I may be biased, but I find it impossible to refute the announcement from International Living that, for the fifth year in a row, France has the best standard of living in the world. Even on a hot summer day, as I sit in a Paris apartment sans air conditioning, I find life in Paris (and France) to be of a superior quality to the U.S.
I’m not knocking my home country, nor do I take any of the privileges I’ve enjoyed as an American citizen for granted. But the older I get, the more I realize that the simplicity I’m looking for is something that’s always been ingrained in the French way of life.
I grew up in New Jersey, in a fairly affluent town close to New York City. My neighborhood consisted of sprawling two-story homes on close to an acre of perfectly manicured property. These were houses that were, at a minimum, 4,000 square feet and came with live-in housekeepers, pools and/or tennis courts and circular driveways.
Today, virtually every house in that neighborhood has been remodeled to resemble nothing less than a small hotel. Former ranch-style homes were now two-, sometimes three-story mansions. Homes that had already been two-story mini-mansions were now multi-winged mini-chateaus with stone facades. And I’m fairly certain that one home that had undergone complete reconstructive surgery now touted a heli-pad.
I was anything but impressed by the changes I found during a return visit. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why one family would need so much space. But after giving it some thought, I realized that it was simply a response to what’s become the American battle call. “More!” has become the mantra of the masses. More clothes. More space. More toys. More food. More jewelry. More plastic surgery. More debt.
In Paris, and even more so in the French countryside, people just want “enough.” Walk into most Paris apartments, and you’ll find a startling lack of closet space. Most Parisians don’t mind, because they only want “enough” clothes and shoes. Many Paris apartments have small kitchens with correspondingly small refrigerators. The French tend to buy their groceries, especially their produce and bread, fresh every day. (By comparison, my stepmother in New Jersey hits the supermarket once a week and stuffs groceries into two refrigerators, one and a half freezers and a storage pantry in the basement. And she’s just feeding herself and my father.)
And then there’s the health care issue.
I am one of the countless Americans who have what the insurance companies term “a pre-existing condition.” Of course, nowadays that can include everything from chronic leukemia to an ingrown toenail. But once you’ve been put in that category, getting private insurance is next to impossible and, at the very least, your “condition” will be excluded from the extraordinarily expensive coverage. My American “corporate” insurance costs more than $500 a month (for a single person), while the co-pays are around the $40 per visit (and prescription) level.
In Paris, where I don’t have medical insurance, an emergency doctor’s visit cost me $40, and the three medications the doctor prescribed cost me about $20. Total. Did I mention I didn’t have insurance? The doctor spent at least 30 minutes with me, taking my information and giving me a thorough examination. I was also able to get an appointment with her the same day I called, and the doctor entered all of my information herself into the laptop computer in the examining room.
France has the best health care system in the world, and that’s not just my opinion. There are those in the U.S. who cry “socialism,” but whatever label you want to put on it, the French don’t worry about getting sick because they know that, if they do, it won’t wipe them out financially. They pay for their health care through taxes. Hospitals don’t turn away people if they can’t pay, and their attitude toward collecting their money is almost wonderfully laissez-faire.
All that said, the thing that, in my opinion, gives France its qualify of life ranking is that it lacks the Type A personality of the U.S. No matter where I’ve lived in the States—New York, Connecticut or Miami—everything is about “do” or “go.” Gotta get there. Gotta do it. Gotta schedule it. Hurry. But in France, the attitude is more about “be.” Just be present. Enjoy. Savor.
This is all best exemplified by eating out in Paris. Americans visiting Paris for the first time tend to complain that the service is slow. “It took forever to get our check,” is a common phrase. It never occurs to them that their waiters aren’t slow; they’re just giving customers the space and time to enjoy their meal. There’s no such thing as the “one hour lunch” in Paris. Who can enjoy a meal in an hour? People linger, and that’s perfectly acceptable. As much as I enjoy my L’Africain (the chocolat chaud) at Angelina, I find it disconcerting that I’m given my bill as soon as my treats are delivered to the table.
Even the frustration of dealing with the expensive and ironically named “customer service” in France isn’t enough to put a dent in the quality of life. Neither are the frustrations of maneuvering through the insane bureaucracy of the government and banks. Because I don’t think it’s any better in the U.S.
Of course there are cracks in France’s veneer, but when you learn to shrug your shoulders as the French do, you’ll find it easy to relax and just enjoy.
Photograph courtesy of Virginia Jones.