The Grand Vacations: July and August in France

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By Margo Lestz

The French love their holidays. There are lots of them scattered throughout the year but July and August are the months of les grandes vacances, or the “grand vacations”. Most people take two to three weeks off in either July or August. Those who vacation in July are called juillettists (pronounced jwee-yeah-teest) and those who take August holidays are called aoûtiens (pronounced ah-oo-sian). For the sake of simplicity, we’ll call them Julyists and Augustians.

July and August in FranceClosed for Vacation
With everyone on holiday, business really slows down in July and is almost non-existent in August (except for tourism, of course). So if you are in France and need to get some kind of administrative paperwork done during these months, don’t frustrate yourself, just relax and go to the beach with everyone else because nothing is going to get done until September.

But business didn’t always grind to a halt in July and August. Before 1936 few people, other than government employees, had paid time off. Then in 1936 there were general strikes throughout France and one of the demands was for a paid holiday. The government finally decided that it was healthy for people to have a few weeks off work to relax and that their work would improve because of it.

Vacation? What to do?
On June 20, 1936, a law was passed that gave every salaried employee two weeks of paid leave. A few weeks later, on the first of August, all salaried employees were on holiday. For many, it was the first one of their lives.

They went to the countryside and the seaside. Initially, these overworked French people weren’t sure what one did on holiday, so they just watched the rich for a while and started to imitate them. They were fast learners and soon they were sitting in the sun drinking cool drinks. They were getting the hang of vacationing and they liked it.

Pack up the carHoliday car
In the 1950s, when a third week of vacation time was added and automobiles were widely owned, the French started packing up their cars and travelling across the country (mostly heading south) for their “grand vacations”. This was the birth of mass tourism which lead to the first “grand traffic-jams”.

In the 1960s, a fourth week of vacation time was added, then in the 1980s a fifth. As holidays grew longer, workers were often given a choice of when to take their time off. They divided into two camps: those who took their breaks in July and those who vacationed in August. Today, July and August are still the two most active months for people going on holiday. And every year, the weekend with the biggest traffic jams is when the Julyists, who are returning home cross paths with the Augustians who are leaving on holiday. These massive jams are known as the chassé-croisé after a dance where the partners continually cross in front of each other.

Of course, not everyone participates in this dance because not everyone gets paid time off. It only applies to salaried employees so those who are self-employed or not salaried don’t get paid holidays. And not all employees get to choose their holiday date either. Some businesses (almost 40%) close for the month of August and all their employees have no choice but to be Augustians.

French holidays in July or AugustBut for those who are salaried and do have a holiday choice, it seems that their choice might say something about their outlook on life and work. In the larger companies, at least, some stereotypes have developed over the years for these two groups, with Augustians being seen as putting work before pleasure and the Julyists as just wanting to have fun.

But times are changing and the old stereotypes aren’t as valid as they once might have been. Fewer people are taking long holidays and many factors enter into their choice of dates. But July and August are still the favourite months for the “grand vacations” and there are still those who are very attached to their preferred month.

The Julyists and the Augustians may disagree on the best month to take a holiday, but they do agree on the best location. The largest percentage of both groups prefer to holiday at the sea side.

And there is one other point on which they can agree: The people who take their holidays in September are really strange!  Which reminds me… I’m taking my holiday in September this year.  I’m going to Italy to study Italian again so my posts may be less frequent for the next few months.  Hope you have had (and are still having) a wonderful summer!

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Cocteau, Picasso, and a Tale of two Breads

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By Margo Lestz

fougasse by Cocteau

A fougasse on the wall of Santo Sospir

When I recently toured Santo Sospir, the villa decorated by Cocteau, the guide pointed to a fougasse (a local bread) painted on the wall and said it was a reference by Cocteau to the hands painted by his friend, Picasso.  I didn’t really understand the link because the bread looked nothing like a hand to me.

Turning a fougasse into a hand
Then I saw a short film that Cocteau made about Santo Sospir. In it, he took a fougasse and tore it up into the general form of a hand and called it Picasso’s hand. On one of the walls of Santo Sospir, we find a painting of a goat holding one of these breads torn in the same manner.

