Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Vive les Vacances !

Les vacances de noël, or Christmas break, ended less than two months ago, and it's already time for the third 2 week break of the year, and not a moment too soon either (Budapest, here I come!). A month and a half later, and it will be time for les vacances de Pâques--Easter/Spring break. Right about now you're probably asking yourself, "With all of these vacations, how do they get any work done?" Fair question. But the more important question you should be asking is "With how little vacation we get, how do we get any living done?"

good luck smelling these roses...
In case you're still worried about those poor French students, they have longer hours and a longer school year, so no worries, they learn things (theoretically anyway...).  In the US, we live to work. We work at least 40 hour weeks, sometimes even giving up our weekends to put in overtime. I can't imagine asking a French person to give up their weekends, especially Sundays--the day for family, big, long lunches, and strolling down Rue de la République or along the banks of the Rhône on those (oh-so-rare) sunny days. Our ancestors planted an unrelenting Protestant work ethic into the soil of our nation, making it an essential part of what it means to be American. If you work hard enough, you'll achieve the great American dream. One of our greatest presidents, good ole Honest Abe, incarnates this spirit, pulling himself up by his bootstraps from a log cabin to the White House. Of course, this dream has often proven more myth than reality, but it's still there, beckoning to people all over the world who come here to begin their pursuit of happiness. It is that pursuit that we thrive on. In France, they tend to focus more on the happiness part--despite their reputation for constant striking and being incessant râleurs.* Though if you've been paying attention you'll realize that some of this complaining is against things that try to mess with their happiness, with la belle vie.* (not that it's not sometimes quite embêtant. I mean, they even complain about how much they complain.)

Unlike us overstressed, overworked and overcaffeinated Americans, les Français work to live. This has nothing to do with how they feel about their job; they just don't sacrifice good living to make an extra buck or satisfy an overly-demading boss. They take 1-2 hour lunches versus our half hour (which many of us spend at our desks), 5 weeks of vacation versus our 2 (which many of us don't even take). When my French friends asked me how much vacation the average working American got, I'm pretty sure they thought I forgot my French  numbers when I sheepishly responded with 2 weeks--if they're lucky. "But you have shorter work days right?" Ha, no. "We just have this work culture..." I started to explain, when one of them quickly laughed, "Oh yeah, we don't have that here." A French girl I met in the US told me that she never felt stressed until she moved there. Apparently no matter where you come from, it's impossible not to get swept up in the great American rat race. They really know how to enjoy life here, not the least of which is exemplified by their cuisine and the culture around it. This country produces such good, quality food that takes time and care to prepare properly, that it's almost one's duty to take the time to really savor it, rather than gobbling it down between emails. Eating well (in all senses of the term) is an integral part of living well, a truth the French have long recognized and continue to master. Whether or not you're a fan of la cuisine française, which to be honest, it's pretty hard not to find something delicious among their vast and often mouth-watering repretoire, you at least have to appreciate the exhaulted place food occupies in this culture and the restorative powers of a good meal (in fact, the word "restaurant" comes from the French verb "restaurer," a word that means to feed or to restore--a tidbit to help you on Jeopardy.).

In case you're still skeptical about these cultural differences, here's an example from ma vie quotidienne.* Every Thursday, I leave for work at 7am for an 8am class. I spend an hour in public transportation surrounded by university students and people commuting to work. Despite this early hour--when the sun is even still asleep--I am the ONLY one with a thermos of life-saving caffeine in my hands. It's been 5 months and I have yet to see anyone else with so much as a to-go cup of joe. The first day I walked into my 8am class with my Sur La Table thermos clutched between my fingers, my teacher immediately asked me about it, beginning with: "Oh, you must have gotten that in the US." Seriously?? What was so bizarre about a portable cup of tea? Apparently, a lot. On another morning, a contrôleur,* as I handed him my pass, grinned and asked, "C'est du thé?*" still only half-awake, in a rush to catch the tram, and so not ready for the French Inquistion, I stared at him blankly for a second before muttering "euh...oui" before hurrying confusedly away.  On the New York metro, you're the odd-man out if you're not holding onto a pole with one hand and coffee with the other--both of them keeping you from falling over at some time in your day. My 9am 19th century French history class meant a coffee cup/thermos for every student. It's not that they don't take their morning caffeine (and their obligatory post-lunch espresso, late afternoon jolt etc), they just do it at home or once they've gotten to work--if the 10am huddle around the coffee machine is any indication. We spend our lives multi-tasking, doing things on-the-go, looking for convenience and ways to speed things up (we invented the vacuum cleaner, electric washing machine, the assembly line and the fast food industry--refer to late-night infomercials for more), while the French take time to slow it down--and yes, smell the roses. I think the French equivalent pretty much sums it up:  prenez le temps de vivre. Take the time to live.

But, before you go away thinking I've just spent yet another post vaunting the French and attacking America, let me say a few words in our defense. Our tireless work ethic built the world's most powerful and wealthy nation from nothing. While the means were sometimes, um, problematic, our achievements our nonetheless undeniable. Like I said, we invented the vacuum cleaner, electric washing machine, assembly line and fast food industry. We always strive to be better, to do better, to want, hope and dream for more and we work for it. Maybe the real achievement is in the pursuit, and the happiness is just la cerise sur le gâteau.* Half the fun is getting there, right? Still, we could stand to lead life a little more à la française.

See you after les vacances!
râleurs: compainers, moaners
la belle vie: the beautiful life
embêtant: annoying
ma vie quotidienne: my daily life
contrôleur: the people who make surprise appearances on public transportation to check your tickets, even at 7am. Lyon is serious about ticket control. (Also the word for train conductors, the people who check your tickets on trains.)
C'est du thé?: Is that tea?
la cerise sur le gâteau: the cherry on top

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