The French: making it look easy

Vive la France?

What does the average person think of when he/she thinks of France? Great food? Great wine? Beautiful varied scenery? A certain relaxedness among the populace?

All of these things being true, the one that will be examined here is the last one. In this respect, when compared to most of the other modern western industrialized nations (and possibly the entire world), France is truly unique.

I have lived in France for almost a year now. I worked with them at a ski station in the Alps for six months during “la saison d’hiver”. I ate all my meals with them, spent most days at work with them, hit the slopes with them, and of course, our “soirees” were all spent together. They came from all over the country, from as far north as Eperleques, to the Bretagne region, as well as many scattered across Southern France. They all had their own unique stories. There were women, men, teenagers, young adults, as well as punks, preps, goths, hippies…the whole gamut. But in spite of all of these differences, they held one thing in common:

A high held appreciation for “living the good life”.

None of them let work dictate or dominate their lives. They did not live to work, but rather they worked to live. This approach to life seems to manifest itself across the entire country. It is almost primordial. And one could argue, uniquely and quintessentially French.

Here are a few examples:

  • The French receive more vacation time than the vast majority of modern nations. A nation-wide minimum of 5 weeks paid vacation a year is granted to each and every working French citizen. Compare these to 2 weeks in the States and in Japan.
  • Sundays, out of a desire and a need among them to spend time with loved ones or to simply relax, are pretty much always dead. Save for a few restaurants, large supermarkets which can be open Sunday mornings, and a small collection of others, everything is closed. While this can pose inconveniences for others, a day of real rest must do wonders for mental health and give one time to slow down a little bit to “smell the roses”. Sundays in France are often spent by crowding the whole family around the table for a huge lunch, likely followed by some siestas. I heard from one friend here that his family’s sunday lunches could last up to 6 hours on end!
  • Most stores will close for 2-3 hours during the afternoon. This gives the French a relatively luxurious afternoon break to eat a healthy and balanced lunch, rarely lacking the glass of rose and the espresso. It is a common concern among doctors that many people simply eat too fast. This can cause stress and bad digestion. Maybe the French have it right taking their time, discussing, laughing, and savouring every bite and taste. It sure beats eating at the desk!
  • French people tend to retire much younger than most of the world. For example, currently, SNCF workers are consistently retiring in their early 50s with a full pension including all the benefits to boot! This gives many french people even more time after their working days to vacation, relax, and basically to enjoy life after work.
  • 35 hour work weeks in France are not just common; they’re the law! Currently, it is illegal to work more than 35 hours a week in France. Additional hours do not necessarily translate to additonal pay so there is no incentive to go over the limit. I once met somebody who, because he worked over 35 hours a week before the law was instilled, is now able to recuperate those hours. This basically means that 31 hour work weeks became the norm for him! One of the most impressive things about this phenomenon (unique to France) is that as research has shown, productivity per hour in France is higher than it is in the States. One can surmise from this that when they are working, they are truly working hard and efficiently. But when they are off, they are truly off, not wanting to be bothered with anything that will even remind them of work.

I could go on. Maternity leave is very generous. Doctors will often recommend patients to take a fairly long break off work in order to fully recuperate at their own pace. Nothing is rushed in France.

A picture perfect example would be one that I witnessed myself with my own eyes. I was walking down a market street near Sarlat, France around lunch-time a couple of weeks back. My aunt stopped to admire (and possibly purchase) a tablecloth.

“How much is this?” she asked, clearly showing interest in a purchase.

This was the storekeepers reply: “I’m sorry. It’s lunchtime right now. I was just going to sit down at the table. Please come back in 2 hours.”

A bit stupefied that she would not delay lunch for a few minutes to make a sale, the only words my aunt could find were “Bon Appetit.”

Sometimes, I think the French have it right. They have struck a delicate balance between work and leisure. Between the grind of personal goals and responsibilities and the desire to simply enjoy life, to relax. The best thing about this balance is that it actually works. And even better, it is contagious. I know I’m starting to take longer lunch breaks. I mean, what’s the rush?

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