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The summer of staying close to home

For cash-strapped vacationers, time off this years means exploring ... locally. A report from Europe, Japan, and the US on the return of the road trip, backpacking with a burro, and growing beets.

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In fact, with jobs so closely entwined with identity in some societies, the prospect of unbidden time off is hardly seen as an opportunity. “Leisure is terra incognita [for many modern workers], so we’re highly reluctant to embrace the possibility of free time,” says Ben Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “We want to save our jobs, and I predict we will. We’ll get back to work, and we’ll forget the possibility of leisure.”
Maybe in America, but not in many other parts of the world, where time off is still sacrosanct. Consider this emphatic statement from Diane Elkabach, a young secretary rushing home to her two children after a day’s work in Paris. “Anglo-Saxons put too much importance on earning money,” she says. “I don’t live for my job. I live for me and my family.”

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That may not be a particularly surprising sentiment coming from someone from France. After all, the French – rich and poor alike – value their leisure time. They have long vacations – 37 days of paid annual leave and national holidays. They are the developed world’s champions when it comes to sleeping (an average of nine hours a night) and lingering over meals (two hours devoted to eating a day).

Symbolically, at least, they retain the European Union’s only 35-hour workweek, though the conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has been systematically dismantling it. Companies now can negotiate longer hours with their employees, for instance, and workers can more easily convert their overtime into pay rather than time off.

Moreover, even before the changes, many people in white-collar jobs and small businesses worked more than the 35 hours. In 2006, the real French workweek averaged 37 hours – longer than the German one.

Still, the French appreciate their time away from the keyboard and cash register as much as anyone. Ms. Elkabach will be more modest with her travels this year – but will be away from the relentless ring of the work phone nonetheless.

She is planning to spend half of her three-week summer vacation in Paris, puttering around her apartment. She will spend the other half at a campground in Brittany with her children and husband.

Others, too, are being far more money conscious with their time-off itineraries. Frédéric Pinard, a tobacconist in southeastern Paris, usually spends three weeks in July at his parents’ house outside Clermont-Ferrand in central France, using it as a base for camping and hiking trips with friends.
He closes his store for vacation, like many shopkeepers in Paris. But this year, for the first time, he is looking for someone to run the place while he is gone.

“I’ve got rent to pay whether I’m here or not, and I don’t want to give up any income if I can help it,” says Mr. Pinard. “Who knows what the economy is going to do?”