Summer exodus brings smiles to Paris

By Joanna Robertson

Image source, AFP

August in Paris can seem unnaturally quiet. An estimated 50% of its residents go on their holidays and it means those who remain have the chance to enjoy the best of the city without the crowds.

In Paris, in August, one can breathe.

With about a third of the usual number of cars, the air feels like the Swiss Mountains.

Half the population has gone. Those who are left develop a camaraderie seldom seen in this pushy city, renowned for its rudeness.

It is a kind of comfortable complicity. "We were wise enough to stay."

These remnant Parisians are relaxed. They smile. Strike up conversations at bus stops. Suddenly, there is time to take time.

In the early mornings, everything is still. The parks and gardens breathe aromatic, moist air through their railings onto the silent streets.

One can skip along the middle of a boulevard - normally roaring with four lanes of traffic by 7am - with no trouble at all.

Shuttered windows stay tight-shuttered on thousands of empty apartments.

The half moon is still in the early blue sky and on the corner of the Boulevard Montparnasse, Yann the waiter, pristine in his black and white uniform, is setting up the terrace tables at Le Dome restaurant.

His face is tanned, his eyes sparkle. "Aout a Paris? C'est un mois de dimanches." - "August in Paris? It's a month of Sundays," he says.

At 8am exactly, Monsieur Grandon arrives.

Image source, Joanna Robertson

He is a regular, Monday to Saturday, all year round. His order is an "express" - a small, bitter coffee - which he always takes with two lumps of sugar at the fourth table from the left, facing the window.

Monsieur Grandon wears a distinctive cologne and in August, it hangs in the air with a tang that is entirely absent in December.

A retired shoe salesman of 40 years, he likes August in Paris. The only thing he dislikes is that, exceptionally, Le Dome closes for four Mondays this month and he must take his morning "express" at Le Chien Qui Fume - "The Smoking Dog" cafe. Not the same elegance at all.

Image caption,
Some streets are eerily quiet, with people a rare sight

The summer exodus began in earnest around 14th July, Bastille Day, La Fete Nationale, when it poured with rain on the splendid, midnight firework display.

Parisians flowed out - to the seaside, the mountains, houses in the country.

The end of July marked the beginning of low tide.

By then, the last of the small shopkeepers, restaurateurs and concierges had removed or repatriated themselves for the summer.

Most of the concierges go to families in Portugal to enjoy a month free of emptying bins and scrubbing floors.

On the Rue Delambre, the Italians with the delicatessen had gone home to Tuscany, the French fishmongers had left for a month at the Breton seaside, the cobbler to his mother in Tunisia.

The bakeries were the last to close, longer and longer queues forming at those that were still open.

By 1 August, the "quartier" was almost deserted except for a small open-all-hours grocery shop on the corner.

There is a wiry little man who works there, his long, grey hair pulled back in a ponytail. He speaks a barely comprehensible, seamless blend of French, Italian and German.

Image source, Joanna Robertson

I have often wondered why and now was the time to ask.

"Sono nato a Berlin Ost." "I was born in East Berlin," he says, in his linguistic mix.

"Ho fugato die Mauer dans mille novecento soixante vier. Ich habe neunzehn ans." "I escaped over the Berlin Wall in 1964 when I was 19," he continues in his very own language his experience has dealt him.

"Then I lived many years by the sea in Italy, not so very far from Pisa. I fished. Now I'm here, in Paris.

"Would you like some blueberries?"

At Rue d'Assas, Andre, who is almost 90, opens his shutters.

Image source, Joanna Robertson
Image caption,
A fishmongers tells their customers they will be closed during August

Everyone else in his building is away.

Until two years ago, when his wife Elisabeth died aged 96, Andre would spend his August afternoons sitting with her in the park across the road, on a green painted wooden bench under the chestnut trees, near the fountain.

They had sat there together in the cool shade through many a summer heat wave. Elisabeth always wore a hat, of which she had a great many elegant examples.

"I always knew which day it was by Elisabeth's hat," says Andre. "Now she's gone, I miss not only her, but her hats as well."

The market on the Boulevard Edgar Quinet - usually 500m (1,600ft) long and thronged with shoppers - has dwindled to just a few straggling stalls.

There are roses and lavender for sale. Hot, roast chickens. Fruit and vegetables. Pear cake and apple tarts.

Marie-Laure is out shopping with her carer.

"I always stay in Paris in August," she declares. "The air is clean, the streets are quiet. It's the very best time."

Born in 1908, at 104 years old, Marie-Laure knows best.

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