PARIS — The holiday hand-off goes something like this: July vacation-goers known as “juilletistes” return to Paris and to the grind of urban existence while the “aoûtiens,” who take their allotted weeks off in August, prepare to replace them on the roads, beaches and mountains, and in vacation communities.
Ever since full-time workers in France were first granted holiday entitlement in 1936, they have seen their two-week vacation allotment increase generously to five weeks. Most families opt to take that time off when their children are out of school. But instead of the mere stampede to the beach or lake that U.S. domestic vacationers might notice, here there is a mass exodus. Bakeries shutter and roads become predictably jammed around the beginning and middle of July and August.
“It has become a ritual, even an institution,” Sylvain Penglot said about the long annual vacations. He plans to travel to Salvador, in Brazil, with a friend during the second half of August. Penglot, 36, said he regularly takes time off during the year when he can afford to be away from his water-treatment business, but that none of those breaks — in winter, spring and at Christmas, as well as any long weekends in May depending on when the bank holidays fall — compares with the big summer holiday.
“We’re still very privileged, still living off of our social gains,” Penglot said. “We still have some crumbs but it’s not going to last.”
He acknowledged that he was among the lucky ones who could afford to take a big trip, as his business had quadrupled over the last four years. His brother, who recently bought a home and was now struggling to make ends meet, probably wouldn’t be going away.
But as soon as Penglot said this, he reconsidered. Even people without much money will make some kind effort to go somewhere, he said, whether it’s camping or to the beach, because “the holidays are sacred.”
Eric Alexandre, a 43-year-old auto executive, agreed, calling the annual vacation a “necessity.” He pointed out that France’s size afforded endless opportunities for extricating oneself from the “Metro, boulot, dodo” (subway, work, sleep) routine. In just a few hours’ drive from Paris, one can be at the beaches of Normandy, he said.
And if winter is for skiing, then summer is for family, he said.
“Culturally, it’s a big part. It’s a great memory when you’re a child,” Alexandre said, reminiscing about his own summer visits to see grandparents and relatives who lived outside of his native Paris. He said he wanted to help his 10-year-old daughter, Nell, create similar memories. Along with his wife, Sonia, the family planned to head to the Var region in the southwest, to visit relatives, and then wind their way down to Porquerolles for “the beach, the sea, fish and good wine.”
The island located off the French Riviera is only 3 kilometers wide and 7 kilometers long, but has three vineyards, according to locals. Against the backdrop of the village’s 14th-century fort, day-trippers to Porquerolles, accessible only by ferry, recently mingled with musicians at an annual jazz festival.
The American jazz pianist Randy Weston was among the headliners and upon his arrival to the port village, he was greeted by a raucous brass band. “It's a beautiful island,” he said. After the gig, he planned to head to Paris without his band: “I’m the only person that goes to Paris to sleep.”
Beaches in the southwest fared better in a recent survey than those along the Mediterranean near Porquerolles. About 52 percent of 1,054 French people said they preferred heading to the southwest for vacation, according to a poll conducted in June by the French Institute of Public Opinion. Questioned further about which area offered the best deals for the price, 61 percent chose the southwest.
Vacation is part of the collective French consciousness for longer than the summer months. Beginning in about April, any lull in conversation among colleagues at the office, on the elevator or during lunch can be filled by discussing one’s summer vacation plans. The subject can come up at dinners and picnics, at the dry cleaner and with taxi drivers.
A person not taking a holiday can seem a bit pathetic, one friend said, lamenting that when she told colleagues she was not going away, they looked at her “with pity in their eyes.” Even an off-the-beaten-path trip that falls out of the realm of family or the exotic can raise eyebrows, said Silvana Davanzo, 34, an Italian photo editor living in Paris, who chose to work with an NGO and disadvantaged youth on a photo project in Cambodia during her three weeks off in July.
For those who aren’t able to get away, the “Seine-side holiday” destination is an attractive option. “Paris Plages,” which transforms parts of the city into a pedestrian beach resort, complete with imported sand and deck chairs, turns seven this year and remains popular with tourists and locals.
And as a final resort, there’s always simply enjoying the tranquility of an abandoned Paris in August.