Archive for August, 2012

Against the Summer Break

August 17, 2012 3 comments

There have been times when I have not really been so happy with the Summer Break, whether I lived in the USA, England or France. Young or old. I hasten to add that I am not against breaks from daily life, responsibility, relationships, family, job, “the grind”, “reality”. For example, in France, pretty much all the associations, the civil society organisations, tend to stop doing whatever they do, take a break, and then start up when “the school year” begins. The re-entry, one might say, into real life. A normal meeting just does not happen. Maybe a small group might construct a display, or a demonstration for the Association Fair that happens in September, nearly everywhere. That means “normality” begins. I should point out that this is a country that has laws governing when “the sales” can be. They can take place only during certain weeks, the same exact weeks for the entire country. There are news items “when the sales begin”, or are “on”, with interviews of shoppers describing their deals. There are shots of people crashing into stores to get the deals they scouted out previously in visits to the shop concerned. I am more familiar and comfortable with the more American or British expectations of a “free choice” model. A business has sales when it wants to unload stock or for whatever reason, whenever. I couldn’t believe when I first came across this state regulated model, an entire country where the sales take place at the same time. I am sure there are exceptions, like “going out of business sales”. The same goes for most civil society organisations, and even for government offices to some extent. They all take a summer break, coinciding roughly with the break the kids get, which is roughly July and August.

Personally speaking, I don’t do much travelling at “holiday time”. I have never raised a child, therefore have never been directly governed by the overwhelming reality of the school year. I prefer visiting people during normal life, rather than during a break from real life. In my view, I already live in one of the places people go, so why would I leave to go somewhere else at the exact time when “holidaymakers” are everywhere. I didn’t need to restrict my travelling to when the kids were not in school. In some sense, I live a holiday, being an immigrant with sufficient funds to pay the bills, living somewhere that is a very popular holiday destination. There is something that annoys me, bothers me, about this two month gap when it is really is foolish to schedule anything, except maybe a party or a spectacle. Perhaps I am becoming an old grump, always moaning about something. In the three countries I have lived in, summer is a time of abnormality. Christmas is another. No one can avoid them, and most people would not even dream of trying.

“End of year” parties for nearly every association take place in June. This summer, two of my local groups scheduled a meeting for the first week of July. I was really excited. I thought people were getting serious, and I made certain I was able to attend. One meeting was cancelled courteously by phone (too many people “can’t make it”). Another just didn’t happen, as the key couple were away, but not everyone knew the meeting was cancelled. There is something that bothers me about the break. No one can avoid it without immense effort. Everyone colludes, so there you have it. Everyone knows things stop. It is normal. Of course you could say that suddenly people become a bit “irregular”, do different things. Whatever it is, the break happens for everyone, even those 30% who just don’t do breaks. The poor and precarious become aware they don’t have a break.

In some sense the collusion goes quite high. I bet you can’t get legal services in August, maybe even July. Not a great time to order things or do business, or have deadlines. Most parliaments stop governing. And yet all the usual functions go on, electricity, trains, food supplies, petrol supplies, I can get my car tyres changed in one afternoon, life goes on. Do you see what I mean? Everything happens, except a few things which stop happening because those people, that class of person, takes a month off, July or August. Recently I went to visit a friend in an end-of-the-road hamlet in the hills, where the population goes from six to forty during July. The same forty every year mostly, family connections, habit, the place is really cool, they rebuild houses. None of “the regular work” those people did got done in August, or only on the limit, the absolute necessary. We don’t have to worry too much about debt crisis and big business in Europe while the Tour, the Olympics and “the break” are on. On the other hand, the summer break people and those who live in the hamlet, more or less govern the hamlet. So the actual August people often discuss hamlet business. These “discussions” go on in many settings, formal and informal, a rather nice way to decide things amongst people who often have known each other much of their lives. So one can rely on the fact that “everyone” will be there in August, because the big city life is (somewhat) left behind.

At one level, you have to admire the French (the English are pretty much the same, but not quite so rigid), for putting private life first, the family, having a good time. I do admire them. When I see the data on how many more hours Americans work and how short their holidays are, I realise the French system does actually reflect a desire to keep “the work life” in perspective. Having a break with the family is a classic thing to do. Traffic jams, one or two camping cock-ups, rain and so forth are on the news all summer. People are taking it easy. When I occasionally see holiday data, it would appear that quite a few people don’t really take holidays. Obviously if 60% of all French people take a holiday in July or August, that means there are 40% who don’t. I am reminded of constant winter ski condition bulletins on the national news, when apparently only 8% of French people ski. I freely admit that if the minority of people take a break, they also involve many others, who help support the break, even if they don’t have a holiday as such. Grandparents are fixed on that summer schedule on account of schools and work holidays. They could end up with two small kids for a week or two. Hard work for older people, even though “they love it”. Nearly everybody notices when the tourists and second home people turn up in a country or seaside area, a regular cycle. Many people notice when the students disappear from a University town. All of my life, I have taken account of the school year, or the summer holidays and so forth, even though these breaks were inconvenient to my work and life.

