Exodus

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?

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45 thoughts on “Exodus

  1. Dont know about that but the family and I are flying down to Christchurch tomorrow morning to start of our NZ – South Island driving holiday.

    I’m dreaming of a summer holiday, no more emailing for a week or two, with plenty of pit stops for me and the boys to jump off and into things along the road. The wife gets the break from homemaking what’s not to like?

  2. The years I lived in Italy were similar, although I was on the receiving end as I lived in the provinces. The August holiday period finds the cities emptied, the highways clogged, and the mountains where I lived full of idiots walking in the middle of the road as if they were in Disneyland. A toot of the horn would garner a hundred dirty looks from these city dwelling imbeciles.

    Christmas and New Year were much the same.

  3. During Chinese New Year I often get people who have just come back from Taipei looking at me funny when walking the dogs in the park. If I go out to the mountains without the girlfriend to photograph something in particular, I might get asked if I’m lost, or how I “found” this place, under the apparent assumption that I could only have found it if another Taiwanese had shown me.

  4. Adam,

    The August holiday period finds the cities emptied, the highways clogged, and the mountains where I lived full of idiots walking in the middle of the road as if they were in Disneyland.

    Heheheheheh!

    I have to say, one of the things I am acutely aware of when I drive to Annecy in winter with a car with Paris plates is to be properly equipped for mountainous winter driving. Fortunately I know what kit I need and how to drive in snow from living in Russia, so I generally avoid being the idiot sliding off the side of the mountain on slick tyres, or trying to put snow chains on using an iPhone as a torch.

  5. Mike,

    That’s interesting…Taiwan is somewhere I know almost nothing about, I didn’t know there was even a countryside outside of Taipei! How big is the island? Size of Ireland? Smaller?

  6. In Japan, Golden Week (end of April/ early May) brings a massive exodus from most cities, with people travelling to their home towns. It’s a good time to avoid travelling.

    Driving in snow. I swapped the family fleet (three cars) onto winter tyres in early November. I like to do it early because we can get heavy falls any time from mid-November on, although the real snow doesn’t normally start until Christmas. We’ve had 50-60cm in the past fortnight, so it will be lying until spring. FWIW, in my town we average 9 metres of snow (measured as fresh daily snowfall) per winter. We did get >15m in the winters of 2012 and 2013. That was fun, keeping the premises and roofs clear.

  7. Toulouse! It’s empty over Christmas, though this is probably due to the large numbers of expats and students who decamp. I’d also assumed that lots of folks went back to Paris but maybe that’s not the case!

  8. “It might also be that non-Parisians come to the city for work but never stop hating the place.”

    That’s how I feel about London.

  9. PeteC,

    Ah yes, a university town. They tend to empty. Friend of mine once told me not to bother visiting Trondheim outside of term time if you want to see anybody.

  10. Seth,

    Are you up in Hokkaido? Having skied in Sapporo and Rusutsu I know all about the snowfall there. Plus, it wasn’t too far from Sakhalin. Snow can really come down when it wants to.

  11. Another data point from an Italian colleague: Milan. Lots of people originating from the poorer South head back home over Christmas, travelling mainly on a single motorway which also passes through Rome.

  12. Adam,

    Indeed. When I did my research, they said having a proper set of tyres is 90% of driving in snow, and is far more important than having 4WD or an SUV. When I go to Annecy in winter and there is snow lying about I change the wheels for a set I keep in my garage which are fitted with winter tyres. It takes me about an hour to change all four, then I change them back again before I return to Paris.

  13. “We’ve had 50-60cm in the past fortnight”

    Just had a laze in the heated pool, looking up at the night stars, it was a nice 35 degree water temperature and the boys are catching them at the Gabba.

  14. “That’s interesting…Taiwan is somewhere I know almost nothing about”

    Mr Tim, I know zero about the place, but my eldest son went there for a few days not only to see it for himself but also so he could say: ‘I’ve been to a country not recognised by the UN.’

  15. Tim, I’m in Yamagata, central Tohoku. The bit I live in lies in a wind-gap between two 2000 metre mountains and the prevailing north westerlies blow straight through. After visiting Hokkaido, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating about heavy snow.

  16. Taiwan: Rough numbers has Four times the population of Ireland (republic + nthn) but is only Two-Fifths the size.

    With that in mind, Taiwan has a lot more wilderness.

    I love the place, and it certainly has some differences in.. er.. public culture.

