“Is anyone left in Paris?” I wrote on Facebook. “I’m so bored I could cry.”
Bored in Paris you say? Well, yeah. It’s possible. Particularly, when it’s August, and all of Paris hits the beaches, including your friends. I had just arrived back in Paris mid-month after three weeks in New York. By then everyone—and I mean everyone—had quit the city for their annual holidays. Normally, I skedaddle to New York for the month, knowing full well my friends won’t be around for at least three weeks, and my neighborhood shops will shut down completely: my butcher, my pharmacist, even my favorite watering hole. But this time my return landed smack in the middle of the dead of August.
Most Europeans take their holidays at the same time, somewhere between July and August, which means everyone hits the beach at the same time. The French have given names to the different vacation tribes, according to The Earful Tower. Those who vacation in July are called, “Juilletistes” (July is juillet in French); those who leave in August, or août: les Aoûtiens. Those who stay behind don’t get a clever name, probably because there’s no one around to name us.
But what do we get? A quiet city with no traffic jams, and when the weather is good (though rare in August), we can really spread out and enjoy our city. And if we want a little company, we can always go to the center of town where the cafes still stay open for the tourists. Or head to the Paris Plages, the city’s manmade summer beaches along the Seine.
I did that for a while, but finally, I ended up taking an impulsive (read: expensive) trip to Nice—driven out of Paris by the silence (and the rain). I guess that makes me an Aoûtienne, huh?
Now, this being the 26th, Paris is starting to wake up, slowly. They call this time la rentrée, or reentry, when everyone returns for the start of the school year and the restart of regular life. Stores and cafés are starting to open back up, you can hear the footfall of your neighbors again. In a week, Paris will be alive and kicking once more. And I’ll suddenly miss the quieter version, I suppose. But Paris is a city, and cities are meant to be crowded and bustling. After all, it’s the people that make Paris Paris.
Here is a little video I shot of Rue Paul Bert. Every shop was shuttered.
I write about La Rentrée in my book, My (Part-Time) Paris Life, Chapter 15: The Homecoming. Below is an excerpt from the chapter. In this scene, I return home after living in a vacation rental on Ile de la Cité for a month, having been chased out of my own apartment by a leak that, if you follow this blog, you know all about:
Excerpt from Chapter 15: The Homecoming
Back in my own apartment. Water still leaked, mold continued to grow—but armed with prescriptions from my doctor, I could endure staying here for my final few days in Paris.
And it felt good to be home again.
While I was unpacking my bags, my phone buzzed against the table, delivering a text message.
“Welcome back! Happy hour?”
My neighbor Andrea was finally free for our favorite activity: le Happy Hour was a concept catching on in Paris, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods such as ours, where all things Brooklyn were de rigueur. We had our favorite café for le Happy Hour, and I hadn’t been there in a month.
What better way to celebrate my homecoming than with a half-priced beverage?
Walking in the streets of my neighborhood again, it felt like I’d never been away, a wrinkle in time having brought that faraway day when I left, and this one, together. Gone were the cobbled streets and centuries-old churches of my postcard-perfect island. I was back in real world: vital working-class Paris, tattered but homey.
You could keep your postcard Paris. Nothing was better than the real one.
We snagged a table outside our café. The waitress greeted us with a huge smile, her eyes registering recognition when she saw me. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Vacation?”
She actually looked happy to see me. When I was staying in the center of the city, I went to the same café every day for weeks. No one ever said, “Nice to see you again,” or “Welcome back.” They weren’t rude, but they weren’t friendly, either. Working in a café frequented by transients and tourists, it’s probably not worth getting personal. Why get attached when you may never see that customer again? But if you live there, how can you ever feel a belonging if everyone is standoffish?
“You ladies having the rosé?” our waitress asked. “Happy Hour?”
“You sure know us,” I said.
“Of course!” She popped back inside to get our drinks.
A man who I’d seen here once or twice nodded hello to us as he entered the café. The owner greeted him. The waitress hailed someone passing by, chatted with him for a few minutes, shared a laugh. They kissed each other on both cheeks before he continued on his way, baguette under his arm, heading home for dinner.
How friendly and easy this neighborhood was. I’d forgotten. Or maybe I just didn’t realize how friendly it was until I’d lived somewhere that wasn’t a tight-knit village like this. We weren’t strangers; we were neighbors bonded by our district. Unpretentious, warm, and genuine—this was home.
It was good to be back.
They call it la rentrée, “the reentry”—when everyone comes back from the August vacations to ready the kiddies for school. The city wakes up again: shops reopen, the Métro cars fill up. Our neighborhood buzzed with a resurgence of energy as we reunited with one another, and our own lives. This was my rentrée, too—I was renewed and ready for whatever was coming. <>
Read more of My (Part-Time) Paris Life: How Running Away Brought Me Home, available in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook (recorded by yours truly!). Order here.