Paris During Congés Estivaux. Don't Even Try To Get Something Done.
by Marlene Alva
Ah, Paris in the summer! 108 F degrees (or 43 degree C) days, hordes of tourists, gilets jaunes or yellow vests, stalled or cancelled or non-air conditioned metros, terrible air pollution. No wonder everyone wants to be here!
Except Parisians. Of course.
Even in a normal, non-heatwave summer, Parisians religiously head out of town, especially in August, for what are referred to as the congés estivaux, or summer holidays, which typically last from the end of July until la rentrée—aptly named reentry—in early September. Now that my time is my own, I do it too.
Already in our neighborhood and throughout the city there are little signs posted in many stores announcing that they are closing for the next month. And the exodus doesn’t just include your local boulangerie or boucherie. Just try getting a doctor or dental appointment in August. We learned long ago not to get so much as a toothache during the sacrosanct congés.
There are aspects to all of this which are amusing to most Americans; after all, we value the work ethic, and in many fields not taking a vacation is seen as a wholesome and laudable dedication to one’s job. The French didn’t always get five or six weeks’ vacation plus innumerable holidays (think of every major and minor Catholic holiday plus celebrations of the ending of several major and minor wars). The concept of a paid vacation only became the law in 1936, and of course there was a hiatus during World War II. But after the war the idea became firmly embedded in the national psyche, and congés estivaux are now a charming if slightly annoying part of life here. You learn to cope—you find a new bakery, you explore a new neighborhood to find the greengrocer who remains open, you put off the doctor’s appointment, and you step back and admire a culture in which taking a long holiday is not only encouraged but guaranteed.
One of the interesting things about going through a transition period in life—whether through retirement, changing jobs, cutting back on work obligations or exploring new ways of spending your time—is that it gives you the opportunity to reassess the role that leisure time pays in creating a fulfilling life. Over the years I have learned to respect the French attitude toward leisure time, and since I live here during the annual congés estivaux, I am happy to join in the practice.
Marlene is a retired international corporate lawyer who now spends her time between Paris, New York and Miami.