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Is it Really Better in France?

ladies-in-parisI 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.

linda-donahue-signature








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Photograph courtesy of Virginia Jones.

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15 Responses to “Is it Really Better in France?”

  1. Lindsey says:

    I’m not going to lie, the customer service headache almost makes me want to leave but then I look around, I think about the life I have in Paris and the MIGRAINES I would get in the states due to a fractured health system and the unnecessarily hurried pace to life (and dare I say, the Republicans? I kid. Kind of). I don’t think there is anything that fills me with as much joy as the bakery and not because I buy croissants and buttery things but just to see that even with Americanization the French boulangeries have been able to stay as fundamental to the French identity as 100 years ago. What is the equivalent in the US, Starbucks? yikes.

  2. Bonjour! I have been following your blog for a while now, but have never commented!
    I love this post and I am longing to live in France, even for a short time…I hope to study the French language in Paris sometime in the next couple of years as I finish my degree in International Studies at my local university.
    Merci for your wonder blog about French life!

  3. nichole says:

    What you said.

    :)

    No, seriously … I agree. I move at a much slower pace, desire less things and generally am much happier when I am in Paris. I barely spent a dime when we lived there last year. When I did spend, it was on food.

    The moment we returned to the US, the old credit card started smoking (Target! Costco! Whole Foods!). I’ve tried to put my finger on why it is that I have no desire to spend in France.

  4. Elise Moyse says:

    This post really touched me. I lived in Paris for a year (about 15 years ago) and you’ve expressed the French way of living beautifully. It broke my heart to have to return to the U.S. and I’m still not sure I’ve re-adjusted to the lifestyle here. Another interesting note is that many Parisians leave the city every weekend (and for the entire month of August) to escape to their country homes, which are often extremely modest. The point is…they work to live, not live to work. Their priorities are often the complete opposite of ours. I’ve never been happier but the banking and bureaucracy are insane. One last note, I sprained my ankle the day after I moved there and I was treated immediately for very little money. I was sent to the pharmacy to ask for an over-the-counter ointment, which I was to rub on the sprain. Within two days, I was no longer hobbling and the swelling was gone. I think it cost about $2. I still miss Paris every day.

  5. Have just discovered your site quite recently and this article sums up why we LOVE travelling in France and are considering relocating there next year when we leave Australia.

    There is something wonderfully authentic about living lightly and not over-consuming food, clothing, or anything else. I can also relate to your points on medical concerns, too. Everyone here in Australia qualifies for totally free treatment by a physician or hospital. And there is a tiny co-payment for prescription medicine. How civilised and compassionate is that!

    Glad to have discovered your blog.

  6. Virginia says:

    Ahh Linda,
    I’ve been home from Paris two days now. Reentry is so very hard. Your article voiced what we repeated over and over during our recent trip. The French know how to savor life. They sit, they sip, they talk and they read. They appreciate the small, the beautiful. Here when you dine out, most of the people are sitting with friends….talking on their cell phones or checking their messages. In Paris, men stop to look at flowers in a shop window, shopkeepers OFFER to wrap even the smallest purchase….beautifully, parents spend hours in museums on the weekends with their children taking great pains to teach them to appreciate art. You don’t see parents sitting in cafes on their cell phones while the children sit hunched over a computer game! It is indeed a life of simplicity. I’ve been in several Parisian flats over the years. Oh yes, they do with much much less space and STUFF. At my age, I wonder if I could make that leap. I’d like to give it a try.

    The health care/education benefits are amazing. Oh yes I know they pay taxes but the fact that every child can attend college and have adequate health care shows where their priorities are. Where are ours? McMansions, electronic babysitters, gas guzzling tanks, while letting our school systems fail and millions do without needed medical care.

    And may I add that I was suprised and pleased you chose one of my most favorite photographs to post with your article. It was a moment in Paris I won’t soon forget!
    V

  7. Every time I go to France I come home a little different. All the things that seemed important to collect, acquire, achieve…they aren’t so important as the little things: how was the meal, how was the conversation? The little joys throughout the day like a croissant (or two, or three)! make you all warm and fuzzy inside. Just coming back to a beautiful little Paris Apartment and cooking dinner is an event to be relished. Is just our perspective or is it a little better in France?

  8. starman1695 says:

    Let me start by saying that if it were financially possible, I would rather live in France. Having gotten that out of the way, I have to disagree with your assessment that Parisians ….. only want “enough”. I cannot begin to relate the number of times I have seen Parisian apartments that were more like junk shops than apartments, with crap all over the place because they don’t have the space to put all their “enough” away properly. Another point on which I disagree, is the “Just be present. Enjoy. Savor.” attitude. This is all good and well until….you need someone to fix your plumbing, or that of your neighbor. Or if you have a problem and have to pay to call for a problem with your computer connection or the TV hook-up or having a phone installed or the electricity turned on. So, yes, while I would rather live in France, and Paris in particular, I’m not looking towards that with my eyes closed. As you say, there are cracks and the bureaucracy can drive one to drink, but if you already expect it to be that way, it doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Vive la France.

