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CHRISTMAS

OPINION: Why the Paris Oyster Man is the hero who redeemed 2020

It's been a rough year, but for Paris resident Megan Clement the discovery of the city's 'oyster delivery man' has saved Christmas.

OPINION: Why the Paris Oyster Man is the hero who redeemed 2020
Oysters are served on ice to keep them cold. Drizzle lemon over them or pour a spoon of vinegar on top, and enjoy. Photo: AFP

In a rough year, it has been the smallest things about life in Paris that have brought me joy – from walking down the middle of the empty street in the silence of the first lockdown, to befriending a local hedgehog in the park and doing jigsaw puzzles from the Louvre gift shop. 

But nothing has brought me more joy than acquiring the phone number of a man who will bring me oysters on demand by scooter.

As the year draws to a close and I look back on months of lockdown, a cascade of terrifying news, missed travel and cancelled plans, Oyster Man stands out as the hero who redeemed 2020. 

It was in the miserable days of mid-May that I first noticed a phone number scrawled on brown paper and stuck in the window of a nearby Poissonnerie.

A waiter in Paris serves oysters on a platter. Photo: AFP

LIVRAISON GRATUITE, the sign read. Sluggish in the late spring heat and tired of home cooking, I texted the number. “Do you have oysters?” I asked.

Mere hours later I was sitting in my front yard with a glass of sparkling something in my hand, 12 fine de claire on a plate in front of me and the first proper smile on my face since February. 

It was the start, as they say, of a beautiful friendship. In summer, Oyster Man provided the perfect socially distanced way to see friends. We could sit in the yard, two metres apart, with six oysters each (OK, 12) and life almost felt normal.

READ ALSO Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

And at a time where many are relying on the rampantly unethical offered by food delivery apps, this direct connection to a supplier felt like a proper way to support my local community. 

And it is so simple.

I text Oyster Man and ask him for oysters.

He writes back: bien sûr. I tell him how many.

“Open or closed?” he asks. “Open,” I say.

Then at the allotted time, he arrives on a scooter with the pre-shucked platter balanced precariously on his knees.

I give him the cash and off he goes on his merry way. I am told this bears a certain similarity to the dealing of illicit substances, but I couldn’t possibly comment on that. 

I call this person Oyster Man but he could be a series of Oyster Men or Women, an Oyster family perhaps. Who knows? 

The WhatsApp picture is of a giant dog holding a sign. I have no conception of whether the cheery person who answers my texts is the same person who navigates the tight corners and thrumming traffic of the 20th arrondissement by scooter with a giant plate of ice and bivalves in his lap.

The beauty of Oyster Man is that you don’t have to think about him too much. You simply ask, and he delivers.

READ ALSO French figures: The shellfish that's a festive must-have

The simplicity of it is where the genius lies. Living in France is in many ways a dream come true, but in others it is an exercise in frustration.

I recently tried to buy coffee beans from a renowned coffee shop that had been written up in The Guardian as a local gem.

I approached the owner and asked for 500 grams. The man looked pained and shook his head slowly.

Ça va être compliqué, madame, he said, surrounded as he was by kilogram upon kilogram of roasted beans, piled in fragrant mounds, the scales to measure them out just a hand’s reach away. I walked away empty-handed. 

There is none of this with Oyster Man. It does not matter how many oysters I request; it does not matter what time of day I request them.

I ask, they arrive, I pay. Nothing is compliqué.

READ ALSO The language you will need for Christmas in France

Paris is full of oyster bars, but they have had to slim down to a minimum delivery and takeaway service due to the Covid-19 health rules. Photo: AFP

Yesterday morning, as the news of a new variant of coronavirus swept across social media, as lorries piled up in Kent and borders closed around Europe, I wondered what on earth I was going to do for Christmas.

Since moving to France, I have either spent my Christmases at home in Australia drinking white wine in the sun, or here in Paris cooking for a gaggle of fellow migrants.

With neither option on the table this year, the prospect of putting on a huge spread for myself and my partner alone felt too grim. Doing nothing at all felt even grimmer. 

Then it hit me: my Christmas miracle was just a quick scooter ride away. I texted Oyster Man and within five minutes I’d fixed the holiday.

I’ve got 24 No 3 Céline oysters coming on December 25th at 11am.

Bien sûr.

Megan Clement is a freelance journalist living in Paris. 

 

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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
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