Decoding “la rentrée”
Have you been caught out by the layers of subtlety in French life?
We ran into terrible trouble trying to organise an event in our village because we had no idea there were onion-like layers of meaning wrapped around “la rentrée”.
For years I automatically translated “rentrée” as “first day back at school”. My French vocabulary builds on what I bump into around me, and this was an easy mistake based on the brightest, loudest evidence around.
As a tourist, the time of year you visit France can put a strange, distorting lens over the picture. If you’re on holiday in August any time spent in Auchan, Carrefour or Casino subjects you to the hard sell for the rentrée. Like their English counterparts the grown-up “responsables” of French chain stores seem to love to remind children that summer is fleeting and school is inevitable. Not just aisles but whole sections of grandes surfaces are devoted to books, binders, ruled paper and the latest editions from Larousse.
When we became more immersed in French life it didn’t take long to notice that the rentrée isn’t just about going back to school. It’s the first day back at work too – the end of the holidays for children of all ages.
This September marked the end of our first year full time in the Languedoc, and the rentrée took on another layer of significance. Over the last 12 months we’ve made friends and gained invaluable support through the village’s hobby and social activity clubs – the associations. Associations generally operate during the academic year and in Bassan this starts with the “matinée des associations”, a recruitment fair on the village square not very long after the return to school.
We’ve created an association of our own, La Vie Anglaise, to offer language and cooking classes in the village. We joined the other clubs on new member morning and collected a long list of people eager to dust off their school-day memories of English or just start from scratch. We handed out the flyers I’d made, cunningly double sided so that on the back of a list of activities was a poster for our first big one-off event.
Within a couple of days our plan was in tatters because of another unsuspected layer of meaning around the rentrée.
When we started La Vie Anglaise we knew that to help us meet costs we’d need to do some fund-raising. We’d seen other associations combine this with fun, community events and thought we’d found one we could make our own. Bassan only had one vide grenier in the year, in the Spring. From what we heard the beginning of Autumn would be an ideal time to help people clear out their unwanted summer baggage.
Confident that we’d spotted an underused niche in the community year we booked our day in the village’s association calendar. Our confidence showed that while our spoken French has improved we still have a long way to go with unspoken layers of understanding.
The last part of the rentrée jigsaw helped to explain why some Americans translate it as “The Fall”. It’s not just a date, or an event. It’s its own, separate season.
In the Languedoc especially I think there’s a better match for the Fall, our own gateway to Autumn. If you need something to match English harvest festivals, to mark the bringing in of crops and the turning of the leaves, and to celebrate the wine and tourist industries reaching the year’s finish line, we have the vendange.
The missing piece of the rentrée jigsaw was a newspaper article one of our French friends handed me shortly after the matinée des associations. It wasn’t earth-shattering but it threw all our plans into disarray.
As I read the piece and my face clouded over our friend took on the slightly pitying look he always wears when he sees I’ve missed a point. When I expressed my irritation, he shrugged, gallicly. He explained that this is the time of year for new beginnings, when everyone starts again. It’s understood.
We quickly learned that what we thought was an underused niche in the community year was in fact one of the busiest times for second hand clearout sales. There’s hardly a village in the region that doesn’t hold one in the last weeks of September and early October. The newspaper story confirmed that not one but both of our nearest neighbours were holding well-established annual vide greniers on the same day as our debut.
Battered but better informed, we regrouped and picked another date for our event.
Our inaugural vide grenier, or as we’re also calling it our Car Boot Sale, is now on October 5.
And with time to reflect, I now understand why in all the time since we announced our plan and put up our posters no-one had said anything. It’s the rentrée. It’s the season of vide greniers, the time for clearing out and starting fresh.
It’s just understood.