By Bénédicte Mahé

Beach girl in France, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Michelle Schwartzbauer

They are over and done, but we still have to talk about them: les grandes vacances are very much part of the French culture.

The traditional summer vacation, in July and August, was at first established to allow children to help their parents in the fields for the harvest (I’m guessing that U.S. vacations have similar origins). In France, since 1936 and the creation of the congés payés (annual leave), summer has been of great importance for the workforce. People got their first chance to go away on vacation—to the south, others went to Normandy, to Brittany… Les grandes vacances, is a term mainly used for school children, but which has a serious meaning for their parents as well (and everybody in general).

If you knew that French people are allowed 25 days of vacation per year (not counting other free days), which totals 5 weeks, you’d understand why some of them take 2 to 4 weeks of vacation during the summer! Most of the people living in big cities leave (or should I say flee?) for the summer. In July, people leave gradually but by August (especially around the 15th) you’ll find general city-emptiness. If they leave during July, we call them les juilletistes and if they leave in August, les aoûtiens. This year, les grandes vacances for kids in kindergarten or elementary school were from the 5th of July to September 3rd. Teens in middle school generally start their vacation a bit earlier at the end of June, and students in high school even earlier at the beginning of June (except for the ones passing the baccalauréat).

What do people do during this vacation? They visit their families, rent an apartment or a house at the beach or in the mountains, go camping or go to their vacation house if they have one. When their parents are not able to take care of them because they work, kids are generally sent to summer camp, or very often to their grandparents. If they stay in their city they can also go to recreation centers. Scouting is particularly active during the summer as well.

When I was little, I would spent a few weeks with my mum in our vacation house in Brittany, then I would go to summer camp in August; I never really liked summer camp because I was forced to go and was a very shy child (obviously I survived—and I am not shy anymore). We have several kinds of summer camps: les colonies de vacances (these are for the little ones, and range from 1 to 3 weeks long) during which you do a lot of activities but you sleep in real buildings; les camps during which you sleep in tents; les camps itinérants during which you sleep in tents or wherever you can, changing places every day or every few days, sometimes going abroad.

I began going in colonies de vacances when I was four (for a week), then did my first 3-week colonies de vacances when I was 10 (even though I had my favorite cuddly toy with me—do not judge—I cried two out of the three weeks. I definitely was any camp counselor’s worst nightmare). I finished my “summer camp career” by a camp itinérant in the Greek island of Rhodos, (Rhodes). We traveled through Italy and Greece and I slept in a bus, campsites, rooftops, ferries and even a highway rest area (I am not kidding). I do not like camping, but maybe it is because I was not used to camping, and never went with friends. But what can I say? I love my comfort (bed, bathroom, toilets!). French teens or students do not work when they are in high school, but when they reach 16 they can get a summer job. I worked as a janitor for a company when I was 18, then I worked at the mail-order department of that same company for two summers. Later, I did internships and traveled.

Below are a few French films to help you better understand les grandes vacances. Except for Tati, let us be honest, this is not the “fine fleur” of French cinema; however they will give you a general idea:

- Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953, Jacques Tati)
- Les Grandes Vacances (1967, with Louis de Funès)
- Les randonneurs (1997)
- 15 août (2001)
- Nos jours heureux (2006)
- Camping (2006)
- Nos plus belles vacances (2012)

Bénédicte Mahé photo - cropped DuplicateBénédicte Mahé has studied abroad many times, speaks four languages (French, English, German, and Italian), and earned a Master of Management of cultural goods and activities, as well as a Master’s degree in intercultural communications and cooperation. She wishes to work in philanthropy for cultural institutions or non-profit organizations. Among her interests are drinking tea, cooking (with or without success), reading, watching TV shows, and—of course—shopping. She started her blog Tribulations Bretonnes in 2010 and has been updating it (more or less regularly) since then.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Cognac, castles, and courtyards in the southwest of France, by Parisian Anne Pawle who writes about the area of southwest France known as the Charente and about the cultural identity and history of this region.

Adventures in Travel: Réunion, French island, by Lindsay Pepper who shares her experiences of graduating college with a French major and going on to join TAPIF, the Teaching Assistant Program in France. Lindsay chose a non-conventional option and traveled to the French-speaking African island, la Réunion.

Marathon du Medoc, culinary sport, by writer Michelle Hum who tells about how even though she is not an athlete, she considers joining the Marathon du Medoc: more than just a running event, a celebration of food, fun, and fitness.

The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson. Catherine’s career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents, and into 115 countries. Writing about this prehistoric site in northwestern France, she describes the giant stones that linger there and stand in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields—a granite army, 3,000 strong.

Wherever you go, you always meet a Breton, by Frenchwoman Bénédicte Mahé, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris. Bénédicte, who was born in Rennes, asks us to take out our notebooks and pens and get ready for a lesson on Brittany. Recipe included for Far Breton (with prunes), a crêpe for your sweet tooth! 

La rentrée: The September return to studies from les grandes vacances, by French woman Bénédicte Mahé who shares her perspective concerning the French custom of la rentrée (the first day of school, the return to school in the fall) and the excitement as everyone returned from their grandes vacances of summer to begin a whole new chapter. Bénédicte looks back with nostalgia as she has now left school and now longer gets to experience the rentrée.

Text copyright ©2012 Bénédicte Mahé. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.
barbara@awomansparis.com