LONDON - Britta Niehoff is about to join millions of other Europeans on her annual vacation, with the kind of time off and benefits that most Americans only dream of receiving from their employers.
Like many Europeans, including part-time workers, Niehoff gets six weeks a year, not the measly two to four with which most Americans must be content.
What's more, her employer gives her a bonus of a half-month's pay to help finance her vacation. If that seems generous, the fact is many Europeans get bonuses twice as large.
August is the peak of the vacation season in Europe - the time of year when many factories, restaurants and shops hang a "closed for vacation" sign and join the rush to beaches, mountain resorts and historic cities.
Most of those who went away won't return home until early September - others even later.
"Vacations are a more important part of life in Europe," said a United Nations official in Geneva. "They transfer a lot of income to places that would be poor without them, such as Provence and some of the ski resorts."
The cultural divide between Europe and the United States on the question of vacations may have a lot to do with the Protestant work ethic rooted in American history. But some Europeans such as Niehoff, 34, a Berlin bank employee, suspect that materialistic Americans simply enjoy keeping their noses to the grindstone in a way Europeans don't.
"I am not like the Americans who believe the world would collapse if they were away from their workplace for more than two weeks," she said. "I work really hard, and for me real relaxation only starts after two weeks."
Niehoff is getting ready to go on a three-week bicycling trip through Eastern Europe with her husband. When she gets back, she will have another three weeks owed to her.
She took a two-week trip to India in February, but that doesn't count because it was vacation time left over from last year. Should she want more free time this year, she can always take vacation days in lieu of overtime pay. And she gets nine public holidays a year.
"I am satisfied with what I get, although I could, of course, do with more," she said.
The dolce far niente ("sweet to do nothing") culture in Europe extends not just to vacations. While most Americans make do with seven public holidays a year, the average in the 15 nations of the European Union is 10 1/2 .
The Spanish and Portuguese have the most, 14, while Britain and the Netherlands are closer to the U.S. figure with 8 apiece. Counting vacations and public holidays, Europeans have an average of seven weeks off each year.
In the industrialized world, according to one source, only Japanese employers are as stingy with vacation time as Americans. Many Japanese workers get only two weeks but, as this source said: "They treat their vacations with the same vigor as they treat work."
In parts of Europe - France, Italy, Spain and Portugal in particular - the vacation season is highly structured, with nearly everyone departing at the same time in August.
This year, that region experienced "black Saturday" on July 29. It's a nightmarish day that comes along twice every summer when millions of cars crawl at a snail's pace on superhighways and chaos engulfs crowded airports and railway stations.
It may not be everyone's idea of relaxation, but the togetherness with which these Europeans take vacations comes about partly because school terms do not end until sometime in July, and families have only a narrow window of opportunity in which to get away from it all.
While Uncle Sam would never dream of telling employers how much vacation time they must give their workers, the European Commission in Brussels decreed in November that the minimum paid vacation period must be four weeks a year in the 15 nations of the European Union. That applies equally to part-time employees if they have worked at least 13 weeks.
The previous minimum was three weeks, and the new ruling has become law in all member nations.