It’s 3:30pm on a Friday in Strasbourg, France and despite the fact that I’m quickly developing second-hand lung cancer, I’m otherwise enjoying a delightful 65 degree French afternoon at my favorite spot in town, Cafe Brant’s patio. To my right is the 120 year-old Saint Paul’s Church just beyond the far bank of the city river and to my left is a beautiful cobblestone street lined with trees and Parisian architecture.
Most of my days here, I go about my light schedule and don’t think twice about my exceptional circumstances. But it’s days like this one where I sit back, soak in the French lifestyle, and consider how extraordinarily blessed I am to have this experience.
Just 14 months ago I was spending 40+ hours each week in a cubicle, purchasing industrial tools for aerospace engineers who I’d never met. I was blessed to begin my professional career at such an esteemed company as Boeing, but my specific position required little critical thinking and didn’t put me on a path to any job that I specifically desired. So I took the GMAT, sent in an application to Pepperdine’s Graziadio School, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
I can’t even imagine what I would have thought had someone told me during my unengaging corporate days that my next two years would involve living two blocks from Santa Monica Beach, driving along Pacific Coast Highway to my Malibu campus each day, and traveling to France for four months.
The Stark Difference between France and America
The most fascinating lesson I’ve learned since coming to Strasbourg a month ago is that even though the U.S. and France are both Western societies and have top 10 economies, our cultures are near-opposites.
I spent a summer in Cameroon four years ago and sometimes it seems that French culture is closer to the African nation’s than America’s. The culture here is different not just at the surface, but it involves a very different way of thinking that affects all aspects of life.
For example, I showed up to town on a Saturday afternoon and had a checklist of things to do or buy. But it turned out that the vast majority of useful stores close late afternoon or early evening on Saturdays. To compound the problem, when I woke on Sunday, I thought I’d go see the city and knock out my list of things to do that I couldn’t do Saturday evening. Much to my surprise, less was open during the middle of the day Sunday than on Saturday evening. It turned out that pretty much everything except restaurants are closed all of Sunday.
My first 36-hours in France exemplifies the stark difference between France and America. I showed up to town expecting to get things done and for businesses to be open during any hours that might be reasonably convenient to consumers.
Compared to the US, France is a service desert.
In America, we expect to be served wherever we go; businesses are strongly focused on filling the needs and desires of consumers. And considering that the employees in American businesses are also consumers, they want to make as much money as possible to consume all that their hearts desire. That’s a foreign concept in France, though.
Learn to Watch the World Go By
Everything is smaller here: the cars, the coffee, the apartments. The French don’t seem to care as much about getting bigger and better things the way that we do. There is a certain cultural contentment to be admired here. This way of thinking feeds into the entire lifestyle.
Since the French are less focused on acquiring more and are more focused on relaxing, they don’t care that stores aren’t open late on Saturdays or at all on Sundays. It doesn’t faze them when shops close from 12-2 so the workers can have a relaxing lunch. They have less “stuff” to keep them entertained inside their individual homes, so they spend a great deal of time sitting outside with their backs to cafes, watching the world go by as they burn through a pack of cigarettes and sip on a small coffee.
Of course, a society focused so acutely on a relaxed life misses out on parts of life that Americans enjoy due to our productivity-centric culture. But I can’t help but believe that a small dose of French living would be a wonderful tonic to Americans’ focus on doing more and getting more.
We are always doing something, even when we’re not really doing anything.
How many young Americans can even sit through a TV show without checking their iPhones for texts or posting quips on social networks? When we go out on the weekends, are we really relaxing or are we rushing to make events on time and trying to impress others? We try to do so much in our daily lives; what if we cut out a few peripheral activities and spent some time each week doing nothing?
I don’t think we were designed for non-stop busyness. As a business student trying to prepare to do big things in life, doing nothing is a difficult task. But I can’t help but think that spending more time doing nothing would not only be good for my health, but would also increase my productivity in areas that actually matter.
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