At the beginning of September I moved to Paris for my year abroad. This meant cutting short Warwick’s otherwise generous(ish) summer, missing assorted festivals and other extremely important social engagements, but also arriving in time to enjoy the French ‘rentrée’ in all its glory. ‘La rentrée’ is when France not only goes back to school and university, but also back to work, home and normal daily life. Most people in France take the month of August as holiday, when Paris becomes a ghost town – save for the flocks of chattering tourists – and offices shut for weeks on end. Then, when September hits, there is a mass migration back to the daily grind. Moving to Paris just as the city starts to re-awaken after its lazy summer has made some things easier, some harder and some simply more French.
Firstly, France is a country obsessed by bureaucracy. Administrative tasks are saved up during the summer months like treats, ready for September when the queues are longer, the ‘deals’ more confusing and employees more impolite. In the last month I have stumbled many times into a Catch-22 of French bureaucracy that goes something like this: ‘So, Mademoiselle, you would like to open a bank account with us. I need to see your phone bill as a proof of address please’. Me: ‘I’m sorry, Monsieur, I need a bank account before I can pay a phone bill.’ Monsieur: ‘Ah, then I am afraid we cannot allow you to open a bank account. Ce n’est pas possible.’ Me: ‘But how can I get a phone contract without a bank account?’ Monsieur: ‘Ce n’est pas possible.’ Me: ‘Pardon?’ Monsieur: ‘Ce n’est pas possible. And we are about to close for lunch. Goodbye.’ Kafka really lives in the French’s blind determination to stick to administrative procedure. Somehow, inexplicably, the system always triumphs.
Bank accounts, Oyster card equivalents, phone contracts, grants, job applications, housing contracts … All elements essential to setting up life in a foreign country feel equivalent to mobilising a small army during the Parisian rentrée. Combined with a healthy dose of local rudeness, it sometimes seems as if the whole city is conspiring to torment sleep deprived English students. Is that paranoid? Perhaps. Being led in endless bureaucratic circles may have made me hysterical. I know flat hunting did.
Paris is small –London’s Central line could contain all the arrondissements – and has a population density five times that of London. This means that almost everyone lives in flats. Very small flats. Which there are not enough of. Studios that are described as ‘light and spacious’ in fact have no windows, just a skylight, and mould growing up the walls. Apartments are rented without bathrooms and with toilets four floors away. A friend is sharing a one bedroom apartment with two other girls and paying twice what a house in Central Leam costs. For students it is especially bad, with everyone looking before term starts in October and landlords demanding copies of parents’ pay slips. Everybody has to pay more than they expect and for most people it takes much longer than they expect. Following this year’s rentrée, there have even been calls for government legislation to stop landlords taking advantage of students so horrendously.
September is in other ways, however, a brilliant time to move to Paris. For the last month the city has been bathed in autumnal sunlight, just on the tipping point between summer and the chill of winter. The last two weeks have been Women’s Fashion Week, meaning that the city has been swarming with parties and beautiful, curiously dressed people (sometimes it is rather difficult to ascertain gender…). There has also been a plethora of free events this month, from yoga for hundreds under the Eiffel Tower to a night of art installations all over Paris to a techno parade featuring David Guetta one Saturday lunchtime. Which does mean that when not at a customer service desk or on a flat hunt, I have rather enjoyed September in Paris.