But I think Cocteau got his breads confused. My theory is that he must have heard the story about a local bread being associated with the hands of Picasso and mistakenly assumed it was the fougasse.

collage fougasse

Cocteau shows us how to make a fougasse look like a hand.
Painting by Cocteau of a goat holding a fougasse “hand”.

Fougasse – not a hand but delicious anyway
Fougasse, is still widely available in the area. It’s a thin bread with cut-outs and can be found in various shapes, none of them resembling a hand unless you creatively tear it up like Cocteau did.

In days gone by, it was used by the bakers to test the heat of their ovens before they baked their “real bread”. Then it would be eaten as a snack by the bakers or given out to customers in addition to a bread purchase. Today it has earned its own place on the bakery shelf. You can find plain fougasse, or it can be flavoured with olives, tomatoes, cheese, etc. There is also a sweet version, known as the fougassette which is flavoured with fruit.

“Hand of Nice” becomes a “Picasso”
So if the bread referred to as the “Picasso” or “Picasso’s hand” isn’t a fougasse, what is it? It’s another speciality bread from the Nice area which is made into the form of a four-fingered hand. It’s called the “main de Nice” or the “hand of Nice”.

Picasso bread hands

Picasso in 1952 with “hands of Nice” bread by Robert Doisneau

Margo bread hands
Margo with Picasso hands

This bread became associated with Picasso one morning in 1952 when the photographer, Robert Doisneau, arrived at Picasso’s home for a photo shoot. The artist was at his kitchen table just about to have breakfast and he invited Doisneau to join him. Picasso pointed to the bread on the table which was “the hand of Nice” and said the baker had called them “Picassos” because they had only four fingers. Doisneau saw the opportunity for a fun photo and placed two of them on the edge of the table so they looked like they were Picasso’s hands and took the photo.

The “hand of Nice”, or the “Picasso” if you prefer, is not easy to find today in Nice. I found only one boulangerie that still makes it: Boulangerie du Palais, 21 rue du Marché in the Old Town. According to them, the four fingers represent the four main valleys of the Alps Maritimes area: the Roya, the Tinée, the Vésubie, and the Var.

Boulangerie du Palais, Nice FranceTheir version is a little bit different than the one in the Picasso photo but they are still fun to pose with. Then after the photo session, they go nicely with a bit of cheese and a glass of wine.

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2. Stills from a video by Cocteau. The quality is bad and there are Spanish subtitles:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVDI7SBv9RI
3. By Robert Doisneau

The Artist who came to Dinner and never Left

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santo sospir signBy Margo Lestz

What would you do if you invited someone to spend a week at your holiday home and he decided to redecorate it and then he decided to stay – indefinitely?  Francine Weisweiller was thrilled.       Continue Reading »

Pierre the Patriot

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Tearing down the Bastille

By Margo Lestz

I just recently had two birthdays: My “real” birthday on the 4th of July and my “adopted” birthday on the 14th. When I lived in the US, I liked the fact that the whole country celebrated my birthday with fireworks. I miss that. But since the French also fill the sky with fireworks to celebrate their National holiday and it comes only ten days later, I just claim that as my birthday too. Now if I could just work out how to get two cakes and two gifts… Anyway, today’s story has to do with events that took place on the 14th of July, but long before I was born.     Continue Reading »

French Jazz Fans outsmart Hitler

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Statue of Miles Davis by Niki de Saint Phalle in front of the Negresco hotel in Nice
Miles Davis statue – Negresco hotel in Nice.  Photo by Margo Lestz

By Margo Lestz

France has a special place in its heart for jazz and in the summer, you’ll find jazz festivals all over the country. In fact, the world’s first international jazz festival was held in Nice, France in 1948. But France’s relationship with this music started some 30 years earlier during the World War I and developed under some interesting circumstances during the Nazi Occupation of World War II.     Continue Reading »

The Murphys, American Trendsetters on the Riviera

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French Riviera beach, Nice France

The beach in Nice, France in the summer. Photo: Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images

By Margo Lestz

If you visit the French Riviera in July or August, you might have trouble finding an open space on the beach to put your towel. It’s hard to imagine that up until the 1920s there were no summer tourists here, no hotels were open, and there was certainly no one swimming in the sea.      Continue Reading »

Marketing in Old Town Nice: Cours Saleya and More

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Cours Saleya market, Nice FranceBy Margo Lestz

