Vive les vacances

congésOverheard snippet of conversation amongst female coworkers, roughly translated:

“I really need some.”

“Me too. It’s been way too long.”

“How long’s it been?”

“Months. Not since the winter and that was far too short.”

“If I don’t get some soon, I’m gonna die.”

I was red-faced before I figured out what they were talking about. It’s the one thing the French absolutely cannot live without: holidays.

Since the law was first passed in 1936 granting every French worker the right to les congés payés, the annual paid vacation has been inscribed in the culture of this country. Since then it has mushroomed from two to five weeks.

There are two major categories of holidays: les petites vacances (spring, fall and winter breaks) and les grandes vacances, that lovely stretch of two long summer months. They all march to the rhythm of the school calendar. But whether or not they have school-age children, and whatever their other hobbies (travel, skiing or other sports), everyone in France, and I do mean everyone, takes a summer vacation.

I love the fact that France has charitable organizations devoted to ensuring that underprivileged children get a summer holiday (“Pour ceux qui ne peuvent partir”). And that there are even specific words for those who take their holidays in July (les juilletistes) or August (les aoûtiens).

Although some go to the mountains for fresh air and others go north and west to the beaches in Normandy, Brittany and the Atlantic coast, most of France heads south.

I visualize this as a sort of tipping of the hour glass: come July 14th, the country gets tipped over and almost all of the sand goes to the bottom. Then, around August 15th, it flips back again.

On the first weekend after Bastille Day you only have to turn on the TV or radio to hear the breaking news: the highways and byways are ‘noir’ (literally ‘black’ but actually meaning packed) as tourists take to the road and converge on France from all over Europe. All news channels will talk about little other than the major traffic jams and report double-than-average travel times from Paris to parts south. La canicule (the heatwave) and la météo des plages (beach weather report) are the only kind of news the French want to hear about for the next month.

When I got my first job in France and discovered I would immediately qualify for five weeks of annual paid vacation, I was thrilled. Compared to the paltry two weeks you get as statutory holiday in Canada, this was manna from the gods. But then I noticed how quickly it went. A week at Christmas, another for a ski break in March…if I wasn’t careful to keep it to two weeks in summer, there wouldn’t be much left.

But two weeks in the summer was too short, as one of my colleagues explained:

“The first week, you unwind. The last week, you’re already thinking about going back to work. So you really need three weeks in order to have a least one week in the middle where you really relax.”

I have to admit, the French are good at this.

As for me, I am a devout aoûtienne. But we’re only taking two weeks this summer. There’s just too many other times of year when I need a vacation.

Bonnes vacances to all who are lucky enough to enjoy some!

Tempête de neige

Snow covers a Metro sign and tree branchesHow five centimeters of snow turn the fearless French into a bunch of sissies

My belle-mère (mother-in-law) called early one morning in January with the breaking news: “’Have you seen what’s happened in Paris?” she demanded. “No,” I replied, imagining a terrorist bomb or worse, a train strike.

“They’re completely snowed in. At least ten centimeters.” In France, snow in Paris is major national news. Next thing you know the army will be called in to rescue stranded commuters.

“Imagine,” I said. “Snow, in January.” This prompted a diatribe about how it was all very well for Nordic countries, but in France they’re not equipped for snow, at least not in the city.

Full disclosure: I grew up in Canada. As a citizen of the great white north, it takes more than a few flakes to keep me down. But after a few years in my adopted country I have begun to understand that snow in France is different.

The French love the snow. In its place, on the ski slopes in the Alps or the Pyrénées. Everywhere else it is that most detested of meteorological phenomena, the one that knocks this country firmly on its derrière.

Every winter all eyes turn to Météo France with the announcement of the dreaded tempête de neige. A state of ‘vigilance orange’ is declared, sparking off a series of measures designed to protect the French from the evil frost. Snowy weather bumps all other news stories. Schools are closed, people are urged to leave their cars in the garage and if possible, to stay home.

It may be for the best. For all their machismo behind the wheel in most weather, the French have little clue how to drive in the snow. A couple of centimeters of white stuff on the ground is enough to cow most drivers. They reduce their speed to a crawl, brake constantly or stop by the side of the road to put on chains.

I have never seen anyone in Canada do this, at least not in the city. Chains and studs are illegal in many areas as they quickly destroy the road surface.

Much as I hate to admit it, my mother-in-law is right: France is not prepared for snow. They don’t salt the roads enough for one thing. And for another all those country roads with the signs that say ‘verglas fréquent’ do ice up surprisingly quick when the temperatures fall below zero.

I cannot help but chuckle when I see my proud compatriots taken down a peg or two in wintry weather. Most days driving in this country is not for the faint of heart. A simple lane change can feel like a game of chicken – it goes against the very fiber of the French to let you in. Driving at the speed limit is grounds for obscene hand gestures and appels de phare as other drivers recklessly pass. Heaven help you if you dare to drive in the left lane on the motorway.

So forgive me for enjoying my day in the snow. Bonne route!