September – c’est la rentrée! School’s back! If you have spent any time at all in France in late August/early September you can’t have missed seeing and hearing these words all over; from shop displays and newspaper headlines to adverts and radio jingles. But this expression means so much more than just the beginning of the school year. It refers to a period of time at the beginning of September (even stretching through late into the month), reflecting a whole change of pace, a return to normalcy after the long summer holidays.
In August (and to a certain extent July as well), major sectors of France slow down or stop completely. School is out, parliament is in recess, many restaurants and businesses are closed completely and even large sectors of the public service grind down to all but minimal functionality. It’s holiday time. Everyone is on vacation, nothing much gets done. But come September, everyone returns home, goes back to work or school and life gets back to normal. La rentrée is relevant to practically everyone in France whether of school age or not.
And thanks to this there’s a great little expression in French which doesn’t really exist in English, and such a useful one at that: “à la rentrée!“. This basically means “See you in September” It’s a way of saying goodbye while acknowledging that you’ll see each other again in the autumn, after the summer break. It’s also a way of saying when something will happen, with la rentrée serving almost as a second time in the year for resolutions to be made (after those failed new year ones). One can say “I’ll do that in the rentrée…” such as get organised, start exercising, lose weight…start blogging regularly…! (It’s a great word for procrastinators…!)
However, there is a truly awful side to the rentrée for any parent of school-aged children, and that is the dreaded “liste des fournitures“. This is the list of school supplies that you have to buy for the coming academic year and while that sounds banal enough…trust me, it’s not! As the kid gets older, the list gets more complicated, so for now my experience takes me to age 14 – 3è in the French system, the equivalent of Year 10 in UK, 9th grade in USA.
The lists of notebooks specify the size: some teachers like 24 x 32 cm books, others prefer 17 x 22 cm and yet others prefer 21 x 29.7 cm. Each book needs a plastic cover (bought separately) in a different colour. French students write on paper with squares, not just lines and some teachers want books with large squares and others want small squares.
Each teacher specifies the number of pages each notebook must have and woe and betide you if you buy your child a book with 96 pages when they asked for 48. Some subjects require spiral-bound books, others loose leaf sheets of a certain weight (220 g was on one of my lists), double or single-sided; some require plastic document folders, others loose plastic pockets for certain sized paper…
Then there are the pens: x number of red ballpoint pens, x number of black felt writing pens, x number of green, blue, fluo highlighters, 2H pencils, HB pencils, sticks of glue, rulers of a certain length (not metal)…aaaargh!
When you add all this to the fact that it seems 2 million other people are shopping with you at the same time and you’re trying to juggle each child’s list, trust me, there really isn’t anything positive about the experience. But just to add salt to the wound, your child is sure to come back after day one saying that their teacher has changed and the new one prefers big to little, or this to that and you have to go out and get it all again!
Tomorrow my N° 1 son “rentre” (yes, it’s a verb too…rentrer to go back to school, il rentre he goes back to school) and I’m holding my breath for how many things I got wrong, how many changes there have been and how much more I have to spend… September, c’est la rentrée!
Related article: School Bags Around the World
*UPDATE 2014* Son N° 1 starts lycée this year and halleluiah, at last we are given some freedom…the list is not quite as dictatorial as the one for collège. For example “trousse complète” meaning a complete pencil case, leaving us the choice of how many red pens, black biros, pencils etc we want to provide our kids. I love lycée! (I still have one child at primary though, with 6 more years of prescriptive lists.)
How is the beginning of the school year where you are? Do you have such a “September” experience? Do you have to provide such specific equipment for your schools? I’d love to hear about your experiences of “la rentrée“.
This post was originally written and published in September 2013. I now only have one kid in the French school system and I still hate buying school supplies for la rentrée!
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So glad mine are both in lycée now – it was soooo stressful trying to do this when we first moved over and I didn’t understand half the words for things I was supposed to be buying. Now my French is better I don’t need to buy so much!!
I’m also delighted that my eldest has gone into 2nde this year and the list of fournitures scolaires is more free-range! These lists have made me a gibbering wreck in the stationery shop every year until now. 😀 I have embraced “La rentrée” with gusto since living in France though. It’s as important as New Year’s Day as a motivating date for having new goals and starting new projects!
I love setting new goals and projects in September too Lisa, it’s the best thing about la rentrée.
Even as a teacher and a French speaker, when we arrived in France from Australia at the beginning of September for la rentrée I was completely bamboozled by the lists.
It’s a huge culture shock (which doesn’t get easier!)
I’ve always loved la rentrée, as a pupil, student and teacher! Possibly less as a mum. Why? It’s all about the stationery for me. Even now, when I’m teaching English at our local AVF, as a volunteer, there’s nothing I like better than treating myself to a new notebook etc. With the start of the new academic year, it’s also an opportunity for a fresh start, new goals etc. I enjoyed this post very much indeed. #AllAboutFrance
I love buying new stationery for myself too, but something I want not something dictated by the ridiculous whims of a teacher at school. How could it possibly matter what size the book is????!!
And I thought a quick visit to WH Smith was tough in the run up to Back to School! These school lists are crazy! #allaboutfrance
Aren’t they just!