  17. It’s smaller than Ireland but the cities are crowded, as Steve said. About 23 million people. The countryside is spectacular. Two weeks ago I took the girlfriend out boating on the country’s first major reservoir built by the Japanese in the 20s. That reservoir would also be one of Taiwan’s “world heritage sites” were the country ever recognized by the U.N. as an independent State.

  18. “pronouncing “Rheims” correctly”: do you seriously propose to privilege the French pronunciation?

  19. Athens gets pretty quiet in high summer (or used to when they had money). Everyone goes off to the islands.

  20. Tim, you know a place very like this. Anywhere Slavic.

    Not to the provinces, but the cities do empty out. The basic living arrangement being the flat in the city plus the shed in the surrounding country (dacha for the Russians, cottage for the Czechs etc).

    More summer than winter etc but still, similar idea. Centres of towns are empty on the weekends.

  21. Mike,

    It’s smaller than Ireland but the cities are crowded, as Steve said. About 23 million people. The countryside is spectacular.

    Interesting, thanks.

  22. dearieme,

    do you seriously propose to privilege the French pronunciation?

    I normally say “Reams”. I think the French say something close to “Rrrranse”.

  23. Tim,

    Not to the provinces, but the cities do empty out.

    Ah yes, but the only town I really lived in was Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, where the dachas were situated a couple of kilometres from the city centre. But yeah, I should have remembered the place empties in summer.

  24. Seth,

    After visiting Hokkaido, you’ll know I’m not exaggerating about heavy snow.

    Indeed. Every year some dingbat Australian goes missing in a Japanese ski resort, whose body gets uncovered in spring. They go out without proper clothes, get drunk, stagger home on their own and fall over somehow and get covered up within minutes. From my experience on Sakhalin I’d never underestimate how quickly snow can fall and pile up.

  25. So, if Paris empties, then theoretically it will be easier for us to move about. However, there is the migrant factor – they remain, with tourists. Interesting.

    As my only interest in going to Paris is to be with Parisiennes [with the exception of you], then it’s best avoided at this time, yes?

  26. James,

    So, if Paris empties, then theoretically it will be easier for us to move about.

    It is. It is particularly easy to move about our staff canteen during school holidays.

    As my only interest in going to Paris is to be with Parisiennes [with the exception of you], then it’s best avoided at this time, yes?

    I’d not come over Xmas and New Year, no. I was here two years ago and found it rather dull. Summer is still fun, though.

  27. What you describe is why, as a Frenchman now living in the US, I never go to Paris during a holiday. The only people I’d meet are tourists, and they are not the reason I go to Paris.
    I must say, though, that there are times when it is nice to have the city to oneself, as it were. Happened to me years ago when I lived there, during the World Cup. The French team was playing and everybody was home watching TV and I roamed the streets (I don’t have much interest in football) for hours. Funny what a city looks like when it is emptied of its inhabitants.
    And then there was that other time when I walked home to my hotel near Place Vendome from a business dinner on the left bank. Late at night, and wouldn’t you know it, during the World Cup again. As I was crossing the Seine on the Pont Neuf a group of young people was coming the other way. They were a bit inebriated and rather loud, and as we met in the middle of the bridge they stopped me and said excitedly, On a gagné, on a gagné! I had no idea that the French team were playing that evening and I wasn’t sure at first what they meant, so I was a bit noncommittal in my response and for a moment as it dawned on me what they were excited about I thought they were going to grab me and pitch me into the water below, for insufficient enthusiasm or something, but then I managed to say something like Magnifique!!! and the tension broke and we went our separate ways.

  28. By the way, a preview feature would have allowed me to fix the problem with my missing semicolon in the html code above…

  29. One more comment, as a lapsed Frenchman who has known Paris for a long time: the city has changed drastically over the last couple of decades. I’m sure it has happened to other metropoles as well, but I’m particularly sensitive to it in the case of Paris because I used to live there a long time ago. The thing is, there are hardly any dogs anymore. Used to be they were everywhere (along with the attendant dog poo, since the French refuse to pick up after their dog – it is their dog, after all – so much so that the city had employees who rode around on specially equipped motorcycles fitted with a box over the back wheel that could be deployed to sweep up and remove the offending poo from the sidewalk before anybody stepped in it).

