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An Anthropological Account of European Leisure
On a recent trip to France, I witnessed both the promise and peril of enjoying one's life excessively.
Editor’s note: I’m back. We’re back. After a little summer “break,” we’re really excited here at Wisdom of Crowds about what’s to come. To ease us into the new season, I thought I’d write this Monday Note about something that’s not (obviously) political. And, in any case, the personal is political.
I arrived in Paris. I needed to do get some work done. So I started walking around looking for a cafe where I could park with my laptop and write. My search became a sort of politico-spiritual odyssey. I guess I could have sat at one of those bistros with those tiny tables facing out into the street (a rare phenomenon in American cities, a friend gently explained to me, due to the awkwardness, or worse, of encounters with the homeless population, many of whom struggle with schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness).
But no one seemed to have their laptops out, and I didn’t want to be one of those Americans who stands out like a sore thumb trying to be productive on what was ostensibly a holiday. Life is for living rather than working, I tried to remind myself to little avail. So, I kept peeking into every cafe or cafe-adjacent establishment—what constitutes a cafe anyway?—within a 1 kilometer radius hoping beyond hope that, finally, I would find other poor souls just like me.
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Eventually I did, but the tables were old and rickety and my laptop kept on shaking. I wasn’t used to this, and I found myself growing more irritated. Valuable time was being wasted. Like a divorced economist estranged from his kids, my mind was processing hour-long time segments in terms of opportunity cost. Instead of taking pleasure in a stroll on a beautiful day, I was lamenting what was lost.
The next day, I capitulated and found a Starbucks. Problem solved—but it took an American corporation to solve it. [Ed. note: It was the most beautiful Stargbucks I’ve ever seen. See the photo I took below]. I described my ordeal to an American friend who was vaguely sympathetic regarding my plight. ‘Why don’t French people seem to work during the day?’ I half-jokingly asked (but, of course, it wasn’t just a joke).
As some of you will know from previous posts and podcast episodes, despite everything I have just said above, I am very much against the American cult of productivity—in theory. In practice, however, I struggle to reconcile the way I actually am with the way I think I should be. As editors sometimes like to point out, we write the things we need to read, thinking that if only we share our desires and dreams with tens of thousands of people it will hold us to account, propelling us towards the change that up until that point had been elusive.
By the end of day two in Paris, I managed to settle down and relax, making a conscious decision to mostly just eat gelato, hang out with friends, and do as little work as possible. As I walked around, this time at a more leisurely pace, the fact that I barely saw any laptops began making me feel envious rather than nervous. Friends and lovers (that’s what they call them in France, I’m told) weren’t necessarily talking to each other all that much. Often times, they would just sit side-by-side enjoying a drink in relative quiet or smoking or people-watching or, somewhat remarkably, all three simultaneously.
This was a better way to live. Upon my return to Washington, D.C., I attempted to mimic the experience, by sitting at something resembling a bistro with a book, looking out into the street. It didn’t have quite the same effect. Just as I felt weird in Paris with a laptop, here I felt weird without one.
Yes, it was a better way to live, but I also knew that it came at a cost. If a greater number of otherwise upwardly mobile Americans sat around for hours on end enjoying life it would probably constrain economic growth, at least as measured in overall GDP. And without a vibrant and growing economy, it would be hard to maintain our political and military edge over our competitors. Of course, this is an oversimplification, but to the extent that politics, like life, is about tradeoffs, we should expect some cost (even as we put aside the separate, more philosophical question of whether the cost would be worth it, since I’m tempted to think that it might be, at least at the individual level).
I was primed to think in terms of economic tradeoffs because of a series of articles this summer about how the American economy is strong, resilient, and very much alive, in contrast to Western European economies which very much are not. As a Wall Street Journal article described it, “Europeans are facing a new economic reality, one they haven’t experienced in decades. They are becoming poorer.” And perhaps more troubling, there was this:
The French are eating less foie gras and drinking less red wine.
All was not well in the post-historical world. And the explanations zeroed in on one of the reasons—the “cost” of having too much free time and leisure:
Europe’s current predicament has been long in the making. An aging population with a preference for free time and job security over earnings ushered in years of lackluster economic and productivity growth.
There might have been an American bias in such articles. But it was hard to argue with the empirical data. I had to re-read this several times to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding it, because, well, it’s hard to believe. Apparently, according to IMF data, the economy of the 20-nation Eurozone has grown about 6 percent in the last 15 years, compared to America’s growth rate of 82 percent during the same period. Let that sink in. Even if “lifestyle preferences” only account for a small portion of this gap, it would still translate into hundreds of billions of dollars. Tradeoffs indeed. But not everything is about GDP growth, right? At least, that’s what I was thinking to myself when I was sitting down with my book, trying to take my own “free time” seriously.
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