You might have heard the rumor that the French get a lot of holidays. I’m here to tell you that it’s no rumor, it’s hard fact, or rather, it’s a French law that mandates at least 5 weeks of paid leave for every worker, per year. Then there are the national holidays, and in the month of May, the Queen of them all, there are a whopping 4 national holidays in this one little month. In practice, what that means is, there is a long weekend every weekend in the month of May.
For example, here we all are on Thursday, May 14, in our apartment in Paris – I’m writing and gazing out at the chestnut trees, the kids watch a TV show in the other room, and Andrew sits on the terrace reading the paper. The dog is curled up on the couch. It’s Ascension Day – the third of the four national holidays. It’s the holiday that celebrates Christ ascending to heaven after hanging out on earth for 40 days after Easter Sunday. Like a clever Parisian, our eldest daughter said, “Why couldn’t he have flown up on a Friday or Monday so I’d have a longer weekend?” Since Ascension day always falls on a Thursday, many French people solve this problem by doing the ‘faire le pont’ or ‘making the bridge’ to the weekend, by taking Friday off as well. Being descended from Puritans, we stayed in town and will go to school on Friday.
May does tend to also raise questions regarding the approach to school scheduling – it seems that the ministry of education in France has concluded that children work best in spurts, so the school year is punctuated with six weeks of school followed by 2 weeks of vacation. School begins in September then mid-October there is a 2 week fall break, called Toussaints, in December it’s 2 or 3 weeks for Christmas, then a 2 week winter break in February, spring break for 2 weeks in April. After the April break, there are an ambitious 8 weeks until the 2 month summer vacation. So, by the time May rolls around, there have been a lot of breaks of one sort or another and people are looking at each other with that glazed exhausted look you get if you eat too much pudding. That or they look fabulous and relaxed from their 2 weeks in Biarritz.
A few days ago, having arrived back from the April vacation, sitting at La Palette cafe on rue de Seine, under the shade trees, what my friends and I joked about was – how tough it was getting back to ‘it’ for one week and 3 days since the two week school vacances that ended May 3 and before the next rigorous 4 day week. Oh, but May 8 was a holiday too… the days, the weeks, the holidays, it is all running together in a big blur of baguettes and cheese, trains through medieval towns, ice cream cones dripping on shirts, piles of laundry and stacks of late library books.
How is an expat housewife to keep any kind of schedule or maintain any order with this willy nilly coming and going? (this being tongue in cheek, for those of you who know my relaxed and spontaneous philosophies) I was sharing my sense that planning these abundant family vacations was an art form whose rigorous training should start in primary school: where to go when for optimal weather, optimal chances for sport, cultural happenings, requires extensive knowledge, not to mention the skills to coordinate train schedules, gites, logis, airb&b, flights, car rentals… 6 or so times a year. It also occurred to me that this was a high form of economics and advanced algebra to figure out how to afford all this vacation and a cautionary tale about why it’s important to book ahead if you want to secure decently priced train tickets or places to stay in France in May.
Bon voyage and Welcome back. We’re all in this May thing together. And yes, next Saturday – we take a train for a long weekend to Vezelay with our dog staying in a gites in a small medieval village to celebrate Pentecost Monday, the fourth long weekend in May.