When I first arrived in France – many, many moons ago – the month of August, for most of the country, meant everything was closed. “Fermé pour vacances!” was the sign posted on all the doors of the boulangeries, butchers, flower shops and other essential stores. Les Grandes Vacances were regarded as sacred.
The long, hot days of August were when the French believed it was the right time to close down, take a break and go away for a whole month. Traditionally they headed to Provence, to Brittany and some to the mountains. The warm temperatures and the slower pace of life providing a welcome break to their year-round routine. Businesses shut down for weeks on end, schools closed from late June through to September, and France dozed through a glorious, carefree summer.
Today, to some extent that is still the case. And we often have to search to work out which of our five local boulangeries has remained open during the summer weeks.
Interestingly, although a large part of the population headed down to the South for their Grandes Vacances, there was no motorway, simply a main road winding its way down from Paris to Provence, with simple hotels and gas stations dotted along the way. Whole towns thrived from the passing trade, and the annual seasonal migration most certainly helped the French economy. This particular road is so deeply anchored in French culture that there is even a famous song about it: National Road Sept, by Charles Trenet.
Today, as the evolving economy changes our ways of living, there aren’t many families who can afford to simply disappear for a whole month, but old habits are hard to break. It is now a time when – thanks to the internet and the ability to plug in from anywhere in the world – the boundaries between work-time and holiday tend to blend.
This year, my family and I went on holiday to the South of France, with all of the kids and quite a few friends. It was a lively, noisy, happy couple of weeks, with long shared meals and plenty of time to rest. But for the first time, it seemed totally normal to find a few people (me included) set up in the shade with a computer, putting in a couple of hours work each day. We joked about our co-working space, and paused regularly for a dip in the pool, lunch with the family or the ‘obligatory’ summer siesta. But we were effective, and we were relaxing and we managed to find a balance that allowed us to spend some oh-so-precious family time while continuing our professional duties.
Maybe this is one of the luxuries that our digital age has brought to us. At least for those whose work doesn’t require a physical presence at a set address. Maybe this is the new Grandes Vacances!