Culture clash shows in vacation styles

Holiday: In Europe, time off is plentiful and people are dedicated to forgetting about work.

July 25, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SAINT-TROPEZ, France - If the whole idea of leaving work for more than a weekend minus your cell phone and without being able to check your voicemail several times a day seems a little scary, this playground for the rich on the French Riviera might not be the place for you.

Vacation highlights here will never include nailing a par-3 on some grass-less miniature golf course - through the plastic pirate's legs, off a wooden bumper, deftly avoiding the churning fins of a garish-blue mechanical windmill - and rushing back to work before even chugging your last beer in celebration.

The message here is simple: Relax. Or party. Whatever.

Just forget about work.

Six-dollar cups of coffee here might be a bit on the expensive side, but you can always make yourself feel better by considering that you took a pass on the $18 shot of unbranded whiskey.

This is a world of diamonds the size of light bulbs and yachts the size of planets. Designer sunglasses with blinding price tags, smoochy air-kisses, profoundly insincere we-must-do-lunches, tiny dogs carried in tiny purses and lots and lots of time.

And while Saint-Tropez might not reflect how typical Europeans spend their time off, it does say something about the attitude toward vacations on this side of the Atlantic Ocean: People in Europe take them very, very seriously.

"We went to visit friends in Atlanta once, and we never put our feet up," said Bert Boonk, 62, sitting under an umbrella at a Saint-Tropez cafe and sipping his Perrier. "Americans go on holiday and rush, rush. They wanted to show us everything in two days. In Europe, we take our time - and we have time."

Boonk, a retired executive of a health care organization from Zwolle, Holland, was on the second week of a three-week vacation in Saint-Tropez, and he still has his three-week October holiday to look forward to (followed by a ski vacation in February).

The lengthy sojourns, though similar to those of many well-off retired Americans, are nothing new to him. He was out of the office on break that often for most of his working life, and the travels are not peculiar to Europeans who have put in their years working and not limited to the wealthy.

And never mind that Europe's economies are struggling, compared with that of the United States. Nobody here thinks the comparison makes sense.

In Europe, vacations are a right, with a month or more off required by law for most workers in most countries. Recent efforts by German, French and Italian officials to reduce vacation time have fallen flat (though some unions answered the call for more work and cut vacation time - to a month).

In Britain - whose work force puts in more hours than any other European Union country - the government has not tried to reduce the mandatory four weeks off for full-time workers. And it would not dare go after the eight "bank holidays" - Mondays that workers get off throughout the year.

While Western Europeans have gradually taken more time off work during the past three decades or so, their overall productivity has remained about the same. In other words, they are vacationing more but working harder - and their productivity, when judged hour-to-hour, is increasing at a faster rate than in the United States.

"I work hard, so why not play when I can?" asked Muriel Krischek, a 40-year-old oral surgeon from Brussels, in the middle of a one-week vacation here that will be followed by a week back in the office and then a return to Saint-Tropez.

Her pattern throughout the year is to work two weeks, then take a four- or five-day weekend, and several times a year take two weeks off.

"For the Americans, I don't think they could handle so much time on holiday, because they think this is being lazy," she said, sipping a stop-sign red cocktail through a skinny straw, wearing a stylish white linen pantsuit. "I think Americans feel like they are born to work."

She might be on to something. Never in American history have the masses vacationed like the Europeans.

Vacations for Americans became fashionable for the middle class only in the last half of the 19th century, according to Cindy S. Aron, a University of Virginia history professor who wrote the book Working at Play.

And even then, newspaper articles about this new-found status symbol of taking time off came with an undercurrent of warnings: These vacation things were bound to lead to drinking, gambling, sexual dalliances and - maybe worst of all - a general lack of productivity frowned upon by the Puritan work ethic that dominated the day.

"I don't want to overstate it because certainly there were men gambling and flirting," Aron said. "But this was a new middle class that subscribed to a certain set of values - including sobriety and hard work and self-control - which distinguished them from the elite and from the working classes."

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