The French really take their vacations seriously.  They understand how important vacation can be to our general health, and that a relaxing break is a necessary part of a balanced lifestyle. Not for them the few days squeezed in around July 4, or that trip to the beach where everyone is still tied to the office by computer or cell phone.

Traditionally, many French people take off for the whole month of August.  Even the most junior salaried employees are entitled to five weeks of annual vacation, in addition to national or bank holidays. When we worked in Paris 20 years ago, the rule was that you got extra vacation days if you did NOT take your main vacation in August. Nevertheless beaches on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts are crowded in August. Color-coded traffic warnings are issued for weekends all summer long. The middle of August is un weekend rouge, with early birds returning home while others are just setting out on their summer trip.
Along with summer vacations come summer fashions. You probably already know le bermuda and le capri, but here is some French vocabulary which I only just learned this year:
  • Le pantalon corsaire : fitted pants knee length or just below
  • Le pantacourt : just as it sounds, un pantalon court, pants that finish above the ankle
  • Le marcel : sleeveless T shirt, commonly-known in US as a wife-beater, also called un débardeur
  • La tropézienne : sandal style made famous by Brigitte Bardot in the 60s
  • L’espadrille : rope soled shoes or sandals
  • Des tongs : yes, a corruption of thong, but flip-flop sandals rather than a sexy piece of underwear.
With the summer heat here in Provence, life slows down, and we adopt that wonderful Mediterranean habit, la sieste. Brightly-colored swim towels adorn the balconies and the neighborhood is in festive mood.

Frédérique, our neighbor across the hall, or voisine de palier, appears at our door with a plant. She is leaving to spend the whole summer in Corsica, and wants us to take care of a beautiful Asian lily she was given on the last day of school.
Vacation even trumps that other French staple, la baguette. Our local bakery is closed for le congé annuel, and neighbors are forced to drive to get their daily bread. Even the local church closes its doors for eight weeks.

Summer is also time for great sales in the stores. Clothes, beachwear, shoes, towels and household linens, the savings are tremendous. I pick up sandals for 7€, T shirts for 2€ each. Bargain-hunters should look out for the many different words:
Soldes : sales
Remise : discount
Braderie : sell-off
Rabais : discount, reduction
Promo / promotion : special offer, e.g. maillots de bain en promo
Prix bas : low prices
Dernière démarque : last mark-down.
But all good things come to an end. It’s now late August, and while afternoon temperatures are still in the 30s (around 90F) suddenly the sale racks have disappeared and the shops are full of sweaters, long pants, scarves and winter jackets. C’est la rentrée!
La rentrée des classes is back to school. Long before classrooms open their doors there is a flurry of activity all over town.  Supermarkets have aisles full of school materials (fournitures scolaires). Gone are the bikinis and beach towels, to be replaced by exercise books and backpacks. Some stores try to combine vacation and la rentrée. Give us your list of fournitures scolaires and we will prepare everything while you go happily on vacation, they offer. Our neighbor Frédérique returns to reclaim her Asian lily and prepare for her job as a primary school teacher.

La rentrée marks the return to work, to the serious, to real life, the beginning of a new season for the French. It is a popular time to release new books and films. In Aix there is a foire des associations, a kind of city-wide club fair, where you can browse stands and join up for a wide range of associations, from cycling club to choirs. Most of the subscriptions run for a year starting in September.
So, even those of us who don’t work anymore are looking forward to a host of new activities in the fall. Summer may be drawing to a close, but Vive la Rentrée!

© 2012 Trevor and Valerie White

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