In many ways, Paris is not so different from New York, Chicago, or any major city in the United States. There are all the modern amenities, locals are chic and cosmopolitan and pop culture in Europe has largely molded itself around American media. The one thing people tend to point out is that the French tend to take their time to enjoy the ordinary. The lifestyle is slower, whether it’s how long it takes a waiter to bring over a check or the way Parisians linger over three-hour dinners of bread, wine, cheese and espresso even on weekdays.
In time, I realized that this way of life reflects the lengthy scope of European history and, in turn, the principles around which many European societies are organized. Unlike the United States, many EU member states have over a thousand years of history, have waged countless wars with their neighbors, and have often redrawn messy national borders. With this sense of history comes a sage understanding of the life course, of personal success, and of mortality; not everyone is exceptional, and no one is exceptional when it comes to death at the end of one’s life.
There seems to be more of a collective sense of the past, a true focus on the present, and generally less anxiety about the immediate future. The socialist redistribution of wealth and development of the welfare state demonstrate the importance of enhancing the lives of all citizens in the present rather than focusing on future gains trickling down from a small elite. The French welfare state ensures that one has the tools to be a productive member of society, and, in the case of illness or unemployment, that he or she will be offered social assistance.
It would be essentializing to say that there is only to live, work and enjoy in France. But I think the U.S. as a state and as a culture has a lot to learn from France in terms of approaches to life, success, and an individual’s place in the society. It is a preoccupation with being the best and having it all that has characterized and shattered the American economy. So while we bemoan the demise of American exceptionalism, Americans need to understand the falsehood of individual exceptionalism and rethink the notion of what it means to live a happy life. The sooner we realize that the vast majority of us are ordinary, that it’s good to be ordinary, and that–even in a capitalist society–ordinary people deserve protection from market failure, the sooner we can start working towards reducing health and other inequalities in America. –TIFFANY WONG
Tiffany Wong is a former co-president of GlobeMed at Northwestern and is studying on the Northwestern International Program Development Public Health in Europe Program.