A French woman’s view of NYC

August 20, 2010 in France

I doubt there’s an account of an American woman braving a year in Paris or Provence that I haven’t read. Before I embarked on a similar journey, I lived vicariously through these memoirs of falling in love with the French lifestyle (and perhaps a French man) despite the language and cultural barriers.

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So it was incredibly interesting to read the perspective from the other side of the Atlantic. I just finished Une Française à New-York, the memoir of a Parisian who moved to New York with the American dream of a finding a fabulous apartment with a view of Central Park. Here were the points that stood out to me the most:

Disgust at American gyms: The author deftly points out that gyms are a way to deal with stress: mainly, the stress that we create by our crazy 60-hour work weeks. I used to need an hour at the gym every day: it was my time to unwind and focus on something other than work, mundane errands, the stress of everyday life. In France, I haven’t been to the gym once. And I’ve gone running once. While my body is screaming for a good yoga class, I’ve found that a more relaxed lifestyle doesn’t leave me craving an hour to unwind.

I’m also becoming more and more in line with the French way of working out without really trying. That is to say, why bother to put yourself through a sweaty hour on the treadmill when you can just wander along the winding streets and have one baguette instead of two?

Relationships with food: She simply can’t understand how Americans view eating: as a way to recharge energy, like a car that needs gas. Taste isn’t important, what counts is how we feel. This is exactly how I tend to view food: I eat because I’m hungry. If I don’t have breakfast or a mid-afternoon snack, I’ll be grumpy. I grab a sandwich if I’m running errands around lunchtime, I eat in front of my computer, I eat standing up in the kitchen. It’s all very un-French of me.

In France, eating is an experience: you must take time to fully appreciate the flavors. It also tends to be a social experience: evenings out revolve around three-course meals, and no waiter will ever pressure you to leave by putting the bill on the table before you’re ready.

The concept of dating: I grew up with the modern American fairytale of the perfect first date. Dinner at a restaurant with white tablecloths, the latest romantic comedy and the “foot-pop” first kiss on the doorstep. Apparently romantic French men and elegant French women do not indulge in this staged attempt at romance that consumes American women and empties the wallets of American men. I’m still not sure how to translate the concept of “dating” in French, which says a lot. Romance here simply doesn’t seem as forced as it does in America.

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How much we work and lack of vacation: Even though the author consistently refers to the New York work mentality, I’m pretty sure Silicon Valley corporate culture has many similarities. Yes, companies like Google and Yahoo! are famous for laid-back corporate cultures but that doesn’t mean people don’t work 80-hour weeks. Two weeks of vacation is the norm, and today’s technology makes it hard to completely unplug for just 14 days. The author dreams of an August by the seaside, but realizes that in America, an entire month of carefree vacation just ain’t gonna happen. Long lunches? Also out of the picture.

It made me wonder about the work to live versus live to work mentality that is often a differentiating point in European and American lifestyles. Reading Une Française à New York made me see how crazy the American work style looks from the outside–and for what end?

Overall, the book was a great experience not only to improve my French but also to improve my understanding of the French point of view. There’s no better way to get inside the mind of a culture than to read its take on another culture, in its mother tongue.

  • The vacation issue is my least favorite thing about American culture! We should get a month off like everyone in Europe. Interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  • I loved this post! I heard Rick Steves give a talk in Berkeley last fall and he talked about how Europeans work fewer hours than Americans and are also happier, and that if Americans worked the same total hours as most Europeans, our work year would end on October 24th (http://www.timeday.org/).

  • I’m so glad that you wrote this piece, Christine. I have been trying, ever since I read a previous article (about making lists of what to do and getting them done because you did so – another great piece) where you mentioned reading this very book, to find it somewhere….ANYWHERE for that matter! It sounded just like the sort of book I’d want to read, but to no avail. Thank you for writing this piece. I will still try to find the book, but for now your incredible review above will have to suffice! 🙂 Thanks for another great one! -Kadence

  • Interesting post. I always enjoy reading foreign views of the USA. Secretly, I’m utterly confused by Americans (myself included).

  • Anonymous

    How crazy! I think the work-life balance in Europe is one thing that really makes me consider moving here–it’s just such a nicer lifestyle!

  • Anonymous

    It just makes more sense–the Europeans have mastered work-life balance without really trying! We talk about it a lot, but I really don’t think Americans have even come close to getting it down.

  • Anonymous

    Any chance you can find it on Amazon? It’s crazy the things you can usually find on there! It’s definitely worth the read–such an interesting perspective. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I know! I find myself thinking like a work-crazy, money-hungry American so much of the time–and then have to stop myself and enjoy the moment. It’s been an eye-opening experience living here and being able to analyze my former work habits and lifestyle in comparison to mine here. I’ll take a day at the beach over a day at the office anyday, even if it does mean I’m making less money and showing a lack of ambition! 🙂

  • Anonymous

    When my husband and I lived in France for a couple of years, it was interesting how we slowly realized we weren’t the “type A”s we thought we were at all. That transition was wonderful for both of us, but returning to the US we’ve never quite been able to get back on the gerbil wheel – We acquired a sort of irreverence about how things are in the US. On a big picture, personal level, this has its advantages but also makes for always feeling as if we’re “stuck” in re-entry 🙂

  • I found it on the French Amazon, and bought it. It’ll be a good excuse to read en francais on a daily basis. 🙂 Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Very interesting stuff! I’ve of course thought about what it’s like for an American to move overseas, but hadn’t thought very much about the other way around, especially in NYC! Whenever I visit Europe, I’m always impressed by the slow pace of dining. Americans really do work too hard and too much. I think we all could really use a month off instead of two weeks!

  • Anonymous

    I definitely think I’ll experience the same thing when I return home–I can’t even imagine working an 9 to 5 in an office ever again! Thanks for commenting–interesting to hear your experience.

  • Helga Zambrano

    Couldn’t agree with you more on the American over-worked lifestyle. You should read this article about Americans needing less work and more vacation. It goes straight to your point: http://yhoo.it/cnAuhW Ironically it was posted on Yahoo! Finance 😉

  • Anonymous

    Really interesting article, Helga. Thanks for sharing! I know you can relate to the European lifestyle–it’s so much nicer!

  • Katie

    OMG I love this Christine, after contemplating over and over again whether to quit my job and move back to California My dad and I got in a long conversation about
    “Are you living to work?” OR “Working to live?”

    This is great. Maybe I should move to France! Thanks for sharing!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Katie–the European lifestyle definitely is MUCH better than home 🙂

  • I have a Canadian friend living in Paris and I was surprised to hear that many people work long hours there as well, but I guess that’s true with any big city in the world.

  • Anonymous

    Very true that they work long hours–people describe life in Paris as “metro dodo boulot”–time only for the commute, sleep and work. BUT they get a month’s vacation! I think I would take that anyday to the 10 days in America.

  • The lack of vacation days is rough indeed! Interesting post…

  • Anonymous

    Glad you liked it!

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