There are many things that make Paris different from other cities and I’ll not list them here, but one in particular I will mention because I contribute to the effect.
A friend of mine commented the other night that Paris doesn’t have the same festive vibe before Christmas that London does. I speculated that this is because during public holidays – or more accurately, school holidays – Paris empties. If I walk up and down the corridors of my office asking people what they are doing over Christmas, very few French will say they are staying in Paris. As soon as the kids finish school families based in Paris pack themselves up and head of to “the provinces”, i.e. anywhere in France but Paris. Usually they are heading to one or other of the kids’ grandparents’ places, or back to the region where they come from; even those who are born and raised in Paris will find some in-laws in the countryside to go and dump the kids with. Nobody wants to stay in Paris over Christmas, and over summer the effect is doubled: the city empties of French people who are replaced with Chinese and American tourists.
The French autoroutes are superb, as is the SNCF – if it is working – but timing is everything. If you try to leave Paris on a Friday evening when the schools break up you can look forward to one or two hours on the périphérique. Similarly, if you are foolish enough to return to Paris on the last Sunday of the holidays, you will start hitting traffic jams up to 200km from the city and you can happily add another two hours to the journey. You’ll see hundreds and hundreds of estate cars, family SUVs, and people carriers jam-packed with kids, suitcases, clothes, presents, etc. driven by a middle aged man who looks as though he needs a stiff drink and another holiday – alone.
For my part, I have become enough of a local that I decamp to Annecy during most public holidays, as I will next week. It is fun to stroll around the office with my appalling French and very English attire and tell people I am leaving Paris for the provinces for Christmas as per the rest of them. Such things endear you to the French more than pronouncing “Rheims” correctly.
I am sure there are other cities where a mass exodus occurs in advance of a public holiday. I was in New York the weekend before Labor Day and it was half-empty. And although people undoubtedly leave London for the weekend and holidays, especially those wealthy enough to have a country pile, you don’t find almost every British family planning to flee the second the kids are out of school. My guess is this happens in Paris because the provinces are very nice, families ties are still quite strong, it is well situated in the sense that you can depart in any direction, and the transport links are good. It might also be that non-Parisians come to the city for work but never stop hating the place.
Would any of my readers like to tell me what other cities empty of locals during holiday periods?