Have you ever noticed that once September 1 hits, the space-time continuum starts to move at warp speed? One minute we’re begrudgingly going back to school or work and crunching the autumn leaves under our boots, and the next we’re forcing down champagne on December 31 wondering: “How is it already next year?”
At the same time, hardly a day goes by in the news cycle at present where I’m not reminded that each day – even the unremarkable ones where you eat an egg and cress sandwich for lunch – is something entirely precious. (If you need a visceral reminder of that, read this heart-wrenching essay). And so, in searching for some way to savour this transitional time of year rather than dread its implications of colder days ahead, I was reminded of the French tradition of la rentrée – which literally means “the return” – wherein Frenchies kill the last of their Côte de Provence rosé bottles and head back to the cities (no doubt with a suntan) to start all over again.
While the return to reality happens across much of the northern hemisphere in September, only in France is it a kind of cultural event, mostly thanks to that country’s admirable commitment to taking time off. I’m sure many an uninformed tourist has appeared in Paris during the month of August, eager to take it all in, only to find that half the boulangeries and brasseries are shut, their proprietors doing what the French do best. There is, after all, no singular form of “vacation” in French, just les vacances.
My friend Lindsey Tramuta, an expat of 10 years and author of The New Paris – a beautiful account of the way this most traditional city is modernising whilst holding on to its roots – told me about the marked transition that her city undergoes in the first week of September. She says it most commonly refers to the official start of the school year, but also the start to the political, professional, and social calendar.
Unlike January 1 and the attendant realisation that there's little to look forward to until spring, la rentrée is full of optimistic possibility
“August is one of only two moments of the year that life noticeably slows to a crawl, especially in Paris. Then comes the rentrée during which everything begins anew: school, work contracts, events, restaurants, coffee shop commotion,” says Tramuta. “And unlike January 1st and the attendant realisation that there's little to look forward to until spring, la rentrée is full of optimistic possibility. Autumn colours, fall and winter produce, new openings, and a more favorable market for job and house hunters. It's not about resolutions, it's about starting a new season with a bit more bounce in your step.”
Thinking about it, it seems that autumn is a much more fitting reset point on the calendar than January, when it simply too cold to be optimistic about anything and we are all exhausted from the forced indulgence that is Christmas. In September, with a (hopefully) restful August behind us, we can enter the last quarter of the year with a vigour and resolve to do things a little differently, be it our goals, habits, or even our wardrobe. This seems especially essential in London, where our mostly tepid summer – save for last week’s welcome stunner of a bank holiday weekend – means pulling out our jumpers is hardly a punctuation mark on the year, because we realistically have all had them out since July.
I don’t know about you, but with the state of the news as it is, I need something to be optimistic about. While Tramuta notes that la rentrée isn’t necessarily a time for resolutions, I’m treating it as a time for reinvention: moving flats, taking up some new hobbies, and new work aspirations are all on the cards. A note on my laptop called “autumn goals” has been filling up all month with work projects I’m keen to tackle, life admin I am determined to sort out, and various whimsical activities I’m keen to organize (bimonthly Sunday walking club, anyone?). And like a kid waiting for the first day of school, I’ve been saving my new boots to wear when it’s cold enough to wear a coat.
While to gripe is to be British, we are, in truth, pretty damn lucky to be here. So let’s make like the French and treat it as such. À la rentrée, oui?