoke English to a young 'chugger' in Montpellier a few months ago. Right, you guessed it, she was nearly fluent. Now if only that little trick would work when I actually needed it...

  4. Chuggers, petitioners, beggars, "sondeurs" (I don't know the word for that) make la traversée de Montpellier a little difficult at times. And risky.

  5. Also, there were various investigations in the UK press which revealed that red windbreakers did indeed, not grow on trees, and that the chuggers were wrangled by special agencies, who did rather well out of it.


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