It is without fail that every time I go to Europe I have an existential crisis. It’s somewhere between people watching at a cafe and sitting down for a long dinner that I’m struck with the memory of a conversation during my study abroad. It’s been 6 years, but this last trip felt like it was yesterday. Fall 2007 I was sitting at a table with a couple good friends in my program poking fun at the French for their laziness and bureaucracy. Tim is from London; Sven is from Germany. Between the three of us we represented all that was efficiency, production and hard work in the world. Then Tim said something profound amidst all the jokes, ‘Ya know the French don’t live to work; it seems like they just work to get on with the rest of their lives.’ Whoa. Mockery quickly turned to a sober consensus that we were typical workaholics of our homes countries. Products of cultures that defined people by their job, titles, and bank statements. We just happened to be studying in a country where most defined success and happiness by the relationships in their lives.
(Sven, Tim and me in France)
I can remember exactly where I was the next time this conversation haunted me – Marseille, France. In 2010 I had just finished an MBA program in June then spent my summer working 90 hours per week selling door to door and earning more than many families makes in 11 weeks. What could be more American?! Yet that fall I decided to take a solo trip to Europe for a month to see friends and travel before starting a career. The second day of my trip I was with another friend Jessie from study abroad and we were walking down the old port in Marseille. Jessie was yelling at me for not staying more than a semester in Aix years ago. And she was even German at that! I was trying to explain how I had to return to Denver to work, stay on schedule in school, make money, etc. She laughed explaining that there was more to life and surely such things could wait. Then the conversation with Tim and Sven came flooding back into memory, ‘they don’t live to work; it seems like they just work to get on with the rest of their lives….’
(Jessie and me in Aix-en-Provence)
This past June I was lucky enough to take a two week vacation in Europe with my girlfriend, Brie. So without fail, the memory and lesson grabbed me again. This time I was in Rome. I had already been there – seen it, toured it, tasted it. But this trip I was in Rome with Brie seeing her excitement as we walked through the Colosseum or watched the sunset from the Spanish Steps. What a difference to share the experience in the context of a relationship. Tim’s words came flooding back to remind me that many Europeans ‘simply work to get on with the rest of their lives….’
(Brie taking in The Colosseum)
It seems so easy to submit to the American drumbeat of money, work and status. And it seems even harder to pretend that other areas such as relationships, health, and faith play just as much importance in defining our “success.” But anyone who’s been abroad and seen the quality of life elsewhere likely realizes that we should probably take a step back and question the tendency to let work completely define our lives. Maybe the French are onto something.
Thoughts? Have your priorities been impacted by travels abroad? Or maybe you never came back?! Feel free to comment, disagree, ask questions, or get your #hashtag on.