August is the cruellest month
After the national holiday on 14th July, there are two kinds of Parisians; one is either a juilletiste (aka juillettiste) or an aoûtien. The former, less numerous, start their summer holiday during July while the latter choose August to depart elsewhere. Each plays a crucial role in shutting down the life of a city.
The legendary French holiday entitlement, les congés payés, is a 1936 legacy. The country’s first socialist – and its first Jewish – president, Leon Blom, presided over this enduring government gift. Immortalised ever since in literature, photos and films, these vacations play a huge role in the Parisian psyche.
There are plenty of reasons. Both juilletistes and aoûtiens leave immediate confirmation they have gone. No sooner are the fireworks of 14 July dispersed than a palpable wave of change sweeps over the capital. Yes, there are more tourists (or at least they become more evident). More important, however, are the things that start to vanish.
The primary thing there is less of right away: choice. Suddenly, there are less items on the menu, less leaves in the salad, less personnel in shops. There are even less pages in each Wednesday’s Pariscope.
The Tour de France does sweep into town for its moment of glory. Public parks and gardens flourish, as does market produce. Everything from music to movies shifts out of doors. Café terrasses bloom (as do their prices). Plus, every summer before he departs for Tunisia, Mayor Delanoë opens our marvellous Paris Plage.
All are necessary to face the abyss of August when, one by one, the pillars of everyday life crumble.
First to shutter is one’s favorite corner café. Then the coiffeur, who is followed by the retoucherie, which inevitably leads to the dry cleaner. Next comes that odd little store one goes to for candles and batteries. Suddenly the chocolatier closest to home…his windows are empty! The market rotisserie shuts, the ice cream wagon rolls no more. The diminution continues until remaining residents have only one sad Franprix.
In this, paradoxically, they can count themselves lucky. Until the sign appears announcing Franprix, too, will close. Not for a holiday – but for les travaux. For August is also the season of les grands travaux, renovations which fill the air with noise and dust and ensure more closures. The bookstore, the pharmacy, the neighbour’s apartment where one might leave the cat for a weekend of relief. All are potential targets for travaux. Soon the doctor too departs. There is no-one left to whom one can turn.
This annual absence is so profound it becomes a presence. But the stranded Parisian retains one remnant of normal life: there will be a boulangerie in which he can buy his bread.
This happy circumstance dates from 1790. At that point, bread was the sole staple for poor Parisians. But, more than that, it was a prime political actor. Lack of bread and rising prices helped foment the Revolution. July being a month of many such memories, the fact no Parisian is forced to miss his bread has a poetic resonance.
By law, boulangeries are either juilletistes or aoûtiens. Half the bakeries must remain open all of July, a duty the other half take over during August. This allotment of month is supervised by the bakery fédérations and the Préfecture of Paris itself. Every year, the month delegated alternates.
This is the overridding salvation of Parisian summers. But, because we are French, an exception is always possible. If a baker has to change his holiday (or needs travaux), then his business can apply for a dispensation. With the proper paperwork, a change of schedule can occur.
But, one way or another, there is always this: 440 boulangeries remain open in August.