Here we are at the end of summer. A time of year that always stirs me. Maybe that’s the legacy of so many years in academia: I still get a rush from the smell of new, freshly sharpened pencils.
The French call this time of year la rentrée. Unlike Labor Day in the U.S., which is little more than an extra day tacked on to a weekend and called a holiday, la rentrée is almost a season unto itself. If Labor Day has come to be celebrated as the ritual of the last weekend at the cabin or the beach house, the last dip in the lake or backyard barbeque, la rentrée is its own phenomenon. If it were a punctuation mark in the year, it would be a semi-colon to Labor Day’s comma.
Over the years, I’ve continued to use an academic calendar—August to July—and to think of the day after Labor Day as the start of a new year. It’s the vestige of a mindset, a relic of a different rhythm that somehow still works for me outside of school. And it’s not entirely unusual. There are traditions outside the world of education that celebrate a new year other than or in addition to January first.
Take the Chinese New Year. Tied to the lunisolar Chinese calendar, it’s a festival for sweeping out ill fortune and inviting good luck, along with happiness, wealth, and longevity, into one’s life. And then there’s the Jewish New Year, which follows its own lunisolar calendar, falling anytime from early September to late October. It’s the front bookend to a solemn ten-day period that culminates with a day of atonement and the hope of being inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.
But none of these are anything like la rentrée. For starters, la rentrée, which literally means “reentry,” wouldn’t be a reentry if everyone hadn’t first cleared out. And clear out they do. While some profess to love the “empty” city in August—empty, that is, of locals, not tourists—a vast number of Parisians close up shop and light out for the territory. At the end of the month, they return along clogged roads and through jam-packed train stations like homing pigeons.
Maybe because it’s sanctioned and expected that August is for vacances, for breaking from the routine, for spending time with family, for relaxing and having fun, that September is greeted with enthusiasm and joie de vivre. Optimism, anticipation, and energy fill the air. New cultural events, new books, new expos line a new social calendar. New fashions adorn shop windows. Neighborhood cafés and restaurants, patisseries and boulangeries reopen amidst bustle. It is a renaissance, a rebirth, a new beginning. It is a new year.