August Is When Uptight Paris Unbuttons a Few More Buttons

The French capital empties out in August, but still has energy—just a different sort.

August in Paris is over, and I miss it already. The deadest month, the most quiet, the month when Parisians leave on their endless holidays and the city empties out like a resort in the off season, only less melancholy. Traffic thins; shops close, sometimes for the entire month; restaurants shut; there are seats to be found on the metro; and in the evening, stragglers (not everyone can afford to go away) emerge from their stuffy, un-air-conditioned apartments and gather along the banks of the Seine.

In August, this uptight city unbuttons a few more buttons.

One warm evening, I walked a good stretch of riverfront promenade, and the scene was joyous. Families out for a walk; kids climbing on climbing walls; couples embracing; friends at picnic tables eating from Tupperware; tourists taking pictures of wounded Notre-Dame, without her spire, encased in scaffolding; South Asian men selling bottles of beer and chilled rosé from backpacks—“Du vin, madame?”—people of all ages and colors dancing with abandon to Michael Jackson’s Thriller on a makeshift dance floor near the Pont Neuf, like wild teenagers letting it loose while their parents are out of town.

The bakery near my apartment was closed for the first three weeks of August. Three weeks! For a while, when I looked out my apartment windows in the evenings, nary a light was on in the building across the street. Even Google knows it is August in Paris. Gmail recently offered some canned responses to an invitation I’d received. Its options: “I’ll be there!” “I’ll come!” and “I’m on vacation!” I managed to get a table, without waiting, at one of the best restaurants in Paris

The French government shuts down in August, too. It is not uncommon for high-level officials with sensitive dossiers in important ministries to take three or four weeks off, without checking email. The entire country operates on what’s basically an academic schedule. In May and June, people start making appointments for after the rentrée—that is, September. Employees have seven weeks of paid holiday time (albeit with lower pay than their counterparts elsewhere).

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