Thursday, November 18, 2010

More on school and holidays

The school year in Belgium starts on September 1 and runs through June 30th. Universities and other institutions of higher learning follow the "akademisch jaar" (academic year) that starts on October 1 and runs to the end of the first week of July. The academic year is a bit out of synch with all other calendars and it allows young adults to travel during the month of September when the big holiday rush is over and prices are cheaper.

July and August are known as the "grote vakantie" (big holiday) in Belgium. Apart from the grote vakantie there are a number of "kleine vakanties" that last for 2 weeks. Belgium has a strong Catholic heritage and all the holidays in Belgium are linked to religious festivals on the Catholic calendar. Nearly all of Belgian life is synchronized to that calendar and the degree of synchronization is much higher than in the US. Most businesses are also tied to the same calendar and the period known as "congés payés" or paid vacation periods also occurs in July-August.

It is important to know about this because it will affect you when you stay in Belgium for an extended period of time. You will soon find out that there are times to do things and times when nothing can be done because all the shops and businesses are closed.
Closed for vacation

Hotel room prices are higher during the school vacation periods and so are rooms for rent. It is also more difficult to find rooms during those times, especially in tourist spots and near the coast.

Starting at the beginning of the school year, students have a herfstvakantie (fall vacation) at the end of October and de kerstvakantie (Christmas or New Years vacation) during the last week of December and the first week in January (when all the big cyclocross events are).

In Spring there are krokusverlof (Crocus vacation) and paasverlof (Easter) both tied to the Easter holiday. Since the Easter holiday is linked to Jewish Passover and a lunar calendar, it shifts around from year to year. In 2011, krokus will be 3/7 to 3/13 and paasverlof 4/11 to 4/24. It will then gradually shift back into March over the next five years.

In addition to religious holidays there are holidays where everyone takes a second day off (typically called 2nd<holiday name>). So we have 2nd Christmas, 2nd Easter (4/25 in 2011) and 1st and 2nd Ascension (6/2-6/3 in 2011), 2nd Pentecost, etc.

There are also prominent non-religious holidays such as May 1, and November 11. When these fall on a weekend, usually people take Mondays off and when they fall on a Tuesday or Thursday, it is customary to "bridge" to or from the weekend.

A school calendar can be found here.

Promising young Belgian racers often take a week-long team retreat ("een stage") in Italy or Spain two or three weeks before opening weekend. The retreat usually coincides with a school holiday although it tends to run longer so students need a letter from their team. If you plan to see if you can find a team to ride with, you may want to find out about team retreats before you travel to Belgium.

There is one other quirk in the Belgian school system that you need to know about. Belgian schools have week long exam periods twice a year. First, ahead of the Christmas vacation, and second ahead of the grote vakantie. Unlike in the American system, the grading in Belgian schools is totally skewed towards the second exam period. More than 90% of a student's grade is determined here and there is no way a student can move up unless they pass all the tests in the May-June exam period, no matter how well they did earlier in the year. That means the May-June period is one of extreme stress for most students.

The situation only gets worse as one progresses to higher education. Here the entire grade is determined by one final oral exam. Course work at universities usually stops in early May and students spend 2 months studying for their final exams. The period from the end of May until the middle of July is one where university students are focused on one thing only: passing their exams. It is a time when student bars are empty and weekend partying is postponed until summer starts.
Abbey retreat to study for finals

The period is called "blokken" or "den blok," which means to lay bricks or the brick. It is interesting to note that "a brick" in triathlon means a workout with more than one sport back to back (i.e. ride-run, or swim-run). No doubt the analogy is one of putting bricks up to build a wall or achieve something big.

Visiting Belgian families with school aged children in June is NOT a good idea. Unfortunately most American schools end their year in mid May or early June and many young American racers are eager to go to Belgium at that time. End of May and June are also not good times if you want to go to Belgium for parties or festivals or anything else young people are interested in.

One reason the pressure is so high is that students who fail to pass one of their final exams have only one option: to take another set of exams held at the end of summer before the new school year starts. This so-called "second period" is their last chance to avoid having to do their year over again. What that means is no vacation and spending an entire summer studying.

No comments: