Back to school: rocking the rentrée like a français

Back to school: rocking the rentrée like a français

This September, I am celebrating the 18th anniversary of life in France. Since my arrival with one suitcase, a seven-month teaching contract, and a tiny room in a sort of Parisian YWCA, my life has undergone numerous metamorphoses. These days, there’s a husband, a house, two kids, good friends, a business, citizenship, and a much greater appreciation and understanding of the country I now call home!

In the nearly two decades I have lived here, I have learnt so much. However, contrary to what popular Francophile literature and TV shows would have you believe, the most useful things I have picked up from the French way of life are not the correct way to wear a scarf or which wine to match with a given cheese. The French lifestyle has taught me much, for example, about work-life balance, the importance of enjoying simple pleasures, the benefits of slowing down, and the wisdom of prioritising quality over quantity. Currently on my mind is the particular (peculiar?) manner by which French structure their year and the ways it makes life easier and more satisfying.

The Franco-Gregorian calendar: a hybrid approach

The calendar starts in January in France, but in all other respects, the year really begins in September here – and not just for schools and universities. After the long summer holiday that marks the end of the last ‘year’, the word on everyone’s lips in September is la rentrée, meaning “the re-entry”; as in going back – to school, to work, to activities, to normal life. I struggled against this notion for many years – I wanted to start classes mid-year, join a gym in February and pay pro rata, launch projects in April, and actually achieve – well, anything – in August (sheer madness!). However, once I finally stopped swimming upstream and embraced this way of thinking, I was struck, as I often have been, by the wisdom of the French way.

Taking a French approach to your rentrée can make life easier, more satisfying and more relaxing – wherever you happen to live. Why? And How?   

  1. The rentrée is a propitious time to make resolutions

Our minds tend to turn to self-improvement, changing habits and fresh starts in January, but September is, in my experience, a much more appropriate time to implement some life upgrades. In January, we are often run down by the winter cold and illness*, and exhausted from the Christmas whirlwind. In September, however, we’re fresh and relaxed after the summer break. We’ve recharged our batteries and have the energy to begin new projects and change our ways.

  1. It’s a natural launch date

Speaking of projects. Even if you don’t have children, you can piggy-back on the momentum created by lots of kids sharpening pencils and going back to school to launch your own projects. That might be taking up a new hobby, signing up for adult education classes, or starting to write your novel. Whatever you choose to do, the fact that the nights are going to start drawing in and the days get colder can also help you prioritise these kinds of projects that require time spent in the home.

  1. It forces you change pace and stay with the season

The change of pace from summer fun to serious work in the autumn is just one example of the ebb and flow that characterises the French year. As they wave their kids off to school in September, the French immediately start planning their late October mini-break. By scheduling in – even ritualising – their holidays, the French ensure they change pace and take breaks regularly – before they’re on their last legs.

  1. The French find the joy in what is

In my experience, the French are very good at accepting and reaping the benefits of the season in progress. Take food as an example: the French quite consciously change the way they eat throughout the year. Winter is welcomed because it brings with it a promise of fondu and raclette, mulled wine and seafood; summer is all about rosé, fresh fruit and drinks at pavement cafés. The rentrée reminds us to embrace the seasons mindfully – reassessing eating habits and looking at sleep routines, the quantity of social commitments we take on, cosmetics used, maybe even the books we read.

  1. The rentrée serves as a great yearly reminder

I use the rentrée as a reminder to do a certain number of chores (the kind that occur yearly or a few times per year). The whole family has their annual appointment with the dentist; I get my eyes checked; the kids have haircuts and new shoes. These preparatory rituals of the rentrée all contribute to my feeling ready in September and raring to go. Which in turn helps me make the most of my time and get moving quickly as opposed to spending a week (more?!) lamenting the end of the holidays and wishing I were somewhere else.

Be here, now

Ultimately, that’s what the French obsession with la rentrée means to me: it’s a way of enjoying the “be here, now”.  The summer is coming to a close, the holidays are ending, and that’s natural, normal. Do you know the song “To everything there is a season”? It’s the one with the “Turn, turn, turn” refrain. It’s based on a Bible verse (for the 40-something women like me reading this, it’s the one Kevin Bacon uses to convince the preacher in Footloose to let the kids dance): “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…”.

Whatever your religious conviction, the notion that there’s a time for everything is helpful. To me, the rentrée is a yearly reminder not to try to do everything at once, to pace myself and undertake activities mindfully and at a time that is appropriate. I find that way of thinking takes the pressure off and offers me useful perspective – which is needed all year round!

*Apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere – some of what I am going to say will not apply directly but can be adapted to apply to your own post-summer rentrée in March…


If you’re seeking perspective and structure for your life, perhaps looking to make some changes this rentrée, supportive coaching that focuses on finding your pace and what’s right for you can help you create a life you love. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.

