Enjoying a long August holiday is a European tradition that dates all the way back to ancient times when Romans would take a break from the summer heat. Emperor Augustus formalised the tradition in 18 BC when he ruled that the month of August, named for both for him and veneration, would be entirely devoted to rest.
It also fit with the cycles of cultivation and harvest as crops were left to ripen or cure in August after surging back to life in spring, providing farmers with some much-needed idle time.
In the Industrial Age in Europe, factories continued the habit, claiming production lines could not remain operational with workers on holiday. Special trains were even laid on to transport factory workers for a month-long stay at the beach. The manager locked the factory door behind him as he too headed to the seaside. Yet somehow in the burgeoning industrial country of the United States they managed to figure it out and remain operational throughout the year.
Indeed, other cultures have long been perplexed that much of the continent of Europe could shut down for a month in this modern age.
As Europeans continue to force a vacation into a range of weeks in the summer, this year they are confronted with severe challenges that strongly indicate it could be better to take a holiday at a different time.
This August, a bewildering set of regulations over vaccination and travel as well as a rising number of infections due to the Covid-19 Delta variant and severe weather — all are telling eager holiday makers to take a break from their break.
The most immediate challenge is the Covid-19 pandemic of course. Following a disastrous tourist summer last year, hopes and preparations were high that this year would mark a return to some form of normalcy. Yet the Delta variant has scuttled many of those plans.
In France, the world’s most visited country, visitors to cultural and tourist sites now need a special Covid-19 pass that shows they are free of the virus or have been vaccinated. To get the pass, which comes in paper or digital form, people must prove they’re either fully vaccinated or recently recovered from an infection, or produce a negative virus test. Use of the pass could extend next month to restaurants and cafes.
Italy said that people will need a similar pass to access museums and movie theatres, dine inside restaurants and cafes, and get into pools, casinos and a range of other venues.
In Germany, analysis of online bookings shows that the confusion and constriction has resulted in Germans staying closer to home. It appears many will remain in their own country, perhaps even a “staycation” in their own residence.
Britain’s colourful tabloids are carrying stories with headlines such as “Hols Hell” that recount the various pitfalls facing any would-be traveller. It could all add up to more frustration than relaxation. If peace and serenity is what’s you’re after, a quiet niche close to home might better fit the bill.
And the virus isn’t the only challenge. The weather has been wild. Mother Nature is having her say as tourists are evacuated by boat to save them from wildfires in Turkey, various parts of Europe are hit with torrential rains and flash floods and sweltering heat prevails along the southern corridor. Most observers, expert and amateur alike, are saying climate change has arrived. Perhaps August will not really be the ideal time for a holiday in the future anyway.
Going forward, clearly it’s time for Europe to do it like other regions and take staggered vacations throughout the year.
Yet anyone who’s aware of the European mindset will know that the tradition will be difficult to change. It’s as embedded as bratwurst in Germany, pasta in Italy and baguettes in France. Some academics and analysts even argue that not working boosts production, so the habit must continue.
Numerous European studies say the continent’s workers are the most productive in the world. Labour leaders claim it is at least in part due to the legendary amount of time off workers get. Of course any worker who is better fed, better rested and better cared for will certainly do a superior job to someone who doesn’t have that kind of support. As well, European factories are equipped with state-of-the-art machinery that makes each individual far more productive.
But the error in the assertion is its presumption of calculating output value per hour as the indicator of productivity. Europe’s refined, top-of-the-line products are the most expensive in the world, so their production value per hour is naturally higher than in other areas.
That doesn’t mean a European worker is more productive than his counterpart who is making furniture in a rustic setting in Indonesia. A telling comparison is again the US, which is ranked similarly to European nations in worker productivity per hour. In fact, it is the only very large country in the top 10 for productivity, yet as all know, the US is frugal with benefits and vacations.
Certainly, everyone is in favour of people enjoying a good vacation. No society or culture advocates only work. What this year shows is that vacations sprinkled throughout the year offer flexibility and perhaps even greater productivity as facilities remain open and active.
But until that change happens, we can only wish European holidaymakers the best this year. We all need a light at the end of the tunnel in this pandemic — and a glorious day of sun and sea.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan
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