Monday, July 5, 2010

Time off, a la francaise

France is a modern country with bustling cities and market-cornering industries.  But, most of the country looks like this.  The beauty of aged architecture and cobblestoned roads, imbued with the sun's warmth and accented with sprays of kaleidoscopic flowers, surrounds you in France. It's no wonder the French scorn the hindrance of daily travail.

In the United States, we're a bit like worker ants.  In the name of achieving our professional goals, thriving in competitive industry climates, and supporting indulgent lifestyles, we've become slaves to our employment.  The French, as a society, refuse such madness.  For them, the abundance of life's pleasures should be celebrated and enjoyed in the company of friends and family.

When my husband and I moved to the US together in 2000, he was appalled to learn his new employer only provided five days of paid vacation.  In France, everyone gets one month off in the summer for vacation.  From the apprentice in the boulangerie to the gas station attendant to the editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, every employee has one month paid vacation in France.  (After eleven years with the same company, my husband now earns the maximum amount of vacation pay: three weeks per year.)

The French don't split up their vacation time.  In other words, you won't hear someone say, "I'll take two weeks off for Christmas, and then spend two weeks at the beach this summer."  The whole month is enjoyed at once, either in July or in August.  This means a couple things:

Whole towns empty out in the summer months.  Businesses close up shop and hang signs on their doors that read, "Be Back in August."  Life slows w-a-y down.  For this reason, all pressing matters should be resolved by mid-June or tabled until after September.

Local businesses like bread makers and pharmacies have to organize themselves.  If there are two pharmacies in a village, one will be closed for July and the other will be closed for August.

Three weekends out of the summer are consider "Black Driving Days."  The first weekend of July (which could be the last weekend of June, depending on how the dates fall) finds all those taking their vacations in July on the road.  And, the last weekend of August (or the first weekend of September) finds those on the road going home after their August vacations.  But the busiest weekend out on France's highways is the one when July ends and August begins.

Le Grand Croisement Annul, or the great yearly crossroads, happens as the July vacationers make their way home at the same time the August vacationers are heading out.  I have only traveled on the highways once during that weekend, and I was shocked at the masses of people.  I'm a city girl, used to traffic jams.  I'd never seen anything like that.  It took us twenty-four hours to make a five-hour trip.  The line of cars and campers crawled at no faster than fifteen miles per hour the whole time.  Eventually we needed to rest, but every rest stop parking lot was so full of parked vehicles and people stretched out on blankets and in pup-tents that only a narrow ribbon of asphalt was visible to drive from entrance to exit.  We had no option but to merge back into the creeping circulation, stomachs still empty and bladders still full.

There is actually a law in France making it illegal to work more than 35 hours per week.  Another law has been in legislation for years and may never pass, but its advocates hope to reduce the retirement age from 55 years to 50 years.

Like here in the States, the French celebrate one-day holidays throughout the year.  Their Labor Day, for example, corresponds with our Memorial Day, and their Memorial Day is observed on May 8th, the day they celebrate the end of World War II.  They also observe all the lesser known Catholic holidays like The Ascension, Good Friday, and All Soul's Day.  And like here in the States, most one-day holidays are observed on a Monday or Friday.

The French have a saying: faire le pont.  Literally translated, it means "make the bridge."  When the French say they're going to faire le pont, they mean they will add a day off, either before the one-day holiday or after, so that they bridge the days off with the weekend, thus enjoying four days off of work.  This practice is so much the norm that if someone says they aren't "making the bridge," people raise their eyebrows and ask why not.

I'm looking forward to the slow pace of French life.  It will be a welcomed change for me!

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