P1070601I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.

They are lying to you.

The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.

What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. P1060893They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.

P1040987Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.

Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.

And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.

Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.

—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.

Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.

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Is this your idea of buying groceries?

—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.

—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.

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Taking time to smell the coffee.

At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.

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38 thoughts on “How to Live Like the French

  1. How beautiful. We Americans could learn much from the French. Wish I could figure out how to post this to Facebook for my American friends to read. May you continue to live such a beautiful life.

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    1. I hope you find out how to post it! I am not on Facebook. But labor laws aside, part of the secret is making time, choosing to take time, to appreciate friends and family (often over food). That can be done anywhere. And doesn’t really cost anything.

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  2. I enjoyed this post and this is a big reason of why I love France. Of course, the French people I know who now live in San Francisco complain about France and not having the right to work more than 35 hours a week, the difficulty in ever owning a business, the lack of ambition and pessimism – all the reasons why they chose to leave. I do think that this element also exists, but on the whole, our friends who still live in France are far more relaxed, take much more time off, and have time for themselves and family that money can’t buy.

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    1. As a business owner, I agree that sometimes it can be hard–I get to pay taxes as an employer and as an employee. OTOH, there is less of the “face time” obligation that keeps people at work just for show.

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  3. I love this! My work at home lifestyle has is distinct advantages, but ordering my days has been a bit challenging. I like the written in stone aspect of work hours – the whole reason I chose this work format was to prioritize family, and it organically centers around mealtimes. It protects the time for work as well as the time for relationships – win/win. Seems obvious, but it helps to see it in black and white – thank you for sharing.

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    1. Yes, working at home can bleed into working all the time. But I would just schedule work around certain sacred moments, especially for my kid–dinner, sports, music lessons. The nice thing about not being in an office is you don’t have to give excuses.

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  4. I have lived in the south of france since 2009, and although it is sometimes inconvenient to schedule my errands around 12 to 2 closings, I respect the reasoning behind it. And I do love the long lunches under the plane trees. I do not work, so my time is mine to schedule as I wish. I love living here and would be hard pressed to find anything like it back in my old home city of San Diego (which is a pretty nice place).
    bonnie near carpentras

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    1. In elementary school, my kid came home from 12 to 2 every day. So we had lunch together, then walked back to school. It is hard for the kids whose parents work in town and who can’t come home–that makes for a long day for little ones.

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    1. There is busy and there is crazy. Did younever work with somebody who was just overwhelmed yet who didn’t get anything done? And then other people would do more than expected without complaint? The French are like the latter. Busy but efficient, because they dedicate their time to what counts.

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  5. I feel the same way. As a cadre, I actually work very long hours sometimes. but the offset is that I effectively have 7 weeks of vacation (5 actual weeks, plus ~9 days to make up for the lack of a 35 hour work week). Unlike the US where a salaried person receives nothing for extra hours, except pay, we get extra days off work. My pay is a little less than I could make in the US & my raise % lower annually, but I’ll take the extra time off any day! Traveling is a passion of mine, but had reached a point where I could afford to travel (and had no real desire to increase the level of luxury), yet lacked the time. No problem finding that balance in France!

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  6. I love the slower way of life. Here in the states, our family does take the time to relax together and have long, lingering meals on Saturdays or Sunday’s. But then both my husband and myself are European. It’s the vacation time Europeans have that does make me a little jealous! That is something Amercian companies can definitely improve on.

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