A Month of Sundays

June 7, 2010
In France, the first of May goes by a few names: the Fête du Travail (Labour Day), the Fête du Muguet (Lily of the Valley Day) and even the Fête du premier mai (First of May/May Day).  On this day, it is traditional to offer friends and family a sprig of lily of the valley, symbol of spring and good luck, especially if the sprig has 13 bellflowers.  As an extra bonus, on May 1st florists are allowed to sell their bouquets of muguet tax-free.


un jour férié – statutory holiday; bank holiday

faire le pont – literally “to make a bridge” (bridge a gap); an idiomatic expression used to describe the common French practice of taking a vacation day in between a statutory holiday and the weekend, thereby creating an extra-long weekend

les ponts de mai – “the May bridges” (essentially, the May long weekends)


Like most Canadians, by the time winter is drawing to a close, I have had it up to here with short days and long nights, face-numbing winds that make it difficult to breathe, cumbersome winter layers and sub-zero temperatures.  Nothing lifts my spirits quite like the early signs of spring and summer.  Those first few days when the temperature creeps above ten degrees, I love watching as my fellow citizens emerge from their various hiding places like so many human moles, blinking, into the sun, pasty faces turned up eagerly towards the sky, even pastier legs liberated (in our eagerness to believe that the worst is over, sometimes prematurely) from their winter-long incarceration in tights. There are always those few enthusiastic crazies who go so far as to bust out the shorts and flip flops, covered in goose bumps and shivering determinedly in defiance of what the thermometer actually reads.  It’s April dammit, and if you build it, spring will come. The advent of spring means that our precious two months of summer aren’t far off.  And nothing marks the beginning of summer in Canada like the revered “May 2-4”, otherwise known as Queen Victoria Day.

As long as I can remember, the sacred May 24 long weekend (dubbed “May two-four” in honour of the many flats of “two-fours” [24 beers] that are sure to be consumed on decks, patios and cottages across the country) has kicked off the beginning of one of the best seasons of the year. Best, of course, because the weather gets warmer, the sun comes out, all my favourite fruits are in season, and the days are long, languid and lazy. But also best because May 24 marks the beginning of long weekend season – a long weekend a month for several months to come, with the exception of June.  It’s an abundance of plenty!

Or so I used to think.

In Canada, we get really excited about the fact that we have that long weekend in May.  We’re so excited, in fact, that we’re more than happy to celebrate the birthday of a dead monarch who ruled a country that isn’t actually ours – and doesn’t even celebrate her birthday themselves – because doing so means that we get that magical day off.

However, I have recently discovered that, at least as far as public holidays go, May in France kind of, well, kicks May in Canada’s ass.

Here were the Canadian statutory holidays this May:

May 24 – Victoria Day

Here were the French statutory holidays this May:

May 1 – Fête du Travail (Labour Day)
May 8 – Fête de la Victoire 1945/Armistice 1945 (WWII Victory Day)
May 13 – Ascension* (Ascension)
May 24 – Lundi de Pentecôte* (Pentecost)

* Dates change every year

Yep, that’s right.  The French get as many public holidays this May as we Canadians can expect to get in the entire five months between May and September.

Well, you may reason, surely things have to equalize elsewhere.  If the French get so many stat holidays in May, they must have virtually none left during the rest of the year, right?

Actually, they get an additional seven.

These jour fériés are, of course, granted on top of the standard five weeks of vacation time that the average French person gets off from work (up to ten weeks if you’re an executive).  You know, just in case you hadn’t yet developed an inferiority complex.  Personally, I’m pretty much ready to file an official complaint with the U.N.  Surely “holiday-hogging” counts as some kind of international monopoly on resources?

Now, in order to make the most of their pitifully meagre time off, when a jour férié falls on a Thursday or a Tuesday, many French people will take a vacation day on the adjacent Friday or Monday, in order to create an extra-long weekend.  This practice is so common that there is actually an idiomatic expression for it: faire le pont (literally, “to make a bridge”).

Four jours fériés in May makes for four potential extra-long weekends in the same month – which also means there are potentially four extra-short workweeks in that same month.  I discovered the hard way that trying to get anything done in France during the month of May (like, oh say, setting up job interviews or looking at apartments) is pretty much impossible, thanks to les ponts de mai.  Everybody is either away on vacation, busy getting ready to go away on vacation, or busy catching up from the backlog of being away on vacation.  And that one person left behind in the office on the lone Friday or Monday, manning the fort while everybody else is away sunbathing?  Not really eager to go that extra mile.

Getting through May in France also requires a certain degree of advance planning, provisions-wise.  As a general rule, all stores are closed on Sundays, so if a holiday happens to fall on a Saturday or a Monday, you’d better hope that you had the foresight to stock the pantry with enough food to get you through at least two days, otherwise you may find yourself eating whatever you can scrounge up out of the cupboard for dinner.  This May, cereal became my best friend.

I did try to stay productive.  After getting caught off guard by the first couple of jours fériés in May, I cleverly planned around the others and doggedly tried to maintain a “business as usual” attitude.  Ultimately, though, it was a losing battle.  Even when people were at the office, their minds were clearly elsewhere.  The lethargy of an entire nation infected with vacation brain is pretty darn hard to resist.  In the end, I decided to embrace the adage, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  The job hunt would just have to wait.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be off picnicking in the Bois de Vincennes or drinking wine on a terrace somewhere.  Give my regards to Queen Victoria and try me again at the office next month.

4 Responses to “A Month of Sundays”

  1. Elaine Says:

    You have a blog!!!! So much more productive that a job. I look forward to reading more.


  2. Diane Says:

    As per your request … Really?

    I was out with friends this evening, and I told them about this four-long-weekends-in-May thing. They were shocked.


  3. Heather Says:

    With that kind of attitude around me, it would take 10 YEARS to finish my book. Which it’s not. Really. I’ll be done in another year. I swear…

    Glad you decided to just roll with it and enjoy May in Paris!


  4. Melissa Says:

    My Dad gave me some muguet from their garden May 1st this year. It normally doesn’t bloom here this early, (usually early/mid June)due to the warm weather most plants are 8 weeks ahead. The lilacs have already come and gone and the peonies are in full bloom. Weird. Or maybe last year was just a really shitty summer.

    Glad to hear your embracing la belle vie and strolling to the beat of the accordians…

    Great stuff as always, keep them coming!
    Screw the job, keep on writing!


Leave a Reply to Diane Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: