It’s “les grandes vacances”! A time when much of France draws to a standstill, unless you’re in a tourist area, in which case the place will be rammed and, if it’s anything like here, will burst into life. All good if you’re on holiday or retired but if you’re a family of four with zero backup, as many of us are – a situation made infinitely worse in this second year of Covid-related travel restrictions (no grandparents!) – what the heck are you supposed to do for 8 long weeks of juggling work and childcare?
As this is our fourth summer in France, I feel like we’re starting to get the hang of the long 8-week summer holiday. In our first year, with DD having started at maternelle and no grandparents nearby to help out, the first summer came as a bit of shock to the system! We had no backup and a tonne of things to do, plus two children of seemingly incompatible ages, meaning walks were out (can’t carry both when alone), swimming was out (can’t supervise both when parenting alone), and so on. Respite came only when the younger one slept.
Three years down the line, I think we making it through this summer relatively unscathed. If anything, with only three weeks to go I’m starting to feel like we haven’t done as much as I’d have liked! But hey-ho; this year we’ve also been working, so we are happy to give in to requests for more movies because they’re both pretty tired from a busy year at school so why not let them have the downtime? I’d be curled up in front of a film, given the chance (but preferably not Happy Feet for the umpteenth time!) on rainy days too.
If like us you’re pretty much an island here, here are my top 5 tips for how to survive the french summer holiday. We’re getting through with a combination of these strategies. I hope they help. Feel free to comment if you have alternative suggestions. Bon courage!
5 Ways to Survive Les Grandes Vacances in France
Book your children into the Centre de Loisirs
If you haven’t yet discovered your local centre de loisirs, now is the time. I made this discovery myself after finally reaching a level with my French that I could ask one of the other mums from the school how they cope with the holidays. The answer: book your children into the centre de loisirs. But what is it? Basically, it’s a daycare/holiday club for school age children. Our local centre is in a really nice spot in the nearest town with a private, secure and – importantly – shady garden. The children go there essentially to play and have grown ups supervise them during the day. As DD likes to remind us, “no lessons!!!” – just fun and hanging out with other children. DD really likes it because it’s a chance to meet other children from the local village schools, children she’ll eventually be at college with, so it’s great for that side of things. This year they reintroduced weekly outings (cancelled last year due to Covid) so they’ve visited a local bison farm and the prehistoric park – all a decent bus ride away and pretty exciting for a 5 and 7 year old! Ours costs us a really nominal amount considering a) how much work I can do when they’re not here and b) how much they get for that money (lunch, trips, etc.) If you’re at home right now tearing your hair out about how to survive the remaining three weeks, stop reading now and get Googling. You NEED the centre de loisirs in your life (and not just for summer holidays.)
Take August Off Work
Seriously. It helps. Everyone else is off and it’s just stressful having to juggle kids and work. Even if you have to sack off the idea of a family holiday so you and your partner (if you have one) can take two weeks off each to cover the remaining four weeks (the four weeks they’re not a the centre de loisirs if, like ours, it’s only open in July), just do it. After 18 months of pandemic, even if you work from home and have gotten into a routine that involves your kids occupying themselves while you work, taking time off, expecting to get nothing constructive down, and allowing yourself to enjoy the company of your children for two (or four) solid weeks, makes it WAY more enjoyable for everyone. Obviously this is not going to work for everyone (if you work in tourism, for example) – in which case, you need a nou nou or an au pair – but personally I found giving myself permission to do nothing really improves my enjoyment of the holiday time. This year I’ve primed my clients not to expect much from me in August and, to make up for it, I pulled night shifts through most of July alongside working like a maniac while DD and DS were occupied at the centre de loisirs during the day.
Have a Plan – albeit a loose one
Try to do something nice every week. Not every day though. If we try to do too much new and exciting stuff everyone gets enjoyment fatigue – plus it’s expensive. I go into the holidays with a wishlist of things to do. I generally confer with them now they’re old enough to have opinions (albeit sometimes dubious ones) and we make an effort to break the routine (ahem) with something different each week.
Go to the nearest swimming lake EVERY day
If you’re not on one of your fun days out, keep things nice and simple: arm yourself with a bag of swimming stuff, armbands, factor 50, sandwiches, snacks and drinks and just go out to the nearest water-based hangout you can find. We did this pretty much every day last year and it totally saved my sanity. There was at least one other child DD or DS knew there at the same time every day and actually they ended up making some really nice new friends, such as a really sweet girl from a family who visits every summer – and is here again this year, so we’re hanging out again and the girls were really pleased to see each other.
If you have little little ones I realise this might involve a certain amount of work (you can’t take your eyes of them, of course) but once in armbands it’s really quite enjoyable.
Invite other children round to play
DD and DS get on brilliantly, unless they’re fighting like cat and dog. I got a call today from another mum asking if her daughter could come over this afternoon as she had to go out. YES! bring her now, please 🙂 Adding a third child into the mix really sanitises the dynamic. We all need a break from one another right. In fact I’m typing this because J has gone off to do the shopping with DS and DD is busy playing with her friend in the other room. I have no idea what they’re doing but they’re chatting away so all is good. I’ve spent most of the last week reminding DS and DD that they could try playing something calmly and quietly – “what about a game of…?” – but they seem to prefer winding each other up, so… Friends.
If you have little ones that need closer supervision then get back into the play date mentality and invite someone else with small children over. You can’t relax, obviously, but at least you’ll have another adult to talk to. If they’re French, all the better! You’ll be fluent in four weeks, ish.
So there you have it. You’ve got this. Only three weeks to go…