C’est La Rentrée ! Here is what you need to know

written by Jennifer Hamerman

MLP takes a look at the big back-to-school tradition that the French enjoy and how, after a while, you really do get into it.  We also have some top tips to help you with those school supplies purchases!

I first moved to Paris in September 2011 and I must say I was mystified by all the references to ‘La Rentrée’. ‘C’est la rentrée!’ said the bakery window displays and ‘Vive la rentrée!’ said the headlines. It didn’t take me long to work out that it referred to the return to school and office around 4 September after the long summer break. But to be honest, understanding what the actual word meant just left me even more mystified about the concept. Were the French really taking a celebratory approach to the return to normal after summer fun is over? Other than getting your kids back to school (and believe me I do understand how that can be a good thing), what’s to celebrate?

Surely we’d all prefer life to be one long summer? The return to work and school is surely just a necessary evil? No cause for ceremony or celebration. If anything, perhaps it should be a little melancholy?

Rhythms of French life

Five years in I think I finally get it. French life, perhaps more than in any other country, really centres on the rhythms of the year, the seasons, punctuated by cultural high points. Christmas, followed by New Year, followed by Mardi Gras and ski breaks, Lent and Easter, Spring holidays, the many May national holidays, the summer holidays, Bastille Day, the Rentrée, Toussaint (All Saints) holidays in October and November, and off we go again. Or you can see the year changing by the seasonal fruit and vegetables at your local outdoor market. The French tend to eat what is in season, keeping things local and fresh. The cheering sight of all the apples arriving in autumn from Normandy. The first little real French strawberries after the big ones imported from Spain. Life is balanced and everything has its place.

July slowdown

I have come to find this rhythm of life comforting and each step on the annual calendar quite joyful, although I railed against it at first. I have come to understand that the summer is a genuine pause in French life. It is not as uniform as we Brits and Americans might joke, when we jest about the French downing their tools in August. But when school finishes in early July, French kids might go off to the countryside to stay with grandparents.

There are even special carriages on French SNCF trains that unaccompanied children aged 4 plus can travel on, supervised by an ‘animatrice’ (entertainer) on their journey across France to see grandparents or stay with cousins. The parents might stay back in Paris in July to work but they still get a form of ‘pause’, able to enjoy an after work apero without the need for a babysitter, with the kids safely tucked away in the countryside with grandparents. July weekends might be spent heading out to the countryside to see the kids and grandparents or maybe visiting friends.

 

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Other kids stay in Paris, perhaps attending their local Centre de Loisirs, a daycare service run by the Paris City Hall that usually includes lots of outdoor time and for some lucky kids, day trips to the Normandy beaches or excursions around the city.

August exodus

But what really sets France apart is that in August there is a sense of a collective vacation. A proper two week (or more) holiday in the first few weeks of August is completely normal and for the majority, it will be a genuine break. No scrolling through emails or joining conference calls from a beach café, trying to pretend you’re not on holiday. It’s ok to switch off. It’s expected. Just look at the restaurants and bakeries that are closed in Paris in August, a city populated mostly that month by tourists. The long break suits expats too, as they get a chance to travel back to their home countries.

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So you start to understand that if your summer was a real break, it’s not so hard to come back. You’ve re-charged your batteries and you’re refreshed.

Social buzz of the Rentrée

La Rentrée is a social occasion too. Parents hover much longer at the school gate, catching up with friends. Drinks are arranged. There is a sense that the kids are back at school, we are back to our normal routines and this means we also get our social life back too.

Celebratory approach

The celebratory approach is also really helpful for kids.  Much is made of their progression up into the next school year.  Adults talk to them about the return to school as though it is fun, and a mark of their growing up that bit more.  My daughter is greeted in the local stores with chatter about her going back to school and what grade will she be in and isn’t she growing up fast?  I am sure she absorbs some of the positivity.

Rentrée trolley dash!

It’s a lot of fun to people-watch in the few days leading up to the Rentrée.. I generally notice three types of people. The first is the harried, normal mum, just like me, frantically ransacking the stationary aisle of Monoprix to get that last cardboard folder with the elastic bit, as specified in the very precise school supplies list. The second is the very cool and serene Parisian maman who of course handed her supplies list in at the local stationary store ages ago and has naturally had the man at the store go around and collect it all into a bag for her and all she needs to do is pop in and collect it.

And then the third type, who was also me until not too recently, the highly stressed expat mum who quite honestly does not have a clue what the hell a ‘porte-vues’ is. (It’s one of those books with about 80 plastic display wallets to display the child’s worksheets in).

Renewed and energetic

The Rentrée has become for me a bit like a New Years Day, but a much better one that does not take place in miserable cold January. Instead, it’s September. If we’re lucky there’ll be some late sunshine. I’ll feel full of optimism and new plans and goals. Everything seems more do-able in September. I am excited to re-connect with my friends. I have lots I want to achieve. I don’t literally have a new backpack filled with sharp new pencils and fresh exercise books, but mentally and emotionally I do.

Plus kids will be going back to school after 9 long weeks! And how can you feel too melancholy about the end of the summer when the next French vacation (Toussaint) is just six weeks away?!

MLP’s top ten tips

  • Need name labels for stationery, shoes and clothes?  C-Mon Etiquette  is great for colourful, personalised stickers and labels to make dreaded name tape task much more fun.  Their deliveries arrive fast too.
  • If you are looking for sports shoes, ballet costumes and any other sports equipment, your best bet is Decathalon.  There are several Decathalon stores in central Paris including on at 23 Boulevard de la Madeleine in the 1st district, 26 Avenue de Wagram in the 8th, Aquaboulevard in the 15th and 113 Avenue de France in the 13th.
  • For art supplies, we love Rougier et Ple, 118 Boulevard St Germain, 75006 Paris
  • The Dutch discount store HEMA is great for picking up back-to-school stationery bargains like folders, pens and  notebooks.  They have stores at 1 rue de Rivoli in the 4th district, 120 rue Rambuteau in the 1st, 86 rue du Faubourg St Antoine in the 12th, and 2 Boulevard Haussman in the 9th.
  • We just discovered Little Extra, a stationery store inside the Beaugrenelle shopping centre in the 15th district.  It’s on the side of Beaugrenelle with FNAC and H&M (ie NOT the Marks and Spencer side) and its near the EXKI coffee shop.  They have fun, colourful stationery and back-to-school items such as water bottles at very low prices for Paris.
  • Monoprix supermarket is also a useful place to start.  Their larger stores have stationery sections and they are very geared up for the back-to-school rush and the items they stock are the standard items requested by schools.
  • Don’t be afraid to approach bilingual parents or expat friends for help with your ‘Liste des Fournitures‘ (school supplies list).  It can be completely baffling to work out what all the French terms mean as its such specific vocabulary.  Parents group Message as an online forum where someone is bound to be able to help you with a tricky word, plus there are Facebook groups such as Mums Space France and English Speaking Mums of Paris.
  • Take the school supplies list into your local stationery store and ask them to help you.  It will be more expensive but at least you’ll get the right things.  Or you can be very brave and ask Monoprix staff for help!
  • Are you vowing to get the whole family more organised this school year?  We love Mon Agenda Familial – it’s a great planner, diary and family organiser and the kids can get involved using the stickers to indicate their playdates and after-school sports classes.  The pull-out shopping lists and handy hints make this a great resource.
  • You’ll also see Organiseur Familial Memoniak on a lot of French fridges.  It’s a big visual magnetic calendar that goes on your fridge and is great for keeping track of each family member’s weekly routines, with a wipe-clean board section for reminders.

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