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The End of Abundance
The last days of summer and the promise of La Rentrée
I hope you’ve had a good week. Thank you for opening the second edition of Pen Friend, your weekly letter from Paris. If you’ve signed up since the inaugural letter, thank you for being here! From now on, I’ll aim to write to you on a Sunday so you can read in your leisure time, maybe with a cup of tea in hand.
Now, first of all, sorry for the stark title of this week’s letter. In my defence, they’re not my words—they’re the words of President Emmanuel Macron at his first meeting back after the summer break earlier this week, where he dramatically declared “la fin de l’abondance”.
President Macron looking grave with his pumpkin-spiced latte order, Hannah Meltzer
A few weeks ago, Macron’s holiday photos were all over the news here: the big grievance was he seemed to be having a right old time jet-skiing on the Med while parts of his country were literally on fire.
Public debate raged following critics’ suggestions that the “motorbike of the sea” was bad for the environment. The next thing we knew, Macron was pictured paddling a much more eco-friendly (and patriotic) tricolour canoe.
All this in mind, I wasn’t sure at first if Macron’s statement about the end of abundance referred specifically to his penchant for water sports. Maybe…but I think on the whole he was trying to brace the country for a tough autumn/winter ahead in the context of ongoing climate catastrophe, energy shortages, war in Europe and the rising cost of living.
Unlike in the UK, gas prices in France are currently frozen and energy companies have been prohibited from hiking prices, but that could change. At least I think that’s what he’s trying to warn us? But actually, despite the gloomy context, I really really like this time of year, and I’ll write a bit more about why below.
In last week’s letter, I wrote about how ‘les vacances’ can’t really be accurately translated into English because the French attitude to time off from work is so different from the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ way of holidaying.
As I wrote last week, the French bask in their summer leisure time, treating it as a reversion to a good and natural state, while for Britons, it is seen as an exceptional time that must be planned and discussed at great length.
For the French, La Rentrée is the necessary second-part of the vacances ritual.
If I were to try and translate it, the closest I could get is probably “back-to-school”, but this is not really sufficient. It’s an all-ages, all-purpose back for school, because it also goes for adults returning to work, people who do not work at all, or retirees. What’s more, it’s also inked into the cultural calendar as long-awaited books hit the shelves and the next blockbuster exhibitions open. It comes from the French verb rentrer, to come home, so maybe it’s better translated as a kind of homecoming?
What is the French for “jumper weather”?
It feels fitting that in this secular but ultimately Catholic-influenced country, we all get a chance to wipe the slate clean and start our years afresh a second time in autumn. In my eyes, it’s a better time to make changes and resolutions than in January.
In Paris in particular, January and February are the toughest months in the year: the days are short, the nights are chilly and Parisians are grumpy about not being able to spend long, lazy evenings luxuriating on the café-terraces. Therefore, it’s not really the best time to take up a sport, restrict your diet or learn once and for all to set your boundaries.
I much prefer La Rentrée as a reset point than New Year. You’re well rested (from les vacances) and you’ve got plenty of user-data from the eight months of the year already lived to inform your sensible and cosy autumn resolutions.
Here’s a few changes I’ve made/ am making into the rentrée:
I cleaned my fridge
I signed up for a running race. I really like running but haven’t done it for ages, so now I am running regularly again and that is great for my general well-being
I am arranging catch-up apéros with friends, or acquaintances that I want to consolidate into friends
I’m writing this letter
These small changes will not help to fix any of the large and terrifying problems listed earlier, not directly
But in hopping off the bus of daily life to go on holiday and getting back on in September, maybe we return as more alert and thoughtful passengers. Failing that, at least we’ll be well rested for the apocalypse.
Even if you are not in France, I encourage you to import La Rentrée into your life (don’t worry, it’s an intangible idea, not a physical good or service, so post-Brexit tarifs don’t apply).
What do you feel like adding to your routine? Or taking away from it? Let me know!
Thirty-second book club
This week I finished The Fran Lebowitz Reader, which I picked up in the English-language section at Gilbert Joseph bookshop on Boulevard Saint-Michel (less charming than Shakespeare & Co., but also less expensive). Fran is very drôle. The book contains her writing from the Eighties and Nineties. I liked reading about how press releases used to come through to a writer’s home mailbox and press officers and agents would call them on their landline. She also writes about when formerly working-class New York neighbourhoods started being given new names like “SoHo”, and that made me think of what a friend recently told me—that some people have started calling Shepherd’s Bush “SheBu”.
Now I am reading Une femme en contre-jour by Gaëlle Josse. It’s an understated and touching walk through the life of Vivian Maier, which was a gift from my dear friend Anna. I didn’t really know anything about Maier before I picked up this book, apart from there was an exhibition of her work at the Musée du Luxembourg last year. Now I’m kicking myself for not going. She was a seemingly unassuming person, a nanny by trade, who died in obscurity in Chicago. After her death, tens of thousands of undeveloped negatives were found from the camera that for decades she carried with her everywhere. The result is an astounding collection of photographs that has now travelled to some of the most prestigious museums in the world. Her work thoughtfully reveals the beauty, pain and vitality of the lives of ordinary people, like Maier herself.
That’s all for now. Thank you for reading until the end. By next week, the rentrée will be in full swing, and I shall write again about some of the most interesting exhibitions and happenings in Paris this autumn.
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