How to do summer like the French

Joie de Vivre


Last month I traveled to France for a week with my teenage daughter, making good on a promise I made to her years ago that we would return to Paris for her 16th birthday, the place we lived when she was only two.  Thirteen years later it was a wonderful opportunity to see the City of Lights through a different lens as a tourist with a young adult – not maneuvering a stroller and 100 pound golden retriever through the cobbled streets or chasing a wild toddler who daily broke all the rules of French decency as she climbed statues in parks and threw tantrums in cafes.  Trust me when I tell you Parisians have mastered the art of the indignant glare!

Not much has changed in Paris since we lived there--it has and always will be a city of revolutionaries, foodies, grand architecture and people who know how to piece together a beautiful outfit.  We walked, biked, shopped and dined our way through the city, but my favorite activity there is always sitting down anywhere to chill and people-watch and I think Parisians must agree based on the number of sidewalk cafes on every block.  What I appreciate most about France (and much of Europe) is their cultural embrace and insistence on scheduled down time.  Long mid-day lunches often with wine are nearly mandatory.  Most all businesses are closed on Sundays.  Living there I recall a minimum of two bank or national holidays every month to shorten the work weeks.  And summer break is non-negotiable.

The long summer vacation – les grands vacances - just started in France.  From July 14 (Bastille Day) to September 2, the French disconnect from work or business and head out of town.  Some will leave for one week or two, others for three weeks or more. Many upper/middle class families still stick to a traditional two months pattern where wives and children start their vacation early in July and husbands join them for most of August.  Young people on low budgets become nomads throughout France, Europe and even more exotic places, from the Americas to East Asia. The ethnic French working class stay idle at home or go camping. The immigrant working class flies back for Ramadan to the old country (usually North Africa) where their French income turns them into rich visitors.   What is unique about this system is everyone takes an extended break from work during the same time, so you can plan on life everywhere slowing waaaaay down in August until la rentré (the return) to normal life in September.

Some roll their eyes at this non-productive social structure given the troubled state of France's economy, but for the French people vacations and time off during each day is sacred.  It’s so deeply woven into their culture that life would not be worth living without it.  I love the translation of the phrase joie de vivreexuberant enjoyment of life.   It’s something many in our country believe you must push aside as you charge ahead working and striving to attain the success, wealth, friends and recognition you hope will bring you happiness.   But what if life’s treasures were right out your doorstep at your local café?   And no, I don't mean head down working on your laptop or checking Facebook at Starbucks.
One of many reasons I enjoy world travel is I allow myself to be French when I’m on the road.   I eat lots of dairy and gluten.   I drink coffee -sometimes several small cups a day.   I can enjoy a bottle of wine without unwanted side-effects (vin is truly different over there!)  I sit for hours at restaurants reading and often eavesdropping on the table next to me speaking languages I barely understand.   It is during this down time my mind and soul clears and expands- kind of like an acupuncture treatment re-boots your system.  

And then I return home to the rushed schedules and appointments and workouts and kids activities and emails and traffic and all the other routines that seem to make up my normal everyday life.  Sigh.  Travel is such a great reminder to clear your schedule and spirit as often as possible and say no to anything that doesn’t ultimately serve a greater purpose in your life.
I wonder what would happen if I just started taking a grand vacance each summer?  My finances would surely suffer but perhaps my joie de vivre would increase exponentially…
To living well this summer and always,