The following is the second installment in a series of accounts about the reporter’s study abroad experience in Paris, France.
When you live amongst a beautiful river bank, a world of budding flowers, the finest art and limitless artisan wine and cheese, how can you possibly convince yourself to go into work? It’s simple: Les Vacances.
Les Vacances, which translates to “the vacation,” is the holy grail of French culture. Meetings, parties, events, exams, you name it, all revolve around the next scheduled vacance. It is both an ambiguous and concrete concept that constantly lingers in the future while at the forefront of everyone’s minds, like a salivating cat pawing after a dangling toy on a string. The journey is hard earned, but the ultimate satisfaction is worth every moment of work.
My wonderful host family, a hard working bunch of frenchies, serve as a prime example of the function of the role of the French vacation. The patriarch of the family, a doctor, works at least five long days a week, often leaving before 8 a.m and not returning until after 8 p.m. He commutes out of town to his office and travels on the weekends for conferences. The matriarch, a financial consultant, has a similar schedule, and returns home after her long days to cook a delicious, multi-course meal for her family and refuses to let anyone help in the process. Their youngest daughter, still living at home, stations herself at the dining room table to study for upcoming exams in nearly every spare moment of her free time. Not an inch (well… centimeter, as the Europeans would say) of the mahogany table remains exposed, as it is buried in notes, journals and textbooks. Even when the French aren’t working, they seem to be working on something else. Very little time is left for Netflix. Their drive and concentration is unlike I’ve ever seen and has changed my entire understanding of what it means to be hardworking.
Come les vacances, everything changes. For Easter, which is technically more of a long weekend, but still thoroughly enjoyed, my host father was first in the family to be off work. He walked into the kitchen, set his briefcase down, and sighed a good long sigh of sweet relief, which ended with a simple smile. He was finished. He sat down for dinner, enjoyed his meal, and when he was through, he stood up to put his plate in the dishwasher. His wife and daughter immediately shook their heads in disapproval, motioned for him to sit back down, and said, “Non, ne touche pas. Les vacances.” He submitted without protest, and helped himself to another piece of chocolate.
The next day, he and his wife would leave to their vacation home in Morocco, where they would read and eat on a terrace, play golf and socialize with their neighbors for four consecutive days. Meanwhile, the city of Paris comes alive as people stroll through the streets, the train stations crowd as families head towards the Alps to ski (the country’s most adored pass-time) and in the evenings, the streets become noticeably louder as people throw parties in their flats, music blaring, with the attendees crowding around the window to enjoy a smoke break away from the dance floor. The change of energy in the city is palpable and it’s hard not to love.
But the scheduled les vacances is not the only way time off work manifests itself in France. La grève, another pillar of French culture, is equally important, but quite different in concept. La grève, meaning a strike, happens frequently, confidently and extravagantly throughout the country. As work is taken so seriously, so are workers rights. Labor unions are prevalent and important, and when an issue is spotted within the workplace, it won’t go unnoticed—or without a fight. But in the spirit of solidarity, when one company goes on strike, many others also follow suit, resulting in a colossal shut down of many important areas in the public sector. One of my professors described it as being an extremely important aspect of Le Republique, one that gives power to the people and holds the government accountable for its actions. We should admire and honor le grève, he said. But really it’s mostly for fun.
And fun it was. I experienced my first French strike last week, when a train company went on strike for a myriad of reasons, mostly centered around President Macron’s plan for future changes within the public sector. The metro followed suit and striked in solidarity, and so did air traffic controllers, teachers, nurses and so on. In total, tens of thousands of public sector employees marched through the streets, followed by big trucks sponsored by different labor unions, blaring Rage Against the Machine and their French sound-a-like.
I was warned about the demonstrations for at least a week before it occurred. The strikes are authorized, because they’re tradition of course. But because they are so wide spread, they are mandated to give the general public a warning before they commence, so the good people of France can plan accordingly. Teachers and French friends alike told me, with a glimmer in their eyes, that I should try my best to get a glimpse of the protest; it’s a magnificently French experience, they said. The first half of my day felt like every other, so I disappointedly went home from school for lunch, thinking getting back to class wouldn’t be an issue. The consequence of my ignorance was getting trapped in the house for about four hours as I watched the strike pass me by from out my window. It was quite fascinating, but also a bit shocking. Not only did heavy metal provide a surprisingly loud soundtrack to the event, but so did the sounds of smoke bombs, trash can explosions and shattering glass. People wore face masks to protect from the smoke, and some groups dressed in matching costumes or black body suits. People spray painted political statements on corners and landmarks, and I even watched a group tear down the glass walls of a bank with baseball bats. To say the least, all the metro stations near me were closed and I didn’t make it to French class.
The next day, the city was a bit unpolished, but for the most part, things went on like usual. Protesters stood up for what they believed in, enjoyed a day outside the office and then returned to their daily routine. Not all vacations have to be paid, right?
Although les vacances and le grève are quite different in concept, they’re united by the balance of work, play and tradition. And for me, whether I’m hopping on a plane to enjoy ma vacance outside of Paris, or clapping along to every smoke bomb I watch explode from my window, it’s exciting to be living like a local and to forego class, in the name of le joie de vivre: the joy of life.
Photos contributed by abroad reporter, Willow Higgins.