This summer we had the extraordinary experience of spending 10 weeks in France. It’s a glorious country, with a bountiful beauty and classic charm that reaches far outside of Paris’ city limits, stretching across miles of rolling farm land, endless vineyards, protected forests, snow-capped mountains, expansive bike trails, shimmering lakes and golden beaches.
Immersed in a single country and culture for so long, one can’t help but begin to notice the things a frenzied, bucket-list-checking tourist cannot. In a way, we didn’t visit for 10 weeks; we lived there for 10 weeks. And the way we were able to settle in afforded us a deeper glimpse into this dignified and graceful country.
Of course, food is just the tip of the iceberg and most restaurant experiences precisely lived up to the rumors: delicious, locally-sourced, unhurried. Stay for a while and you’ll too start to experience France’s near obsession with wine, the way everyone says “bonjour” when you enter a shop, and the daily devotion to the baguette. But there was something else, something more nuanced and hard to place my finger on, that seemed to shape a rhythm or soundtrack to this place. It took nearly the entire trip for it to come into focus.
On our last night in France, we sat with our new friends, Francoise and Hubert, enjoying the food they had lovingly prepared for us. Our neighbors in the little town of Bouilland, a small, 200-person village we called home for four weeks, the couple had delighted in teaching us about French food and culture, spoiling us with their home cooking, wines and affection.
Both retired, Hubert spent hours each day toiling away at his expansive collection of miniature planes and motorcycles, assembling and painting them with meticulous care, while Francoise crafted incredible purses, satchels and bags she skillfully stitched together from upcycled jeans, corduroy, leather and antique metal she found while scouring through street markets she and Hubert traveled to each weekend.
These bags were extraordinary. Their patchwork style was like nothing I had ever seen before and my astonishment was impossible to hide. Francoise gifted me one and I purchased two more for friends back home. I later came to learn that she sold a few each month at nearby boutiques in Beaune and one in Dijon for as much as 300 euros each and that each took about 17 hours to make.
My industrial brain fired on like a furnace roaring to life. Did she know about Etsy? Would she like to ship them to me in the States so I could help her sell them at boutiques near me? Strangely, she seemed not to match my enthusiasm. “Francoise!” I exclaimed, teetering toward frustration. “Don’t you realize how much more money you could be making?”
She looked at me with a somewhat stupefied expression and said something I will never forget. “Why would I want more money? We already have everything we need.” In that moment, a hundred little things that my unconscious mind had noticed and collected during our 10 weeks in France snapped into clarity like a key that had finally clicked into a lock. They have enough; why hustle for more?
This explained so, so much.
Most restaurants closed between 2:30pm and 7pm. Of course, they could stay open and have more customers but at what cost to their employees, quality and supplies? In many towns the local grocery store still closes on Sunday or has greatly reduced hours. Remember when it used to be like that here? Remember when we could wait until Monday to buy more?
As we traveled around the country, most of which is untouched by cities and subdivisions, I marveled from the highway at all the little villages packed with little houses. Turns out the average home in France is 1,200 square feet. The average size of a newly constructed single-family detached home is now 2,600 square feet in the U.S. (2,200 square feet in Canada) and yet the U.S. still manages to fill up an additional 2.3 billion square feet of offsite, rentable storage space to keep all the stuff that we can’t fit into our gargantuan homes.
Here’s another startling difference between these two countries: according to CNBC, the average American now has about $38,000 in personal debt (excluding home mortgages). In France, it’s $1,900. Francoise and Hubert explained that getting credit in France is quite difficult, even getting a mortgage for a home. But perhaps regulation is just one part of the equation.
Another startling contrast: the median household income for the United States is $60,336 versus $31,304 in France. We have more! If the game is ‘he who has the most stuff wins,’ we get the gold medal. More square footage, more stuff, more income, more debt.
But here’s the big question: do we have more of what matters? More joy? More rest? More connection?
The average French worker receives 30 days of paid vacation per year. In the U.S., the average is 10 days. Amazingly, a huge percentage of the U.S. population doesn’t use this measly allowance. According to research, taking time away from work increase stress, and many workers report that they are unable to completely disconnect from the office or worry that doing so will mean they will lose out on chances to advance. So, they don’t bother taking a vacation at all.
The hustle is so powerfully and relentlessly celebrated in western culture.
I look around and see a viscous cycle of working and consuming that’s leads nowhere but the need to numb with any combination of food, alcohol, medication, drugs, shopping and screens. Any free moments of reprieve melt into a digital black hole of smartphone addiction and Netflix binging. We are sick from stress, lack of rest and mindless eating.
I don’t pretend to know all the economical, historical and regulatory elements that factor into the differences between North America and France. Of course, it’s more complex. But what I have experienced in France is a spirit of sufficiency that I have not commonly experienced here. There is a sense of enoughness, an orienting towards the fundamentals of good living (good food, good wine, good company) that seems to contrast with our unwavering desire to work more in order to consume more.
Jimmy Reid once said, “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” Which to me means that we have the ability to transcend our cultural automation and to step off the unending work-consume treadmill.
How? Try things like going on an Amazon diet (no ordering for a month) or a consumer cleanse. Take a full month off of buying anything but the absolute essentials or declare one day a week or one week/month as a zero spend zone. Take the minimalist challenge. Read books like No Impact Man or Soulful Simplicity, both of which have been huge change agents in my life. Find a way to take a month off work, or maybe two months off. Declare Sunday a true Sabbath with no consumption, no screens and no commitments.
Or maybe just start by asking: am I happy? Is all my stuff making me happy? Or has the stuff and the debt and all the hours spent paying for both crowded out things like joy, spontaneity, spacious, rest and simplicity? (You can listen to an audio of how I do my daily reflection practice here)
Maybe we just need to remind ourselves each day that we have enough, more than enough. And from that spirit of sufficiency make changes with how we spend our time and our money that align with what really matters: love and connection.
ABOUT KRISTEN MANIERI
Kristen Manieri is a writer, podcaster, coach and traveler who lives in Orlando, FL with her husband of 15 years and her two daughters. Interested in living a more connected, conscious and intentional life? Follow her blog and listen to her podcast, The Synced Life.