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Parisians adore May, the month of ‘les ponts’

June 19, 2013

May kicks off the start of the silly season of endless holidays in France. It’s called the month of ‘les ponts’ (French for bridges), which alludes to the skillful way workers take time off in between May bank holidays and the weekends.

 

Off with the beret hats, hello dark sunglasses and spiffy sandals. Parisians are smiling (it’s official): spring is in full swing and their much beloved month of May est arrivé!

 

This dreamy month is truly blessed with bank holidays offering the winter and desk weary a chance to escape for an extended weekend away, or ‘le petit weekend’ as the French have so daintily named them.

 

Not much can stop Parisians in their vigorous pursuit of one; not even a recession, which France quietly slipped into in mid-May. This is because they are not considered a luxury, but a necessity, a series of rehearsals in preparation for the biggie—August’s month long summer vacation just around the corner.

 

May holds the dubious crown of the month of ‘les ponts’ (‘bridges’ in French). It alludes to the artful way French workers take days off between a given bank holiday and the preceding or following weekends, resulting in rather handsome ‘p’tit weekends’ without impacting too much on their annual holiday allowance.

 

There are four public holidays in May: La Fête du Travail, 1 May, Labour Day, workers’ day off, Armistice Day WWII, celebrating the end of World War II in Europe, 8 May, L’Ascension, 9 May and La Pentecôte, 20 May. The latter two are connected with France’s Catholic heritage.

 

Even by Malaysian standards—having witnessed the birth of Malaysia Day and Thaipusan during our posting there—that’s a pretty impressive number.

 

Better still, two fall midweek making rich pickings for the ‘pont’ aficionados who have the chance of engineering a five day ‘no-so-p’tit weekend’, and I suspect causing havoc on the work front.

 

This month street sellers dotted around the open air markets of Paris sell the delicately scented May flower called Lily of the Valley—it has a spring-rain fresh fragrance with a hint of jasmine and soft undertones of lime.

 

My husband bucked the trend and worked for all four. Sweet. If it hadn’t been for the birdsong and my children’s chatter among the gently bobbing boughs of our garden’s horse-chestnut trees, now heavily laden with their lantern-shaped blossoms, it would have been very lonesome on our ghostly street of houses, sealed with their imposing window shutters.

 

“It’s not quite as bad as August” my French doctor offered on a recent visit, when apparently Paris truly empties. “But don’t expect your children to be doing much work in May”. What I had taken to be a mischievous comment has proven correct: there’s more lethargy than learning in the lessons and the kids are becoming more fractious by the day.

 

To be fair, France’s President François Holland has been busy.

 

Lily of the Valley.

 

He should be commended for staying on task, not on holiday, and passing the same-sex marriage ‘Bill 344’ this month, joining 13 other enlightened countries who have done the same.

 

Pulling off such a feat in this deeply traditional and predominantly catholic country was both courageous and astonishing. There’s been mass rightwing street protests over the past months, and in very macabre turn of events, a well-known French historian shot himself at the altar of the Notre Dame Cathedral in a desperate bid to summon up opposition to same-sex marriage in France.

 

There’s been some whinging in the press recently about these heavyweight bank holidays: should they be scrapped given France’s economic woes?

 

According to a recent study by the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies ‘Insee’, getting rid of bank holidays would allow France to save more money. The study showed that the reduction of total work days in 2013 (two fewer than in 2012) claimed a 0.1 per cent loss in yearly Gross Domestic Product.

 

Perhaps it’s not such a bad idea, particularly given France’s return to the dark doldrums of recession for the third time in four years. The Portuguese government has just cancelled four national bank holidays for the next five years, claiming the country cannot afford to take time off while it wrestles with its austerity programme.

 

France currently ranks fifth on the scale of European countries in terms of the number of annual bank holidays along with Spain, the United Kingdom and Sweden. But given President Hollande’s hemorrhaging approval ratings—currently the lowest of any modern French leader with more than two-thirds of the population giving Hollande the thumbs down—he’ll be in no rush to rock those p’tit weekends, so interwoven into the fabric of the French way of life.

 

And as I listen to my friend’s alluring accounts of their adventures west in ‘La Bretagne’ (Brittany), one of the top destinations for les pont month—the sailing, the invigorating salt air on breezy coastal walks or grazing on dejeuners of a crisp vin blanc and fresh Moules (mussels)—I say: “Vive le p’tit weekend!”

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