There is a Parisian phenomenon that happens every August which I have grown to really appreciate. Paris, this huge, bustling city, full of traffic, pollution, cranky commuters and noise turns into a classy ghost town. The Parisians have all headed south where they are sure to find the sun and, consequently, leave their city in the hands of happy tourists – and me. It’s heaven.
This exodus, of course, is their annual summer vacation, a holiday break as sacred as Christmas. It is not only obligatory to take off 4 – 5 weeks in the summer; it is also obligatory to leave. Any Parisian worth his salt takes off somewhere.
The ones who stay (and really, there are not that many) enjoy free parking in the city streets (since the meter maids also go on holiday), little traffic and urban serenity (now, doesn’t that sound like an oxymoron!). The ones who leave do so with a smile on their face and absolutely no guilt in their hearts. They are doing what every red-blooded Frenchman has to do – they are, pure and simply, obeying the law – with a passion.
French law guarantees a minimum of 5 weeks vacation, usually starting from the first day of your new job. Then, you can add to that twelve annual legal holidays. Also, pack on a couple of weeks due to the 35-hour work week, with no overtime allowed, and you can easily spend two out of twelve months on holiday. The average number of vacation days in France is 38. The days are not cumulative, so you “use them or lose them” at the end of each year and the French definitely choose the first option. Oh, and did I mention that these are PAID vacation days?
The French do not feel privileged to have all this paid, free time off. They accept it as their legal right and support the opinion that they work better because of the break. According to my friend Marie-Claire, you need at least 4 weeks to really “recharge your batteries”. She explained that during the first week, you are still working “in your head” and you only start to relax during the second and third week. And during the fourth week, you mentally prepare for going back to work. So, from her perspective, her 4-week holiday is only 2 weeks long. I like her math skills.
This Vacation Attitude has always delighted and fascinated me at the same time. At a recent office coffee break conversation, I was once again telling my colleagues how lucky they were to even envisage taking such a long break in the summer, something unthinkable in the United States. One of them asked me why that is – why don’t Americans LIKE vacation? It struck me as a bizarre question.
“Of course we like vacations,” I answered him. “We just don’t have them, never did have them, and we would probably feel guilty if we ever did have them.”
“So you prefer to work 24/7 – that’s your choice,” Philippe answered in his quip French way.
He also continued to explain how the French vacation period is good for the nation’s economy. People are practically forced to spend money. Some companies even give their employees more money for their vacation period – something to help with the extra expenses that are incurred – you know, like for snorkelling gear, apartment rentals, mojitos on the beach, stuff like that. Local commerce needs that – a one week holiday just wouldn’t be enough. A long vacation period is a win-win situation for the whole country.
I told Philippe I wasn’t completely certain about his vacation attitude logic but I would think about it and we could discuss it further the next day.
“Ah, not tomorrow,” he said. “I’m going on vacation. I’m going to rest and relax for the good of my job and for the good of my country. It is my duty.”
So, in the month of August, millions of Frenchmen are off to sea and sun, to the mountains, to their family’s country home in Normandy or even to the top of the Empire State Building. And Paris becomes an abandoned, sprawling metropolis, the deserted capital of a Nation on Vacation.