The Bridges of May

Vacation peroids and holidays...

Anyone who has ever lived in Paris, or anywhere else in France, knows that when Ella Fitzgerald wistfully sings "April in Paris...” she's got it all wrong. It's May, not April, that everyone here pines for. It is in May that the evocative expression faire le pont (literally "make the bridge"), hinting of weekend getaways and idle time, sprouts up in conversations everywhere like flowers in the parks and gardens. Eavesdrop on a conversation while sitting in a café or riding on the subway, and you will hear the words le pont . Pay attention to headlines in the newspapers or on TV, and you will notice that they often refer to the coming pont. Even the la crise is put on the back burner as the weekends with a pont draw near. The big question is do you or don't you: fais le pont.

A pont is a « bridge » that turns a regular weekend into a 3 or 4 day break thanks to one of several jours feriers (one-day holidays) that fall either at the beginning or end of the work week. These extended weekends begin a few weeks after the spring equinox with Easter Monday. Then comes May 1st, or labor day, and May 8th, Armistice or V-E Day. Forty days after Easter Sunday is Ascension Thursday, almost always a 4 day pont, and 10 days later Pentecost Monday. This last day off eventually takes place in early June, just a few weeks before summer vacation starts.

2010 is not a vintage year for ponts ; I’ve seen better. This year May 1st and May 8th both fall on Saturday, giving only the usual weekend off from school or work. This is pale in comparison to 2007 when the first and the eighth both fell on Thursday: No school on Wednesdays and Friday was chomé (a day off) for most schools and businesses giving two incredible four-day bridges - five-day bridges if you include Wednesday - over a 15 day period. When these holidays fall on a Tuesday, idem. Some economists say that productivity declines in Frances during the month of May and teachers admit that the impetus for working in class is totally disrupted, but these arguments convince few and change nothing.

Holidays are very serious business. An exceptional heat wave in August 2003, a summer that saw some 19,000 deaths in France, many of them elderly, shocked the country. The government decided that Pentecost Monday would be a working holiday and that the profits from this extra day of work would go to finance programs for seniors and other vulnerable sectors of the population. To the government's surprise , many Frenchmen were hostile to the idea, considering it as an extra day of work without extra pay. Because of the strong opposition to this "working" holiday, it was decided that those who preferred to, could work extra hours at different times during the year, rather than give up the Pentecostal pont. This year on Pentecost Monday, May 24th, many businesses will close, while teachers are at work in empty classrooms abandoned by their students who are "making the bridge".

There are other ponts scattered throughout the year, but May is the only month where an accumulation of days off so disrupts the regular schedule, that it's almost like having an extra month of vacation. For parents these fragmented weeks, when school becomes almost a parenthesis, can be difficult to manage.

In France, even for those who don't have children of school age, vacation periods and short holidays are closely linked to the school calendar. This calendrier scolaire is determined by the Ministry of National Education three years in advance, just in case you want to plan now for November, February, May or July and August of 2013.

After 9 weeks of summer vacation, most schools in France open their doors again on or around September 1st for 33 weeks, give or take a pont, interrupted every 7 weeks by a 15 days of vacation break. To avoid overloading highways, ski resorts and seasonal hot spots, three geographical zones have been set up so that the February and spring break can be staggered over a span of four weeks.

The three geographical zones are:

Zone A: Caen , Clermont-Ferrand, Grenoble , Lyon , Montpellier , Nancy-Metz , Nantes , Rennes , Toulouse

Zone B: Aix-Marseille , Amiens , Besançon , Dijon , Lille , Limoges , Nice , Orléans-Tours , Poitiers , Reims , Rouen , Strasbourg

Zone C: Bordeaux, Créteil , Paris , Versailles

To see the full vacation schedule for the zone you live in go to:


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