Summer has a way of sneaking up on you in Paris. The ponts of May come and go. The days start getting longer (as you’re reminded by the weather presenters on the nightly news who cheerfully announce the extra minutes of sunshine for the following day), street-sellers put away their stock of umbrellas and start selling 1-euro bottles of water and the terrasses fill with people drinking rosé or Aperol Spritz. The Tuileries garden is partly converted into a theme park smelling of merguez (a type of sausage) and barbe à papa (fairy floss), Paris Plages is rolled out on the quais de la Seine and at au Bassin de la Villette and the town starts getting overrun with tour groups.
On the radio and TV news there are very earnest investigations into the most popular holiday destinations, the best brands of sunscreen and the production of straw hats.
Before you know it, it’s the peak of summer, a canicule (heatwave) has hit and you see people everywhere in the street carrying home fans purchased from Darty or BHV because they don’t have air-conditioning (or if they do, they don’t want to use it).
And pretty soon, shops and restaurants start putting up signs about their “horaires d’été” (summer hours) or their “fermeture estivale” or “annuelle” (summer or annual close) for “vacances” or “congés” (holidays). That’s when you know: Paris has officially shut down for summer.
All of this talk about vacances, together with the heat, makes it incredibly hard to get any work done during July/August, as very aptly portrayed by Paris-based illustrator and author Jessie Kanelos Weiner in a recent post:
I thought I was immune to this phenomenon. During my first summer in Paris, I happily worked through August. Granted, it was partly because I had no choice (I was a lowly stagiaire (intern), with no vacation days) and partly because, for me, les grandes vacances (literally, the “big” holidays) had always been at Christmas, being summertime in Australia. Plus, I was just so damned excited to be in Paris that no amount of days spent in a near-empty office checking footnotes could dampen my spirits. I was undoubtedly also buoyed by the peripheral benefits of Paris in August, such as getting a seat in the metro or a last-minute reservation in a usually sought-after restaurant.
But as the years have worn on, I have found myself adapting to the “French” way of viewing “les vacances d’été”. The change of hemisphere has something to do with it, but it’s also a change of attitude.
It is true that the French value holidays and repos (rest) to an extent that a lot of cultures do not. The proof is justement in the said number of commerces (businesses) in Paris and elsewhere in France that literally shut down over the summer, despite it being peak tourist season, to take their annual break. That many businesses seem to value holidays over making a few extra euros is, to me, gloriously French.
But none of this should be construed as criticising the French for being lazy; far from it. Amongst my French colleagues and friends are some of the hardest working people I have ever met. So much so that “le burn-out” has become a real thing in France. (This is despite the l’Academie française’s recommendation against the use of this anglicisme, i.e., a word borrowed from the English language). En effet, I was recently talking to a lawyer friend who is on the verge of un burn-out. What did his doctor recommend? “Trois bonnes semaines de vacances” (three good weeks of holiday), of course!
When he told me about this diagnosis, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. There seems to be a consensus amongst the French that you need at least three weeks of holidays to truly unwind. (I can’t count the number of times I have heard that two weeks is not enough to disconnect; “c’est seulement à partir de deux semaines que tu te déconnectes vraiment.”). And, depending on your profession, people are generally pretty good about taking their vacation days (in French you speak about how you “pose tes jours” with your employer, which for me conjures up an enjoyable image of physically slapping down your days) and turning on decidedly unapologetic out-of-office responses.
The French are also truly brilliant holiday planners. I have no statistics on this, but my feeling is that the French are single-handedly holding up the travel guide market. As soon as my French friends have found a destination, or even if they are looking for a destination, they will go out and buy the appropriate Routard guide. Or they will borrow a guide from a friend or colleague. I have even been on bachelorette/hens’ weekends where the purchase of a guide book formed a part of the common expenses for the participants.
Maybe I’m alone on this, but I personally can’t recall buying a printed guide book since around 2003, when one of my best friends and I co-purchased the Lonely Planet’s “Europe on a Shoestring” for a backpacking trip. (The book weighed about a kilogram. We called it “the brick” and took turns in hauling it around in our backpacks.)
This may explain the mild panic I begin to feel towards the end of June when my French friends start telling me about their intricately prepared travel itineraries, especially if I have not yet planned anything. And I know that it’s only a matter of time until all conversations will turn to the inevitable question, “Alors vous partez où cet été ?” (“So where are you off to this summer?”).
By the time late July rolls around, the buzz about the need for the impending vacances intensifies. A typo in an email or a muddled thought can be easily explained by “J’ai besoin des vacances.” (“I need holidays.”). Friends and colleagues regularly make you question whether they will even be able to survive until the vacances, announcing, “Je n’en peux plus” (“I can’t take it anymore”), or “Je suis au bout du rouleau” (“I’m at the end of my tether”) or even “Je suis au bout de ma vie” (which I think translates literally as “I’m at the end of my life”, which sounds far more dramatic in English than it does in French). To reassure everyone (and yourself), you sign off emails wishing people a “bel été” or “bonnes vacances” (added to the already vast repertoire of other well-wishing “bon” sign-offs; “bon week-end“, “bonne fin de journée“, “bonne soirée“, etc.).
Over the past few years, I, too have started peppering my summertime conversations with these pre-holiday phrases. But the extent to which I had become distinctly French in my attitude towards les grandes vacances only hit home the other day.
We were finishing up a meeting with a group of people at the office and were planning the next date we could meet. After a fleeting look at the calendar I announced resignedly, “Bah, à ce stade il va falloir attendre la rentrée.” (“Well at this stage we will have to wait until la rentrée.”) In other words, until September when everyone would be back from vacation. That all sounds innocent enough. Except that it was only the beginning of July. I was effectively suggesting a two-month hiatus. I realised what I had proposed with a jolt, but before I could correct myself everyone had agreed and we had settled on a date in mid-September. That’s when I knew I had wholesale given in to the summer shut-down. Vive les vacances !