If you live in France, you’re the first to admit the month of May is pretty much a non-month. Let me rephrase that. Even though it has 31 days, four of them are official holidays. If they fall on a Monday or a Friday (or for that matter, a Tuesday or a Thursday,) it’s amazing how a one day break can morph into a mini-vacation because here comes the weekend.
It’s called faire le pont (or taking a bridge day) and, depending on the year, residents and visitors are more or less affected. Each year, people carefully calculate how many vacation days they’ll have to deduct from their five weeks of guaranteed leave. Some years are simply better than others. It’s the luck of the draw and the calendar.
Offices, and many other businesses, are closed on May 1 for the Fête du travail (Labor Day). Expect to encounter parades and demonstrations that are organized by unions, trade organizations or groups with a social agenda. If you think you’re going to conduct business or shop until you drop, think again. You’ll possibly have trouble getting from here to there because more than a few streets are blocked.
This past May 1 was special. There were gatherings for the French Presidential candidates, Nicholas Sarkozy and François Hollande. But, the elections are only held once every five years.
Food, glorious food: Don’t assume restaurants that don’t cater to tourists will be open. Ditto for grocery stores. Stock up before, since this is one of the days when markets may be closed or open for only a few hours.
If you must buy something, you’ll be able to buy muguets (lilies of the valley). Individuals and labor organizations in urban areas sell bouquets on the street. Since there are special regulations, which allow people and some organizations to operate without having to pay sales tax or comply with retail regulations, it’s hard to walk even a block without having numerous people, including very young children, approach you. Talk about an incentive to stimulate that day’s (personal) economy for vendors.
I’ve never quite recovered from the culture shock I experienced when I moved to Paris on le premier mai. I couldn’t believe that buying groceries was going to have to be postponed until May 2. I was convinced my husband had dragged me to the moon, in addition to a very foreign country.
Granted, this was many years ago, when if you touched a tomato at a vegetable stand, you very well may have your hand slapped. For better or for worse, times have changed and some grocery stores are open. But, they’re not open 24 hours a day as they were in some Safeways back home.
Moving right along: The other three “holidays” are: May 8, Fête de la Victoire (Victory in Europe Day); May 17th, Ascension (Ascension Day); and May 28th, Pentecôte (Pentecost).
It was in 1905 that France enacted legislation to separate the church from the state. The survival of these three Catholic holidays has little to do with nostalgia for the old days or durable piety among the French: don’t expect churches to be overflowing. Do expect that if you’re trying conduct any business, there are going to be additional challenges, i.e., no one to do business with. The French still take their vacations seriously.
Even though people may stay put, they’re en vacance and feeling laid back. Those who have second homes tend to gravitate to them and get them ready for the summer. Anne, a property manager for upscale vacation homes in Provence, always said she could never take a vacation in May, since that’s when her clients, the homeowners, would descend on the TGV, to prepare their homes for the rental season.
Because the weather is generally beautiful during this period, you’ll find yourself competing for chairs and grass in Paris’ parks. The French, especially if they live in tight quarters, are used to converting outdoor spaces into second living rooms. People come for the day and stay. You’ll see people in every age bracket, frequently three generations and more than likely, they’ll be carrying a picnic. In contrast with the U.S., it’s legal to drink while you’re eating al fresco although it’s prudent to keep voices down and not to get rowdy. Remember to bring a wine opener and don’t sit on the grass if there are Pelouse Interdite signs peppering it. You’ll be chastised by a policeman and forced to relocate. Do invest in a Pariscope, a weekly magazine that’s published every Wednesday and sold at newsstands. It will have listings for concerts and more, which are taking place in the city’s parks.
Should you come to France during May? Bien sûr, unless you’re conducting business, and then you’ll need to orchestrate your meetings to be sure you’ll be able meet your contacts.
If you’re a tourist, come and don’t hesitate to do so. Museums are open with the exception of May 1 (please factor that into your planning). But, as is the case during August, there are so many other things to do if something is closed that you should go for it. You can only do so many things in one day and eat in so many restaurants. People will always find things open and take advantage of the weather (I hope) being lovely.
And if you’re lucky enough to live in France, you learn to adjust to the month of May — and to the French and their frequent absences. You become one of them. It’s a whole lot better than the two weeks of vacation people have in the U.S.
© Karen Fawcett