The French Are Onto Something…

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.

5 thoughts on “The French Are Onto Something…

  1. David Ray


    Thought you might like to read one of my articles about France….

    Letter From France: ‘I Have the Peach’

    By David Ray
    Newsweek International

    Jan. 17 issue – I knew it was time to start home-schooling my 11-year-old daughter in English when she accused me of speaking French “like a Spanish cow.” She had meant to say I murder French, which is completely accurate, but that wasn’t my beef with her. After living in southern France for four years, my little girl now translated French idioms directly into nonsensical English. She had become more French than American.

    I began noticing this cultural flip-flop one day when I asked her a simple question, in English. “How are you?” I expected something like “I’m fine,” or perhaps “I feel like a million bucks.” Instead she replied, “I have the peach.” Later I learned that in French this translates to “I’m fit as a fiddle.” But the next day she threw me another curveball, or, should I say, another fruit. This time it was “I have the banana.” She looked momentarily confused when I expressed concern, then realized I was merely hapless. No, Dad, you’ve got it upside down, she explained. She meant she was happy. The ends of the banana pointing up meant smile, not down in a frown. “Are you speaking Greek?” I asked. “Ohi,” she said, remembering the word for “no” from our family vacation in Athens.

    If possible, my wife is even more idiomatically maladroit than I. Yes, she speaks Japanese and holds an Ivy League degree, but she still says “Three wrongs don’t make a right,” and “We could kill two pigeons with one arrow.” When she joined a French company as the big cheese of global marketing, her colleagues were completely lost when she advised, “Don’t count your geese before they hatch.” They gave her a look—not because she failed to use “chickens,” but because the French equivalent is “Don’t sell the skin of a bear before you’ve killed it.” When the business started to go dans la merde, the French managers shouted, in English, that they’d better find a way out of the strawberry patch or else their carrots would be cooked.

    Fearing my daughter would be a fish out of water when she returned to America—or, worse, have to hide her fluency in French when running for president—I began speaking to her in idiomatic English. We started with baseball. When she performed well on an exam, I told her she’d “hit a home run.” Doing poorly meant “striking out.” When she wanted to go to two birthday parties on the same day, I reminded her that she couldn’t have her cake and eat it, too. If someone passed gas in the car, I asked who cut the cheese. I knew we were making progress when she responded, “He who smelt it dealt it.” My wife tried to join our little repartee with “Do unto others as they do to you.” Ms. Malaprop strikes again.

    As in “My Fair Lady,” where the student Eliza ultimately ends up teaching the professor, Mr. Higgins, it was my daughter who struck upon the solution to our linguistic contretemps. “A closed mouth catches no flies,” she reminded me. Henceforth I remained tight-lipped as an oyster at dinner parties, at least until the cheese arrived. Then I would negotiate even the most difficult topics in French proverbs alone. With Franco-American relations still tense, I offered that “While the dogs growl at each other the wolf devours the sheep.” Other guests asked what I did for a living. As a plain old househusband, several things came to mind: shopping at Carrefour, folding laundry, vacuuming dog hair, marinating duck. But I skipped these details and declared that “I have the fries,” meaning “I’m happy as a clam at high tide.” Of course, another guest just had to ask, “Are those french or freedom fries?”

    © 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

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