You have how much vacation time???

I’ve been living in France for 10 years now and one of the things that I love but occasionally “struggle” with as an overachieving American, is paid vacations.

Anyone working full-time in France gets at least 5 weeks of paid vacation a year, in both the public and private sectors.* People working at McDonald’s, in call-centers, in tech companies, in small businesses, in national and local government – everyone gets at least 5 weeks off. Many organizations provide more time off than that, even in the private sector.

I’m just going to put it out there, I have 10 weeks of paid vacation a year. I am obligated (yes, forced) to take 1 week off at the end of the year, for Christmas holidays, and 3 weeks off in the summer. Like, I literally can’t go to work because the building is closed (public sector, education system, summer’s the slow time). On top that I have another 6 weeks left to use at different times of the year. And it’s use it or lose it, so… I use it. But what does a person do with 10 weeks off?

I am free to take time off if I’m feeling run-down or just want a long weekend. I can go back to the U.S. for weeks at a time and spend intense quality time with my family, or enjoy regular travel without having to wait for retirement. I can develop side projects (like a translation business), use my time off for home improvements, spend time with visiting friends and family, or yes, just sit on the couch, binge-watching Fringe and Modern Family. Parents can take time off during their children’s school vacation or take occasional Wednesdays off, a day when typically kids have a short school day.

I’ve been reading a great blog that’s part personal finance, part philosophy of life (Mr. Money Mustache, if you’re listening…). MMM and his readers (called “Mustachians”) talk a lot about how financial independence provides the freedom to use your time to enjoy and improve your life, rather than just work to pay the bills. While I may not be able to do choose my work without money “getting in the way”, I’m very lucky to have flexibility and time. I don’t make a lot of money and I probably never will, especially compared to American salaries (although really, apples and oranges). I am however time-rich.

I still share a certain American tendency to put work on a pedestal and to view too much free time as wasteful, even as a stain on one’s character (“idle hands are a devil’s playground”). But man, is life ever nice when you don’t have to keep your nose to the grindstone in order to keep your job and pay the bills. It’s wonderful not to be made to feel guilty about using vacation time. I sure would have a hellava time adapting to work culture in the U.S.

I’ve just gone back to the office after a nearly 5-week summer break. It came after 3 very intense months, with almost no time off, many weekend events, and I was getting snappy, disorganized and a bit disengaged, despite loving my job. My co-workers were in a similar state. Then came July and August. Everyone went on break to take it easy, to spend quality time with their friends and family and to concentrate on other parts of their lives. Now that we’re slowing trickling back into the office, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. This time of year always feel like a fresh start to me.

The point here isn’t to brag or to examine in depth a system that provides a lot of paid free-time. I just want to add my perspective to the whole work-personal life balance debate. I’ll let someone else do the economic and productivity analyses.

* You might want to check out this comparison of paid-leave per country. And of course, the U.S. is where you would expect.

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Friends’ Thanksgiving in Poitiers

A few years ago, I was having a very difficult fall and by the end of November, I was completely exhausted and hanging on by a thread. When Thanksgiving came around, I was running a weekend event in Toulouse and a low fever. All I wanted was for Christmas vacation to come and to fly home for a few weeks.

An American friend had invited me to Thanksgiving dinner in Nantes, but it was too far and too complicated to get there from Toulouse. So I popped ibuprofen and got on my train back to Poitiers. I was drained and just so tired as my train got in at 8:30, when my friend Cha sent an sms inviting me over for a soirée. I dropped my suitcase off at home, changed and walked over to her place, expecting our usual wine, beer, munchies and conversation. That is, until I made it up the stairs and found myself face-to-face with an American flag made out of red, silver and blue gift bows stuck to her door.

I walked inside to a big “Surprise! “, a YouTube video with a cartoon turkey, and an uncertain but enthusiastic sing-along in French accented English. “We didn’t know any traditional Thanksgiving songs, so we found this one on YouTube! Did we get it right?” My friends found a frickin Thanksgiving song! It was ridiculous and awesome, and I teared up and kissed them all on both cheeks (see “la bise”, the true French kiss, which I usually avoid).

They had decided that afternoon to throw a Thanksgiving aperitif, which had quickly turned into a full-blown dinner. They bought a roasted chicken and made cheddar cheese scones, mashed sweet potatoes and even cranberry sauce from dried cranberries and pecan pie!

It was all delicious of course, but even better, I felt comforted, as though I was at the center of a big group hug. Thanksgiving had never been a big deal for me, but this was exactly what I needed.

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Therefore, for Thanksgiving, I am so thankful for friends who’ve become family, whether we see each other daily or only on special occasions. I love you!

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Running in Lyon

I was in Lyon over the weekend for a seminar and while I didn’t have much time outside the event venue, I got in some early runs in the park and took advantage of our guided tour and a spare lunch break to get a sense of the city.

In many ways it feels like Paris, densely populated, full of beautiful haussmanian buildings, waterways running through it. But with the added bonus of a second river, beautiful hills, and lower rent. It seems like a vibrant and historical city with some seriously tasty food (see Doma, the awesome Japanese cafeteria sans sushi, the cupcake joint, Candy and Cookie, and all of those tasty dishes at the bouchons lyonnais, a local style of restaurant).

Here are a few early morning pictures I took in the Parc de la tête d’or, a botanical and zoological garden opened in the late 1850’s.

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If you’re looking for a non-Paris destination, I would definitely recommend heading down to Lyon. There are direct trains from the Gare de Lyon, in Paris and there seems to be a direct flight from Poitiers, too! I hope to be on one soon, perhaps for a long weekend. I hear there’s a fantastic festival of lights in early December every year. It’s been running since 1852, so if you can’t go this December, there’s a good chance it’ll be there next year (wink).

Wandering in Lemonum

I live in Lemonum, Gaul. I mean, Poitiers, France. Which used to be Lemonum, back when the Celts settled here sometime between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C. Before it become a Roman city. And before it got tangled it up in more recent French history (like the 11th-13th centuries). Now it’s a charming mid-sized city, voted in 2012 to be France’s most pleasant city to live in.

The city has been continuously inhabited, by more or less the same people, for over 2,000 years. To be fair, so have many (most?) cities in Europe and around the world, providing of course for the inevitable mixing due to trade and invasions. But to an American, this continues to blow my mind. I mean, Minnesota has only been a state since 1858. Right around that time in Poitiers, they were tearing down a 1,700 year-old Roman arena (another story) that I pass by several times a week. The mind boggles.

I get a kick out of walking through this city. It’s even more fun now than when I moved here 9 years ago. When my sister visited, she said “I feel like I’m walking in dollhouse city.” It’s compact, perched on the top of a hill, flanked by two rivers, easy to defend in case of attack. In parts, centuries-old buildings lean into each other, out of habit and a need for mutual support. Even in more recent (and upright) parts of the city, the streets are meandering and unpredictable, lined by beautiful 19th century buildings and less aesthetic apartment buildings from the 70s and 90s.

In the medieval city center, the winding streets feel almost like they follow the flow of a dried-up river bed, rather than a planned-out road. The brick and cobblestone (yes, cobblestone) streets circle around the palace of the Dukes of Aquitaine (home of the very impressive Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France AND Queen of England), the 12th century church Notre-Dame la Grande, with its spectacular sculpted facade, and the Place de la Liberté with its nifty little Statue of Liberty.

I gave up years ago trying to give step-by-step directions. I just point over the buildings, “It’s that way, as the bird flies, just keep turning till you get there.”