Closed for Vacation?

May 15, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Real estate prices in Paris must be really low compared with New York,” said my son, then fourteen years old. It was August a couple of summers back, and we were on vacation in Paris. Why did he think so, I asked. Was he already, at age fourteen, looking around for investment opportunities?

“Well all these stores and restaurants, they close for a whole month,” he said. “In New York they can’t afford to close for a day.”

He was certainly right about the closings. We had walked around Paris and seen the signs, often hand-lettered, in small shops of all kinds—the household appliance store, the tabacs (newsstands), bakeries, bookstores. “Congé annuel. Nous serons fermés du 28 juin jusq’au 1ère septembre.” The tourist guidebooks even have a section for “restaurants open in August”; unless a restaurant was listed there, you could assume it was closed.

It wasn’t just Paris. Europeans generally get about twice as much paid vacation as do Americans (seven or eight weeks to our four). Paris real estate may have been less expensive than New York, but it wasn’t cheaper by a factor of two. So what could account for those long vacations and month-long closings?

Economists cite taxes. If those extra euros you get for working are going to be taxed at a high rate, why not take a vacation? Unions are also an important factor. In countries like France and Germany, most workers are covered by some sort of collective bargaining arrangement. But that raises the question of why those unions would press for more vacation rather than more money.

That leaves culture. European values and American values differ when it comes to weighing vacation time against more money. Americans can’t understand why someone would close the store when there’s money to be made. They are especially frustrated in Europe when they want to spend their money at one in the afternoon only to find that most of the stores are closed till three or four. Could lunch be more important than doing business? Apparently, it could. Not to Americans, who often eat while doing other work-related things — commuting to work, doing paperwork at their desks—but to the French, the Italians, and other Europeans.

Europeans value vacations not just as a way to relax but as a component of identity and self. “Americans talk about their jobs. The French talk about their vacations.” That quote (I wish I could remember where I found it) gets at the idea that people talk about things that are central to their sense of who they are. If someone tells you about his vacation, the way the people lived, the art in the museums and the folk art in the villages, the interesting foods and the elegant restaurants, etc., he is presenting himself as a certain kind of person, one who is curious about about art and culture and knows quite a lot about these subjects.

Americans talk about work. In fact, it’s not unusual for Americans to talk about vacations as a way to “recharge their batteries.” In other words, we take a vacation so that we can do better at work. And even when we’re on vacation, we now have cell phones and Blackberries to ensure that our separation from work is never complete.

It’s not just a matter of individual preference. These ideas about work and vacation get written into the rules of the society. This month in France, there are only something like twelve official working days. The other 19 days are vacation days of one sort or another. That includes the four Sundays in May. In America, up until a few decades ago, the blue laws of our Puritan heritage required stores to close on Sunday. But those laws have fallen away, and as my son noted, stores can’t afford to close even on Sunday because of competition with the stores that do stay open. If most companies can give only two weeks vacation, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job if you demand four or five weeks vacation.

M. Sarkozy, the newly elected president of France, has said that he wants the French to work more, and he may have some success in cutting back on vacation time. Still, it’s unlikely that Europeans will increase their work weeks to resemble ours. We spend more time at work, and as a result, we make more money and buy more stuff (Americans have very low rates of saving compared with other countries). We have bigger houses and bigger cars and more gadgets. We even have more vacation homes. We just have less vacation.

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