This post was most recently updated on March 15th, 2021
This article is part of the January/February 2021 linky for bloggers organized by the blog Expat in France. Feel free to check it out!
There you will find heaps of useful advice and information about living in France, navigating the French red tape and better understanding the French culture!
This post, at its foundation, is a contrast of the French culture versus the American culture based on my observations and experience of living in France. I have always lived in the Île-de-France region of France, mainly Paris. I grew up and lived most of my 36 years on this Earth in rural Ohio. A complete opposite of Paris, France. Amish country and dirt roads are in my blood. Some of the following points are from the point of view French and American as well as Parisian and Ohioans.
Things French (Parisians) do better than Americans (Ohioans)
I need to start with the French work week in order for the rest to line up and for you to see where I am going. The average work week is 35 hours here, usually starting around 9 AM, an hour lunch break at 1 PM and finishing up around 6 PM.
I am about to enter my 9th month of being officially employed here in France. At the publication of this article I will have already started a new job as manager of a popular doughnut shop here in Paris. Before that, I was an operations manager for a successful startup dark kitchen that is expanding quite rapidly. It quickly became apparent to me that this was not my cup of tea and I craved something with a little more substance.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing like the American mentality of work ; taking pride and joy in what you do and doing it to the fullest. Working extra hours after the rest of the office has gone home for the day or coming in on the weekends is something typical. Putting your all into your work; living to work.
In France, it’s more like you work to live. There is a work-life balance that allows you to work within the hours of your contract and not much more. My former job made me realize that there is more to life than working 12+ hours a day. I needed balance. If I was still in the States, I would have continued to keep trucking along and sucked it up. But watching my French husband and friends and their lives, I realized there was more to this than work.
It’s okay to have boundaries and stick to them. It’s okay to take a step back from it all and put time back into your corner. Not to get too sappy, but life is short, make it work for you and not against you. The French have this quality down to a “T” and I think some Americans can take a page from their book. I certainly have and it’s been worth it!
I can’t speak much for small town France, but getting around without a car is a fairly easy feat here in Paris. My husband, who is 38, has never driven a car and has not had a need for one either. He has relied on the public transportation system here in the greater Île-de-France region to get by.
I, on the other hand, lived and died by my car when in Ohio. When my car was in the shop for more than a few hours, I had to rely on friends & family or ride-share services to get around. Not having a car became a big stressor sometimes in my life.
Growing up in small-town Ohio and living in the state’s capital, public transportation wasn’t really a thing in my social circle. In Columbus, there was the bus system which I tired a few times, but wasn’t that impressed. I lived out in the suburbs and the bus passed, but very infrequently and was not a convenience when it was needed. I could not rely on it like I can here in Paris.
Getting around Paris, as well as outside the city, is pretty easily accessible; there is the intricate métro system as well as the bus and trams. There are also bikes, scooters, and mopeds that you can rent as well. Getting around France in general is pretty easy, there are national flights as well as trains and busses that travel to every corner of the country and beyond. But the greater majority of French prefer to take the train due to the railroad system being extremely developed throughout the country and the European Union.
Holidays in France are a thing of beauty. Starting in March, there seems to be at least one or two 3-day weekends due to federal holidays. And when you get to the month of May, if the days fall right, every weekend can almost be a 3 or 4 day weekend. You’ll want to get your requests in as early as possible in order to faire le pont.
This is something that most people do when it comes to weekend holidays. They’ll take the day before and/or the day after the holiday weekend off. This will allow them to travel to other regions of France to disconnect and recharge, to break the constant routine of work and life.
Let’s not forget the school holidays ! And August? When literally everyone takes off for somewhere for a minimum of 3 weeks and cities across France become a ghost town. Back in the States, I’d be lucky to get a full two weeks off and in a row! My French colleagues seemed a bit surprised when I only took one or two days off around the holidays. When I told them I didn’t need to, the collective response was that I should take the days because I have earned them. The holidays and time off in France are just as much earned as the money one makes at their job.
La vie sociale
This is something that seems to be ingrained in French DNA. Apéro en terrasse, picnicking in a park or along the banks of the river, meeting for an exposition, a walk in a garden, a play or seeing the latest art installation. Even during a pandemic, the French found ways to be social, even if at a distance.
Before the pandemic, patios, parks, and public spaces would be teeming with French conversating, connecting, and enjoying community. The French social life is a thing that happens outside of the work life. It has many facets, yet it all boils down to doing something for yourself with others. This includes not just being with friends and family, but also with strangers. In the sense that you participate in a class at the gym, or the local community center, or an activity of some sort.
I am not sure if it because of the town I grew up in or the big city I lived in for 10 plus years, but I rarely made it to museums, took any extra-circular classes, or visited a park or public space with friends in Ohio. I’d usually go to the bar at the end of the day and that was it. I din’t seem to have the motivation or desire to visit places in the States. There’s something about France that allows me to feel at ease in doing more social activities. In the States, I’d be more than happy hanging out at home most evenings and maybe venturing out every once in a blue moon.
L'art de vivre
Translated as the art of living. This is something that I think the majority of Ohioans (and Americans) need to take a chapter from the French. I didn’t grow up in a family that took weeks-long vacations to the coast or other states. We took time off to see family usually. I saw (and still do) my parents work hard day in and day out. They both are always doing something whether it is Mum in the garden or Dad in his wood shop; they both cannot sit idle.
L’art de vivre is the idea of the every day. It is how and why you move throughout your day. At times, it is flying by the seat of your pants, seeing where the wind takes you. Sometimes there is no plan and sometimes you have a few things on the books. It’s not having the same thing day in and day out but the ability to adapt to what the day presents. It’s resting in the now and the present. It’s balance, social, familial, cultural (in the arts sense), mindful and intentional.
My mentality in the States was that I needed to grind day in and day out to prove that I could do it. I didn’t leave much time for myself, personally or socially. I gave up moments and opportunities that would come my way so I could move ahead professionally. Living and working in France has helped me realize that I had it backwards. One can work hard and enjoy life at the same time. It’s perfectly normal to have balance and disconnect totally from work and other professional obligations.
On days off, I can usually be found exploring a neighborhood that I may not have visited before, seeing a new art gallery, walking around the Marais, the quais, Montmartre, or the Palais Royal (just to name a few favorite places). If it’s a weekend, Thomas and I usually go to the market, cook lunch together, do a photoshoot or explore the city during a walk. These moments have become something that I look to every week. A healthy balance between responsibility and discovery together.
There is something to be said about the French way of life, that joie de vivre. From work-life balance, to taking time off, participating in a wide range of extra-circular activities, to knowing your limits and just being able to enjoy the small things. There is a simple pleasure that is seen in the daily routine of the French and it is starting to transform how I live my life.
I feel like I am the exception to the rule, for years (17 plus) I have felt more at home here in France than I have back in the States. My mother always said that I was born on the wrong continent. I’m thinking she is right. I can’t put my finger on exactly what stole my heart, but there is something about life here that just makes more sense. I align more with the French way of life than the American way that I grew up in.
Do not get me wrong, there are some great things about the States. I appreciate deeply that I was born and raised in Ohio (go Bucks!), that I come from a small town that showed me the meaning of hard work and success. But after traveling and experiencing other ways of life, this one just made sense to me.
If you ever are able to visit France, I hope you will think of me and allow me to show you France through my eyes. I’d love to show you the side that I deeply feel connected to and align with on every level.
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