Hourra, it is les vacances d’hiver in Zone C! You’re probably wondering, huh? I will explain: it is the school winter holidays for little frenchies. With top ski resorts just over 3-4 hours away in the Alps, the place is to be for families is to go skiing in France.
To take a step back, we should note that vacations are big business here, with a large portion of the economy dependent on tourism. French workers have between 6-12 weeks of holidays, depending on their job and their industry.
And boy do they need these holidays! Who else is going to manage their kids who themselves have 2-week holidays every 6 weeks. This means the kids are off of school for 2 full weeks each Oct, Dec, Feb, and April, excluding regular summer hols.
Yes, that’s a lot of holidays. And that’s a lot of people flocking to vacation destinations all at the same time. To ease the number of people going on holiday at any one time, the map of France is divided into 3 zones, A, B & C so that the entire country is not on holiday at the same time. The Parisian Region is in Zone C, and this week marks the start of the February holidays here.
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If you think this only impacts people with kids, you’d be wrong. People without children mark these holidays as well so that they can avoid them like the plague. Vacation resorts will be packed, trains will be full, prices will be higher, and everything will take much longer during the holidays. Just like the rentrée in September, this is an “event”.
So what do French people do during the February vacances scolaire? Ski, of course!
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Social ladder of skiing
Statistics (link in French) show that only 8% of French people actually go skiing. However, if you are in France in February, you would think that the entire country comes to a standstill for ski holidays.
With the French Alps only 3 hours away by TGV train, it is the “thing to do” for French families, especially for families coming from big cities like Paris. One colleague described it, to a certain extent, as a “marqueur sociale” (a social marker), those who can afford it, and those who cannot.
So to alleviate the costs, workplaces negotiate discounts for their employees, on everything from lodging, to ski material, to ski lift tickets. Schools also get in on the action, organizing ski trips for kids as young as 5, where the entire class is expected to go.
Growing up in Canada vs France
I grew up in Canada but didn’t ski. I grew up ice-skating. It was easier for my parents to drop me off at the ice-rink. Like in most Canadian cities, an ice-rink can be found within 15 minutes of every neighborhood. While everyone may not be a good skater, it was the “thing to do”.
Even new immigrants will put their kids in for ice-skating, as the costs at the local Canadian community center are very affordable. And after gaining confidence in skating, the next step for little Canadians is, of course, hockey. It doesn’t matter if you are a boy or a girl, there are hockey clubs in Canada for everyone. It is part of the culture. Canadian kids start hockey as young as 2 years old. (Wayne Gretzky started at 2 when his dad built him an ice rink in their back yard!)
My French husband (who is not Wayne Gretzky on skis), on the other hand, grew up skiing but is a very wobbly ice skater. Skiing was their big holiday of the winter, and skating was never a priority. And he’s never even been to a hockey game (Maple Leaf tickets are impossible to get.)
Both winter sports, and yet both of us grew up dictated by the culture around us. And now since we live in France, for our kids, it is skiing that is front-and-center. We’re not even sure where the closest ice rink is in Paris. And I’m now having to work on upping my game at ski before my little ones catch on that their mum is dreadfully embarrassing them on the slopes!
French kids learning to ski
When I say French kids start young, I’m not exaggerating. One popular ski-school describes its categories as:
- Piou Piou – Start getting used to skis and sliding at age 2-3.
- Ourson – 4 years old and can move around on skis in different ways. Can ski with skis parallel straight downhill and stop using a snowplow turn.
- Flocon – 5 years old and can snowplow turns with skis brought back to parallel. Test of balance when skiing while facing down the slope. Can do little jumps, from one foot to the other or over little bumps, etc. on a slope.
Kids who grow up near the mountains even have day trips to the mountains with their school, all winter long. The husband and I found ourselves in a ski-lift with three 5-year-olds who were already ready for the big slopes. (Yes, in French ski classes, there can be 20 kids and 2 instructors, so even 5 year olds will be on the ski lifts in groups, without an adult with them!)
So are you a good skier? If you are thinking of coming to the French Alps to ski, forewarned: there will be some toddlers whizzing by you on the slopes!
☞ READ MORE: French Alps: Best resorts, when to go and more
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