I had to wait in long queues everywhere this week. At the supermarket, the boulangerie, the fruit stand, the health food store. The number of parents and children seemed to double. “What’s going on here?” I thought, as I pushed my way on to the way-too-crowded Metro. I haven’t had to wait or deal with these crowds for a while, since … aha, it became clear. I haven’t had to deal with this since mid-July, since the Parisians left the city.
From the start of July, everyone seemed to be getting a bit touchy – a bit like caged animals before feeding time. The end-of-the-school-year feeling was in the air. “Get us out, we need our summer vacation,” sounded the collective howl.
This tension built through the month and at the end of July the notices started to go up. The bakery shut first – closed 22 July to 22 August. The other bakery – closed until 29 Aug. Then the butcher – back 29 August. All the little shops and a lot of restaurants in my neighbourhood went dark. Some shops looked like they had gone out of business. White butcher paper filled the front window, but a little sign said, “Fermé jusqu’au 22 août.” As businesses closed and Parisians left for the country, the tension slowly started to go away.
I was warned about the exodus, but I didn’t think that it would be so widespread. Initially, I worried the town might shut. However they do leave a skeleton crew in Paris to deal with those left and I slowly found the bakeries, markets, etc. that were still open. I never did find an open butcher near my flat and, more than once, went to restaurants only to find little notices on the closed door and a dark dining room. However, despite being a little unseasonably cool, August in Paris was very pleasant.
The mass return from vacation at the start of September, just in time for the national first day of school, has its own word – “La Rentrée”. Now that the Parisians are coming back it will be interesting to see if things just pick up as they were before they left. Everyone is back with a nice deep tan but will the vacationed Parisians come back with smiles on their faces? For example, will they remember all of my pre-break hard work at Maison Hilaire, my local boulangerie/patisserie?
As in all places in French life there are rules to be followed at Maison Hilaire. You have to instinctively know to queue ONLY on the left side of the counter to place your order. The woman behind the counter writes your order down and passes it to another woman who fills the order, who then passes it to the woman at the till. DO NOT speak to the woman who fills the order. When it is your turn at the till, the till woman places your receipt on a little tray, and you are to put the money on top of the receipt. DO NOT hand the money to the woman directly. She takes the money from the tray and places any change on the receipt. Then you take both change, receipt and, oh yes, your baguette, which she now hands you. Stick to this procedure and there is no yelling. Deviate, even in the slightest way, and be prepared to be shouted at and humiliated in front of the other customers.
I’d basically been doing as I was supposed to for a number of months leading up to the start of August. I persevered because my husband loved an éclair from Maison Hilaire and I had a secret mission to get the grumpy woman behind the till to reward my rule-following diligence with a bit of kindness. I’d seen her be lovely with other customers, why not me?
The day before they closed for the August break I finally got a little love back. Well, not love exactly, but she did actually smile and said, “Bon Journée”. Was this mission accomplished? When I go back to buy an éclair and baguette will I get that hard-earned smile again or will there be special post-August procedures that everyone French knows but will take me weeks of humiliation to figure out? I’ll have to wait and see.
Our neighbours across the road were absent for most of August. We don’t know them but it feels like they came to visit almost every night when they were in town. Their balcony looks down at the street below and right into our living room. They are a couple, probably 35-40-ish. She likes to stand seductively on the balcony having a glass of wine and a cigarette several times a night. When they have people over they all like to stand and smoke by the balcony doors. Usually we both pretend that we don’t see each other. We’ve had several by-chance street-level encounters, which were a bit strange. I gave a weak smile, as I am culturally programmed to do, and they ignored us, as they culturally programmed to do. Fine.
One Friday evening they had a party. They and several of their guests, made a bit more confident by their cocktails, actually pointed and laughed at my husband and me having a rare evening sitting on our sofa in our PJs watching a DVD. Nice.
Needless to say I was enjoying our August privacy. Then last week I saw him stretching on the balcony in nothing but his flimsy boxers. There was something post-coital about his smug expression and the wet spot on the front of his shorts. YUCK! My guard was down as we hadn’t seen them in weeks and there he was in all of his glory. I ran into the other room and wanted to escape. I think he liked that I saw. YIKES! She was on the balcony again last night while we were having dinner. I’m sure in a couple of weeks I’ll be used to our seeing-but-pretending-we-don’t-see routine again.
My neighbours and the rest are all coming back to the city that did not exist for them for the entire month of August. Many of them will have not promenaded down the lovely Paris Plage, or Paris Beach, along the Seine, will not have benefited from the smaller than normal queues at the museums and attractions or have enjoyed less crowded parks, streets and Metro. Maybe if they had, they might not leave next August and we can’t have that.
Note: I, the accidentalparisienne, am now on holiday for two weeks. For your and my pleasure, I’ve invited a number of guest contributors to post their unique points of view of Paris over the weeks I am away. Enjoy! I look forward to getting back in touch when I return.