Monday, June 20, 2005


What is tradition ? A quick look at a dictionary yields "practice, convention, ritual, ceremony, observance, wont, routine, way, rule, usage, praxis, habit, institution, principle, belief".

Bon, ça avance. When does something -- an event or a routine, say -- become a "tradition" ? How long is necessary ? Years ? Decades ? Centuries ? Is uniqueness essential ? Who or what confers the appellation "tradition" ? Is consensus required ?

All are questions worthy of careful consideration, indeed, although perhaps not here, in the interests of brevity.

So, descending through the clouds, back to reality (smile) ... in music, matters appear to be relatively simple: one hears locutions such as "traditional American folksongs" or "traditional Anglican hymns", for example, or "presenting the opera with the traditional staging". Food, too, is simplicity itself: "traditional French cooking", "traditional New York cheesecake recipe", "traditional German bread", or "in the tradition of Auguste Escoffier's Ritz."

Holidays -- and other significant dates during the calendar year -- can and do give rise to a multitude of traditions. Some of them may very well take root within families: the annual American Fourth of July picnic with accompanying baseball game, the Thanksgiving turkey dinner, and the French Christmas messe de minuit followed by a reveillon repast spring immediately to mind. Parents cognizant of the importance of tradition may even invent their own with their children, discussing it beforehand with them, to confer a clear continuity and unique solidarity between immediate generations. Reading portions of Shakespeare's Henry V en famille at dinner on October 24th every year ("... will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbour ..."), for example, turned out to be an excellent excuse for measuring the past year's historical temperature and putting events in perspective.

Some social actions lend themselves easily to being called "traditional". Supping after the theatre in London's West End is traditional -- most everlastingly so, if Conan Doyle is to be believed. (smile) The Spring Break among American college students can be called a tradition. Sports "traditions" abound: from drinking a mint julep at the Kentucky Derby, through partaking of strawberries at Wimbledon, to devouring a foot-long hotdog during the seventh inning stretch at Dodger Stadium.

Beware: one should not be overly cavalier in labeling something traditional. A consequential period of time is definitely necessary for a tradition to take root and for something to be termed "traditional": a few years are just not enough. Amerloque was reminded of this when travelling in the US in 2003 and seeing advertising for a restaurant which proudly proclaimed "A Tradition Since 1995." Eight years and already a tradition ? Things happen quickly in the USA, granted, but that's simply a misuse of language -- a field itself filled with tradition, from the use and meaning of basic words to proverbs and sayings passed down from time immemorial.

Traditions die out, too. The reason for the tradition can simply vanish: for example, a young girl sewing a sampler to demonstrate proper seamstress's technique. People may no longer attach importance to what was once flourishing and necessary to society: the disappearance of springtime village fairs in France, at which one was to take on hired help for the upcoming year, (la loué) is a good example.

Ending a tradition with forethought is never a simple matter. In France, a country where tradition is fortunately alive and well in many spheres, a national drama took place last week. On Wednesday, June 15th, the renowned Paris department store La Samaritaine closed its doors, undoubtedly for the last time in the form Parisians have known until now.

Founded in 1870 by an itinerant stallholder from the Charente named Ernest Cognacq eight years after the opening of the Bon Marché over on the Left Bank, La Samaritaine took its name from a water pump which distributed water from the Seine into the Tuileries and Louvre neighborhoods. On the pump was a gilded ornament showing Christ and a woman from Samaria, the former capital of Judea: hence, une samaritaine.

Cognacq and his wife Louise Jay, a former shopgirl at the rival store, built the Sama into the very best people's department store in Paris. Located only 100 meters or so from Les Halles, the store's clientele was overwhelmingly populaire and a far cry from the bourgeois, almost Brummelled patrons of Printemps, Galeries Lafayette and Bon Marché. In 1905 the Sama employed over 6,000 people. Cognacq and Jay, both concerned about workers' welfare, were enlightened and (to use an older word no longer in vogue) paternalistic: they instituted a profit-sharing scheme, one of the first in France, for everyone working at the Sama. In 1916, they launched the Fondation Cognacq-Jay which among other activities built and managed a maternity hospital, a retirement home, a day-care center, and employee residences. After World War One, the Sama employed many war widows as a gesture of national solidarity: a member of Amerloque's French family, whose husband was killed at the front in 1915, worked at the Sama from 1919 through the 1950s.

