Thursday, August 28, 2008

Stay (Away) Just a Little Bit Longer: la rentrée sees the return of Parisians en masse

For all of its carefree savoir-vivre, France is a country that operates according to a strict schedule: Sunday is for family, friends and sight-seeing (and not much shopping, because little is open); Wednesday is when grandparents and nannies tend to schoolchildren that have the day off (many attend classes on Saturday instead), and; restaurants serve according to traditional meal times (noon to 3:00 p.m. for lunch, eight to 10:00 p.m. for dinner, with the exception of a number of brasseries that boast service round the clock). In Paris, existence outside of the confines of the nine-to-five workday requires a strategic approach to getting things done, but it’s worth it if you can swing it, if only to avoid the crowds.

One of the most important annual traditions takes place in August, when the entire country goes on holiday. Many French professionals are granted five weeks of vacation, and much of this time is enjoyed in the country’s rolling countryside and seaside villages. The result: impossible traffic jams during the last weekend of July as vacationers make their escape from the city, elevated prices in the nation’s hotels and coastal restaurants and holiday destinations that are as congested as la capitale is during the rest of the year. Paris, on the other hand, is left to the tourists, as well as the entrepreneurs and freelancers that aren’t constrained by the limits of traditional schedules, and those who don’t have the means – or the desire – to get away.

Those conditioned to follow France’s collective agenda find Paris in August depressing: many boutiques and restaurants are closed, and it’s probable that your favorite fish market, fruits-and-vegetable stand, baker and butcher will take at least a couple of weeks off during this time. For those accustomed to less structured timetables, however, the advantages outweigh the inconvenience: Paris in August is quiet, almost lazy, and despite the decreased population, there’s still plenty going on…enabling one to enjoy the city without having to fight through the throngs.

Which is why some of us get wistful when we acknowledge the impending rentrée (otherwise known as France’s real ‘new year,’ when those on holiday come back home to work and school). The empty sidewalk cafés and métro cars will fill up once again, and everyone will be forced to pick up the pace.

That is, unless one’s personal planner permits the freedom of taking advantage of the reduced prices and tranquility of more relaxed destinations during the Indian summer…while everyone else is at work.