Wow there’s so much to buy! We are looking at our son starting this year, I think he will have another nursery year through as he’s still 4 #allaboutfrance
Age 4 he should go into Moyenne Section (2nd year of Maternelle) but officially you don’t have the choice anymore as obligatory schooling in France just changed this month from 6 to 3 years old! But at least you won’t have the infernal lists yet!
Hi Phoebe Thanks for sharing this post. It’s true that la Rentrée is so much more then just “Back to School.”
yes; “back to life!”
I always wondered why French supermarkets had such a great stationery selection. Now I know why! Without the tradition of ‘la rentree’ I also use September and the start of the school year to kickstart some resolutions and get back into a working mindset. I quite like it – like a reset before the craziness of Christmas (plus both my kids birthdays in the Autumn / Winter term). #AllAboutFrance
Yes! Kickstart some resolutions; I like it!
It’s really something la ”rentrée” here in France, I was surprised to see parents taking the morning off to be to take their kids to school! In the Netherlands (where I am from) we aren’t used to this. And the list of school supplies! :O In the Netherlands the fun of buying school supplies was that we could use our creativity and pick whatever we wanted!
Ah but that’s almost the only time parents get to go inside a primary school so it’s an occasion not to be missed. After the first day of term parents only go inside for a couple of parent-teacher meetings.
We have already been in school for 3 weeks up here in Denmark and with the very warm humid weather that we took through the end of August, I’m everyone would have appreciated a September start. But here we are. We do have some school shopping requirements but doesn’t seem anywhere as detailed and specific as the French list! Zut alors! We had similar scrambles for all the items on the list back in the States. I will admit I’m always ready for the lazy hazy days of summer to get here and for them also to move on. Ha! Cheers from Copenhagen. #AllAboutFrance
I can’t imagine Danes being quite so restrictive about the choice of paper / notebooks! French aren’t known for creative thinking in education unfortunately!
Preparation for la rentrée seems to start earlier and earlier each year (a bit like Christmas!). We were seeing fournitures in the supermarkets in July.
I know, it’s mean on the kids seeing reminders of school so early!
I live in a small town on the coast of BC in Canada. Our lists have always been quite large but the teachers have never been too picky if things don’t show up. It’s pretty normal for some kids to show up with nothing and still get the supplies they need. Just this year though, things have changed and buying supplies will be easier than ever. Kids are given a very small list now (basics) and the rest will be provided by the school board. I have yet to buy anything as school doesn’t start until September 5 and as the list is smaller, I will likely have most of what is needed leftoever from last year aside from some new pens and pencils. I found you through Mum in the Madhouse. I enjoyed learning about the French way. So interesting. Thanks for posting.
I’m still trying to get back in the swing of things return from month long break from blogging.
I had no idea French schools were so strict on supplies. Wow.
It’s quite an eye opener isn’t it!
I hate the back to school shop with a passion, but my 14 yr old is also now at lycee and we had no list, no guidance, nothing. It seems as long as he has something to write with and something to write on it’s good. I missed my list!
That’s funny Jacqui, after all those years of hating the list to suddenly find you miss it!!
I loved this post, thank you! And I am both comforted and alarmed by the fact that you are still finding it hard to get the supplies right even after all this time…
Lycée is the way to go Emily, we had no list at all this year for 1er!!! (It’s only the 14th year into French schooling!!)
This does bring back memories… I remember those back to school days when I lived in a little Normandy village as a child. I was always excited to get a new “cartable” for the year, the french version of our backpacks.
I used to get my kids a new cartable every year but now they treat them better and perhaps I bought better quality and they have both been using the same one for 3 years now!
Good luck getting all those school supplies! I had heard vague mutterings from parents in Paris about how particular those lists can be, but your post really spelled it out! Wow, those are some picky teachers!
I do miss la rentrée. Schools in my town just started this week, and NYC starts next week, so there have been some changes due to school openings that I’ve noticed, like afternoon traffic slowing down with school buses on the road again. But the US doesn’t seem to have that same energy that France has around this time of year as everyone goes back to school and work – I miss it!
Interesting that you should miss la rentrée Sara, I think the whole concept is very French.
I don’t remember ever having to supply anything at primary school, apart from a cartridge pen once in the older group. At the moment we don’t need to provide anything except for
…. I wonder what you have to supply Emma? I think you might have hit publish before you were finished!
I still have a year before the back to school chaos of late August, the equivalent of the rentree. As far as I know it’s a lot less prescriptive thankfully! #allaboutfrance
I’m sure it’ll be a lot less strict, I think everywhere is easier than France!
Hi Phoebe. Well, I don’t have the school supply list to worry about, but it seems like something always happens in July that can’t be fixed until “la rentrée.” This year, it was a leak from the apartment upstairs. We discovered it at the end of July. A plumber came out to investigate and decided that the problem wasn’t serious and could wait until “la rentrée.” Meanwhile, I’ve been away and have had visions of the ceiling falling in, but I guess I’ll just have to wait until “la renrée” to see what happened. Oh, the life of an expat! 😉
oh yes, the infamous wait till the rentrée for works to be done! However running a gite I do appreciate it when noisy building works stop for the summer in a town that is forever expanding!
