The French call it la joie de vivre. As an American in Paris, I wasn’t exactly sure what to call it.
Most of my classmates were international students, and naturally I gravitated towards other Anglophones, particularly at the beginning of my semester abroad. One of my best friends was a boy from Manhattan. We both gawked at the masses of Parisians who seemed to always be on lunch break, worked no more than five hours a day, and never bothered to check the time before opening a bottle of wine. The other Anglophones, Canadian, Irish, and English, shared our incredulity in how little the French worked. Mr. Manhattan and I decided to do a bit of research; we found that the French workforce experiences some of the shortest workdays in the world. Simultaneously, the French workforce is also one of the most productive in the world. Our own is one of the least productive with some of the longest workdays.
A few weeks into my semester in Paris, I decided to stop being miffed that the administrators at my university were ceaselessly on lunch break. I decided to drink the cool-aid, which incidentally turned out to be the best champagne I’ve ever had. No meal is complete without sipping tea or coffee for an hour afterwards. Wine warrants no occasion.
Why would you ever read at a desk when you could go to a café? Take your book, take your journal, or take nothing at all. The most Parisian thing in existence is the simple act of sitting at a little round table on a slightly rickety chair on the sidewalk outside a café, sipping a cup of coffee (which is actually espresso) under a dove grey sky. My personal version of this activity includes a box of pistachio macarons.
In the United States, children are incessantly asked about their future career aspirations. An 80-hour workweek is unexceptional. We place such an emphasis on the scale and intensity of work. But what about books and music and art? What about friends and food? I recall having an interview nearly a year before my study abroad experience during which I listed as many of my extracurricular activities as I could, attempting to impress my interviewer. He listened politely until I ran out of breath, and then asked, “But how do you sharpen your sword?”
I found the answer in Paris: the immeasurable benefits of allowing oneself freedom, the unexpected rewards of indiscipline, how healthy it can be to let people just wander.
When I stepped off the plane at the Will Rogers “World” Airport, I felt a little like Harry Potter passing through Platform 9 ¾, on his way back from Hogwarts, a little sad, but grateful that I had something to miss.