May in France is known as the Swiss cheese month because of all the holiday holes in it. There are four national holidays and thus four long weekends. May 1 was the May Day workers' fete, May 8 marked the World War II victory in Europe, and there are two others I'll get to in a moment.
Instead of enjoying the long weekends, I find myself struggling to cope. I imagine working parents in Boston felt this way about snow days this past winter. Paris doesn't get buried in snow. But the holidays — and the school days off — are relentless.
When I moved to France a decade ago, the culture of guilt-free time off seemed so refreshing compared with America's workaholic attitude. Taking three to four weeks off in the summer is not only the norm, it's viewed as necessary to recharge one's batteries for the fall.
Don't get me wrong. I'm no workaholic. I always enjoy every bit of my vacation time. But after a couple of years in France, I began to realize that there actually is such a thing as "too much vacation." Especially when you have kids.
The rhythm of the seasons in France is dictated by the school calendar. And French school kids spend less time in the classroom than their European peers. Along with a two-month summer vacation, French kids have a two-week break every six weeks throughout the school year.
"Oh, they're so exhausted!" I hear mothers exclaim as we approach one of the breaks. And when giving out the vacation homework, the teachers advise: "Above all, make sure they rest."
So here's what happens every fall: The kids have been off for two months in the summer and they're finally back in school in September. Just as they're buckling down and getting into the rhythm of the new school year, it's mid-October and — boom — it's time for the break of Toussaint, or All Saints in English. American kids get one night for Halloween and French kids get a two-week holiday.
A Bind For Working Parents
Every six weeks like clockwork, the travel advertisements pop up in the Paris Metro, beckoning vacationers to places like Japan or Sicily or Mauritius.
Many people go to their country houses if they have one. An American friend of mine said she thought the French holiday system worked on feudal rules. "Everyone seems to have a chateau to retreat to," she said, "and as far as us serfs — who cares."
Working parents can't take the whole two weeks off with their kids. But they do often take a week.
French parents also ship the kids off to les grandparents. And boy do French grandparents step up to the plate. You always know it's vacation time when you see legions of grandparents hanging out with their grandkids in Paris.
But for those of us with no country house, no nearby grandparents, a small travel budget and a mere five weeks of vacation a year, it's a battle.
Thank goodness the Paris elementary schools run a system of day camps during the vacations called centres de loisirs, or leisure centers. The cost is minimal and the kids get a hot lunch and are even taken on field trips to museums or a farm outside the city. It's operated by professional animateurs as they're called. Running a kids' vacation leisure center is actually a full-time profession in France.
But my son, now 9, doesn't want to go to the leisure center anymore. It's not as much fun as a real vacation. Or sitting at home watching TV and driving his mom nuts while she's trying to work. Actually, much of the time he just wants to go back to school.
Let's face it, the children who spend their vacations at the leisure center aren't as lucky as some of their friends, and the kids know it. There's nothing like a glut of vacation to highlight the gap between the haves — those with the country houses and grandparent networks — and the have-nots, mostly the children of African and North African immigrants.
The children of the have-nots are always at the leisure center. The French might claim that everyone's equal in public classrooms. But egalite is an idea that's never quite caught on when it comes to school vacation.
I've given up resisting the two-week holiday in the middle of February when Paris is cold and rainy. Now I just drop a wad of cash and head off to ski in the Alps like many others. Sometimes when I'm out there on those snowy peaks, breathing that fresh, pine-scented air, I think the French might be on to something.
Everything Shuts Down
But back in the real world, you soon realize that when people are off all the time and businesses are closed, things don't work very well. Good luck trying to get a car fixed or making a doctor's appointment. How many times have I heard, "We don't have any openings until after the vacation." Or, "We're closed for the month."
Occasionally the French bandy about the idea that maybe there's too much school vacation. One year I thought those in charge of le rhythme scolaire, as they call it, might actually shorten some of the holidays to catch up with the other European classrooms. But the talk quickly petered out.
Last week, as unemployment numbers rose again, a few economists questioned whether there were too many holidays in May. Finally, I thought. The French will come to their senses. Surely somebody's going to notice the link between shuttered stores and the sluggish economy. But the talk died down as people set off for their long weekend.
I've reached the conclusion that it's cultural. The French can't imagine it any other way. I've spoken to French parents who also struggle with all the time off and what to do with their kids. But they tend to look at it as something you just deal with. Like the weather.
This week's holiday is on a Thursday. So Friday will be an off day as well. The French call this "making the bridge" to the weekend.
On this four-day weekend we'll be celebrating Ascension. That's right, this staunchly secular nation is marking Jesus' rise to heaven 40 days after his resurrection.
The last long holiday weekend in May is for Pentecost.
I'll save the full rant about religious holidays for another time. For now, I'm just trying to figure out how I'm going to get anything done the rest of the week.
Eleanor Beardsley has reported from Paris for the past decade.