Sunday, July 30, 2017

Americans' obsession with work and what we can still learn from the "Old World"

        It has happened to all of us. We are enjoying a wonderful meal with a friend or family and the waiter drops the check. We continue our conversation. Then he comes back to see if we're ready to pay. "Not yet", we respond. He comes back again. Then again. Out of frustration we toss him our card. He comes back and returns it. We leave it there, enjoying the company of the other. He comes back and asks if we're "all set with that". We're not. We fill out the tip, sign it, and put it aside, annoyed, not wanting to be interrupted again. Then the stare. "No rush. Take your time", he assures you. But he doesn't mean it. You can feel him and the other waiters staring at you, waiting for you to leave so that he can turn over the table. 

         So goes the experience of American dining. But so too goes a whole way of thinking in America. A mentality that views meals as something to get through so to get on to the next thing. But spend some time in Europe, specifically France and one will experience an entirely different reality. An average meal could last up to 2-3 hours. Meals are an event here. They are not to be had alone, if one can help it. They are not to be rushed through, but enjoyed-- even savored. And God help the waiter who even drops the check before being asked for it--c'est pas possible!
        Meals in France are a work of art, one could say. They follow a pattern as predictable as ever. And for an American like myself, they can seem too long! However, when I was in the south of France a short time ago on vacation at the house of French friends of mine, I was forced to think more about this stark difference that exists between the two cultures in this regard. I began wondering, what if the French have it right? What if we can learn something from this art, "the art of the meal"? Have they retained something that we have tragically lost? What are they up to?

         With each lunch and dinner I had with these friends I noticed that there was a sort of ceremony that guided it. It was something to look forward to during the day-- both lunch and dinner. It started with a drink - aperitif- to relax, and with it a little something to nibble on, un petit goûter. A bottle of rosé sits on the table, and each person is poured a glass. A carafe of water always sits beside it, with a separate glass at each place setting waiting for water to be poured. The main meal is served. Bread, always present on a French dining table, is passed around. We eat. We talk. We take our time. Next, the salad, but only when everyone has finished their meal. A simple salad. Lettuce, sprinkled with some olive oil, salt, and red wine vinaigrette-- just right. Then, of course, comes the cheese. Delicious cheese. A staple in a French family's refrigerator.  Three or four varieties. Each takes a small piece of three of the four of their choice. And, finally, dessert. Yes, dessert, even at lunch. Dessert is not for special occasions here- C'est normal! -even if it's just a piece of fruit. And then, a small cup of coffee to finish it off (a nice "pick me up" after a long meal!). With the coffee, a little piece of chocolate to accompany it. And when it is all said and done, one feels that he has really experienced something wonderful. The body, and, more importantly, the soul has been nourished. 

      The feeling of nourishment hasn't just come simply from the experience of wonderful tastes. There is something more at work there. Meals here go beyond the body. They touch the soul. They are agreeable to a desire all humans have for union with the other.  And that's really what they're about. A time of encounter. As such, phones are nowhere to be seen at a French table-- whether it be just for a coffee at a local cafe, or a full meal. And TVs? You won't find a one in any (authentic) French restaurant, nor will one be turned on in a French home when a meal is being served. It's not time for that, after all. It's time to be with the people you love and who mean something to you. It's time for the body, and the soul, to be nourished. 

      Here, meals are not simply a means by which the body's biological need for nourishment is satisfied, it is a means by which people engage each other. That is why special care is taken to prepare them. They provide the occasion for something sacred to be had, time with the other. Conversation is had. Relationships are formed and sharpened. It's what used to take place in American homes around the dinner table. Every night. Without distractions. Without exception.
        Today, many Americans often find themselves eating on the go. Or alone. When we do find those rare occasions to enjoy a meal with another at a restaurant, we fly through the meal in order to ......... go home and be alone? Check Facebook? And during the meal, it is unusually to not find the other pick up their phone, indirectly sending the message that you're just not that important. How rude. How depressing. Even as I sit here in a cafe writing, I look out to tables overflowing on the sidewalk, filled with people enjoying a coffee, so taken up in conversation with the other, not a phone in sight. And even after having seen this familiar sight time and again from living here, such a sight never ceases to stir and excite the soul-- it's just so human! One wants to be a part of it. Walk around Paris anytime of the night or day, and this is what you'll see. 

     Unsure of phone etiquette in a particular situation? The policy has been signed, sealed and delivered here. In fact, taking out a cell phone during a meal is so faux pas on this side of the pond that it can very literally end a relationship. One will not think twice about getting up and leaving the discussion if the one with whom they are speaking starts texting.
     This all goes to say that recognizing the presence of an other is a big deal here --still. One has the duty to recognize the presence of what is in front of them, that is, a human being. Walk into a shop and don't greet the worker(s) inside and you can forget about being sold a thing. If you don't recognize them as a person first, they won't serve you as an employee. 

     Meals are not the only thing that indicates a value placed on relationships here. The French insistence on making allowance for enjoying the good things, the simple things, and some of the most important things in life highlights this once more. Nowhere is this more obvious, perhaps, then in a part of French life that garners a lot of criticism-- especially from Americans. Of course, I'm referring to the minimum four weeks paid vacation to which the French are entitled, by law! To many Americans, this is an embarrassing over indulgence in the leisurely life. And taking the whole month of August off to go on vacation? A waste of time that could otherwise be spent doing something "productive."  
We, Americans, have been trained to feel bad about relaxing or taking vacation. We are almost embarrassed to tell our friends and family if it's going to be more than a week. "ouu, must be nice" is usually their response. A French person's (or European's for that matter) response? "Good for you!"

