Working to Live in France

It’s 3 a.m. You and your fourth coffee are in Bapst, and your paper is due in class the next morning. You have finished your final draft. As the minutes of precious sleep tick away, your delirious eyes read through the final version over and over again, to the point at which you could probably recite your epic work by heart. It is perfect. All of the details are there, and it is everything your paper was supposed to be. Close MacBook.

It took me a trip to Grenoble, France to understand why I haven’t received an A on every perfect final draft that I have ever submitted. There is a very real danger in reading through the same details over and over again-you slowly become convinced that there is no other way things could be. After five semesters at Boston College, I thought I understood exactly what the college experience was, and what it should be. As it turns out, the only way to truly understand your home is to get very far away from it.

France is in many ways, in my humble opinion, an absurd country. My spring break is coming up, but my excitement for it has been somewhat diminished since we have more or less already had two separate weeks off. If one of the purposes of university education is to prepare students for the workforce, our schedule makes perfect sense. Young French minds must be prepared for the government-mandated annual eight weeks of paid vacation that they will receive after they graduate and find employment. The Grenoble metro area consists of 664,832 people, but don’t try to find an open grocery store when you have run out of milk on a Sunday. Trust me, you will be eating dry cereal until Monday morning.

When a class is scheduled at 9 a.m., don’t bother showing up before 9:05, and don’t consider yourself late until about 9:20, because the professor is most likely just booting up his PowerPoint slides. Last weekend, the university sponsored a massive party inside the school building itself, in which-gasp-alcoholic drinks were served, and in fact, each ticket came with two free cocktails of choice. For the French, 18-year-olds drinking alcohol on school property is fine, but wearing gym shorts or yoga pants to a lecture is practically grounds for expulsion. Leaving class during a professor’s lecture for a smoke break is completely kosher, and enough students take advantage of this to make the front doors to the school my personal asthmatic nightmare.

And yet, there is so much beauty in all of this insanity. On a nice day at 1 p.m., groups of old friends line the sidewalks outside of cafes, sipping coffee and laughing into the spring air. I really mean any nice day at all, be it Tuesday or Saturday. Most stores in the city take a two-hour lunch break every day (except Sunday, of course), and employees are free to go off and enjoy the afternoon. I often begin to think that I must be in Manhattan when I come across the sheer number of people out in the streets on a weekday afternoon, only to realize that I am in a city one-fortieth of that size in which people really understand what it is like to work to live, and not the other way around.

Even as I hear Ke$ha blasting from a car while walking past a McDonald’s covered in billboards advertising the new season of Duck Dynasty, I am struck by how far away from the U.S. I am. While Americanization has sadly had a vast impact on a number of the countries in Europe that I have visited, it hasn’t affected what I consider to be the true French spirit in any way. As a humble foreigner looking in on the French mystique, I would have to distinguish the French by their passion for enjoying life every day and not letting any pressures ruin the beauty of human existence.

So what if the French economy is crumbling? Your money isn’t coming with you when you die. A life truly lived in the moment, to the fullest, is worth so much more.
BC isn’t a perfect final draft. Maybe it’s absurd that I’ve eaten many “lunches” while walking from Lower to class because I feel like I have no time to balance academics, clubs, and an internship search. Maybe it’s crazy that my iCal runs my life on the Heights and I can hardly remember the blur that was last semester. The French economic system isn’t sustainable, but maybe the widespread Adderall abuse at competitive American colleges shows that our high-stress education system isn’t either.

I love BC, but I think I would love it even more if I stopped to actually enjoy it in the moment every once in a while. So, take a deep breath, put on your beret, find your friends, and go lounge in the grass for an hour. You’ve only got four years here.


March 23, 2014