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For some reason the season of renewal in Paris turns out to be autumn rather than spring. Spring is about budding flowers, leaves and romance, but autumn is when the city gets re-energizd at the prospect of la rentrée, un untranslatable multi-layered term, the first ritual on the French calendar, offered you wrapped up in subtle gold and yellow foliage, and more often than not an Indian summer. Admittedly, spring can show off its Paques, 1er mai , 8 mai, Ascension and Pentecôte, not to mention Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but by then an air of disintegration hovers over Paris, as everyone is getting ready to pack up and desert the city on those never-ending long weekends (ponts), dress rehearsals of sorts for the real vacances d’été.
La rentrée, on the other hand, is about homecoming, about sympathetic retrouvailles with the beloved city after a long absence, this exasperating Paris which one is always in a hurry to leave, but always in a hurry to come back to. La rentrée implies both: on rentre des vacances and on rentre à Paris. And remember, RE-entering conveys a repetition, in this case of a yearly cycle, emulating the royal court of yore, who made their re-entry roughly two months later though, at the end of the hunting season, around La Toussaint. Today’s resident has to content himself with a weekend spell for his hunting pleasures, but the gibier (game), he will bring back, from the Sologne for example, will honor many a dinner table during the autumn months. You can sample such dishes in upmarket Parisian restaurants, but how much more pleasureable to do so in a country inn that comes with a fireplace.
The first to “re-enter” are the school children. Each year I am flabbergasted afresh at the fuss made over “the back-to-school” ritual. The new stationery, school bags and other stylish frills are on the headlines followed by a lamentation of what it’s costing your average household (soon to be followed by income tax, property and local tax (which from now on also takes in your television licence). Do the children really need all this new stuff every September? But then in Frace one learns to become stylish and fashion conscious back in the cradle, and consuming is good for business.Their parents are meanwhile brainwashed into throwing in a new car, since la rentrée also plays host to the annual Salon de l’Auto.
On the more noble side of French life, la rentrée littéraire crowns the new intellectual nourrishment with a variety of laurel wreaths: Prix Médicis, Prix Fémina, Prix Goncourt, to mention but some. Literary panels are favorites among French television viewers. Of course you will need to know French to be able to take part in literary France.
However, if you are obstinately resistant to the French language, la rentrée overflows with an inflation of visual pleasures, starting with the Journées du Patrimoine in late September and/or early October, when you may drink up to your eyes’ fill all the gilded glamour of predominantly 17th/18th-century Parisian interiors , provided you are willing to queue up patiently.
Come October, the FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) is a must. I will also spend my odd free hours strolling leisurely in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and drop in on the fabulous art galleries between rue de Seine and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, on rue de Bonaparte, before pushing further west to le Carré Rive Gauche, around the Musée d’Orsay, where the antiques dealers converge.
I will take it at slow doses, quietly, the way I do my cheese and wine, so as to appreciate all the details and all the shades and nuances, like the autumn foliage of the trees round the corner, along the Seine. And then I shall push further west, across the sparkling blue Seine by way of the Solférino footbridge, and on to the Grand Palais, beneath the neighborhood’s bowers of copper-colored chestnut trees. On my way there, I will have bought some steaming roasted chestnuts on the corner of one of the river quais. The Grand Palais—a shrine of fabulous, world-class retrospective exhibitions—often strides into autumn with a splash.
In recent years, the insatiable culture vulture insomiac has also been taken care of with the Nuit Blanche (“sleepless night”), which goes through the night with experimental artwork of varying merit. This event is always celebrated on a Saturday, in early October, and often coincides with the Saturday of the Fête des vendanges des Montmartre (or in less publicized Parisian vineyards).
And in case you had any doubts about the boundaries of La rentrée, note that it remains a strictly Parisian affair contained within the Périphérique–tant pis pour (too bad for) the close-to-60 million other French people who happen to live elsewhere. They should have known better!
Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris, Volume I, II, III or see her website for more.
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