Time Off

With the Memorial Day weekend behind us now and the Fourth of July holiday only a few days away, I read an article comparing the amount of vacation we take in the U.S. vs. Japan vs. European countries (Vacation Time? U.S. Lags Behind. The Washington Post, May 28, 2013, by Howard Schneider). I had already watched a BBC documentary in 2011 on the Japanese conflicted relationship with their PTO – personal time off.  How embarrassed most workers in that country feel about being off for too long (more than a week per year), fearing to be perceived as inconsiderate and lazy (or worse: unnecessary and replaceable) by their colleagues and supervisors.

Europeans in general and Austrians in particular do not suffer of such malaise as Schneider’s article describes:

“The Austrians may be all about northern European frugality, but their paid time off tops the heap: 22 vacation days, 13 holidays, and a month’s pay to help with vacation expenses. And if you hang around a place for six years, you can swing 49 days off with pay. If you count weekends, that’s 153 days off vs. 212 days of work in a year – or a goof-off-to-work ratio of .72. Pretty sweet, although all of Europe fares well – from the crisis-stricken Greeks (four weeks off plus six paid holidays) to the laissez-faire French (30 days vacation and one holiday) to the hard(ly?) working Germans (20 vacation days plus 10 holidays or, dare we say it, as much as the French).”

Americans are somehow in between both realms, striving to find their own balance.  According to Schneider, In its latest update on vacation and holiday rules among developed countries, the Center for Economic Policy and Research notes that the United States remains alone as the only rich nation without legally mandated vacations for employees, and with no requirement that official holidays come with extra pay and a compensating day off. (…) most workers in the United States do get paid vacation – about three-quarters overall. But there is a schism: Paid vacations are nearly universal for higher-paid workers, but the think tank says that only about half of lower-paid hourly wage workers receive paid time off.”

In South America, territory untouched by Schneider’s article, long vacations are not as common as the urban legends made us believe. Most Cariocas (natives of Rio), for example, never go the beach on week days.  They look as pale as Paulistas (natives of Sao Paulo) living and working in the skyscrapers of the shoreless metropolis – twenty million of them – those poor things.

Weekends are another story – wake up early if you wish for a good spot on the sands of Ipanema and Leblon beaches –  but hey, even God rested on the seventh day and there is that huge Christ the Redeemer statue atop a mountain named Corcovado, with arms  open wide, embracing the Copacabana bay, favelas (Portuguese for slumps) and mansions alike. God is Brazilian – everybody knows that in Rio.

To further contradict the legend, as my sister and I grew up, dad never took longer than one week vacation at a time. He would spend more time away on business, attending trade shows and visiting customers in foreign countries, than actually taking PTO. It is true that we spent most of the summer, after school was over, between mid November and early March, at our house at the shore, but dad would only come for the weekends and occasionally stay for an extended weekend or two, between Thursday evening and the following Monday morning.  That was the summer vacation formula for most families around us, too.  At a certain point in our dad’s career, I think he got tired of dividing himself between daytime work and evenings of teaching at the State University. Pursuing his own professional growth won   over nourishing that of university students, as brilliant and dear to him as they may have been. The ones that used to come to the house looked like computer geeks, always carrying bursting battered-looking briefcases, like my father’s own. (In those pre-computer days, dad was the king of the slide ruler – he must have owned six or seven of different lengths. It blew me away that someone could design and build the kind of machines he did, full of gears and incredibly complex parts, using fancy rulers). More time off, however, was not high on his list of things to worry about.  I don’t remember us fretting about it either. Again, things were basically the same for our friends and extended family.

I guess we assume workers in Hispanic countries tend to be more laid back because of the proverbial siesta (a nap following the lunch break). Most  Hispanics eat later in the evening, too. Therefore they go to bed late. Hence, they wake up late and go to work later.

Maybe that holds true for some shops and offices in the Argentina and Uruguay I remember from the 1990’s.  Chile and Spain as well. Brazil, although not a Hispanic country (it was discovered and colonized by the Portuguese) somehow falls into the same category just because it is located in South America.  And certainly because Brazil is, after all, the country of Carnaval.

No one takes the siesta in Brazil and Carnaval is only four days in February. Sometimes early March, depending on the date on which Easter falls each year. Funny how a pagan celebration can be so intimately associated with religion. Not surprisingly though, as Brazil is the biggest Catholic country on the planet: out of its two hundred million souls in 2012, sixty percent of the urban population claims a Catholic affiliation.

As America, Brazil is a patchwork quilt when it comes to ethnicities; one little piece of each color; each little piece made of a different fabric, shape and texture, all contributing to a beautifully intricate pattern as result.

My own family is a piece of that quilt.  Grandparents on mom’s side: Portuguese and Spanish. With some French Basque underlining from aunts (great grandmother’s older sisters) who passed long before I was born but whose temper was legendary.  From what I heard, they were all tiny and furious women, resorting to French speaking whenever upset, which was most of the time.

On dad’s side: German grandmother, Spanish grandfather.  The Spanish I learned by reading books, listening to music, enrolling in Spanish classes,  going to the movies to watch Spanish productions and travelling often to Uruguay, Argentina Paraguay and  Chile, entered my brain easier due to the fact both Portuguese and Spanish are Latin-based languages.

The same did not happen with German. Dad always spoke German fluently and so did a grandmother who was already too frail when I was growing up, unable to compete for her attention against twenty cousins she met before I arrived.  Spanish was a breeze. It took me seven semesters of German to learn the basics. I could never master declinations and the future tense, no matter how phenomenal the teachers at the Goethe Institute were.

I loved those classes and the school to pieces anyway; a five minute walk from where we lived.  The library was to die for.  But never try to return a book on a Friday afternoon, especially in summer time.  That was perhaps the most lasting lesson in German I ever learned. The most surprising, too.  On Fridays the school was empty, except for the Brazilian security personnel pacing around in chocolate brown uniforms, and the café on the first floor, teeming with patrons all weekend long, owned and operated by a hard working Argentine named Fernando – a superb cook – and his wife.

Germans start off their weekends on Fridays – even in Brazil. The building was empty, everybody gone after the last class on Thursday evening. Nothing as sacred to German workers as their time off.  I am not sure how good or bad that is.  I’m not necessarily in favor or against it either. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, as Shakespeare advocates in Hamlet. Furthermore, it is no longer a matter of how hard we work but how smartly we do so.

At the end of his Washington Post’s article, Schneider leaves a thought floating:

“What does all this mean? Do we see in it the roots of Europe’s economic crisis? Or does it show American obsession with productivity – or perhaps with our desire to stay on top?”

In my perfectly balanced world there must be an ideal between the Japanese guilt and the European obsession with vacation.  However, I also came to suspect that the optimal amount of time off – how much is too much, too little, and all the implications it encompasses –   is a reflection of each country’s culture. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution to this debate.

Happy birthday, America – Enjoy your Fourth of July holiday!

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