       Truth be told, however, it is this attitude on the part of Americans that, in part, propelled America into becoming the most economically prosperous country in the world. Americans are hard workers. We get things done. We always have. A two hour conversation over coffee? Who has time for that! America has always been a place where people feel free to pursue creative ideas, where the impossible becomes possible, and a country which has stood as a beacon of light with the promise that if you work hard anything is possible. As with all success, however, there is a price to be paid. 

        While we work hard and put in a lot of hours, statistics show that we relax very little. While most businesses in France shut down for the whole month of August for vacations, a recent report reveals that the average U.S. employee takes about half (54%) of his paid vacation. That's right, half of his paid vacation (God forbid my boss think me lazy and I don't get that promotion!). Have we reached the point in America where what we do has become more important than who we are

    As I myself indulged in the French life this summer, as I savored the wonderful taste of French cheese, washing it down with delicious wine during that second half of those long meals, I sometimes found my American instinct kick in, and feeling guilty  about enjoying the "good life," myself being brought to wonder "is this too much?" Americans feel bad about relaxing too much. It is something in our psyche. But then I thought it through and began wondering if it's not the French that have it right. While we wouldn't dream of taking a two-hour long lunch on, for example, a weekend day (or even 30 minutes for that matter!), have we in the process lost something important- perhaps, one could say, even sacred? 

   As I reflect back on the many meals I have been a part of in France what strikes me most of all is not the quality of the meal (although that's impressive enough), but the quality of the presence of those who take part in the meal--- to one another. There is a culture of encounter here. No, the French don't eat slowly out of concern for digestion (although it helps!). It's a matter of priorities. Relationships mean something. And opportunities to engage the other should be savored (while enjoying also the best that life has to offer, like a good meal, or a good vacation!). No one is to be seated at the table in such a way that another human being is not across from them. Three people? One sits at the head of the table, the other two on either side. It's little things that highlight the importance of the other. People are most important. As such, everything revolves around this-- including a job. Not the other way around. 

     It does not take coming to France or Europe for Americans to catch a glimpse of what I mean. If one knows an Italian, Greek, or French family with a member who is not too far removed from the generation that first arrived to Ellis Island, one knows how important family (and food!) is to them. But this is a rarity in America. Indeed, it is a remanence of the "Old World", in which family and loved ones- others- take priority. 

     As I sat back and watched my friends being taken up in conversation, sipping their wine, delighted by each other's company, I couldn't help but conclude that we have tragically lost something back home. Something of our humanity, in fact.  Indeed, we have achieved incredible "success" and "productivity", but at what cost? Has this trade off been worth it?  Is success in our own material endeavors more important than the enjoyment of people and of the pleasures of life? There is a saying in France that goes something like this: "Americans live to work, and the French work to live."  If that's true, we're in trouble. Big trouble. 

        A recent study coming out of Harvard University looked at what contributes to a happy life (the longest study of its kind). The study found that one could be very sick, poor, overwhelmed by tragedy, and still report a high level of contentment and happiness. On the other hand, the study found that many who were financially successful, or who had achieved impressive feats in their careers, reported being very unsatisfied and very unhappy. Thus, the study concluded, neither health nor material prosperity, nor success necessarily resulted in fulfilling lives. The variable? Relationships. The Harvard scientists found that it was the quality of relationships that was the determining factor of whether or not one was happy, one even concluding that "loneliness kills [and is] as powerful as smoking or alcoholism."

       So sure, we are productive. We retire at age 65-70 with comfortable retirement accounts awaiting us, long resumes that brag of impressive professional achievements built up over 45-50 years of hard work-- long days, short meals, little time spent with family and friends, exhaustion, and practically no vacation. But for what? To enjoy life for 20 years? Are the goods of life really only to be enjoyed at the end?  The French don't think so. Americans used to not think so. And while there are many problems here- in France and in Europe- and certainly the U.S. wins the prize when it comes to economic prosperity, are we really better off? Are we happier? Have we sacrificed something sacred for something so temporary and, in the long run, unfulfilling?

        As the Harvard study shows us, it is not the resume that will make us happy, and it is certainly not what will get us through the tough times that we inevitably will encounter in life. It's each other. Greek philosopher Aristotle once famously wrote that "men are, by nature, political animals." In other words, we are social beings. We are, by nature, meant to be in relationship with others. It is a desire and necessity that is at the core of our very being. It is why relationships bring us the most happiness-- and cause the most pain. But relationships need to be cultivated, fostered, they need to grow. They don't grow from a distance. They don't grow from big salaries. They don't grow from having reached "the top." And their enjoyment, and that of life in general, is not meant to be deferred to the last 20 years of life. Relationships grow by spending time with the other. They grow over a life time. Over a long meal. Over a long vacation, taken often. Over a good glass of wine or a cup of coffee. And without a screen in sight---and without apology. ça, c'est la vie!

                                                                           Paris, France.

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