31 Days Later

August 19, 2010

Store Window, Montmartre, Paris

les vacances – vacation
une fermeture – closure
la Mairie de Paris – Paris City Hall
un embouteillage –  traffic jam
le supermarché
– supermarket, grocery store
une fermeture exceptionnelle – unexpected or extended closure; an “exceptional” closure, outside of the regular operating schedule
l’Hôtel de Ville
– City Hall
la plage – beach
les quais de la Seine – the quays of the Seine


Do you remember the creepy opening scenes of the film 28 Days Later?  They caused a stir among critics and sent a chill down the spines of audience members everywhere because they depicted, in very realistic fashion, the always-bustling London landmarks, Westminster Bridge, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, utterly devoid of human life.  The simple, surreal absence of people in such famously and characteristically overcrowded spots was eerier than anything Jerry Bruckheimer could have pulled out of his bag of over-the-top tricks.

Well, those famous scenes are kind of what Paris feels like in August.  Public spaces that are normally bursting to overflowing with people now appear vast and empty.  While passing through the central métro station Châtelet the other day, I could have sworn I heard the opening theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly playing as a piece of tumbleweed drifted by.

This is because during the month of August, the entire nation of France goes on vacation.  (Well, after all, it’s been a whole two months since May.)  Sounds crazy, right?  I can’t imagine what would happen if everyone in Canada decided to take four weeks of vacation at exactly the same time.  The country would grind to a halt.  Which, come to think of it, I guess is kind of what happens here.  It’s an old joke among the French that in August, there are no Parisians left in Paris – only tourists.  They’re like the zombies of the movie, taking over the city one by one.  Okay, I’ll stop with the nerdy film references. (For now.)

The nation-wide fermeture of restaurants, stores, businesses and bakeries is so all-encompassing that the Mairie de Paris website helpfully publishes a shortlist of the bakeries that stay open in the summertime, so that the few Parisians left in the city can at least still buy their daily bread.  The yearly embouteillages of thousands of cars trying to leave or return to the city all on the same weekend are infamous.

Window display, La Durée, Place Madeleine, Paris

Anyone who has ever lived in France, or had to deal with French companies in the summertime, probably already knows about les vacances.  I myself half-knew what to expect since, thanks to the Toronto International Film Festival, August and September are to those of us working in the Toronto film industry what tax season is to accountants. I had banged my head against the wall on a number of occasions during the panicked pre-festival frenzy, desperately trying to contact someone – anyone – at a French film sales offices in August and getting instead a comical round-robin of “Out of Office Reply” messages directing me first to one person, then the next, until I was right back at the original e-mail or phone call recipient.  At the distribution house I worked for, we pretty much knew that if we were going to be presenting a French film at the festival in September, we needed to lock that puppy down in June.

Now, to my North American way of thinking, it makes much more logical sense to stagger employee vacations.  That way there isn’t one huge rush (and subsequent price spike) on airline tickets and hotel bookings.  Business calls and e-mails still get answered.  And, you know, the country keeps running.  But when I tried presenting these arguments to my French friends, I found myself met with blank, uncomprehending stares, usually followed by the classic French shrug.  Taking les vacances in August is just the way it’s always been done.  Besides, if everybody else in the office is going away on vacation, what’s the point in sticking around?  And if all the other businesses are closed, what’s the point in staying open?  It only makes logical sense to go on holiday.  My friend Aiko’s office just shut down entirely and told her she had to take her vacation days in August whether she wanted to or not.

Window display, ummm, I want to say, somewhere near the Jardin de Luxembourg?

Despite this irrefutable line of reasoning, I think the French government has come to realize that the entire nation closing up shop at the same time is perhaps not so much practical for the economy with respect to international affairs.  It has therefore been trying to encourage its somewhat stubborn populace to start taking their vacation time outside of August.  Slowly, grudgingly, people have made great concessions, and so now some of France takes its vacation from July 15 – August 15 or, even crazier still, during the four weeks in July.

I do have one odd renegade friend who plans to take his vacation in September.  At his company, he’s the one to whom all the out-of-office e-mails are currently being redirected.  And of course some people have to stay behind to keep things running for the tourists.

I’d been warned previously against visiting Paris during les vacances to avoid disappointing fermetures exceptionnelles, but from the perspective of someone living here, I have to say that I think Paris in August is awesome.   No fighting the rush-hour masses, no line-ups at the supermarché, no overcrowded métro…  and to placate us vacances-less poor sods left inhabiting the city, there are open-air cinema screenings in the park, free concerts at the Hôtel de Ville and, my personal favourite, Paris Plages, a set of poor-man’s “beaches” that the Mairie de Paris creates along les quais de la Seine in July and August for those of us who can’t afford to travel to exotic vacation destinations.  Replete with imported sand, palm trees, lounge chairs, hammocks, festive music and beach-side activities like boating, badminton, pétanque and dance classes, Paris Plages makes me feel like I’m a kid all over again, playing a giant game of pretend, only way better.

On a recent visit, my sister Stephanie got into the Paris Plages spirit.

A small section of Paris Plages. Photo courtesy Mathieu Marquer.

One Response to “31 Days Later”

  1. Alia Says:

    okay, the Paris Plages are just weird. But i’m totally looking forward to semi-abandoned Paris…that is, assuming there are still some bistros open in which i can gorge myself. If not, a baguette and saucisson from the local supermarche will do me just fine.


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