Vacation Time (again)

Here's a story that was in Slashdot this morning about vacation time. It says what we all know that Americans don't get much of it. I keep coming back to this topic because it's one of the biggest differences between life here in Spain and back in the U.S.

I remember reading this sort of statistic years ago in the U.S. and feeling oddly proud of it. Yeah, we work really hard, etc. That's my New England puritanistic upbringing. We didn't take vacations when I was a kid. Maybe one or two the entire time I lived at home - and usually they were always combined with something like a funeral or something. It's not because of the cash (though we didn't have much - we weren't anywhere near classic middle-class), but because of the way things are where I grew up. I didn't know anyone who took vacations. It was something I saw on the Brady Bunch, but not something we actually did in the real world.

The reality of vacations in the U.S. is that you are given 10 days a year. I've never been at a job long enough to have more - though being a contractor most of the time I've been much freer with my time than most. But with 10 days a year, you usually spend 5 of those on random days throughout the year. Usually for long weekends or other random errand days. The other five may be spent on "vacation" but I *always* spent that time during Christmas going to my parents or doing some sort of family-required thing. And the last job I had an amazing policy where sick days and vacation days were the same thing. Take a day off because you're sick and minus a day of vacation. (Though my boss was cool and realistic about this, the company policy is my point.)

Now I'm in Spain with it's relatively decadent attitude towards vacation time. From July through mid September, it's a fact that 9 out of 10 people in Madrid will go on vacation. There are 25 days vacation *required by law* and if you're a manager of any sort (in this bureacratic society, there's tons of them) you get more. That's more than a *month* of vacation time a year for just about everyone.

The effect of this on a society can only be truly understood once you've lived here. At my old job, from day one, I kept on harping to the Americans "get ready for Summer". I'd be in meetings where they were planning deliveries, rollouts, and other crucial milestones in the project for July or August and I'd just shake my head and say "remember Summer." As I've written about this in the past, but you just have to see it to believe it. Madrid stops cold (or "stops hot", as the case may be).

Note to the Americans reading this who somehow in the back of their brain *don't believe this is real* that it is. Imagine that *everyone* you know gets a month of paid vacation a year. EVERYONE from janitors to the girl behind the cash register at the grocery store to waiters and waitresses. And they all *take* their vacations. It's considered ludicrous to come to the end of the year here and have vacation time left over. Most people take so much that they "owe" time, rather than the other way around. And, again, it's *everyone.* My first year here the door guy at my office disappeared for a month in August (replaced by some lucky teenager) and when he got back my coworker asked him how his vacation was, and he talked about the apartment his family shares on the beach in southern Spain. Yep, a porter with a place on the Med. Welcome to Spain.

Now, the opposite of this concept is true as well - imagine how harsh it is for someone to go from Europe to the U.S. My wife doesn't really understand yet what a 24/7 society like the U.S. is like. She talks about future vacations when we're living in the U.S. and I shake my head softly. "I doubt we'll have much," I say. Even if we do have vacations, they'll never coincide. And undoubtedly something "important" will be happening at work and we'll have to spend half our vacation calling back to voicemail or checking emails. The fact is that vacations are always just short breaks, not true downtime. By the time you're just forgetting about work, it's time to go back.

The era of cheap packaged tours picked from one of the thousands of travel agencies that dot the city is done (it tells you a lot about the effect of a month of vacation a year - there's more travel agencies here in Madrid than grocery stores I bet). Ana has three weeks of vacation time in August and because we're making plans to go back to the U.S. we're not going to be doing anything special (read: expensive) this year. Unlike years past when we took cheap packaged trips to Egypt or Paris or the Caribbean, this year we're taking it easy with Alex at home. Since the conversation at the water cooler around this time of year is *always* about where you're going on your vacations, it's somewhat (read: very) annoying to Ana. I bet we end up doing something for at least a week.

Maybe my experience is a bit odd in the U.S. and maybe all good middle-class white folk always took vacations and my experience was the exception. But I don't think so, especially after reading that article which resonated as truth to me. Maybe it's because Americans think that *everyone else* has it better and that someday they'll be there too that no one does anything about it.

It all comes down to quality of life. The fact is that Europeans have a better quality of life than in the U.S. Less work, more life. But there are so many idiot Americans - you know, the types that were "mad" at France - that are still stuck in the past. They still think it's the 50s and that Europe and the rest of the world is in some backwards place with dirt roads and bad water and that everyone wants to come to the U.S. Well, that's far from the case now. Most people I know ask me why I want to go back.

That's a good question... Well, because it's home. And I can't stand the smoking. And I can't stand the bureaucracy. And I'll never have the opportunity in any corporation to go up in the ranks because I'm not a three-piece suit wearing, tobacco-addicted, Spanish speaking bureaucrat. And if I start my own company, I'll never be able to get anything done because all my employees will be on vacation all the time. ;-) And also I want my own house, with a swingset and a pool in the back yard and a couple cars in the garage, etc. Stuff that's just not common or reachable here in Spain for me.

However, I have a suspicion that now that I've been exposed to the life that could be lived, I'm going to chafe a bit at how things are back in the States. We'll see what happens... (Of course its a beautiful Saturday morning and I'm on my PC first thing, so I doubt that I've been overly affected. ;-) )


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