When steam builds to a certain point in a pressure cooker an escape valve comes into play; without it you get an explosion. The same principle applies to people: work accumulates to the point where, if we don't want psycho-steam coming out of our ears, we'd better empty our minds of the office, the dreary commute, the house repairs, sliding stocks and grinding study. In short, vacate or die. Hence vacations, the escape valve now coming into play for millions across Europe: families piling into station wagons with the kids and the dog, teens squeezing onto trains with bulky backpacks, buckling into airplanes in their shorts and baseball caps.
"Holy days" transformed into the sacred institution of the Great European Vacation, the massive July through August exodus during which Europeans escape to seek rest and recreation in friendlier climes. The summer holiday is going through some hard times, though. It has become a political battlefield with the recent spat between Italy and Germany, and at least some would-be travelers have been deterred by fears of terrorism, infectious disease, clogged road and air (and leg) arteries and the Continent's shaky economies. Some even suggest that Europe can't afford so many days off. Americans vacation on average 10.2 days a year, whereas in France workers get 30 days, not to mention another 11 public holidays. In Germany it's 24 days plus up to 15 public or religious holidays, while in Spain the combined total is 34 days. "We've undoubtedly reached the limit," said German Economic Minister Wolfgang Clement in June. "Those who compare our calendar of public holidays with those of other countries may well start to ruminate."
Not many have ruminated, and few are foregoing their getaways. "Holiday trips are a regular consumer good, which is sacrificed only under extreme conditions," says Peter Aderholt, secretary of the German Vacation and Travel Research Society. And apparently, today's uncertain economic and geopolitical conditions just aren't extreme enough. "Not taking a vacation would not be French," explains Diane Hebert-Stevens, a young Parisian ad saleswoman.
While Europeans are vacationing with undiminished fervor, the trips they're taking now come in several different flavors. A classic is still S&M sand and masochism those wonderful weeks of getting burnt, stung by jellyfish (and the local doctor who treats you), losing your watch while making sandcastles with the kids, eating a prawn that has gone off and having to be rescued by a lifeguard with an obscenely flat stomach. Increasingly drawing people from such coastal delights are agritourism, where you pay to smell what cows do to grass, and "edge" trips, where you are charged big bucks to risk your life scaling or jumping off something. There's also the wellness jaunt, where you try to buy back misspent youth in a spa. And then there are excursions for culture vultures, those the English poet Philip Larkin called "ruin-bibbers, randy for antique."
Whatever form vacation takes, we keep on doing it we may even want to do it more to escape all the talk of terror and war. We are escapaholics convinced that this time we will definitely "get away from it all," returning to the office slimmer, tanned and desperately keen to read a spread sheet. The Great European Vacation lives on because, as with sex, anticipation often beats act, all that foreplay with brochures, bookings, tickets, servicing the car and the children's orthodontics, packing suitcases, trying to get into last year's bathing suit and, above all, counting down the days.
But escaping can be stressful. A survey published this week by the British recruitment firm Reed found that 22% of 5,000 British workers said they suffer a syndrome Reed calls "Pre-Holiday Stress," that sense of panic caused by trying to get everything in order before leaving. U.K. workers put in an average of nine hours extra trying to do this. Only 40% said they would take their full vacation entitlement, 10% fewer than last year although there could be many reasons for that, which might or might not relate to PHS. And do they relax while lying on the beach? The survey shows 47% of workers are afraid something will go wrong at the office while they're gone; 10% even fear they will be made redundant. The good news is that two-thirds of British workers say they are happy to take on the extra load caused by the absence of a colleague.