I am on the fourth re-write and I don’t think I am going to do justice to my intuition, my ill-at-ease feeling, the complexity that this non-discussed question deserves.

There is hope however. Many of the middle class, comfortable people I know have an entirely different pattern of breaks that has evolved over the past thirty years or so. I don’t know what the really rich people do, but I am talking about people who work quite hard, and perhaps have friends to see, or sunshine needs, that are not concentrated in the nationally scheduled, school-related, one month of the year. So many people take more than one holiday, and many short breaks. Or they “see friends”, who happen to live in a great holiday spot, on what is not so much a holiday as visiting friends. This is semi-spontaneous break tendency will (assuming global capitalism keeps working well) slowly eat away at the rigidity of patterns like the six week national break. The ski places are turning into walking and mountain bike places. The seaside wants to be open all year, or more of the year, with wetsuit or boat related activity. A business which depends so much on the weather and a few weeks of it at that, is not a stable serious business. Empty buildings for nine months of the year is not usually efficient.

I admit there was something that set off this quite inadequate rant. A couple of months ago, (cutting a long story short), the mayor finally got around to giving a “local” to three of the groups I am a member of. In fact, there are two of us who are members of all three associations. A “local” (said LOW-KAHL in French) is a place you meet, store your stuff or whatever. It is official local recognition that you exist and are important enough to have free use of an appropriate room or building. In Bedarieux, any association worth its salt has a local. Sometimes exactly what the group(s) want, sometimes not quite what they need. Anyway, Attac (Bedarieux chapter of the national French altermondialiste group), the Social Forum (I started it, with a French pal), and the Collectif Non-Violent (a very local group), now have responsibility for and use of this shopfront and the single room behind it. It is almost in the dead centre of town. The photo below is the place, an old motorcycle repair shop. So the mayor tarted it up and it has been empty and unused since June. Why empty? Because it is the summer break and nothing happens. To this day, none of us knows exactly where the keys are. So I started mentioning it to “the right people” in these groups in May, when we first heard we got the building. Sadly, I myself am not capable of being a proper organiser of anything. There was some talk, but the summer was coming. This local will become, it is almost certain, a place where the work that political and cultural agitators do in Bedarieux could be easily multiplied. It could be fun. The local could be open a couple times a week. People might hang out a little, if they could abandon their usual habits in town. At the very least, it would be an easy, cheap place for a group to meet. I might start my “decroissance” discussion group, now that there is an easy meeting place. But five months have gone by before we even get the keys and begin to put in furniture and use it.

End of moan. I am way too serious. If I were not so serious, so convinced that social and political change action has to go on all year round, not just during the school year, I would let this drift by my mind. After all it is “normal”, it is how things are, and how things should be and how things will be. Like the sun will rise and set. What is the problem? Then I realise once again that I am actually, in spite of some appearances to the contrary, quite an outsider. Not the kind that gets busted and imprisoned. I am more like someone who sees things differently. What is normal and obvious for most people just seems odd or horrible to me. Now and again I wish I really had no identity problems, no culturally inappropriate behaviour popping out a the wrong time, no basic communication difficulties.

I am slightly embarrassed that I started with a slightly outrageous proposition (being against the summer break), coming from feeling of discomfort, and yet have ended up not really dealing with it is some decisive way. I guess I would end up saying that it is a bit of shame that the duality, break-reality, or however you put it, has to be so important, maybe too important. There are so many other dualities that are maybe more deserving. You work, you take a break, you need a break, you go back to work. But not at the same time, so predictably. And I am not speaking of those who go to the same place every year at the same time, and are utterly totally happy with that. Those people even have kids who grow up with each other. That kind of break never gives me a worrying feeling. Hey, I tried.

I have written many of these little “inadequate” pieces that didn’t work out and I never published them. In the spirit of the age, maybe you will see a few more, as they are. If I get too boring and unclear, or too eccentric and grumpy, it must be time to stop. Drop me a note privately