Cours Saleya is the heart of Old Town Nice and it’s always pulsating with life. Striped awnings cover its centre and shelter the products on offer in the daily market. Crowds of locals and tourists come here to do their shopping or sometimes just to look and snap photos of the colourful displays. The scents of fresh produce and flowers seem to put everyone in a good mood and the atmosphere is friendly.  Continue Reading »

Blockhead Building gets a Thumbs Up

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blockhead building, nice france, tête carrée,

By Margo Lestz

I have to say that normally I’m not a fan of modern architecture. I prefer the grand old buildings from the Belle Époque, and Art Nouveau just sets my heart aflutter. But there are a few modern structures that I really appreciate and one of them is in Nice, France. I lovingly call it the “blockhead building” but officially it’s known as la tête carrée, or “the square head”. Continue Reading »

Learning Spanish

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SpainBy Margo Lestz

I recently spent two weeks in Salamanca, Spain taking a beginner Spanish language class. You might wonder why I would do that since I am already studying two foreign languages (French and Italian). I was wondering the same thing myself just before the trip. My friend, Cathy, has been saying, for a few years now, that she would love to go to Spain to take a Spanish course. So I thought it would be fun to go together and have a “girls’ holiday”… Then after the reservations were made, I realised that this might entail sitting in a class and studying grammar. My enthusiasm waned, but I was committed. Continue Reading »

French Expressions pop up in the Park

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Parc Phoenix, Nice, France

By Margo Lestz

We’ve had a home in Nice, France for six years now and for six years we’ve been meaning to go to Parc Phoenix. But something always came up and we just never made it. Now we can finally say that we went, we saw, and we loved it!  It’s a beautiful park with lots of plants, small animals and an aquarium. It would make a great day out with children.

Today, I thought I would share some animal and plant related French sayings and use photos from our day in the park to illustrate them .    Continue Reading »

Tooth Fairy vs Little Tooth Mouse

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tooth fairy vs the little mouse

By Margo Lestz

A few weeks ago, I found out that the Easter Bunny doesn’t come to France. And now, I discover that he’s not the only folkloric childhood character who doesn’t come here. His cousin, the tooth fairy, doesn’t visit France either.    Continue Reading »

May First and the Spirit of Labor Day

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By Margo Lestzmay day, more chocolate, spirit of labor day

In many countries, May 1st is the International Day of Workers, or Labor Day. It actually started in 1886 in Chicago, with workers lobbying for a 5 day / 40 hour work week – instead of the 6 day / 60 hour one that existed at the time. The US has since changed their Labor Day to September, but in much of Europe it’s still celebrated on the original date of May 1st.

Continue Reading »

American Easter Bunny vs French Easter Bell

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By Margo LestzEaster bunny vs Easter bell

As an American living in France, I learned a long time ago that the two cultures have different ideas about many (if not most) things. Still, I was surprised to discover that there was no Easter Bunny in France. But fear not, the French have come up with another method to distribute those Easter eggs to their children. Continue Reading »

Celebrating the Gourd in Nice, France

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Celebrating the Gourd, nice, france, gourd festivalBy Margo Lestz

Nice is a French city, of course, but it also has a strong and proud culture all its own. It was Niçois long before it was French and the people work hard to keep their Niçois traditions alive. It has its own language, anthem, traditional costumes, dances, songs, and food. The language is taught in schools and there are dance groups that perform at many events throughout the year. These associations ensure that the traditions are passed from generation to generation. And the calendar is dotted with several events each year that are typically Niçois. Continue Reading »

April Fool or April Fish?

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April fool or april fish

By Margo Lestz

In many countries, the first day of April is a day to play harmless jokes on family and friends. This usually consists of telling a farfetched story in such a way that it sounds like it could be true. When the other person falls for our joke, we exclaim, “April fool!” and have a laugh. In France, they play the same sort of jokes, but instead of saying “April fool!” they say, “poisson d’avril!” which translates into “April fish!”. One of the favourite “April fish” jokes among French children is to tape a paper fish to someone’s back without them knowing it. Continue Reading »

Madame Liberté

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statue of liberty with baguette

Lady Liberty showing her Frenchness.
Might this have been Bartholdi’s original design ?

