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!