‘La Rentrée’ — Back to Real Life in France

It’s the first week of September, and here in France, real life is beginning anew. That’s because this time of year marks la rentrée — literally, “the re-entry,” or the official start of the new school year. But the reality here is that the whole back-to-school thing — which Americans find pretty easy to ignore if we don’t have kids heading back to classes — applies whether you’re 5 years old or 50.

That’s because the whole of French society’s pretty much been away — or if not away, not working — for the past month. Boulangeries and restaurants bolt their doors. House and apartment shutters are rolled down and stay that way. Whole offices close down. The main folks roaming the streets of Paris in August are foreign tourists who likely found good deals on rental apartments and hotels, as French residents who can afford to escape to somebody’s beach (whether in France or elsewhere) usually do.

Those of us who grew up in the United States find it hard to grasp the fact that an entire First World country nearly shuts itself down for the entire month of August. HOW in the world is this possible, we wonder? What about all the sales you’re leaving on the table? The income you’re willingly giving up during one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen? In our experience, capitalism and the almighty dollar-euro-pound rules. PERIOD.

So what if you don’t have time to take a real vacation? Spend quality time with your kids? There’s (presumably) time for all that after the money’s been made. In the States, we get what — Thanksgiving and the day after off work, Christmas Eve and Christmas, New Year’s Day, one day off at Memorial Day, one or two days off for Labor Day Weekend during the year? If we’re lucky, perhaps we also get a week or two of so-called “vacation” time, but in this fearful, what-if-the-boss-needs-to-reach-me-and-I’m-out-of-touch environment, we either spend half of it checking e-mail or worrying that we should. But that’s what makes America great, right?

We can joke all we want about European productivity (or the lack thereof), but there’s something wonderfully refreshing about employees TRULY going “on holiday,” their out-of-office e-mails making it clear that they WON’T be checking their inboxes for two, three or four weeks. No exceptions, whether they’re the secretary or the owner of the company. Their bounced-back messages tell you who to contact if you need assistance during that time. The Do-Not-Disturb hint comes through loud and clear.

I don’t begrudge those who had “day jobs” to escape from or spouses or significant others whisking them away to some sandy, sun-drenched beach. As a constantly working freelancer who moved to France in January, I unfortunately have neither time nor the extra funds for a non-work-related getaway. And I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation — either in the two years I’ve been self-employed or even when I worked full-time in corporate America — without at least one laptop in tow.

Ever the conscientious one, I’d call into hours-long conference calls from rental apartments during much-needed vacations on the French Riviera and in Buenos Aires. Assembled company newsletters when I should have been strolling the streets of Paris or meeting some cute Frenchman in a café. Literally sitting on a sandy beach, waves lapping near my feet while on my BlackBerry phone, helping plan this-or-the-other magazine feature instead of chilling with a good book. Looking back, NONE of this self-sacrifice did me any good in the long run, either at said companies OR in my personal life. “But I know,” in the words of Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,” “it’s my own damn fault.”

Which brings me back around to the point of this post. GOOD for the French, the Italians, and other Europeans who shut this madness DOWN one month a year. Folks are back at their offices refreshed and seem genuinely content to be there. Conference calls I’ve participated in begin with rounds of pleasantries about everyone’s breaks, and they actually seem to care what their colleagues did and where they went. There’s something to be said for total disconnection. Too bad I had to move to France to learn that lesson.

Tell me, do you ever TRULY disconnect from the rat race during the summer (or any time during the year)? And if so, how has it affected your attitude and mood once you DO get back to work?


About Maureen Jenkins

Maureen Jenkins is a food/travel writer and communications professional who's visited nearly 35 countries and territories, lived in Florence, Italy, and recently spent a year living in a charming village near Paris, France. The self-proclaimed 'urban travel girl' talks travel, food and wine – abroad and in Chicago – in "TCW Travel Connection.” Read more of her thoughts on living globally at UrbanTravelGirl.com.