In France, the new year begins on September 1.
September in Paris. So many parties. We go to a cocktail for Laurent’s new novel, due out forla rentrée littéraire. “What exactly,” I wonder, “is a rentrée?” (re-entry). He says you have to begin with the end. End of the holidays, that is.
A year has only nine months in France. It’s over in May, when the universities are already on strike and virtually each week has a four-day weekend. By this time the schoolchildren are singing: “Vivent les vacances, à bas la rentrée…” (Long live vacation, down with going back to school. See Note 1, below).
Summer is not part of the year: It’s les grandes vacances. Vacant classrooms, empty offices, closed boutiques. Employees are absent, stretched out sous les platanes (under the sycamores) or sous les palmiers (at the beach), savoring farniente, more poetic than ne rien faire (“doing nothing,” not to be confused with “Nothing doing!”—pas question !). During the minimum five weeks of congés payés (paid leave), nothing is exactly what gets done in France. But who would want it otherwise? Even our clochards, the professionally unemployed and homeless, leave their sidewalk for six weeks, to greet us on their return with“Ça s’est bien passé, les vacances ? ” (How were your holidays?) Attention ! Asking “Ça s’est bien passé, votre vacation ? ” is a conversation-stopper. Vacation (from vaquer à: to be busy with something) is a faux ami, its meaning just the opposite of the English word. It signifies work, frequently a short-term job, as in “une vacation de deux mois” (a two-month contract).
La rentrée, the antonym of les vacances, comes with a bang. The last weekend of August, the échéance incontournable (final deadline) for getting back to work, is always marked by the grand retour (return), with its nightmare journées rouges (red traffic days). Everyone waits until la dernière (last) minute. The phenomenal bumper-to-bumper is so predictable that the French didn’t bat an eye when Jean-Luc Godard made the 1967 movie Weekend, consisting almost entirely of an endless traffic jam. The bang comes when a car vous rentre dedans (collides with your car), or worse, a driver with road rage vous rentre dans le chou(punches you in the face).
Once home, people calm down and seem almost cheerful. Tout rentre dans l’ordre (everything is back in place). La rentréemeans both returning and starting afresh. It’s la rentrée des classes : Schools reopen to faire rentrer le savoir dans les petites têtes (force some learning into little heads). It’s la rentrée sociale : trade unions start functioning again; and la rentrée parlementaire : so does the government. Everyone’s back to work, even if only for 35 hours a week, although this is a situation to watch. Mounting economic pressures may push France back to working 40 hours a week like the rest of us.
In France, September has no romantic tinge of the dying year, falling leaves, cold wind sweeping through your hair. Psychologically, if not in calendar terms, it’s now that the French year begins, clean and fresh. Everybody’s energized. Les pubs (advertisements) are touting la rentrée scolaire : A new beginning needs new pencils and notebooks. La rentrée is a chance to start over, la page blanche, a new défi (challenge).
Fall also means la rentrée des théâtres, with new plays and movies, making for lots of rentrées (tickets sold). La rentrée littéraire is a fresh crop of books, candidates for the year’s literary awards. You wouldn’t want to rentrer bredouille (come back without any). A literary prize-winner can sell 100,000 copies — a good way to faire rentrer de l’argent (increase your income). If your book fails, rentre tes larmes (stifle your tears) et ta coIère (your anger). Buy yourself a new dress. Of course la rentrée de la mode is designed to make new fashion victimes. Can’t afford it? Here’s a cheap alternative: rentre ton ventre (suck in your stomach) et tes cheveux (tuck your hair under your hat). You’ll look great.
Note 1. This ageless children’s song continues: “Les cahiers au feu /le maître au milieu…” (workbooks into the fire /toss the teacher on the pyre).