Culture Shock: Paris in the month of August

By: Jessie Lin

August has been well-known as THE vacation month for Parisians.  If you were to call up someone, the response you’ll likely to receive is “je suis dans le sud”, I am in the South.  Most shops, restaurants, cafes, brasseries, clinics, administrations, etc. close down anywhere from 2 weeks to the entire month.  Because of this, August is either the best or worst time to be in Paris.  Best time because one won’t have to deal with snotty Parisians nor being squashed on the metro during rush hour.  But, it’s also a terrible time because one gets greeted by empty streets in the usual lively quartiers; the absences of the best dining and food specialty options; and in most places, only tourists roam the streets.  If you want to visit Paris for a “Parisian feel” then avoid August like the plague!

I have been forewarned about the infamous month of August, but I really had no idea just how “bad” things are!  On the very last day of July, I picked up my normal free daily newspaper on the metro, on the side there was an announcement that they were going to be on vacation, therefore the circulation of the paper would stop until the month of September.  All week long I have seen signs on store windows notifying customers of the period of closure.  Normally to buy a baguette, some cheese, or meat, I would just have to step next door to my neighborhood shops to pick them up.  Now I would actually have to actively search around to find one that’s open.  It was a weird feeling to walk past a café or brasserie only to see stacked up tables and chairs inside. There is even a link on the city of Paris website of pictures that people took to show the solitude of this city.

Obviously not ALL the stores are closed.  Shops have to take turns in their vacation time, if not the rest of the population of Paris plus tourists would starve.  The big supermarket stay open as well with limited hours, but the city just doesn’t feel the same without its traditional shops and familiar merchants.  The other day I went by the normally animated and lively place d’Aligre.  It’s usually one of my favorite areas to go to because of its diversity of shops and people.  In the milieu there’s the traditional French market, “Marche Beauvais” while around the market there are many cafes, restaurants, and shops of all types.  There are stores that specializes in food from Turkey, North Africa, Portugal, Asia, etc.  The area is usually filled with people regardless of the time of day.   Last week when I entered the market I was greeted by empty stalls and silence.  There were only 3 stands that were open, and there were only a couple of shoppers inside.  The surroundings shops of the market all had their meal doors shut and locked.  You would’ve thought the entire square was close to being abandoned!   Many other streets are no different.  Even in tourist hotspots behind the Orsay Museum was empty.

Things at ATTAC are no different.  The entire month the office has been calm with me and one other full time employee.  The phone calls have reduced significantly.  Next door in our sister building, CICP, where many small NGOs are located is quiet and dark.  I walked in one day and thought the entire place has shut down; even the elevators weren’t working!

But surely there are Parisians who still stay in town.  I do know of a few people who decided to either take vacation early or later in the month of September.  For others, the pockets are tight, so vacation isn’t really a possibility.  Luckily for them, there are still things to do in Paris.  I always tell people “on s’ennuie jamais a Paris”, one never gets bored in Paris.  In the summer, the city provides many activities for citizens and tourists alike to enjoy the sun.  There is Paris Beach, which along the Seine, there are “fake” beaches set up for people to lounge and tan.  There are activities such as Petanque, table tennis, mini golf, etc. as such for people to enjoy.  Almost nightly at the Parc de la Villette, a movie is shown.  Many people arrive early for a nice picnic before the movie starts at sunset.

This is purely part of the French culture.  For people from any other country, the idea of closing down a shop for an entire month is out of the question.  That is one month without revenue while still having to pay rent for your shop.  Even if one can’t go on vacation leisure activity is still part of the agenda.  But as the French like to say “c’est comme ca”, meaning it’s just the way it is.  When stores have a fixed hour, they close on time, even though there might be customers still wanting to buy something.  I’ve been turned down many times while waiting to buy something because it’s time to close up.  “Loisirs”, meaning leisure activities are a big part of the French society.  It’s one aspect of the French culture that I really respect.  After all, work and money aren’t everything in life.  One must take time to enjoy life so when it’s time to turn that computer off and go to the park, there should be no hesitation whatsoever.  When I first came to live in France, I saw this as a very big inconvenience, however, soon after I got used to it, after all, la vie, c’est comma ca.


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