In France and Italy, the start of September is a time of furious activity: la rentrée, or il rientro, loosely translated as ‘the return’, or back to school.
Students all over the country go back to school. Businesses reopen. People go back to work. Stores hold massive sales. An enormous machinery cranks into gear as the country lets go of its holiday spirit and mentally shifts into a new year.
But la rentrée is about so much more than just students going back to school or the chance to pick up some discount trainers. The beginning of September is the time of the rentrée politique (political return), as politicians with varying degrees of summer tan come back to Paris and parliament resumes. The rentrée du cinéma traditionally signals the end of the summer blockbuster season and a return of more serious art-house fare to cinemas. Not to be outdone, the publishing industry puts out huge numbers of new novels during the rentrée littéraire, which lasts into November. Many are on the shelves for only a few weeks before being turned into toilet paper.
Why is this such a cultural phenomenon in France and to a lesser extent Italy?
The centralised republican model of government in France is a major factor, because it means that kids go back to school more or less at the same time. In contrast, Germany’s independent federal states can individually determine when their pupils have to go back so the dates vary – useful in states like Baden-Württemberg and Bayern that traditionally needed extra labour for the summer harvest. Italy’s il rientro feels like a natural response to the Ferragosto break, a tradition dating back to Roman times when the cities empty and apparently every man, woman and child in Italy goes on holiday.
Looking beyond the TV advertisements, La rentrée symbolises an important psychic shift. People start gearing up for the year ahead. They make resolutions, decide how they want to change their lives, and plan for the future. The French notion of développement personnel (personal development or self-improvement) comes into focus.
Few people are aware that language-learning is a remarkably seasonal business. Every September we see a huge spike in activity from our users as well as lots of new ones arriving. This sudden swell of interest is a direct response to the change of mindset that la rentrée and il rientro trigger: a kind of mental spring-cleaning (or fall-cleaning?), the idea that a new season heralds a fresh start.
It’s the time of year when gym memberships are renewed and people remember that they really wanted to paint the house, or clean out the workshop, or learn a language. This might be prompted by an inspiring holiday in Sevilla or Lisbon or Copenhagen, or be a result of the energy and sense of purpose that a holiday can give you. Or, indeed, a combination of determination (to do better this year and get your life back on track) and guilt (because you certainly didn’t manage it last year).
To steal a sentiment from Eleanor Roosevelt, la rentrée “is what you make it. Always has been, always will be”. Cynics can find plenty to moan about: a Twitter search of #LaRentree reveals plenty of gems, many of them objecting to the overt commercialism.
But why not ride that wave of motivation while you’ve got it? Pick up the guitar that’s been gathering dust in the corner, go back into those live-drawing classes, or do that German course you’ve been thinking about.
If you give yourself a little time each week to pursue that thing you love, it’ll bring you a lot more satisfaction than a new pair of shoes.