Monday, September 11, 2006

New Year’s, Paris-Style: Pondering the Rejuvenating Characteristics of L’été Indien

It ended – and began – with a head butt.

After a month-and-a-half of uncharacteristic camaraderie among normally reserved Parisians, the World Cup screeched to a halt when retiring French football star Zinedine Zidane marked the conclusion of his career not with a triumphant victory, but a barroom maneuver that left him suspended and, some argue, his team no hope of beating the notoriously fierce Italians. As France climbed its way to a potential win during the weeks leading up to the finals, even the most stony-faced Parisians managed to smile, the words, “allez, Les Bleus,” serving as a friendly call to battle as they marched the city streets in search of a bar with a television. For a brief period, the incessant honking that is normally coupled with a string of French swear words grew friendly; instead of scolding fellow drivers for their conduct on the road, the blaring horns reminded residents that, for a few weeks at least, they were united to achieve a common goal.

In a way, Zidane’s field-level foible not only punctuated the end of the World Cup and his own stint as a football favorite, but it signaled the start of something new. With the World Cup out of the way, the French could turn their attention to another important aspect of their lives: summer holidays. By the beginning of August, a large portion of the country would have displaced itself in search of, as national icon Serge Gainsbourg would have said, “sea, sex and sun.” The beaches along the once paradisiacal Côte d’Azur would soon rival the cramped environment of the Parisian Métro, as families set up camp to soak up some rays and frolic in the ocean.

For those with less structured schedules, the prospect of going on holiday with the rest of the nation seems rather silly: how relaxing can a resort town brimming with other Parisians actually be? Still, those with the right connections (a boyfriend whose parents conveniently retired to the Southwest coast; a girlfriend whose parents own a home in a 9th Century village revered for its history, quaintness, and fine wine) escape at least for a little while, eager to fill their lungs with “real air,” as opposed to the heavy, polluted grime they are accustomed to breathing year-round.

But August in Paris – whether hot and sticky, or cool and rainy, as it was this year – is not without its perks. It’s one of the only times that obtaining a table on a sidewalk terrasse is easy, and, thanks to the crowds on the Mediterranean beaches, the Métro in the city is, save for the tourists peering at their maps, relatively empty. If you’re willing to put up with the fact that your favorite boulangerie will probably be closed for a month (necessitating the procurement of one’s daily baguette elsewhere), spending August in the City of Light can be quite pleasant. Even those who like to “faire la fête” use this quiet month to calm down and detoxify after a year of frequent partying and heavy alcohol consumption; in August, wild soirées are few and far between.

Hélas, “La Rentrée” – which commences the first week of September, when the French get back to work and students start to dust off their textbooks – is met with mixed emotions. Tanned (and, for once, relaxed) professionals linger over lunch in the Jardin des Tuileries, nostalgic for the summer and struggling to get back into the swing of things. Independent workers, such as sports instructors and music teachers, rub their hands together, eager to resume courses for their schoolchildren clients, who have been away for the last couple of months, putting a damper on revenues. While everyone remains slightly more chilled out, there is, as author Stephen Clarke wrote in A Year in the Merde, that New Year’s vibe in the air, with the promise of new ventures and self-improvement projects. Getting back to work might not be easy, but it isn’t so bad, either.

The next bout of holidays, after all, is just a few weeks away.