A week ago Wednesday I took a feverish, miserable Mademoiselle to our family doctor. She'd come down with a high fever with no other symptoms overnight, and although I felt a bit foolish rushing her off to the doctor so quickly, I wanted reassurance. He examined her, found nothing, then sat down and looked at me gravely from across his desk.
"You're leaving on vacation soon, I hope?" he asked, as if counseling a particularly difficult patient.
Paris is empty this time of year. Empty. Sure, there are tourists, and the billboards in the Métro are conspicuously advertising in English to attract their tourist dollars, but they are all off snapping pictures somewhere far away from my corner of urban suburbia. Here there are few visitors, and two-thirds of the residents have left on vacation while the other third are effusively greeting each other in shops, building entrances, and elevators, as if they were surprised to run across another living creature. Vous? Here? In late July? What are the chances?
Inevitably one asks, "Vacation soon?" and if the answer is (as mine), "Not yet, we've got about a week to go," an acknowledgement is made of the remarkable patience still required. If the answer is a mournful, "No, we just got back last week," a sigh and some gentle words of support are expected.
Paris without the Parisians might be altogether too pleasant. This doesn't suit the Parisians at all, who expect that someone will keep up appearances and maintain in their absence the "stress of the capital" that they are busy complaining about in Deauville, Saint Tropez and Saint-Martin-en-Ré. So the SNCF, ever willing to assist in providing reliable, punctual inconvenience, have put the trains on summer schedule. Lest those who commute by car feel left out, public works departments all over the greater Paris metropolitan area have devised construction projects to capriciously block roadways. Finally, neighborhood bakeries are closing, giving the stragglers the hint to get the hell out of Dodge while a civilized exit is still possible.
Usually I have no problem waiting until August to make my escape. I'm still American enough to savor the fact that I have [number redacted] annual weeks of vacation and can use three of them (Three! Full! Weeks!) in the summer. This year I've been antsy, though, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it is because I know exactly where we're going for two of those weeks: to the Gers, to a rented stone farmhouse with a view of Lectoure and a pool, where I'll sit and watch the pilgrims pass on their way to Santiago.
The weather in Paris has been rainy and gray this year, a protracted spring that seems to want to slide lazily into an early fall. Mostly I don't mind: this is Seattle weather. I love hearing the rain on my bedroom window at night. There have been a few hot, muggy days, just enough to remind me why I hate heat waves in Paris: the city becomes a white-hot stone-and-concrete furnace, and the heat seeps into our apartment all day long, despite the closed shutters. At night we open our windows and brave the mosquitoes in order to cool off the place a measly degree or two. Public transportation is stifling even when half the normal ridership is out of town. Give me drizzle over that any July, I say. But it rained hard enough to cancel some Bastille Day fireworks displays this year, and enough to discourage us from keeping le Petit up past his bedtime for our local show. With August almost here, I'd started to feel like somehow I was missing out.
Then this weekend the weather turned perfect. It was sunny but not unbearably hot, and this morning reminded me of the clear days of early September. So as early as we could manage this morning we herded the kids into the car and drove out to Chevreuse, a village in a valley a short drive southwest of Paris. We took a walk through the woods and fields, and along a narrow river lined with old stone tannery cottages. The kids found rocks and sticks and stopped to admire any animal that stayed put long enough for them to get a good look at it: slugs, cows, horses, and ducklings were regarded with equal awe. Then we drove up to an old ruined castle on a hill overlooking the valley. Le Petit looked for ghosts in the dungeon while Mademoiselle insisted I help her scale stone steps. It started to rain again this afternoon, but only after we returned home. My husband and I both marveled that it felt just like vacation.