Four thousand miles across the sea

Meghan McCallum

I just came back to Nantes after my IES version of midterm Reading Period. All over France, there is a one-week long (or longer, depending on the grade level) vacation for all students, taking place during the end of October to the beginning of November. This only applies to students officially registered in the French school system, however; so the past few days I have been doing homework and getting up early for my two non-Universite de Nantes classes while my host brother goes out at night and has afternoon Xbox 360 sessions with his friends. Neither of my host parents works anymore, but if they did they would have had a long weekend thanks to this holiday, called “Toussaint.”Don’t the French have the whole month of August as vacation? Why do they need more? For one, they don’t have Thanksgiving. Secondly, Toussaint is the French equivalent of what we’d call All Saints’ Day, or the day when you eat all of your Halloween candy. The official day of Toussaint is November 1, and the traditional celebrations are what you’d expect: bringing flowers to the graves of loved ones and giving thanks for their impact on others’ lives.

The weird thing is, although Toussaint is still a public holiday, there is a lot of talk about how it’s no longer correctly recognized. French news stories have reported that instead of taking time to pay their respects to deceased relatives, for example, citizens pass the day basically however they want. One interviewee on a Paris news broadcast said, “It’s a day of tranquility; a good afternoon for a walk.” Students, profiting from their week-long vacation, sometimes choose to spend their time hanging out with friends and partying at night. The Toussaint holiday isn’t completely destroyed; families do make a point of spending time together, but the original meaning is said to be slipping. This led me to think: So, is the fun of Halloween maybe replacing the seriousness of Toussaint in France? Nope.

So I wasn’t in France on October 31 — I’ll explain that in a bit — but I can confidently say that Nantes doesn’t make a big deal of Halloween. Sure, it’s an excuse for kids to get some candy and for an “Americanized” bar to have drink specials, but it probably wasn’t the same scene that a lot of you experienced at the Co-op.

I’ve got to say, it has been a weird Toussaint Break for me. For probably the first time in my life, I didn’t eat any candy on Halloween (today’s my 21st birthday, so if you’re a math major you know that I was almost 1 on my first Halloween — I probably ate some kind of sugary substance that day). This year, I actually spent Halloween night in the rainy streets of Amsterdam, seeking shelter from the cold with multiple cups of coffee and tea. No one around there seemed to know that it was Halloween, except for some American girls dressed as hippies. That might not have been a joke, though.

In many ways, actually, you might say that my Toussaint Break was a lot like Lawrence’s Reading Period. Officially the break was meant to allow me, as a French student, to spend time with my family and give thanks to those who have died. Because I am American, though, the more common celebration during my break might have been Halloween — a holiday that allows me to dress crazy and drink beer out of a Frisbee. Instead, I ended up spending my break in Amsterdam and celebrated neither Toussaint nor Halloween. I bet that’s what most of you can say about your Reading Period — didn’t do a whole lot of reading, did you?