By Margo Lestz

The Statue of Liberty is one of the most recognised symbols of the United States.  But did you know that Lady Liberty is an immigrant?  It’s true, she’s a French woman by birth who has made New York her home.  (No wonder she’s so elegant.)

Continue Reading »

Carnival Time in Venice, Italy

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Venice carnival

By Margo Lestz

Carnival celebrations take place around the world, but when we think of elegant masks and beautiful costumes, we think of Venice.  So this year my husband and I decided to go and see for ourselves what the Venice Carnival was like.  We weren’t disappointed. Continue Reading »

It Pays to be Polite in France

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Nice, France café - being rude is costly
“A cup of coffee” – € 7.00
“A cup of coffee, please – € 4.25
Hello, a cup of coffee, please – € 1.40

By Margo Lestz

At this café in Nice, France, minding your manners can significantly reduce the price of your coffee.

Of course, this was meant as a humorous way to remind customers to be polite, but it’s a great illustration of the French attitude toward good manners.  Continue Reading »

Three Russian Tsarinas leave their mark on Nice, France

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Cathedral, Church, Nice, France, Empress, Tsarina Maria

By Margo Lestz

If you weren’t able to make it to Russia for the Winter Olympics, how about a trip to Nice, France?  I know it’s not quite the same, but it’s warmer and you can see a lovely Russian cathedral.  Nice has had a strong Russian community since the mid 1800s when the Russian nobles would spend their winters here mingling with the rest of Europe’s high society.  The Tsars tended to stay home and run the country, but the more delicate Tsarinas would pass their winters in the Riviera sunshine.  In Nice, a church, a chapel, and a cathedral remind us of three generations of Tsarinas who made this their winter home. Continue Reading »

Menton, France celebrates the Lemon

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Menton France lemon festival, fête du citronBy Margo Lestz

They say when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade.  But what if you are a town on the French Riviera and life gives you extraordinarily delicious lemons? You sell them at high prices, of course!  Then you buy truck loads of cheaper ones from Spain and have a big festival.  Well, that’s what the city of Menton does anyway. Every year at carnival time, this small coastal city, just down the road from Nice, holds a Lemon Festival called La Fête du Citron. Continue Reading »

Carnival Kings, Silly Strings, and Blooming Things

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nice carnaval yellow face

Photo courtesy of Rose-Marie Morro©

In Nice, France we are preparing for the carnival and that means another royal visit.  Every year in February, a different king comes to town to celebrate the carnival with us and participate in the parade on his own special float.  But it wasn’t always this way… Continue Reading »

Nice, France: Her Relationship with Italy and how she became French

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Old Town Nice France

By Margo Lestz

Normally, I write about the city of Nice, but in this article, when I mention Nice, I am speaking of the historic “County of Nice” which was roughly equivalent to what we now call the Alpes-Maritimes.

When you look around the old towns in this region, you will notice that the architecture looks very Italian.  Since this area is close to the Italian border and since it has only been part of France since 1860, you might reason that it must have been Italian before becoming French.  But was it?

Italian? Never! … Well, sort of… Continue Reading »

The King Cake holds a Surprise

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king cake, galette des roisBy Margo Lestz

While eating his cake, Jeff pulled out a small white tile, the kind that might be found on a kitchen wall.  He marched up to the counter and indignantly informed the server that they had baked a tile into his cake.  She broke into a big smile and said, “Oh, you found the prize!  You are the winner!”  Continue Reading »

Truffle hunting in Provence

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Truffle hunter w dogs

A sophisticated looking truffle hunter with dogs that look very much like the our little sniffers

By Margo Lestz

Our wedding anniversary was approaching and when Jeff asked what I wanted, I didn’t hesitate, “I want to go truffle hunting!”

Looking a bit puzzled, but always the good sport, he said, “Ok…that could be interesting…but what exactly is a truffle and how do you hunt one?” Continue Reading »

Thirteen Desserts? That’s my kind of Meal!

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children in front of fire with foodBy Margo Lestz

Christmas time in Provence and the south of France is full of traditions and, as with most good traditions, food is usually involved.

Miniature wheat fieldsChristmas wheat grass
Preparations for the Christmas holiday meals begin on the 4th of December, St. Barbara’s day, with the planting of wheat (in the kitchen, that is).  Continue Reading »