les vacances…an unalienable legal right

France commentary, September 1995

Vacationing in France…sounds like a wonderful thing, right? Idyllic, like “a year in Provence” or winning the lottery. Well, almost. The concept could stand a reality check.

For one, les vacances in France are not a privilege or luxury as anglo-saxon societies view time off from work – it’s an unalienable legal right, an obligation even. If you attempt not to take your paid FIVE weeks of repos as the law requires of every salaried person in France, you risk being regarded as mentally deranged, a Martian, or possibly an AMERICAN! We all know people back home who haven’t taken a vacation in years, and are proud of it, who haven’t had the time, or prefer to save up for a sailboat or a snowmobile. Many of our friends just try to sneak away from work for a few days now and then, a quick week to Cancun, or a long weekend in Florida. Not in France. The vacances are conceived to break your work habits and permit you to leave that work ethic behind, concentrating instead on opening oysters and downing liters of Muscadet.

So, for at least three or four of those sacred five weeks you end up cramming half of what you own into or onto your Renault or Peugeot and heading out onto the autoroute on the exact same day of the year as nearly everyone else you know – and don’t know. For weeks before and weeks after this ritual respite from work, it seems like all you hear people asking is, “Alors, c’est quand les vacances?” followed weeks later by “C’est bien passé les vacances?”

The radio announces that it’ll be a “journée rouge” for motorists, meaning that the roads will be predictably clogged with holidaymakers creeping along like August ants heading for a cake crumb. The infamous Bison Futé – Wise Bison organization – which informs the French public on highway safety and the status of congested itineraries on the 1st, 15th and 31st of July and August, tells you to avoid Dijon and Lyon when heading south from Paris or north to Paris, which anyone heading south from Paris or north to Paris practically cannot do anyway. So, as you head out onto the Périphérique like suffocating road hogs in the unbreathable summer Paris air, you get the perverse tinge of thrill knowing that you’re soaring onto the “radar screens” of nervous, headlight-happy tailgaters who – in the name of loisir – are gunning to beat you into the scorching bouchons and emboutillages. (Notice the French traffic metaphors are related to the bottle.)

Bison, by the way, travel in herds, and it’s downright difficult being free and footloose as a herd member. So you inflate your radials, top off your tank with that 6F-a-liter unleaded absinth, and merge into the hordes of camping cars, Renault Espaces and assorted mountain-bike-adorned escargots.

The rest stops along the A-6, with their exemplary “slow food” chain, L’Arche, are overrun between noon and 2pm with French motorists whose stomachs seem nationally conditioned to scream all at once, and the lines for steack frites and microwaved croque monsieurs are predictably long. The service is indifferent, the prices inflated, the crowds already decked in cheesy shorts, plastic shoes and T-shirts with flawed English messages. BUT, tout va bien because you’re en vacances.

Les vacances for my family are particularly chaotic. We lug along our asthmatic and ancient beagle, Wilson, which in France is tout à fait normale. To leave toutou behind is carrément sacrilège. Nuclear testing in the Pacific barely brings Parisians into the streets, but abandoning une grosse mamère can get you lynched.

And, obviously, when you take the dog you have to take the cat, and since we have two, well, that’s two smelly paniers in the backseat. Pirate, our temperamental tabby, who silently slobbers in his wicker cage, is impatient to get to the coast, where regiments of field mice await his sadistic city claws. Coco, the new frenetic addition to the household, passes out in captivity, and every 20 minutes we have to stop to make sure he’s still breathing. Feline death en vacances is a sure way to kill the mood. Remember, this is fun, you deserve it, you’ve worked all year to get away. The baby is stuck in her car seat between the industrial-sized slab of Pamper knock-offs, and our 9-year-old tortures the Riddler while wedged in behind his Boogey board and the stroller. In the front seat, the mère et père de famille communicate silently at each: We need a vacation.

Just another seven hours and we’ll be there, our little perennial nirvana in the sun, where the mosquitoes are robust, the mice sing at night, the newspapers are delivered two days late and the phone (what phone?) never rings. Ah, les vacances.


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