If you want to get a true measure of how a country views life, look no further than summertime.
Perhaps nothing embodies the American ethos more than kids having a lemonade stand in front of their house. It clarifies in garish Kool-Aid pastel color that entrepreneurial, capitalistic gene that makes America so unique. Growing up in a tract housing subdivision, my friends and I would sometimes set up a card table, make a couple pitchers of lemonade or Kool-Aid, and with a hand drawn sign announce we were open for business selling our libations for 25 cents. Sometimes we’d even have one of us with a magic marker-written sandwich poster board stand up at the busier intersection directing traffic down to our little cul-de-sac. A good afternoon of neighbors and passersby partaking in our budding walk up café might bring us twenty-five or even thirty dollars — not a bad haul for a seven-year-old.
Another great example is the Girl Scout Cookies campaign each year. Who can resist the onslaught of rosy-cheeked girls in their scouting vests hawking Thin Mints and Tagalongs at the exits of the local Piggly Wiggly? The level of marketing might be a degree or two more sophisticated than a lemonade stand, but then again, there is the considerable corporate muscle of the Girl Scouts home office behind the operation, propelling the bottom line and the kids forward with visions of jamborees and summer camps.
In France, there are no lemonade stands or Girl Scout Cookies campaigns. The French, however, do have their childhood summer traditions, and among the most beloved are the colonies de vacances (literally, “vacation colonies”).When the Socialists first came to power in 1936 prior to World War II with the Popular Front, they introduced many reforms including a mandatory two weeks of vacation each summer. At that time, most French workers belonged to one of the labor unions grouped by industry and service sector, and each union created summer camps for the families of its members. These campgrounds, hotels, and cabins became known as vacation colonies, and after the war they expanded to include school kids.
Today most French kids fondly remember their summers alongside classmates at a summer camp in the mountains or alongside a lake where they camped in tents or in mini-cabins. They learned the basics of outdoor adventures, with hikes, swimming, and organized activities that allowed them to explore and socialize together, bonding over campfires and singing silly songs together under the supervision of adult counselors. For the vast majority of economically disadvantaged kids, it was usually the only vacation they had, with their travel and accommodations subsidized by the government.
The simple pleasures of summer vacation — whether camping, hiking, or exploring new destinations — are an indelible feature of French life. Indeed, it could be said that the life of the typical French person revolves around planning the next big vacation, with the months prior spent researching and discussing with friends and family where they want to go. Once the trip has taken place, more weeks and months are spent talking about it and beginning to plot out the next year’s vacation.
From the 15th of July until the 15th of August, France pretty much shuts down as everyone leaves for vacation. The train stations are packed with families hauling their backpacks, dads carrying an assortment of retractable tents and folded beach umbrellas while the harried wife and kids scurry along looking to find from which quai their train is departing. Discount airlines hopping from France’s major cities to various Mediterranean budget resorts boom during the summer months, and it takes a certain amount of perseverance to survive the airport check-in process alongside a determined family of French vacationers.
But once they have arrived at their destination, the French truly explore and enjoy themselves. This summer we returned to the Greek island of Milos, a fairly isolated speck of volcanic residue at the end of the Cyclades. Last night in the restaurant we went to, a French family was seated at the next table, with the parents talking to their two “tween” kids about what they enjoyed most of the day’s activities (“snorkeling and seeing the tiny fish” was the eldest boy’s response, while his younger sister said “burying daddy in the sand,” a skill that will come in handy if she ever becomes a serial killer).
Today at the beach another French family was at the rented parasol and beach lounge chairs next to us. A DILF was teaching his son how to skip rocks along the placid sea surface, while the mother played an improvised game of hopscotch in the sand with her two younger daughters. They were having a great time, and I have little doubt that the parents were ever going to have a discussion about how to price their lemonade to be competitive in the marketplace or what the overhead costs were going to be for selling Samoas.