The closer and closer August approaches, and the tyranny of having to go on vacation gets more intense, I find comfort in knowing I won’t be alone this year when I stay at home. There’s a whole continent right across the ocean that won’t be leaving either, nor stopping everything until the rentrée. In fact for Americans, August is just like any other month (kind of like February, but hotter), with maybe the exceptional last week of August we call our “summer vacation.”
Americans have instead learned to spread their August throughout the year with three-day weekends here, Thanksgivings and Martin Luther King Jr. holidays there, just so we can relax “à l’Americain” (meaning 48 hours) while not shutting down the country’s GNP. And for an American living in Paris, it’s this time of year when I feel most American, a time when I can actually work and make up for all the time I’ve wasted the last eleven months sending clips of that youtube parody, you know the one of that redubbed scene of Hitler screaming in the bunker?
Americans, in general, aren’t really comfortable with too much time off anyway. Just as you’ve grown up with the values of “Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité” we’ve been raised on the motto “Time is money.” We don’t measure the economic cost of vacations in “money spent”, more in terms of the “time spent” which to us is a lot more costly, because it’s time that could be used towards other things, like, I don’t know, earning money. (I know it’s confusing.) Also, too much time off means the window of being fired is too long open, and for a country right now already in the throws of record unemployment, everybody prefers to keep that window shut.
On the other hand, the French, I get the impression, aren’t very comfortable not taking a vacation. And it’s not because they’re lazy or don’t want to work. No. It’s more they feel “obliged” to go on vacation; that it’s part of nationwide “giving back to the economy” ritual one must follow if one is to be a true citizen, kind of like another round of tax payments. And whether it be for those camping in the Vendée or those sunning at villas in Provence, the message is the same. “If we really want to pull ourselves out of this crisis, we’ve got to do our part and go on vacation.” In many ways, it’s not so different than the one Americans received right after 9/11 when we were encouraged to restore and revitalize America, by heading to Wall-Mart.
And it’s during these times in August, when I’m leisurely strolling along the canal or writing on a sunny half–empty café terrace, my waiter always nearby, when I feel bad for my French compatriots, all of whom are spending their month’s salaries squeezing together on crowded trains and lugging over-loaded ice coolers through the hot sand, suffering and perspiring for the benefit of their country, while I, the capitalist American pig, profits by not having to not work.
In fact, when I tell my friends I’m not going on vacation in August, their looks register more suspicion than pity. It’s not “Poor John, what a tedious and boring life he has,” more an “Ah, bon?” laced with nervousness as in “Hmm, what scheme does he have up his sleeve?” I’m sure their guesses range from me using the time to take over the columns at various magazines from other authors who are on vacation, to me using the time while nobody’s home to convert the condo’s bike storage into a home office. It’s not unlike the reaction I get from my American friends when I tell them my Thanksgiving was fairly stress-free; that we didn’t have to wait nine hours stranded in a Denver snow filled airport the day before, or that our dinner table didn’t resemble some Phillip Roth novel highlighted by a “You really want to know what I think of you?” type argument between siblings. When I mention too that my butcher ordered me a turkey a week in advance simply because “he knew it was a special day for me and wasn’t very busy” you can feel the hatred even through the Skype connection.
These are the moments I live for actually as an expat. Because for eleven months of the year, my life basically sucks. I have two rounds of taxes, two languages spoken at the house, two sets of employers, one of whom starts to call me around 9 PM every evening, and no one to complain to. My American friends only repeat the stale mantra of “Dude you live in Paris. Be happy,” while my French friends remind me how lucky I am that “You don’t have to go to your mother-in-law’s in St. Germain for the Toussaint.” And it’s true, as an expat; you’re less obliged to do the things your host country considers “obligés,” like vacationing in August or mother-in-law at Toussaint.
In fact, just this Christmas, instead of following the herd during another tyrannical December 24th, my wife and I took the kids ice skating instead at the municipal rink in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, which was open late and packed full of kids, mostly Jewish and Arab, who couldn’t care less whether it was Christmas or not. And at the time, I didn’t know what pleased me more, the melting pot West Side Story feel of yarmulkes and head scarves happily skating together to Fifty Cent or not being stuck in traffic on the A4 or at a cold church midnight mass or finding out at dinner what my sister-in-law really does think of me.
It’s liberating (and quite relaxing actually) to know you don’t have to go to the Apple Store and buy an iPad in order to fight Osama Bin Laden, nor go on vacation in August in France to save Greece. And as July winds down and Paris slowly empties and the traffic news announces the usual nightmares on the road, I’ll put on my tongs, set my phone for east coast time, and head off happily…to work. And maybe when I’m writing at my sunny terrace at my favorite seat, stealing all the columns from my competitors, sketching some plans for the bike storage, a group of Americans visiting Paris for their weeklong summer vacation will pass by and think. “Wow, now that’s a real Parisian! That’s the life.”
Ah, la belle vie indeed.