French school children are on holiday for all of July and August. Many secondary pupils are also on holiday for most of the month of June. Arriving last year from London, where harassed parents struggle to find childcare for their more modest six weeks of school holidays, I found this difficult to fathom. From May onwards, I spent a lot of time outside the school gate with my jaw hanging slackly around my knees as the other mothers all oh la la-d about how exhausted their petits were, and observed that the end of the school year could not come quickly enough. How was it possible, I asked myself, that these people could find two months of holiday insufficient? And, more to the point, was I alone in feeling a creeping sense of dread for the looming nine weeks that were to be spent in the company of my small children (mummy, what can I do now)?
Last week I realised that I had crossed some sort of threshold into Frenchness, or simply smug maternalism, when, on just the 23rd of June, I heard myself remarking to another mum that my daughters were epuisées, and that I was awaiting the holidays avec impatience. Somewhat startled to discover that this was a genuinely held sentiment on my part, since then I have been baffling over what could possibly have caused me to change my attitude so much in the course of a single year.
To some extent, the answer lies simply in the fact that we have all acclimatised a little better to the French rhythm of existence. Just as lunchtime here is not viewed as an unfortunate hiatus in an otherwise productive schedule but as a necessary and enjoyable element in a normal day, holidays in France are not treated as inconvenient absences, but as an integral part of a rounded life. Thus, whilst in England tyrannical team leave calendars ensure that the office is never, and never appears to be, vacated, in France if you don’t take three weeks off in August people look at you as if you have some sort of affliction (and indeed, given that your presence alone is causing your company to spend its money on electricity during those weeks, you are little better than a parasite). Let us not forget that this is a country that gave school children an extra week of holiday in February in order to give everyone a better chance of going skiing during the winter.
My understanding of what school is has also undergone some modifications since I have been living here. In England, primary school was a place where the children learnt to read and to do sums, yes, but it was above all a sort of mystical place where they developed and became enriched as human beings. Despite the best efforts of league tables and Ofsted inspectors, this was basically an unquantifiable business, and consequently nobody could really determine precisely at what point it should come to an end each year. In France, primary school is cadré. In general terms this means that there is a programme and, if it is precisely adhered to, the school is doing its job well. If, as has been the case for my daughters, the programme has been completed before the end of the school year, well, what is there left to do? After all, in such an environment, one cannot countenance trespassing on the programme for the following year. My daughters have been fortunate enough to have delightful teachers who have filled the blank space with papier mâché and class outings, but even so they know that their “real” work conjugating verbs and learning multiplication tables is done and, accordingly, they have the strong sense that they no longer need to be there.
The weather is another contributory factor. In England, it is tempting to cling onto the school routine until the skies are blue enough for it at least to look like a holiday. In Lyon it is likely to have been warm since April and really quite hot since the beginning of June. The evening is one of the only times when it is possible to cool down and, as a result, the children go to bed increasingly late and are correspondingly difficult to drag out of bed in the morning. When you find that it is not your five-year-old who is brutally lifting your eyelids as you remain resolutely horizontal at 7.30 in the morning, but you who is threatening them with a sponge full of cold water if they don’t get up, you know that it is time to throw in the towel as far as school is concerned.
And finally, well, I have learned that no self-respecting French parent would ever countenance, as I did last year, nine unadulterated weeks of their child’s company. Oh no, that, my friends, is what relatives are for. If you want to go on a three-week road trip in the US, there is no need to hesitate when your children can be bundled off for a week in the mountains with one aunt, a week by the sea with another, and finally a week in the countryside with mamy et papy. Or, if it’s just a question of needing to work (but who wants to work when even the boulangerie that opens on Christmas day is shut for a week in August and all the public transport workers are on strike), you need look no further than the wonderful array of children’s activities provided so cheaply, if bureaucratically, by the French state. In the second week of the break I will put the kids onto a bus at 8.30 in the morning and, as if by magic, they will reappear at 5.45, fed and entertained to within an inch of their young lives.
So you could say that, after eighteen months of French life, I have this holiday lark down to a fine art. Pretty soon I’ll be adopting that infuriating tactic honed by early retirees over the years and telephoning my English friends to moan that I have far too much to do before I can possibly go off on my (obligatory) long holiday…
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