Friday, July 23, 2004

Sacred Urlaub

Possibly the most important phrase a newcomer to Germany should learn (after "Noch ein Bier, bitte") is "Wir machen Urlaub." It will explain so much.

Yeah, it means "We're on vacation," but that phrase alone is so freighted with meaning, goes so close to the core of what life itself is about over here, that somehow it means more than what it says. The Germans even have two words for vacation: Urlaub and Ferien, and as yet nobody's ever been able to explain to me what the difference is. (It's also worth noting, in this context, that there are also two words for Saturday, Samstag and Sonnabend, for some reason). But Urlaub is the word you see most commonly .

The importance of Urlaub also shines a bright light on the German work ethic, such as it is. Americans settling in at desk jobs here are shocked when they discover that you can't reach anyone in an office before noon on Monday or after 1 on Friday afternoon. Well, you can, but it'll just be one harried secretary, the lowest person on the office totem pole. They're also shocked at the number of three- and four-day weekends throughout the year, particularly around Easter and Christmas. And they talk in hushed tones about the six weeks of vacation Germans take. How do they get anything done?

Well, I'll defend those six weeks. It's actually something I like about the culture over here. You'll also find it in other European countries, and it's a good thing. When I was a kid, my dad got exactly one week of vacation for many years. On Saturday morning of that week, we'd load up the car and zoom off to Vermont, which took all day. The Sunday of the following week, we'd zoom back. If the purpose of a vacation is to relax and make you a better worker, I don't see how that would be possible. Two days of rain in there and you're completely screwed. Two weeks' vacation was better, but still not enough.

And it's not like anyone I know often takes all those six weeks in one lump, either. Most people seem to take three weeks in the summer and three in the winter, which, if they have kids, is congruent with the school calendar: the winter holiday at school, which comes between Christmas and Easter, usually sees them off skiing, the summer one (kids here get a much shorter summer vacation, and have only recently gotten out of school) often at the beach or in a vacation home they own or rent. The pacing seems very sane to me.

Germans, as I probably don't have to remind anyone who lives in a touristed area, are also inveterate travellers. I remember one guy, when I first moved here, told me his mother had asked him to ask me where a good new place to go for vacation might be; she was getting bored with Sierra Leone. "Sierra Leone?" I said, baffled. "Holger, they're fighting a civil war there!" "I know, and she's finding it most inconvenient." Dang. I bet. But with these nice chunks of time at their disposal, Germans happily leap time-zones to far-flung corners of the world and immerse themselves in cultures and pursuits the average American would shy away from. And this, too, I find very healthy. After all, how many Americans even know where Sierra Leone is? C'mon: which continent, for starters?

But, of course, not everyone can afford such an elaborate vacation these days, or indulge themselves in one every year. (Okay, it's in Africa. West coast. See it? Good. I recommended Gambia, and she pronounced it "boring." No idea where she wound up.) Sometimes the planning is just too exhausting, sometimes you're just uninspired. But you by god take a vacation. As much as anything else, it's a societal obligation.

This all came to me yesterday because an American friend was sending me e-mails about this and that and late in the afternoon, I noticed that his .sig file, in addition to his business address and phone number, bore the words "We'll be on vacation from August 2 until August 22, open again on Monday, August 23." Since I knew he and his wife were planning a big trip to the States in mid-September, I thought this was a bit much, so I wrote and asked him what was up. "Oh, my wife's making me take the vacation." But what'll you do? "Oh, I'll be here." So...why is this a vacation? But I already knew the answer: it's been declared one, and, thus, that's what it is.

Under questioning, he admitted that he really didn't intend to stop working, although it's true that, with so much of Europe on vacation, it's hard to get much done in July and August (the Sommerloch I referred to a couple of posts ago). But he has American clients, and they're sure not going to stop existing. The compromise is, he won't be working as much, and he and his wife are working on a travel book, which they contracted to do a couple of months ago, and that involves vacation-like activities undertaken for professional reasons, the lucky bastards.

But it's definitely Urlaub time. One guy I know has gone to America for several weeks with his German girlfriend, her first trip. Another American is in the countryside with his German wife, restoring a barn in her home village. I called Dr. Joe yesterday on a social matter and got his machine with his American accent intoning the words "Der Arzt macht Urlaub bis der neunte August." I have friends coming to Paris next week, and would dearly love to figure out a way to go see them, but it would involve my begging a night on my friend GĂ©rard's couch, and he's in Spain. The signs are going up in shop windows, Urlaub is upon us.

Actually, that reminds me of one of my favorite Urlaub stories. My second apartment here was a dump on Blissestr., named after the cowardly German officer who abandoned the city to the French and fled dressed as a woman. I didn't know anyone in the neighborhood, which was as far from being cool or interesting as any I've found around here. A few doors away was a dry-cleaning and laundry shop, and one day the "Wir machen Urlaub" sign appeared in their window, announcing that they were taking the full three weeks. Boy, I thought, that happened fast. Apparently that thought wasn't mine alone: there was a guy with his face up to the window, peering into the dark interior and saying, in loud American-accented English, "God damn it!" I asked him what was wrong. "Those are my shirts in there! I need them for work! I was sick yesterday and I didn't make it here to pick them up. They never put up a sign!"

He turned out to be the manager of Berlin's only Kentucky Fried Chicken store, but KFC is another tale laden with cultural baggage, and it'll have to wait for another day.

Much as I'd like to close by saying "Ich mache Urlaub," it ain't so. Doesn't mean I wouldn't welcome a trip out of town, though. will come, I'm sure.

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