One of the benefits of spending time in a country not your own is the realization that not everyone thinks they way you do. Of course, you immediately say to yourself, not everyone speaks the way I do. They speak, in this case, French.
But to get day-in, day-out exposure to a completely different way of thinking is a constant eye-opener (and often a brain-squeeze).
I’ll mention a few examples, and please forgive me if I’ve mentioned these before. Some things just stick in my mind and constantly surprise me. (I know: typical American.)
First, the French don’t seem to care what anyone thinks, including other French people. Legalities and economic realities notwithstanding, they do pretty much what they please without a second thought. They smoke like chimneys, drink like fish, and dress like nobody–or everybody–is watching. This doesn’t mean they aren’t polite. Most are. It’s just that the idea of ‘peer pressure’ seems foreign to them.
Second, they are circumspect. They consider all factors in an equation, whether it be philosophical, social, political or moral. They listen to contradictory and opposing points of view, acknowledge the virtues and shortcomings of each. The maddening part about this is that it may take forever to reach a clear-cut opinion or consensus, formulate a course of action, and execute it. They don’t jump to conclusions, but sometimes they never reach a conclusion. This makes doing business difficult, and watching some of their films frustrating (could we get a beginning, middle, and an end, please?)
Third, money is not the be-all, end-all to most of them. Of course, they like luxury, freedom, and spending as much as the next person, but I’ve heard more than one express an ambivalent attitude toward wealth. One very affluent Frenchman told me flat out that he wasn’t going to leave his children a single euro. He was afraid it would spoil them. (Too late, I wanted to reply.) Another expressed his love-hate relationship with money, and worked at a job only when it was absolutely necessary. (He’s an artist.) Most express their priorities in terms of quality of life, with economic and social mobility coming in second or not at all. Of course, there are many ambitious, materialistic Parisians, but the apathetic attitude toward the acquisition of cash is still very present.
Finally, I don’t find as much of the ‘linear thinking’ about life here as I did in the US. The question in the US is, “Where do you see yourself in the next five years?” Here in Paris, you might want to rephrase that and ask, “Where do you see yourself in the next five minutes?” Parisians I’ve met seem to view life, not as a straightforward journey toward a firmly established goal. It often appears more to be an episodic, free-form, random ramble through different phases of life that have a sequence or logic only by coincidence, not intention or design.
All these attitudes and tendencies make for bewildering conversations. They also make for the creation of breathtaking art, fashion, and architecture, just to name three. They defy pre-conceived notions, which offers their adherents a daily, fresh take on the world–its possibilities and its problems. And finally, they allow room for a decision making process that is not warped by the preoccupation with economic gain. Parisians often do things just for the sake of doing them, whether it’s producing a film or decorating a cake.
The results? A city where philosophy is alive and well even if its practice is, well, here and there. A city where luxury is abundant in all things, large and small. Where service itself is an art form. And a city whose pride lies not in being an economic powerhouse, but in being a creative greenhouse. Not just for writers, artists, and thinkers long dead, but for those of us linear thinkers who still haunt the cafes and streets today.