What a decade of living in France taught one traveler about the art of taking time off.
When she moved from Philadelphia to Paris in 2006, writer Lindsey Tramuta expected to fall in love with the French food scene and the culture. But what she didn’t expect has made the biggest impact: learning how to take a proper vacation.
In the decade I’ve lived in France, I’ve learned how to dine and make time for art and culture. But what has most radically shaped my life is the French art of savoir-vivre, which translates (in practice) to savoring life and its pleasures. The most evocative example of this is les grandes vacances, the extended and sacred summer holidays that begin in France as early as June. For the French, the question isn’t if you’ll take time off but when and where. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from living and vacationing in France.
Take a month off—or at least a full two weeks
French workers are guaranteed by law a minimum of five weeks paid annual leave—a fact that no longer surprises me but rather feels like a humane gesture to collective well-being. That’s in addition to 11 national (paid) holidays each year.
Even without the luxury of taking five weeks off per year, you can adopt the French mentality of saving as much time as possible for a solid break. And let’s not forget that the French work hard for that freedom. My Parisian husband’s colleague, for example, spent a summer month traveling across Australia and New Zealand. “It had a positive impact on his work,” my husband said. “But wasn’t his job at risk?” I asked, a little shocked. His response: “If you work hard the rest of the year and play your cards right, there’s no reason it can’t be done.”
Unlike in the United States, where vacation time is largely considered a privilege (and one that some people forgo altogether), in France, time off is both expected and encouraged.
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“People come back from vacation well-rested and more productive,” says Elodie Giraud, the founder of Etchola, a creative and strategic planning agency. “It’s in management’s interest to encourage time off.”
In my experience, the French are far less likely to check email or bring work on vacation. Some, like my husband, can’t even access their in-boxes remotely. Les vacances, whenever they’re taken, are an opportunity to leave behind the routine of metro, boulot, dodo (subway, work, sleep), the colloquial French expression for the daily grind, and breathe easy. Summer breaks are for lingering around the lunch table for hours, soaking up fresh air, and doing a whole lot of nothing.
Even if you only have a week off, reconsider how you structure it. Plan less. Eat more slowly. Don’t check your email. You might be surprised by what results from this unplugged time. As research is continuing to prove, a complete disconnect can have a profound effect on our work and on our personal lives.
Sebastien Kopp, the cofounder of the sustainable shoe brand VEJA, says that taking time off with his family—and properly disconnecting—has enabled him to come up with new business ventures: “I had the idea for [our store] Centre Commercial in 2008 while I was on a Greek island and we made it happen!” Imagine what might emerge from a proper break.
Rent a house in the country
As anyone who’s traveled to France in August knows, many restaurants and independent shops shutter for weeks at a time during summer. The owner of one of my favorite mom-and-pop bakeries in Paris’s 11th arrondissement says that he and his family decamp to a small country home in Burgundy for four to five weeks from August to early September.
They don’t spend a month traveling—they spend it resting in a home far from the pressures of their daily lives. Priority number one: sleep in! They’re used to waking up before dawn to prepare bread and pastries, but during vacation, there are no alarms and no set routines. They take walks, watch movies, go wine tasting—whatever allows them to unwind.
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Thanks to services like Airbnb or Gites de France, finding a country home in, say, the Alps or Normandy is simple and convenient. One of my favorite summer memories was when my husband and I rented a chalet with friends in La Clusaz, a small village in southeast France. We went on hikes and bike rides every day, cooked at home, and relaxed on the deck with books and nothing but the view of the Aravis mountains to distract us.
Do your own cooking
As Parisians with small living quarters (and as someone who writes often about food!), my husband and I tend to dine out frequently. Vacation, especially when spent in a rented house with a large kitchen, is when we take the time to prepare more than three-ingredient meals and actually enjoy it. We visit the baker, cheesemonger, and butcher nearest to where we’re staying, buy quality ingredients, and break out recipes we’ve ignored for months. It’s also a way for us to get familiar with regional specialties and connect with local artisans.
Go far—but not jet lag far
The most common summer travel spots for the French are under six hours (by plane) away. Southern Europe is a perennial favorite, with Spain and Greece among the most popular destinations. But there’s growing interest in places even closer to home, including Brittany, Corsica, Biarritz, and Arcachon. So unless it’s the year of your epic overseas trip, consider booking a vacation that’s within six hours by plane. And don’t rule out the vacation possibilities of a destination wedding. (Not an exclusively French concept, I know.)
So many of our trips throughout France have started or ended with a wedding, which took the indecision out of vacation planning. One year, we traveled to the Dordogne for a wedding hosted in a restored chateau and made that the starting point for a road trip that took us through Basque country. Another wedding took us to southern Corsica, where we spent the week leading up to it exploring the Mediterranean island.
No matter where we go, the French work-to-live philosophy drives the journey.