It is nearly the end of July and summer has tipped past its halfway point. The Métro is emptying out and Parisians are rapidly disappearing to the beach and clogging up the highways on their way out of town. In the dead of August, the heart of Paris will be all but abandoned except for the tourists, who will be either delighted or confused to have the place to themselves.
If you're planning a summer trip to France or just wondering what we all do with five weeks of vacation, I offer you the following simplified explanation of summer à la française.
May holidays: With a little luck, the weather has turned warm and the succession of May holidays -- May Day, Victoire 1945, and Ascension -- won't fall on a weekend. On good years, a series of well-placed weekdays off gives everyone the opportunity to take a few "bridge" or even "viaduct" days and piece together very long weekends.
Roland-Garros: The best opportunity to see and be seen, entertain and impress important clients, show off your knowledge of obscure tennis trivia, and drive around the Bois de Boulogne in your convertible Mercedes. And to think that for years I called it the French Open and thought it was just some boring tennis tournament.
La fête de la musique: I'm pretty sure that since the dawn of time, the French have thrown one heck of a party on or around the solstice. It used to be la fête de Saint Jean and now it's la fête de la musique. Officially an occasion for musicians, amateur and professional, to swarm the streets until the wee hours, it is less officially another opportunity for drunken revelry. Same scene, different century. There may or may not be fewer bonfires in the modern version.
Le Tour de France: Thanks to Lance, we Americans have heard of this one. Historically a celebration of France and French identity though the spectacle of watching a bunch of crazily determined folks try and pedal around the hillier bits of the country. I think it must have been more fun to watch when they were only doped on red wine.
Le Quatorze Juillet: Bastille Day, if you prefer. Pretext for fireworks, bals populaires hosted by the local firemen, and military parades. Every town or village with three gendarmes and an enthusiastic comité des fêtes organizes their own parade, not content to simply watch on TV the big Parisian march down the Champs-Elysées.
Intervilles: You don't live in Paris, but in some forgotten provincial town far outside of the orbit of the capital? You miss the lights and the action of the big city, but you still may get the chance to appear on TV, with all of your crazy neighbors, and jump into a swimming pool with a cow in it. Yes, you read that correctly. Invented decades ago, this summer television show pits the inhabitants of two rival towns against one another in a giant outdoor game show. Cows and cream pies are always involved, but the details of the nutty competition vary.
Les grands chassés-croisés: Are you juilletiste or aoûtien? With a mere five or six weeks of vacation, minus one in December for the holidays and another in February for a ski vacation, there are only three or four to devote to summer break. Under such constraints, most folks just rent the same beach cottage or stake out the same campground year after year. Those who leave in July cross those who leave in August on the road on les week-ends de grand chassé-croisé, creating giant pan-European traffic jams. Avoid the highway rest areas at all cost.
Le Gendarme de Saint Tropez: He's been patrolling the summer television line-up since the 1960s, and although everyone knows the six films by heart, those who are still bothering to show up at the office in July and August are often humming "Do you do you do you Saint Tropez" over their morning coffee. The nudist hunt, the crazy nun in her 2CV, and Louis de Funes' wild facial expressions: what's not to love?
La rentrée: Alas, all this fun has to end, and starting in late August, la rentrée looms large. It's like back to school for adults. Class is in, the boss is back, and now everything that has been put off for months with a shrug and a "on verra à la rentrée" is top on the to do list. Suddenly the morning trains are packed again and it is impossible to make an appointment with anyone. At least the local bakery has reopened and we can once more find a good baguette.
Voilà the French summer in a nutshell. There are subtleties of course, like just when one can break open the first bottle of rosé, and whether to grill sardines or chipolata sausages on the barbecue. It will take many more years of research to get to the bottom of it all, but never fear, I'm on the case.
Bonnes vacanes, everyone!