The Greek, The French, and Me

I recently read a short, interesting book by Yanis Varoufakis. He is a former finance minister of Greece and was an all-round thorn in the EU’s side during Greece’s financial collapse a few years ago.

The book, Talking to My Daughter About the Economy – A Brief History of Capitalism, is worthwhile. The history behind how market economies have developed is enlightening. The solutions for income inequality, protecting the environment, and providing for a stable, increasingly global, society, are less concrete, and a little more elusive…and not just to the author. I know a lot of people who’d like to have this Rubik’s Cube twisted and turned so all the colors matched.

One of the most interesting concepts he explores is the difference in the ‘exchange value’ of something and the ‘experiential value’ of something. He explains that the exchange value of something is the money or equivalent goods you can get for it. For example, 2 euros will get you a cup of coffee. The experiential value of sitting in a Parisian cafe (as we’ve discussed) is less tangible, and derives its value from the experience of doing it. You can’t exchange it for a week in Hawaii.

This helped me make sense of something that is very confusing for Americans living in Paris. Generally, Americans are wired to accomplish things in order to accumulate money and assets that have exchange value. After we’ve done that, we’ll take a two week vacation (sometimes) and go do something that has experiential value. Like visit Paris.

Parisians, on the other hand, tend to prioritize or at least place equal importance on things that have experiential value. They are not motivated in large part by profit. In restaurants, owners and waiters don’t try to ‘turn tables’ at a certain rate every hour. You can have a meal and sit all afternoon. They couldn’t care less. It’s your table. It’s your experience. That’s what’s important.

I now recognize this difference in past conversations:

with the Parisian who said he thought it would be vulgar if he died and left a lot of money in the bank, and thought it best to earn just enough money to ‘live his life’, whatever that means;

with the Parisian who said his plan was to live several lifetimes in one lifetime, so he was a tennis pro in his twenties, a photographer in his thirties, and now, in his forties, he has finally applied his education and is a scientist.

with the Parisian who lived and worked on a friend’s farm for ten years, then went to work as a journalist in another country before returning to Paris, where she is now behind the counter at a bakery.

This experiential life choice is non-linear, not driven by focused ambition, and, for the American, has several substantial drawbacks. First, it makes people unreliable. They are not motivated by the desire to make money, so, they may show up to clean your apartment on the agreed upon date, or they may not. They may call you to reschedule it, or they may not call you at all. Or ever. Again.

In business, they may want to talk about a movie deal, but after a lengthy conversation in which we all seem to be ‘on the same page’, and ready to move forward, they lose interest and, again, disappear.

After a couple of years of these vaporous, sometimes abrupt interactions, I’ve learned not to take it personally. It’s just the way they are. They’re French.

One glorious exception to this is the service you get in Paris, at all different price levels of hotels, cafes, boutiques, restaurants, farmers markets, pharmacies. These people are on it. They are not engrossed in their cell phones or exasperated because you’ve asked a question about a service or a product instead of just buying it.

They are attentive, responsive, professional, and polite. They not only perform the task at hand; they have anticipated needs you haven’t even thought of. That part I love. The world class service. Quality goods. And, yes, a great experience.

When I return to America and can’t even get a ‘Good morning’ back from the cashier at wherever, I’m ready to get on the Air France plane back to Paris, because from the moment I step up to the ticket counter, people are smiling, happy, and on the ball. But I digress…

Make no mistake, this free, almost libertine attitude toward life and (sometimes) work here in Paris has its charms. It provides fertile soil for a creativity that needs the absence of boundaries, formulas, schedules, or preconceived notions. It makes for great art, some great fashion, and some great philosophy. I sometimes wish I could be that way, hang that loose. I know I don’t take the time to smell the roses often enough. I want to get things done, even in Paris, a veritable dawdler’s paradise.

I watch Parisians–and they’re always Parisians–who have paused a moment, or for 15 minutes–to simply lean on the Pont Sully and look down the Seine. They’re not talking to anyone. They’re not really thinking about anything. They’re not really doing anything at all. I used to think to myself, what are they looking at? Or, are they lost? Or, have they wandered away from their caretaker? None of the above. They’re just Parisians, experiencing the moment. Usually with a cigarette in hand.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to notice this. Victor Hugo, a Frenchman but not a Parisian, was known to have said: To err is human. To loaf is Parisian. But it’s not loafing I’m really talking about, in all honesty. It’s prioritizing the acquisition of experiences over the acquisition of (maybe) things and (probably) money.

It makes this place very different from the UK, especially London, and the US, especially New York and L.A. It makes me weight the exchange value of something against the experiential value of something else.

It might lead to a more thoughtful, well-rounded existence, if I didn’t have so many things to do.

  • BGT



14 thoughts on “The Greek, The French, and Me

  1. This essay, and the one some days ago about cafe society, remind me of something I see so often: long lines of cars at the Starbucks drive-through. We in America are always rushed, always on the go,with our multi-tasking days scheduled down to the last quarter-hour. My guess is that those sitting in the car line are busy checking their phones while they wait. Not sure if it’s my age, or the result of reading Byron’s essays, but I’ve checked out of life in the fast lane.

      1. Thank you for this! I’ve read it several times, and quite agree. The image captures it well, too!

  2. Because I’ve conducted my life very nearly in the ascribed manner, I‘m less inclined to pat myself on the back than to tip my hat to you for writing about something so ineffably important, which few Americans would ever appreciate much less comprehend. Thank you.

  3. Our 15th wedding anniversary is coming up in December. My husband if I would like the traditional anniversary gift for 15 years. Baubles are nice but I’d rather have experiences, memories. Hold his hand while looking at the sunset. Life is too short. Wonderful piece, Byron. Thank you.

  4. There seems to be a perverse appeal in accumulating and hoarding money in UK/US societies. It’s as if the more you have, the more it’ll be alright if society eventually collapses. Do people really believe they’ll be able to buy their way out if it does?

    I can only offer this one piece of advice.

    “You can’t eat money.”

    1. Good point, Rob. You can’t eat it, but when money is required, there is often very little substitute for it. So I guess balance is required. Thank you, sir. – BGT

  5. Reading today’s post, I am struck by the thought that we’ve gone wrong somewhere along the way in the the U.S. with regard to quality of life. As you make clear, an interesting, rewarding, and civilized existence needn’t require a huge salary or all sorts of blinking, chirping gadgetry.

    Best Regards,


  6. I guess I am the lone dissenter. With teenagers at home and young adults launched, I see entirely too much emphasis put on experiences and not enough on building – a marriage, a family, a home, a career, a life, and a legacy. Full disclosure, I was raised with that Protestant work ethic. It is not without its flaws, but it has much to be encouraged as well. Done for the right reasons, the working and striving is the experience. No other purchases necessary. I see entirely too many young people, “experiencing” their way through life using the legacies left from older generations without any thought to creating new legacies for the generations to come.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.