It’s August, actually it’s almost the end of August so this particular post is perhaps a little late or ‘en retard’ as we say on this side of the ocean. You see, I want to tell you about August in Paris and it probably would have been a better idea had I written this post just a little earlier in the month. None the less, it is still August which means you’ll hopefully also still be able to appreciate what I’m going to tell you.
Productivity in Paris grinds to a halt in August. Hundreds, if not thousands (I don’t know precisely as I haven’t counted them all and I can’t find any specific statistics addressing the issue) of business large and small, retail, commercial, service and perhaps even some of the illegal ones are closed up, shuttered or otherwise rendered inaccessible to anyone. Some of these businesses close shop for the entire month, some for only 2 or 3 weeks, whatever the time frame the strategy for many Parisians for the month of August is to vamoose the city.
I liken the preparation for the great summer shutdown here to how many Canadian children approach the Christmas or Summer Holiday season. There is great excitement and anticipation surrounding the ‘Date of Departure’ (or DOD as I call it) and then, as July draws to a close the staff become antsy – they know their break is coming – and productivity either starts to wane or else heats up to ensure that everything is done before it’s time. And then, on the last day, the owner/manager tapes a note to the window/wall providing whatever information (s)he’s decided is relevant for his/her customers to know regarding the business’s “fermeture annuelle” and then everyone vanishes. The information featured on these “vacation notes” vary wildly in both form and content from business to business:
Now, I ask you, doesn’t this whole thing remind you of how Canadian kids approach the last day of school either before Christmas or summer holidays? Given all the excitement, I’m surprised that businesses don’t tape streamers and balloons to their vacation signs. I can’t help but wonder if employee evaluations are done in July in France, similar to an end of the year report card in school? That would just make my analogy perfect!
At any rate, although much has been written about the great August shutdown in France – and particularly Paris – most of us have never actually lived through one, until now. I can honestly say that it is a real thing and, although fewer businesses close down today than in years past, there are still lots of closures and these closures impact one’s daily life. For example, Gary’s “Wine Guy” is gone for the month. That is to say, the fellow who owns the wine store 1 1/2 blocks from our apartment and who speaks great English and knows lots about wine so has become Gary’s ‘go-to’ guy…..is away for the month. Now, Wine Guy suggested that we buy a case of wine before he left but Gary never got around to it. Thus, for the month of August we are left wandering aimlessly through aisles of unknown French varietals in unknown stores at locations more than double the distance from our apartment! Imagine!
And, on at least 3 occasions – including once with Elaine and Kevin – we have tried to visit restaurants that are shut down for the month so we have been forced to make alternative culinary choices. Again, imagine!
Okay, fine, so the net impact of the August shutdown on our life has not been overly traumatic in a city this large with as many wine stores and restaurants as it has, however, it honestly is noticeable. There are significantly fewer Parisians around and significantly more tourists. It’s also odd walking along streets where large numbers of stores are shuttered with vacation notices posted (and sort of humourous too). At the same time, on a positive note, the little coffee place where we buy our freshly ground beans has left a couple of its locations open this month so we only have to walk an extra 2 blocks to buy our Kenyan roast. This means we can still have good coffee every morning – whew, because I can’t imagine how Gary would survive for the month without good coffee or good wine.
For the businesses and their employees of the places that are closed, I’m guessing that the August vacation period is a welcome reprieve from the stresses of daily life. It’s an excellent length of time to actually relax and de-stress, much better than trying to jam it all into one of our North American 1 week “holidays”. I know that, at Ipsos, Gary’s boss and his family have gone to a home on the southern coast of France for the month. Ahhhhh wouldn’t that be a great way to spend a few weeks? Paris is over-run with tourists in August so what red/white & blue blooded Parisian wouldn’t want to escape to another locale where (s)he can then act as tourist as well!
It’s also been interesting to see that some businesses use this month as a time to undertake renovations or to paint or do other remodelling. We’ve seen a number of shops and restaurants with their windows covered and workers busily hammering away inside. What excitement we’ll have in September when these places are back as new and improved versions of their former selves!
And I think I know why street art flourishes in Paris during August. With fewer locals around and lots of shuttered doors there are both more and less guarded opportunities for many of the artists to ‘perform’. Any of you who know me also know how much I love street art so I’m definitely appreciating this side effect of the August shut-down.
As one final point of discussion, much has also been written about ‘unfriendly Parisians’ and ‘poor service’ and, while I will write more about this topic at a later date, for now I’d like to put forth one hypothesis: IF you were Parisian and had to work in the month of August when so many of your friends and family probably don’t and IF you therefore had to deal with an incremental share of the thousands of foreign tourists who flood the city during August…..wouldn’t you be cranky too?
All in all, I honestly don’t think it’s a bad thing that people shut down, turn off, close doors and go away for an extended period during the summer. Northern climates are notoriously not great – and seem to be getting even less great – so why not take advantage of the beautiful weather when the kids are off school? The world will still turn, the people left behind will still be able to shop, eat, buy their wine and drink good coffee. And, before you know it, it will be back to business as usual. What a welcome reprieve a month of, essentially, forced vacation would be, don’t you think? In fact, I think Gary and I may have to give it a go next summer, I mean, when en France, eh? Perhaps I should start looking at rental homes somewhere south of here, anyone want to join us?