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Back-to-School Solidarity

Every good guidebook should give as much information as possible about the habits, customs, and culture of a given country.

After a recent trip to Italy, for example, we were informed by our guidebook that most restaurants have a charge for bread and table service, between 1.50 and 3 euros per person.

If I were to write a guidebook about France, I would put in bold letters that THE ENTIRE COUNTRY GOES ON VACATION IN AUGUST, and everyone returns in September.

You may think I’m exaggerating, but if you ever come to France during August, you’ll see the rows of closed shops with signs giving the dates of closure.

We inform our dear clients that the store will be closed August 1-31.
In more detail, my guidebook entry would read something like this:

Tourists, this is what you need to know about France. If you come in August, many things will be closed. Most small stores will, and you’ll find a sign on the door telling you so. Big stores will still be open, but probably with reduced hours (closed for a longer lunch period, no opening on Sunday, etc.). Good luck if you need to an appointment with a doctor of any kind. And don’t even try to do anything over the extended weekend of August 15, the Assomption, besides barbecuing. That’s also one of the biggest travel weekends in the year in France, and you can bet that almost everything will be closed.

But oh, dear tourists, now put yourselves in the shoes of a French person. You’re probably driving or taking the train somewhere south, as the whole of the country is heading towards warm weather and beaches. How nice and what sense of solidarity for you to be able to take off for part of a month, knowing that everything has slowed down. If everyone else is on vacation, why shouldn’t you be on vacation too ? It’s like a countrywide license to kick back and relax.

It dawned on me fairly late that vacances d’été (summer vacation) in France is equivalent to the month of August. I figured this out when, after telling a French person that I was going to the US for the month of July, their follow-up question was ‘Oh, and where are you going on vacation ?’ For this person, vacation equaled August. My trip in July was only a trip, but not yet falling into the vacances category. 

After vacances is when the flood comes back. Stores open back up. Doctors come back from a month of holiday. Transportation resumes its normal non-holiday hours. It’s now time for what the French call la rentrée, or simply back-to-school.

‘Back-to-school’ is, I suppose, both a weak and a strong translation of rentrée. I’ve already mentioned this phenomenon in another post.  The translation is weak when you look at the original verb, rentrer (to return). But strong when you realize that the entirety of French vacation is based around the centralized, national school calendar. Back-to-school implies that not only children are returning to their studies after two months of vacation, but the entire country works on and follows this same schedule, and so it’s also back-to-the-hospital, back-to-the-store, overall back-to-work.

I have to say, it’s never easy to go back to work after vacation, but at least I know there’s an entire country experiencing the same thing as me at the same time. Now that’s what I call solidarity.


  1. For me, I've started thinking of 'rentrée' as a literal 're-entry': like shuttles re-entering the earth's atmosphere after shooting off into space during the holidays...

    1. That's a pretty good (and very exciting) comparison!


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