This is my fourth French rentrée. For my non-Frenchie readers, it’s Back to School and New Year and Monday morning, all rolled into one. Most French people take their vacations in August, nice weeks-long sabbaticals that clear the mind and cleanse the soul, so by September everybody’s ready to see their friends again, to sleep in their own beds, to cook their own familiar food and get back to work. The weather turns a bit cooler, kids get new school supplies, new books are released. It’s a nation-wide reset, a do-over. A clean slate.
This year, though, the year of COVID, la rentrée might be different.
That was then; this is now
After the confinement, March through May, France opened up in stages, and things were looking good. We tentatively re-discovered our social lives (without the bisous greetings, sadly) and we planned in-France vacations. I was missing my grown Stateside children, but travel restrictions and common sense overruled my longing, so that visit will have to wait.
Instead, I had a lovely trip to Nice with my teenage son, and we swam in the Mediterranean and stuffed ourselves with pizza and Niçoise salads. Then, I went to Normandy with friends, and we hiked and biked and stuffed ourselves on Neufchatel and cider and oysters. (Can you see a theme in my vacation adventures?)
But during my August vacation, things started to sour. COVID infections in France rose. Travel restrictions, which we had hoped would lift, increased instead. Testing sites popped up all over France, and we were glad for the easy-access screening, but it added another plague-lifestyle dimension to our vacations. Loudspeakers blared periodic announcements reminding us to wear our masks. Signage on buses and billboards encouraged us to mask up, wash up, and keep our distance. We missed our friends and families, missed the hugs and kisses, and got really furious at people we saw on the news who flaunted the rules, partying and hugging and dancing.
What does that mean for La rentrée?
Schools are opening, but with masks and distancing and an uncertain future for anything non-essential like sports and clubs and the performing arts. People are going back to work, but telecommuting is still going strong, and masks are obligatoire in offices now. In fact, masks are now mandatory everywhere inside and outside. Only cyclists and joggers get a break. People who lost their jobs during confinement will keep looking for jobs, frustrated and worried, second-guessing their life choices and tinkering with their retirement plans. Let’s hope the weather cooperates and cuts us some slack after the August canicule, a merciless heat wave.
As an expat in France, I often looked at La rentrée like I looked at other French customs and holidays – a nice but unnecessary cultural tradition. You want me to eat Galette des Rois in January and find a trinket inside? Sure, I’ll eat cake any day. You want me to drink Beaujolais in November? Bring it on. Four holidays in May? Sure.
But right now, I’d kill for a proper rentrée. We need the ritual of buying new school supplies. We need to dress for work again, after all this Zoom-blazer-and-lipstick business. We want to have people over and watch sports and argue about politics over a loaded apéro tray.
The new COVID rentrée
I just don’t know if that’s going to be possible now, with COVID restrictions and existential dread.
You know what we need to do? We need to figure out the new rentrée. The COVID rentrée.
I don’t know about you, but this country has been good to me, and I’d like to return the favor. Here are my ideas to mark the new season:
- We’re trying to figure out how to live, as the PSAs say, with the virus among us. So let’s be vigilant – wearing masks and distancing and testing, following the science and obeying government restrictions.
- Go to a museum – buy a ticket online and stand in front of a masterpiece, contemplating humanity’s resilience and solidarity.
- Brush up on your French – let’s get into this culture while travel is limited.
- Let’s spread some euros around our quartiers – shops and cafés have taken a hit.
- If you’re an American in France, make sure you’re registered to vote, and vote early. Enough is enough.
Let’s start la rentrée 2020 with purpose.