By Lynn Ashby 5 July 2010
Workers unions in Spain are steamed about changes in their rules and are going to strike for the first time in a decade. Nothing will stop them as they slam down their tools, lunch pails and capes to storm out of their factories, rail yards and bull rings. No holding them back as tempers flare and they shout (in Spanish we must suppose): “Workers unite! You have nothing to lose but your siestas!”
However, the workers’ anger won’t reach the boiling point until September. Why? Because striking before then would ruin their August vacations. This is somewhat akin to “the spontaneous rally will begin at noon sharp.” Or the Teabag Party proclaiming that it’s strictly a populist grassroots uprising. We know this because Dick Armey issued the press release from the party’s Washington office.
In any event, the Spanish workers have their priorities right. They, and all Europeans, feel it is their God-given right to take off that month. Barbara Tuchman writes in “The Guns of August” that when World War I broke out the French Army had a major problem, and, no, it wasn’t just the German Army. The problem was that, despite the impending war clouds, most of the French officer corps was on vacation. After all, it was August. Once I visited Paris in August and there were practically no lines at the Eiffel Tower or any other site. But about half the stores and cafes were closed, my hotel was a morgue. I didn’t spot a single French soldier, but I did see a lot of American tourists.
By law, full-time workers in France are guaranteed at least five weeks vacation, plus holidays. But French workers are still in a snit after the government increased their work week from 35 hours to 40. Austrian workers have 26 vacation days, Denmark and Sweden have 25. All other European workers have at least 20 vacation days, plus lots and lots of holidays. In addition, the European Court of Justice has ruled that all workers are entitled to up to four weeks of holiday pay for each year they are on sick leave. Huh? Each year they’re home sick? The Pope takes off every summer. He goes to the Papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo. And us? On average, U.S. workers have less than nine vacation days annually. Some 28 million Americans don’t get any paid vacation or paid holidays.
We may feel sorry for ourselves with so few holidays and vacation time, but stats can be deceiving. During August, see if you can ring up a business person or lawyer or doctor. The secretary will say, “She’s in a meeting.” As for government agencies, each one has a designated Friday afternoon phone answerer to explain that the entire staff is in a meeting. Look for them to finish just after Labor Day. Also, notice how the stock markets slow down. Wall Street brokers leave after Friday lunch to join their families in the Hamptons.
We must hope President Obama and his family take off for part of August like his predecessors – but not the entire month at the ranch. Congress is on vacation. The U.S. Supreme Court is gone and won’t be back until the first Monday in October. The Supremes tossed their clerks all the really controversial decisions to draft and announce. By the time the sweating demonstrators arrive to protest outside the Supreme Court Building the justices are fly fishing in Idaho. Washingtonians, including diplomats and lobbyists, have fled, turning the city over to the tourists who don’t realize in summer our nation’s capital is like Port Arthur without the natural beauty.
With no news to cover, the media split. One sure-fire way to note the disappearing press is to watch the TV networks’ news shows. Throughout August we will hear, “Brian is on assignment tonight.” Williams’ “assignment” is at his lake house interviewing the sunset. The Sunday morning talking heads on TV are substitutes questioning politicians who are back home – or fly fishing in Idaho.
Not even mad dogs and Englishmen go out in our August sun, so, just like the Europeans who live in far balmier locales, this is our favorite time to leave, too. It’s also when those creepy society writers sigh, “All the swells are in Aspen or in the south of France.” OK, summer better than others, but why it always “the south of France.”? Do you say, “I’m going to meet a drug lord in the south of Texas.”? “I summer in Pilot Knob. It’s in the south of Travis County.” Texans who are not swells don’t summer anywhere. They are going through the help wanted pages or Craigslist.
There is a new wrinkle in Americans’ vacation habits. We are starting to take winter vacations, too – a week off to go skiing on the snow or sunning on the sand. I hear you can get really good deals on Gulf coast beaches this year. But we are being hit with a one-two punch: the economy is on the ropes and gas prices are through the roof, giving us a new term which Spell Check hasn’t even recognized: staycation. It means, obviously, staying at home and doing things around town you haven’t done. Just as most New Yorkers have never been to the top of the Empire State Building, a lot of southeast Texans have never been to the Johnson Space Center, San Jacinto or spent a Saturday evening in Baytown’s restaurant row.
How many Wichita Fallians have ever seen their falls? El Pasoites can just nip across the bridge to Juarez – but first notify next-of-kin. Fort Worthians can go to Dallas and ride the escalators. Map out a week’s worth of exciting, stimulating and, for the kids, educational, day trips. “Monday – Visit pawn shop, founders cemetery and library drive-through book drop-off. Tell kids they never had such fun.” By Friday write: “Visit the kids in ICU. Explain there was one too many ‘Are we having fun yet?’ whines.”
Ashby summers at firstname.lastname@example.org