There is some truth to the saying that we Americans "Live to Work" and Europeans "Work to Live." This became very evident during my family's spring break trip to Paris this year when we all noticed significant differences between how we live in America and how the Parisians approach the joys of everyday living.
My family was fortunate enough to have my mother's home in central Paris as a base during our nine-day visit. This granted us a local perspective as we went about our days in the City of Light.
The French are by no means perfect. However, their approach to life seems more focused or, shall I say, less cluttered, than the lives we live in the States. It became my mission during this trip to identify some of the variances in our lifestyle, from the way the Parisians dress to the manner in which they enjoy their meals.
Joie de Vivre
The French strive to live a very passionate life. They have a keen focus on what's important to them and they manage to turn even the smallest things—such as where to get the best cup of espresso—into an event. In conversation, they are more interested in your personal interests, such as the books you're reading or your lifelong passions, rather than your occupation and where you live. They find great gratification in the art of discovery in a big city.
Honor Thy Baguette and Cheese
Each morning, my wife and I walked to the end of the street where my mother's street intersects with rue Montorgueil, the culinary heart of the 2nd arrondissement. Our first ritual was to grab our cups of café crème at one of the several cafes we love on the street. We would join the line at Boulangerie Les Petits Carreaux for two crispy baguettes and several pain au chocolat for the kids, and then walk down the street to Le Fermette for our cheese and meat selections of the day. There were a couple of mornings when we ventured off to Bastille and Belleville markets for some fresh fruit to complement our breakfast.
We'd set the table as soon as we got home and allowed the aromas of the breads and cheeses to wake up the kids. Waking up to a warm baguette and an array of French cheeses was the one ritual my family valued most. It signified that we had arrived in Paris and that every morning would be celebrated at the dining table (and not in a car or on the go).
It's Better to Look Your Best Daily
In America, we save our best attire for the most special of occasions. The French, on the other hand, savor wearing their best for the "ordinary" days—whether it is to stroll along the banks of the Seine or take in the warmth of the sun on a bench in Place des Vosges in the Marais. It is all about quality over quantity.
I was having breakfast at Café du Centre with my hair sculptor friend, Sin, when he pointed out that Parisian women "were packaged perfectly." Sin added, "Their hairstyles [women] were done naturally without spending so much time on primping and styling." The Parisians were not as consumed with spending as much time on "getting ready" as Americans.
Converse During Meals
Meals are considered sacred in France, whether it's in a Michelin star restaurant or dinner at home. It's an event where each bite is to be relished, and more importantly, time is to be focused on each other. Texting or talking on the phone during meals is considered rude and the lack of cell phone use in restaurants was noticeably observed.
My wife and I made it a ritual to enjoy "happy hour" at one of the bars on rue Montorgueil before taking the family out to dinner. We observed that the younger workers, even during this post-workday practice, did not divulge in technology distractions, and mainly focused on the conversation at hand.
Enjoying the Simple Pleasures
I couldn't wait to spread creamy, salted French country butter on a baguette on my first morning in Paris. I can say that the French find true pleasure in simple things most of us take for granted. In Jardin du Luxembourg, Parisians took advantage of the spring weather to bathe in the warm sunshine during their lunch break. Elderly Parisians gathered on one end of the park for a game of boules. Lovers sneak a kiss beyond the shadows of the Medici Fountain. Parisians walk a lot, both out of necessity and the sheer enjoyment of discovering the best of everything—from macaroons at Ladurée to the hot chocolate at Fauchon.
In the end, our family left Paris with a better sense of what is truly important in life. It is not about the amount of material things we own nor is it about what we do and how much money we make. What is important is to live a passionate life, especially with those who matter most. Life is too precious to waste by ignoring those in front of us.
As we gathered for our last meal at L'Epicerie restaurant, my wife and I marveled at how our family managed to enjoy every dining occasion on our trip free of electronic distractions. Dinners took a lot longer as we enjoyed lengthy conversations about our daily adventures in Paris. We took countless strolls after each meal, past the intricate buildings, boutiques and cafes, only to realize that being together as a family is really what made each day in Paris so memorable.