May is a busy time in France

The month begins with the workers’ marches celebrating Labour Day, ‘La fête du travail’. This year there were fewer people than usual in the parades. Commentators suggested various reasons: government policies, lower union membership, high unemployment or, possibly, just the heavy rain in Paris.

The rain didn’t deter those selling the traditional spray of lily of the valley, ‘un brin de muguet’. Following a long tradition, people take up key positions at traffic lights and street corners to sell this supposed bringer of luck. ‘Le premier mai’ is the only day of the year when private individuals can, legally, sell flowers on public highways.

May is also the month of long weekends. Several of them. This year is a good year (or a bad year, depending on whether you are an employee or an employer) as there are only 17 working days in May. It is important to take advantage of the public holidays this year as 2016 is not so worker friendly; two of the May holidays fall on a Sunday. Of course, there will still be ‘le jeudi d’Ascension’ with the option of a day off on the Friday too, thus creating the much appreciated ‘ponts’, literally ‘bridges’, creating a 4-day weekend.

This year, the canny employee with some holiday time still due can have a week or two off while only using up a few days of his or her allotted paid holidays. It makes sense too, as any unused ‘jours de congé’ earned in the preceding year must be taken by the end of May of the following year or they are forfeited. (Don’t whisper to a French person that Americans don’t always use up all their paid holidays. That would elicit more than an “Oh là là !”)

As a result, in May, everybody has great fun clogging up the motorways as they head for the south and the sun. As the heavy traffic, ‘les journées rouges’ is announced in advance, many people leave early the previous day to ensure they don’t get snarled up in one of the traffic jams, ‘les bouchons’. After all a little half day extra is hardly noticeable, except that is when everyone else has the same great idea.

As well as the holiday weekends, there is also the garden or balcony to get ready for the summer. Every village boasts its flower market, ‘le Marché aux fleurs’ in May and garden centres, ‘les jardineries’ and nurseries, ‘les pépinières’ are overflowing with plants, as are the shopping trolleys of the customers.

You can choose between ‘les annuelles’, annual plants, ‘les vivaces’, perennials and ‘les arbustes’, shrubs. ‘Les rosiers’ and ‘les géraniums’ rest firm favourites. In the south of France you can pick an olive tree, ‘un olivier’, to plant, although for an older tree the price will be high. If you have some energy left after walking up and down the aisles, you can heave a couple of bags of compost, ‘le terreau’ onto your trolley.

With all this activity, it’s lucky that May is also the month that marks the start of taking the aperitif outside. Yes, for the French, ‘l’apéro’ as the sun goes down seems to make all those traffic jams, marches and backbreaking efforts in the garden worthwhile. ‘À boire avec modération, bien sûr.’

Discover more about French customs in ‘Life in France’, a Kolibri Languages Practical Guide.

Pam Bourgeois



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