IT IS that time of the year the French call la rentree – the return; the return to working life, be it school or government. It comes after two months – staggered – of the sacred holidays. These are the wicked months where small shops and services announce their closure by a large sign in the window.
Civil servants, medical specialists, indeed all the professions disappear to the old family farmsteads of bucolic fantasy, while politicians retreat to hidden seaside villas or discreet chateaux.
It is when the pavement restaurants flourish, the markets swell with tourist dosh and prices sneakily rise.
And now, it’s officially over. And France will go into its post-summer gloom and the French will return to their favourite pastime of navelgazing misery and reverie.
Apparently September is the busiest month for therapists as the blues descend. Well, not so much descend as return in full bloom in time for la rentree.
There are still fetes to come but they’ll soon be edged out to be replaced by bingo nights or tea dancing. The night classes are ready to roll and the chasse guns are blasting from fields hosting camouflaged small men with big rifles.
Even though we’re suffering through a seemingly endless heatwave of temperatures in the mid to high 30s, wood is being cut and stacked for the winter.
As the holding tanks’ levels drop with the drought the tap water smells and tastes of chlorine.
But it doesn’t matter what the thermometer says, in rural France we stick to an official bred-in-the-bones timetable with the countdown to autumn signaled by la rentree.
Vegetables and fruits on sale are the earthy stuff of stews or stuffings; the traiteur counters have gone in a blink from lightly poached salmon in lemon sauce to purple-hued daube de sanglier (boar) or stuffed cabbage and peppers.
Miriam, who is meant to be recovering after a serious eye operation, came for coffee but had to leave to pot and cook for freezing the half of boar Pierrot had cut up.
As fans pumped in every room of my house in a bid to circulate the sluggish air, she said she needed to get home to stuff peppers with boar and pork for Pierrot’s meal.
She can barely see and, dosed with regular eye drops throughout the day, she is not meant to raise her eyes above ground level.
I look at her in astonishment but in truth I am no longer surprised at the acts Miriam thinks are normal behaviour. “Tell him to stuff his bloody own,” I tell her.
She finds that so funny she forgets to keep her eyes down.
I give up on my mission to liberate the women of a certain age here.
Anyway back to la rentree. I love the sections in Leclerc marked as such for Back to School. I find myself comparing notebooks and exercise books and different pens.
My hands stray across them and I watch as mothers consult the huge lists they’ve been sent to furnish their child’s needs for the term.
It seems pretty strict, for if a little hand strays next to mine on the snazzy stuff, it’s removed and directed towards the one as listed – the boring one – and another line on the list is ticked off.
At the end of the rows are the backpacks in different capacities for different ages. There is no quarter given to the age of the children in either homework or the amount of books they must carry back and forth.
One sees them waiting for the rural school bus, bowed down, shoulders hunched under the burden.
My hand lingers longer on the writing books. Lines of the alphabet in beautiful cursive script to be copied and repeated over and over.
I doubt they’re allowed in the UK and haven’t been for years. Such indulgent – forgive me – childcentred education does not allow for rote and repetition. Or so I’m told. Here it still does but that too is being questioned now. Shame.
But what do I know? I am long past equipping a child for school and, strangely, remember the sights and smells of my own return to school each September more and more vividly.
Even now the month steals upon me with an urgency and agitation to get things ready, to get things done. It is a time for starting afresh, for entering into new, dreaded but exciting ventures.
But there is actually nothing any longer to get ready, nothing to get done.
I want to inhale the anticipation of new textbooks, exercise books. I want to write my name carefully with a fountain pen in black ink on each one and then pack them neatly away for first day opening.
I want to run my hands down the hockey stick lying beside the still unused black boots; try my Panama on one more time and check the cute angles; kick my ugly indoor shoes into a corner and admire the leather writing case with paper, envelopes and stamps for the weekly letter home.
I want … I want … to go back. But we can’t, can we? Ever.
Oh bugger then … Upwards and onwards.