Letter from Paris: La Rentrée
We’re now on the cusp of the time of year the French call la rentrée: literally, the re-entry. The term has undertones that associate it with coming home, with going back to school, with the autumn itself.
August is the great month for vacations in France, and in France vacations are sacred. They are also, by American standards, long. A month, at least.
My Parisian friends are openly horrified at the idea of a week’s “vacation”–particularly when it involves traveling long distances. You cannot even begin to relax, they say, smacking the table. They’re right, of course.
I explain to them that the American tourist in Paris is often impatient, angry, and loud because she may only have five days at leisure here. It makes the smallest inconvenience–a museum closure, a train delay, slow service in a café–a severe disappointment, because there is no margin for error. Miss it now, and you may never have the opportunity to see it again.
They shake their heads sadly. A comforting hand is put on my shoulder. Someone refills my glass and tells me it’s okay, you’re here now, you’ll be okay.
My neighborhood, which doesn’t attract many tourists, turned into a ghost town during the first week of the month. The butcher closed, then the cheese shop, then the florist, then the meh baker I go to when the better baker is out of baguettes. Then—horrors—my barber abandoned me to go see his grandmother in Turkey, as though my whiskers and I mean nothing to him.
By the second week, you could have had a nap in the middle of our main street with nobody to disturb you but an occasional wayward influencer trying to Instagram live while piloting a rented scooter laden with shopping bags.
I’m trying to fit in around here, so I allowed myself to be persuaded to have des vacances, too. It’s essential training for citizenship. I went to Edinburgh, which I had never visited before. Not for a month, for twelve days. I don’t have the stamina for four weeks of rest.
I won’t bore you with vacation snapshots in this letter, I promise. Okay, one. I will show you one. But it has sheep in it. I don’t know what kind of sheep they are. Scottish-type sheep. They were grazing next to a parking lot, because that’s Scotland for you.
Coming back, experiencing my first rentrée, has been eye-opening. The neighborhood is still partly shuttered, but there are more people on the sidewalks; and the little children, especially, have the end-of-summer air of dread and anticipation I remember when the new school year was looming. Bookshops are touting their choices for the rentrée littéraire—things to read now that you’re home from the beach. Some re-opened businesses have put up signs that say “welcome back” or “we are happy to see you again” and for reasons I can’t quite explain, this makes my heart dance. The summer heat isn’t gone, but things look refreshed, probably because I feel refreshed.
Even my own workroom looks different. And not only because the person who promised to water my plants didn’t.
Time and distance have given me new ideas and the energy to act on them. Some of the frustrating knitting and crochet that I was doing—projects that simply would not move forward and were making my head ache—seem less hopeless now, and can be picked up and sorted out. Others … well, I am going to be able to unravel them and move on without feeling like a bad parent. Absence has made the heart grow less fond.
I’m also going to begin something I have needed to do for a long, long time—a triage of finished objects. I couldn’t bring myself to do it before the big move, aside from passing along a few bits to friends and neighbors as parting gifts.
I have a wardrobe full of handknits, and not all of them will stay. Some of them were created during very dark hours; and while I am glad they were there for consolation, they are stunted and twisted by the ugly thoughts that passed through my head while I knit them.
So many pairs of socks, for example, that are too short in the legs because I was desperate to finish something and prove to myself that I had control over my life. And sweaters knit to fit me–except they didn’t, because I was too afraid to look at myself as I actually was.
It’s high time to let go and move forward.
I don’t know if you’ve been able to rest this summer. I hope so. If not, I hope your chance will come, and soon, and that you will be able to make the most of it.
I also hope my barber will come, and soon. Because I am beginning to look like the Evil Duke in a justifiably forgotten nineteenth-century melodrama. Les vacances are wonderful and necessary, but it’s enough already, Monsieur Akköz.