The Fine Art of Taking a Break

IN the dining room of a small guest house just outside this Black Forest town, a carved wooden plaque bears a bucolic message. It translates: "In the woods and on the heath, I seek my joy and pleasure." The sentiment neatly sums up the appeal of the meadows and pine-studded hills dotting the area. It might also explain, at least in part, the serenity of the retired couple who own this guest house. With their warm smiles, unhurried manner, and simple, good-hearted hospitality, they serve as living adverti sements for the advantages of life in the slow lane. Only the song of birds and the gentle rush of a small river interrupt the stillness surrounding their property. And only the presence of railroad tracks a few hundred yards away serves as a reminder of larger towns and cities beyond their postcard-pretty village.

To a vacationing American, this pastoral setting is a long way from a mortgage in the suburbs, a paycheck in the city, and the daily commuter traffic that connects the two. It is also light years from meetings and deadlines, appointments and shopping lists. This welcome retreat, combined with the natural beauty of the area, gives the famed forest an irresistible attraction.

So irresistible, in fact, that crowds occasionally threaten the sylvan tranquility. On a sunny Sunday in June during a three-day holiday weekend, cars, campers, motorcycles, and tour buses compete for space on winding two-lane highways. During peak summer periods, traffic reportedly becomes so heavy that certain roads must be closed. So much for waldeinsamkeit, or the "forest loneliness" romanticized by poets.

Yet even the presence of thousands of other visitors lends a certain enchantment. There is something touching about the sight of parents and children pedaling along bicycle paths, and of large family groups picnicking in a clearing. Even the bands of hikers who appear along roadsides reflect a camaraderie that makes a case for regular retreats from cities and offices.

Germans love their holidays and get plenty of them. In Frankfurt, 125 miles to the north, even this three-day weekend is apparently not enough. Every year on the Tuesday following Pentecost, residents celebrate a strictly local holiday called Waldschestag, or "day of the small forest." Businesses close around noon, and people go for a walk in the woods.

It is hard to imagine a similar holiday in the United States. An afternoon set aside to walk through the forest? How quaint, Americans might say, preferring to head for the mall instead.

But Germany's example bears watching, and perhaps emulating. Even if Germans wanted to spend their holidays shopping, they cannot. During this long weekend, stores close at midday on Saturday and do not reopen until Tuesday morning. However inconvenient those locked doors might be for some customers, they encourage families to pursue other activities together.

German workers enjoy additional benefits Americans can only dream of. The work week stops at 37 hours for many employees. Vacations routinely stretch to five or six weeks a year.

In the United States, where even 10 weeks of unpaid family leave remains controversial, it is unrealistic to expect more holidays or longer vacations anytime soon. But other minor adaptations could help.

As a beginning, shortening the work week by even a few hours could ease the need for child care and give families more time together. Similarly, shortening shopping hours might add time and efficiency to a family's schedule. If the 1990s is truly a less excessive decade than the '80s, as some culture-watchers claim, do malls still need to be open nearly every holiday and until 9:30 or 10 p.m. every evening?

Too often, choices are presented as either-or. Adopt a work ethic or adopt a play ethic, as if those who are constituted to work do not know how to play, and vice versa. The harmony of work and play - something that goes with the harvest and the festival afterward - seems more natural to Europeans than to Americans. Could the New World learn a lesson from the Old World? This sense of wholeness is a precious gift, when both work and play equally celebrate life and the ant and the grasshopper dance togethe r.

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