    But I digress. Not only were there dogs everywhere, you could take them anywhere, including into restaurants. I remember sitting in the Café de la Paix with our German shepherd curled up under the table while we ate. And now there are hardly any dogs anymore. I think it is because there are fewer and fewer people who actually live in the city; most who work there commute from the banlieue, and even in the places where people still live there doesn’t seem to be the acceptance of a dog as being a part of the family. Maybe the inhabitants are more transient, too – students and young people without a family, whatever. When you see a person with a dog it is usually an old codger who refuses to get with the program and move out of the city to make room for the foreigners who are buying apartments there and who only seem to live there part time anyway.

  30. the “festive vibe before Christmas that London does.”

    Thirty years ago I rarely stayed in London over Christmas but when I did it was very quiet, I could go for a walk along the Embankment on Christmas Day and see no-one other than perhaps a few Japanese tourists. It was as if the world had ended and I the only remnant. Now it is full of both tourists and people who seem to live there (though still not many native). Which is rather sad, I want my City back.

  31. Ireland is 2 times bigger than Taiwan works only if you compare the Republic

    14,000 sq miles = Taiwan
    27,000 sq miles = Republic of Ireland
    32,000 sq miles = Ireland (whole island)

    Taiwan has Four times the population of Ireland, which also happens to be the same factor of hotness differential between the girls of Taiwan and Ireland.

  32. Helsinki at Midsummer, and to a lesser extent on summer weekends. Back in the 80s, when most people still had their roots in the countryside, it was a completely dead city – to the point where the traffic lights were turned off because there was no traffic on the roads. It’s a little busier now, partly because some of the slack has been taken up by foreign visitors, but many Finns still decamp for the summer. In some cases their (inherited) summer places are only a short way from the centre of the city, and surrounded by suburbia – as if the descendants of 19th century professional people had hung on to their retreats in Hampstead or Twickenham.

  33. What Tim Worstall wrote. Pretty much all the Russian cities empty out in the first ten days of May and, to a lesser degree, every summer weekend. Most people head to their dachas (which range from a shed to a country palace) but some spend the May vacation abroad. Also in the first ten days of January, some fly to Thailand (cheap) and some to the Alps (not so cheap). Ukrainians also drive to Slovakia or Austria.

  34. To me (coming from Australia), London feels deserted at Christmas. Whether that is because people have gone somewhere else or whether it is that people are simply indoors with their families, I am not completely sure. In Australia’s cities, people are outdoors, even on Christmas Day. Having the seasons backwards will do that.

    January in Australia is the holiday season. Schools break up just before Christmas. Christmas is something you do at home before going somewhere else for January.

  35. Hedgehog,

    It’s very interesting to hear how you see Paris has changed, especially about the dogs. I suspect cheap/easy travel and weekend breaks have made owning dogs more or a pain for the newer generations, whose parents would hardly have gone anywhere for the weekends except by train or car to a relative’s house.

    The topic of dog shit actually came up in my French cultural awareness course. I’m going to write a separate post about it.

    When you see a person with a dog it is usually an old codger who refuses to get with the program and move out of the city to make room for the foreigners who are buying apartments there and who only seem to live there part time anyway.

    Yup, that’s true: both about the old codgers and the part-time residents (as I am in Annecy).

    By the way, a preview feature would have allowed me to fix the problem with my missing semicolon in the html code above…

    Indeed, I’ll get one installed.

  36. Richard,

    Ah yes, Helsinki is an interesting one! I can imagine them doing that, they are more like Russians than either side would care to admit. 🙂

    as if the descendants of 19th century professional people had hung on to their retreats in Hampstead or Twickenham.

    When I was in New York recently I was told the original Brownstone houses in Harlem were build as weekend retreats for wealthy folk who lived in lower Manhattan or midtown.

  37. Alex,

    Pretty much all the Russian cities empty out in the first ten days of May

    Yeah, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk was definitely an exception, then. August people used to disappear, but May was business as usual from what I remember.

  38. Michael,

    Whether that is because people have gone somewhere else or whether it is that people are simply indoors with their families, I am not completely sure.

    One of the well-known travel writers said the worst time to be in any city as a tourist is on a public holiday, because everyone is doing something you are not invited to or won’t understand.

    I did find it absolutely bizarre that Australians look forward to spending Christmas day on the beach.

  39. As Seth said the Japanese cities empty out a lot for New Year, Golden Week (start of May) and Obon (mid August). The traffic jams on the days when people return can be epic and every plane and train seat is reserved and occupied.

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