Parisians are becoming more and more convinced that there's no place like home, especially at vacation time.
The French traditionally dream about and plan for the summer holiday during the other 11 months of the year, but the annual August exodus from the city is a true horror story. More than 4 million city dwellers leave Paris via every known means of transportation to reach the beleaguered beaches and resorts, where Gallic locals gallantly cope with the invasion by raising the price of everything.
Unlike England, where summer vacations are staggered over a period of five months, major French factories and industries shut down from the last day of July until the first of September. Half the population takes off with lemming-like madness.
August is also prime time for airport strikes, with the unions apparently making every conceivable effort to guarantee unhappy holidays. If stranded passengers eventually arrive, it is often only to discover that the charming little pension (boardinghouse) has changed hands since last year and the grouchy successor is not about to do anything about the primeval plumbing. Certainly the less naive vacationers are aware that the annual quest for ''packaged happiness'' involves standing in line for everything from a beach umbrella to the bathroom.
There are two solutions: Stay home or take a balloon trip, drifting slowly through uncrowded skies above the rolling French countryside. All that ''hot air'' costs a packet, however. It's far cheaper to spend a holiday right at home , which far more Parisians are doing this summer after finally realizing that the August out-of-town vacation often ends up being one of the most expensive ways to be uncomfortable.
Paris will have more Parisians this summer than at any time since the World War II years. Parisians are discovering the ultimate luxury of being idle, of having time for oneself without the daily hassle of getting to the office. Certain quarters of the city, far from the famous tourist tracks, turn into small, somnolent villages. Traffic is light, parking places are plentiful, and the phone doesn't ring constantly.
Pavements may be dug up and the iron shutters clanged down while the local plumber is sunbathing on the Cote D'Azur and the TV repairman is off sampling lobsters in Britanny. But survival is assured in spite of thousands of fermeture annuelle signs pasted on the doors of shops and commercial enterprises.
Life becomes informal. One can run around town without stockings, feeling as much at ease as the hordes of tourists in minishorts piling off buses to enter the Louvre. This year, one will hear French spoken as frequently as all the exotic languages rolling off tourists' tongues. Half the fun is just sitting at a sidewalk cafe trying to guess the various nationalities of the invaders by their mode of dress and manners. The ''wash and wearers'' struggle through the requisite tours while complacent residents give humble thanks that they have already been up the Eiffel Tower once in their lifetimes and have already submitted to the dubious pleasure of a trek through the Paris sewers immortalized by Victor Hugo.
August is becoming the time when Parisians cruise through the department stores, shop for long-missing household items, and do odd jobs at home, no longer feeling underprivileged because they are not away on a vacation. During an August heat wave a few years ago, one ingenious couple installed the ''beach'' in their one-room studio flat, scattering sand on a sheet stretched out on the floor beneath a potted palm tree borrowed from the local florist before he left for his holiday. An electric fan provided ''tropical'' breezes rustling through the palm fronds as monsieur and madame basked in bathing suits beneath a sunlamp - enjoying all the charm of the beach, combined with the comforts of home.
The only hazards are the acquaintances and friends of friends of friends who turn up in Paris on their own vacations. You may be happy and relaxed at home, but these friends from afar have an alarming habit of casually ringing the front doorbell and expecting to be entertained. The solution? ''How lovely to meet friends of my ninth cousin's, but so sadly we are just packing our bags to leave town in the morning!''