Creating more memories

Creating more memories

1. Adopt a holiday attitude – When we are on holiday, everything around us seems interesting, beautiful or memorable. A building, a park, a meal in a restaurant, even a bus ride. In the right setting, all of these things become photo-worthy. But what if your whole life were like that? On your daily walk or jog, as you by your newspaper or as you wait to take your kids into school, take a second truly to look around you and see your life as if you were a tourist in it. I guarantee you’ll notice something that is usually relegated to the status of hum-drum backdrop and find it astounding.

2. Put down your camera and pay attention – Psychologists have found that we remember less that which we photograph; that, far from helping us recollect a scene better, the act of taking a snapshot actually means we pay less attention to what we’re seeing. So, before you whip out the smartphone to capture a beautiful image for posterity (or, for the really brave, instead of doing so at all), take a moment to look at what you’re about to immortalise and take it in 100%.

3. Take a memory picture – A wise friend told me before my wedding to stop occasionally during the day to commit a moment to memory. I followed her advice and, to this day, I can still shut my eyes and find myself right back there in my dress, champagne in hand, listening to the band playing Summertime. When you come across a breath-taking moment in your life, stop and look, then mindfully close your eyes, like the shutter of a camera. Give your picture a caption, attach to it the smells and sounds around you. I’m sure that the next time you need a happy memory to brighten your day, reaching for the family photo album won’t even be necessary.

Every time we say goodbye

Every time we say goodbye

Saying goodbye to friends is never easy, but the end of an era can be the perfect reminder to live in the moment.

Living abroad is an immensely rewarding experience: the constant sense of adventure; opportunities for language learning; a greater respect and tolerance for difference. However, as an ex-pat, one inevitably makes a lot of ex-pat friends. It’s only natural – you’re taking language lessons together, perhaps working in international companies, people helpfully introduce you at parties (“Jo – meet Svetlana – she’s Russian so, well, foreign, just like you! You must have lots to discuss…”). And, in my opinion, having ex-pat friends is no bad thing, it’s certainly not a worry.

Until…

Until your ex-pat friends come over all patriotic and leave.

My refined and notoriously indecisive Bostonian friend (it’s all very “Where do you summer?” à la Katherine Hepburn), whom I have in past musings referred to as Peggy-Sue, is returning to her native land, where a new job and her wonderful man await. Despite being thrilled for her, this imminent departure makes me unutterably sad. Peggy was a bridesmaid at my wedding; she’s spent Christmas with my family; I call her when I need to work out the Big Issues of life and when I have nothing other to report than what I ate for dinner. Her not being in the same country or even in the same time zone any more will leave a chasm in my life.

All good things

Quite a few friends have left Paris recently – sabbatical years, travelling, job opportunities – but they all plan to come back. Not Peggy-Sue. She’s leaving on a jet plane and not coming back again. Since I found out, I’ve been heavy-hearted, with an unshakeable end-of-an-era feeling. The fact that Peg’s departure coincides with my getting married and a number of friends either doing likewise or having babies only adds to my fin-de-siècle malaise. Like many thirty-somethings, we’re closing the Roaring Twenties chapter of our lives and starting a new one; and while, in its own way, it’s equally as thrilling, I can’t help but mourn the end of a glorious period of much spontaneity and few responsibilities.

Profit and loss

The French have a wonderful verb for which I’ve never found a satisfying English translation: profiter. It means “to make the most of” or to “fully take advantage of”, though neither seem to really capture the notion of living fully, enjoying, savouring. It’s a word I’ve often had in mind of late. Have I lived this era of my life to the full? Have I made the most of my twenties and of Peggy Sue, enjoyed time spent together, gone places and done things we wanted? I’m still trying to answer myself, and I’m guessing the reply is somewhere in the grey area of “yes, but could have done more”.

Making your mind up

So that’s what I’m trying to focus on in the run-up to Peggy’s leaving. Living deeply and fully. Enjoying every moment. Savouring the people in my world. I can’t redo the chapter of my life that’s slowly coming to a close, but I can learn from it and resolve to make the next one even more of a page-turner. I can make the trip to visit Peggy Sue (and not simply talk about it); schedule skype dates over a glass of wine (and not just collapse in front of the television); make more time for friends who are still in Paris (and elsewhere); book tickets for that stand-up comic/play/band (instead of simply looking at the posters)… I’m sad to see my friend move so far away, but I have control over how our friendship evolves and the time I choose to invest in it from a distance. I can choose to wallow and focus on all the things we’ll no longer do together (silly films, Friday night drinks), or I can choose to be here now and make the most of what is. One path leads to misery and statis, the other promises growth, joy and gratitude.

Even Peggy-Sue would see that’s no dilemma!

Originally published on Running in Heels.