The first of the current four buildings, with its iron-framed structure, dates from the 1890s; architecturally it was heavily criticized, just as the Eiffel Tower was when built. In 1906 the Journal de Débats went so far as to trumpet theatrically: Maintenant, l'horreur est consommé.. ("Now, the horror is consummated.") Fortunately the lengthy procedures to preserve all the buildings and Art Nouveau / Art Deco facades as historical monuments were brought to a successful conclusion in ... 1990.

La Samaritaine celebrated its centenary in 1970 and Amerloque was there. (This was just a few years after the closure of Les Halles, by the way: a memorable last day and night that was.) As a matter of fact, in the 1960s and 1970s, Amerloque spent many hours wandering around the Sama, discovering and studying strange and wonderful things: it was like strolling through a living, full-size catalogue. Many items were quintessentially French and offered clear insights into just how French society was organized, with a thrift and economy of movement that would have put the much-vaunted skinflint New England Yankee to shame.

How different it was then and there compared to the nascent consumer-oriented society in the 1960s USA. One went to the Sama when one needed a piece of thread (or a sewing machine), a window pane (or an entire frame), a pair of work pants (or a complete bleu de travail), a bicycle (or just an inner tube), a bidet (or the full porcelain bathroom suite), a birthday gift (or simply a greeting card) or a christening spoon (plated or solid silver, if you please). One could purchase one nail, or a kilo of nails; one dust bag for one's Hoover, or the entire package; a radio for one's automobile, or just one fuse; a cotton or linen pillowcase for one's bed, or a thin paper pattern to embroider a pillowcase oneself. One brought one's empty wine bottles to be filled with pinard from huge barrels, in an odoriferous part of the Sama where strange, unknown - French - smells and fragrances mingled unceasingly with those of freshly baked goods wafting in from the outdoor stalls. One never had to go outdoors to change stores, though: the basements of the four buildings were interconnected by a warren of passageways. One could spend an entire morning ambling in the aisles, go to the top floor for a summary lunch in the customers' self, with its fantastic view of Paris, and explore at will until closing.

That was a time, too, when television sets were pretty few and far between. One could trundle over to the Sama on a blustery evening and watch TV, free. When an important soccer game was scheduled to be broadcast, the store would put sets in many of its windows; passerby would congregate on the sidewalks to watch the silent, flickering pictures on screens, behind the store's thick glass. There was always someone who would pull un transistor out of his pocket and turn it up to full volume. After the game, the spectators would treat him to a few refreshments at the closest café. Needless to say, Amerloque always brought his radio along: it proved to be an invaluable tool for making acquaintances, a few of whom have remained friends to this day.

Fast forward. LVMH, the luxury group which currently owns La Samaritaine has been forced to close the stores. The prefectoral safety commission decided that the store "no longer fulfilled safety requirements" and, in its February report, said that the Sama should be shut down "for public safety". LVMH has stated that the Sama "will remain a retail store" and at the end of the month will decide either a) to close it all down for three or four years to do the necessary work or b) to remain open and stagger the works over the next decade while c) not sacking any employees at all, whatever the solution adopted. The unions are furious and really don't believe LVMH. They feel a) that the Sama is gone forever, b) that the 1500 employees will be thrown out of work through no fault of their own, and c) that the closure is linked to real-estate speculation. Note that the "not up to standard" bone has been thrown to jackal developers and speculators time after time since 1981; the future will reveal just how right the unions are.

Parisians will no longer be seeing the classic advertising with the inimitable On trouve tout à la Samaritaine ! ("Everything can be found at the Samaritaine !" or, more colloquially, "You can find anything at the Samaritaine !"). It was true. One could, indeed, find anything and everything at the Samaritaine, if one looked hard enough.

Shopping at the Samaritaine, a Paris icon, was a precious tradition. That tradition is gone. Probably forever.


Update on June 24th: Off on a break. Back after July 4th, US Independence Day and July 14th, la Fête Nationale !

Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger jean said...

Thanks for the update on the Samaritaine department store. I always told my students to ride the elevator to the top for a fabulous view of Paris. LVMH is more concerned about keeping its shareholders happy than preserving a landmark and an important local employer. You are now on my blogroll!

7:16 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hello Jean !

Welcome aboard !

The Sama is gone forever. It's truly sad.


12:45 PM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

Since the first day of Spring, i.e. three months & fifteen "éditos" later, l'Amerloque has treated us to some of the best weekly blogs on this Franco-American side of cyberspace. In his latest piece on "Traditions”, he artfully presented us with the history of "La Samaritaine" department store, this coming on the heels of "Rite of Passage" with his dissertation on "le bac", the traditional & dreaded examination that ends secondary education in France. His analysis provides us with an intelligent understanding of France and her people.

Frania W.

8:08 AM  

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