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  • Elzbieta M Gozdziak

The sacred time of vacation


As you know from my previous post, I have recently moved back to Europe to work on a couple of different projects, both here in Poland and in Norway. I came to work, but ... it's summer vacation in Europe! That sacred time when Europeans take off to recharge batteries.

The vacation gap between Europe and the U.S.

Many have bemoaned the fact that the vacation gap between the U.S. and Europe is getting wider and wider. Labor lawyers focus on the number of days of annual leave workers get on both sides of the Atlantic as well as differences and similarities in productivity. According to OECD, in 2015, the French worked an average of 1,482 hours, while Americans worked about 1,790 hours.

As an anthropologist, I am more concerned with the cultural aspects of taking vacation: Why are stores and restaurants closed for a month? Can't the workers stagger their vacation? Why does it have to take four weeks to issue my ID card? Right, many clerks are on vacation... Can I get any of my colleagues to answer my e-mail while they are away? What does the out-of-office message really mean? How can they loose access to the Internet while at a conference in a neighboring European country? Come to think of it, being at a conference is not being on vacation, right?

Last year, when the French government instituted a policy that would allow employees to disconnect from work e-mail while they are not in the office, my American colleagues were flabbergasted! Wasn't e-mail invented to stay in touch while away from the office? They didn't quite understand that the new French directive was just one example of the many labor laws and norms—from regulations that control actual hours worked to policies about paid parental leave—that tend to leave European workers with a more even work-life balance than their U.S. counterparts.

Ambivalent about total disconnection

While I appreciate the social benefits my European colleagues get, I am a bit ambivalent about disconnecting from it all. I do most of my field research in the summer. It is difficult to engage in ethnographic fieldwork during busy semesters when teaching and writing takes most of my time. Practicalities aside, I also think that in the U.S. work is such a big part of one's identity that it is truly difficult to forego it ... even during summer holidays.

The golden mean

In Polish, we always search for the golden mean (złoty środek). So what should my golden mean be when (if) I go on vacation?

I think, I will continue to answer my e-mails. I can't face the prospect of responding to hundreds of e-mails after even the briefest of vacation.


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