Gosh, whilst my parenting of school children times are long long gone, it seems that parents in the UK have it very easy. I’m pretty sure my grandson has his books supplied and has his own selection of pens and pencils – he has to use a fountain pen in general so has the time honoured ink blots on his fingers! My daughter just had the shopping with all the other mothers, for new shoes and bigger blazer! I think the saddest part of the UK equivalent of la rentrée, “back to school” is that it heralds the end of our summer and of course, the traffic jams early in the morning again. Lovely blog Phoebe, it’s great to get to know French ways in such an entertaining manner.
Luckily our 6 year old has only just started CP so his list wasn’t too long. But I am dreading future years, the list does seem very specific. I really don’t understand why the school don’t buy in bulk. I’m sure even if they then charged the parents for it all it would still come out cheaper! Hope your kids have enjoyed their first week back as much as my boys have!
I guess it makes more work for the school administrators and we wouldn’t want that now would we?!!! Yes my boys were very happy to go back to school, amazingly!
Love your post – It’s exactly how I feel about both the long summer and those dreaded list of school supplies!! Glad to hear that maybe in Lycee, it gets a bit easier….
I know also my daughter’s elementary school didn’t put her list out until the last week of August!! Which just goes to show how much people just disconnect once school is out – and go off on Vacation!! I love your “best” translation of A la Rentree. That is so true! My kids really don’t see too many of their friends during summer break as everyone is off on holiday!
But I have to say – I love the feeling of starting “Back to School”. It’s a new beginning – a new year and full of new adventures of all kinds!!
It does get easier Jen. This year my son had no list at all!!!! ?
Wow that is a whole load of stuff to buy!! I don’t have to do that yet with my son in the UK but would probaby get a little stressed out!
Hopefully it’ll never be as bad as in France when your son gets older in UK!
I’ve no kiddos needing school supplies, yet I still mean to celebrate le rentrée with you in the sense of new beginnings. It’s finally cool enough here in New Mexico to take long walks at a pace quick enough to count as exercise. And this year’s chile harvest does smell good, but wouldn’t mind getting my steps in while breathing in the lavender at Lou Messugo!
I love the idea of walking through the chilli harvest!
Fascinating! The experience you get as an expat is priceless. It’s often the small details that are most memorable.
I love cultural differences like this, they fascinate me, and you’re right, living somewhere you get such a different experience of a place than just visiting.
LOL – our blog writing is similar albeit a year apart! I get so stressed buying everything and I think it is worse for expats as we have to try extra hard not to get things wrong for our children in a foreign country. In fairness, this year, whilst I had the long list (How many types of paper for goodness sake?!) for Tom who is in 5eme, his list did include those words “trousse complète” 🙂
ah what simple pleasures…”trousse complète” music to my ears.
As far as I know it is all across for public schools. It puzzles me that a kid “gets into trouble” just for that 🙁
there’s a lot a kid can get in trouble for in France that seems a little unnecessary or severe elsewhere…using the wrong pen springs to mind…individualism isn’t encouraged ?
That is one thing that saddens me about the French education system … it does like to churn everyone out the same and woe betide if you happen to be a bit “different” ?
We have that here in Holland too. A long list of supplies, but then half of them don’t actually get used, and my son just makes his own choices about what sort of notebooks, etc. he wants to use for each class. Most of the teachers aren’t actually as picky as the list makes it sound, so we’ve stopped doing the list (my son, 15, is now in his fourth year of secondary school). I just buy him a new agenda each year and resupply him with new notebooks and whatever other supplies have run out. It seems to work okay, and if there’s a particular item the teacher wants, my son will let me know. It was positively painful the first year: having to buy the whole list. And incredibly expensive!
You’re so lucky that your son is allowed to choose his own notebooks. That’s not an option here! (Well they get to choose the colour I guess as long as it fits the right size, has the right amount of pages etc). I agree, it’s very expensive and I only have 2 kids! I can’t imagine how complicated as expensive it is for bigger families.
It’s la rentrée on the highway too! Excellent blog
oh yes, the fun of autoroute “bouchons”!
I love the beginning of school, it brings a better routing and things start falling into place. Not that I have not enjoyed the summer, that was grew too!
We are lucky to have lots of the supplies provided by the school, but you are right, some teachers have different preferences, and that’s why we do some shopping after the school starts 🙂
If only we were allowed to do it after term starts, but the kids would get in trouble if they had nothing at the beginning of term. You are lucky to have supplies provided. Is that all over Canada, or just where you are?
The school supply list sounds like a complete nightmare. But be glad you don’t have to then cover all the books in contact (sticky, clear plastic) paper! It’s one of the worst parts of having kids in school in Australia.
Oh yes we do! That’s the fun of the first 3 weeks of school when the kids come back with text books which need to be covered. I hate it!
So far all the ones the boys have been given are still covered from last year. #phew
I think I may be slightly French Phoebe! I have been feeling very rentre lately. But it is a much better time than January for celebrating a fresh start! Lovely blog, nasty shopping list x
Thanks Brett! Enjoy your fresh start. ?