  9. alice says:

    Bonjour!
    I’m coming here from Virginia’s blog (great photo, Virginia ;-). It’s so interesting to read your post and the comments from France! Quite strange too… French people are always complaining about many things, you know! And I think the American way of live has a large influence on ours, on the way we eat for example (yes, we have junk food too, alas, and more and more fat children). But, reading what you and your American visitors write, I’m sure we must fight to keep our habits!
    I don’t live in Paris, even if I spend some days there from time to time visiting my student daughter. I agree, Paris is a beautiful city but each time I’m happy to come back to my little town by the sea (3hours from Paris by the TGV), because I find Paris tiring and the Parisians so stressed . I think their life is quite hard! Tiny and so expensive appartments, the crowd everywhere, many people who are not kind enough (even if I find some improvement on this subject), all these public transports strikes…
    If I can make a suggestion, Paris is not la France (like New-York is not the U.S) and if you want to know the real French way of life, it could be a good idea to spend some time in the province!

  10. Alexa says:

    Like Alice, I’m also coming here from Virginia’s blog (and love her photo too!).
    I bought a one-way ticket to Paris in the late 1960s, when I was still in my teens, and it was one of the best “life” moves I’ve made. Spent several years there, studying (for free) and working—and learning to appreciate a friendly but lively discussion and a great meal and an afternoon spent lingering at a cafe table. When I got my first job here in NYC after returning, I was shocked to find that I had only two weeks vacation rather than the six weeks I’d grown used to. A doctor’s visit cost me two or three times more and I was lucky if the doc had five minutes to spend with me. Granted, many things do run less efficiently there, but maybe that’s the price you pay for the privilege of slowing down the pace in your own life. That pace also seems more frenetic (at least in Paris) than it was 40–45 years ago, but they still can’t hold a candle to us in that regard. If I’m ever able to give up my necessary but stressful job here, I’ll divest myself of all my extraneous “stuff” and go back to Paris, impossible bureaucracy and all.

  11. Vagabonde says:

    Hi- I came over from Virginia’s blog and read your post with interest. I am French with dual citizenship (French/US.) I was raised in the 9th arrondissement (between métro Cadet et Anvers) then also in the suburbs (near Enghien les Bains where I went to high school) then back in the apartment when I went to La Sorbonne. I came over in the US in my 20s but went back to France 2 or 3 times a year to visit my parents. Since they are both passed I don’t go there so often. I miss France and Paris a lot but I do not find that my life here is that different. We have café au lait with French bread for breakfast(and my homemade jam) and eat dinner quite late. We still have the same small house from the 70s and don’t spend that much money. I am still like I was in France, saving all my money to go on trips – and we do (I have been to 44 countries so far.) I think that what upsets me, living in the deep south, is the lack of intellectual stimulation – friends are not interested in talking about philosophie, international politics, books, etc.). The super religiosity here is also tiring (it does not come even to their minds here that one may not be a Christian, have a different religion, or have none) and the super patriotism (thinking that America is best in everything.) In France people complained all the time but that did not mean they did not love France (and they don’t have flags on many houses.) But it is true that so many Americans think about and live for money – that is the culture. Already de Tocqueville and even Dickens said the same thing when they came. But you can still live a slow life here. Today for example I walked in a park, right in Atlanta, on the grounds of Emory University and met only 3 people in 2 hours – it was drizzling yes, but it was beautiful. So you can have a slow life in the US if you chose. I shall always miss my hometown of Paris though.

  12. Virginia says:

    I am very pleased that so many of my readers have found their way here and left their thougthful comments. Merci mes amis!
    V

  13. Jilly says:

    I’ve just found my way to your excellent blog via Virginia’s photograph and I so concur with your views. I’ve lived in Menton, between Monaco and the Italian border) for 19 years now and like you wouldn’t go back to my own country to live. My little business – I care for dogs in my home as well as write and take photographs for a Cote d’Azur website – enables me to be part of the French system, so health care, which as you rightly say, is fantastic, is simply a given. It’s the life tho I love – my French Pieds Noirs neighbours are family to me, the restaurants and cafes are a part of my life and perhaps it’s because we are in the south, but the shops couldn’t be friendlier. Home for me is here and always will be and I know how incredibly lucky I am. Your posting so resonated with me. I’ll always be ‘that English woman’ to the French but I’m accepted in my village (Gorbio), which continually astounds and delights me and by the people I know and love in Menton.

    I have several blogs, so do check them out one day – Menton Daily Photo and Monte Carlo Daily Photo. I’ll be following your blog from now on and many thanks.

  14. Suzanne says:

    I just want to say that although there are things about France that make me nuts, I do agree with everything you just said. I’m married to a French man and lived for 8 years in France. The healthcare is amazing and the way of life is unbeatable. You nailed it with your explanation. Bravo!

    First time here, I’ll be back :)

  15. Christy says:

    I could not have said it better.I moved to France with my French husband after we decided we had had enough of the US. I have no intention of going back to the US and am very happy to be raising my children in France. My first son was born in the US with a brain hemmorage and even with health insurance our NICU costs went over 80,000. Sine I have lived in France I fell down the stairs once and broke a vertebre and I also had a child here and my grand total for medical bills outstanding was a big fat 0. I dont mind paying extra taxes when I see a clear benefit. A for quality of life it doesnt compare either. I love the way of life here in France and I have fallen in love with the country as a whole.

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