The French have long since formally embraced September as the start of a New Year. Of course children go back to school, but the real collective upheaval of ‘Re-entry’ is the wholesale shift of population from its (at least) two-month long summer diaspora back into the cities. Politicians wake up, unions strike, boutique windows unveil incomprehensible fashions, hopeful new shows fill the 400+ theaters, traffic snarls, pollution spikes.
This year’s Rentree feels different from previous years. Even though my summer away was unusually long, there’s a reverse Rip van Winkle effect: everything seems exactly as I left it last spring. The economy is still flatlining. Incompetent President Hollande’s popularity has sunk another few points, to 13% (!) yanking that of his manacled Prime Minister, Valls, down with it. (Study question: Can a government still govern once it reaches negative ratings?) The ultra-rightist, charismatic Marine le Pen continues to solidify her hold on the cringing hearts of far too many Frenchmen, and when one sees so many useful local stores – hardware and office suppliers, lotto-tabac cafés, etc. – disappearing overnight, to be replaced by either banks or designer handbag boutiques, one might secretly sympathize with their conservative instincts. (By the way, how long until the banks and luxury bag companies simply merge?)
So why are people in the street so darned happy? A long stretch of Indian summer weather helps, of course; nothing raises dopamine like a few hours grilling in the park. Something literally deeper could be at work as well: the experience of hitting what seems like bottom, looking around, and finding that the world hasn’t ended; bottom is a place where life goes on. There’s relief in this, and release.
Rotting leaves create fertile soil. Moribund or sclerotic societies are often associated with an outpouring of fresh art. So in the Weimar era, so during the Soviet Union. In France, this Rentree, there’s a remarkably rich and audacious theater season moving into full swing with full houses–because however broke Parisians are, they’ll wangle a ticket for a show. And the literary Rentree is a stunning spectacle in itself, with new books cascading into and practically sliding off the tables of the bookstores–607 novels alone!
And now, enough writing. I’m off to the park, to read.