For the seven months, I have been living abroad. It’s only been half a year, but in that time I’ve lived on a tiny beachside village in Egypt, on a felucca sailboat down the Nile River, in an apartment overlooking the Effiel Tower in Paris, in hostels in Germany and sharing beautiful homes with the locals in Spain and Portugal. It’s been a relatively short time, but the growth I’ve experienced and the lessons I’ve learned in each of these countries has shaped me, transformed me, in such a way that revisiting the United States was almost a paralyzing shock.
While I have an immense appreciation of my home country in the United States, I also see drastic differences in the lifestyles and cultures between my home and abroad. For the purposes of this post, I’ll be comparing the U.S. to Europe, more specifically my current home in France.
Here are some lifestyle comparisons I’ve noted in the first quarter of my time living here:
My favorite difference between Europe and the United States is the common pursuit of pleasure amongst the people here. There is a high focus on pleasure, enjoyment and taking it slow. All stores and most restaurants are closed on Sundays, limiting my husband’s and my ability to get groceries, but allowing us to put the focus on rest and each other. Saturdays are spent leisurely strolling along the Petite France canals or taking a quiet walk to the local marche where the French families pick up their local fresh produce, cheeses and meats. Boulangeries are often busier on Saturdays, with the most important task of the day being to pick up a warm, fresh-out-of-the-oven baguette. Or four.
While the people in Europe take life more leisurely, in comparison, my time living in the United States showed me there was more of a focus on career advancement, education and planning for the future. American families love to own property, take a leap in a new business or start-up, and think towards future goals. While there is nothing at all wrong with the American way of life, it is just noticeably different. In France, families still think long-term, but in less of an achievement-focused way. There is not as big importance on a career or yearly salaries, but on simply and intentionally enjoying their life with their loved ones.
In America, it’s a common ice-breaker to ask someone at a bar, party or function what they do for income. It’s so common, in fact, that it is often known as a respectable thing to ask another in the hopes of getting to know someone and open the conversation further. But in Europe, it is actually quite rude to ask someone what they do as a profession when you first meet them, for the focus on people’s lifestyle in Europe is not so much related to career or profession, but on lifestyle, travels and most importantly – family.
Out of sheer unconscious habit, I made the mistake twice of asking people in France what they do upon first meeting them. Both times I was met with a bit of confusion and a hint of surprise in their expressions, and I later learned that it wasn’t common to ask someone about their career immediately. These days when I meet someone, I ask about their family, where in France they are from and what their interests and hobbies are. International travel is often a deeply ingrained theme among all the Europeans I have met this year.
Travel is important amongst the people of Europe. Conversation, in fact, is often focused around travel and the past trips families have taken together. And that’s not just traveling their continent alone! Europeans love to witness and experience countries like America, Egypt, Morocco, Japan, Australia, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam among others.
Travel is not just a luxury. It is a lifestyle. When Europeans are not traveling abroad, they make very frequent vacations across their neighboring countries in Europe. And because airfare is affordable and much less expensive than in the states, I often hear of families traveling across Europe quite frequently. Because there are many school and work vacations scattered throughout the year, families often take off for an entire week multiple times a year, such as in February and October. Most of the French have the entire month of August completely off, and it’s common to find a European family resting in the South of France for long weeks at a time.
In regards to transportation, nearly everyone in my area of France bikes to work or takes quiet, spacious public transportation (train travel is the most common) and hardly anyone owns a car in France, and if they do, they drive it every so often while on a weekend road trip to a nearby village.
Every sense is magnified. Every action is delicate and intentional. A meal made by a local family in France – like our neighbors for instance – is always made with fresh ingredients, often purchased local from a marche, and includes a 4-course meal, with fruit and cheese as a dessert. There is hardly any fast food here in France, and warm bread from the local boulangerie is king.
Over the past months, I have been so fortunate to have homemade dinners with many families here in France, many in Strasbourg and a few in Paris, and I have enjoyed the same experience time and time again. There is an emphasis on cooking slow with lots of appetizers beforehand to entertain guests, on shopping local and dinner as an experience, with crystal goblets, linen napkins and the finest china being used daily. I just love milking in each bite, each word that is exchanged, and each new idea that appears before the drawn-out conversations among my friends in France. There is a different way of speaking and interacting with people here than in America – and that’s not counting the differences in language!
There is a sense of independence and autonomy in the United States. Great drive, ambition and leadership are words I now automatically think of when I imagine the people of America – traits I never associated with the United States before living in another country. There is a very unique and special sense of humor with Americans that can’t quite be found anywhere else, and there is a visionary essence to the American people that I highly admire. Entrepreneurship is common and steadily growing, with the promise of a better future always in the distant horizon, and in Europe, the tone is less so but equally as wonderful in its own way. While there are fewer freelance creatives and entrepreneurs and far less independence in the individual spirit of people I’ve met and befriended along my journey these last seven months abroad, I also find the spirit more fulfilling here in France at this current phase of my life.
Work environments are collegial, and while the French system is heavily bureaucratic and administrative (the amount of red tape one has to go through before getting any type of confirmed answer is excessive, to say the least), there is always a sense of togetherness and fairness. No one is better or more important than the other. There is no entitlement with getting that corner office and everyone has to get in line with everybody else. I love that feeling: that we are all in the same boat together. That we are all equals, that we all pay taxes to help one another out, and we have all access to the same level of education and health care.
Everyone is different and everyone values different lifestyles. In my younger years, I pursued excitement, adventure, and ambition and right now, I am at a different phase in my life where I seek pleasure, quiet and enjoyment of life. In this phase in my mid-twenties, I am filled with immense gratitude to be living in Europe at the moment, for the lifestyle I seek and that resonates with me personally, is found here in Europe. But that doesn’t mean I won’t someday crave ambition and the pursuit of achievement once again someday in my thirties.
Someday I may wish to come back to the United States and pursue a focus on my career and on starting an animal family with Alex, but right now – I’ll be here enjoying a new cultural way of life of slow pleasure and peaceful enjoyment with my husband. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend our first years as newlyweds, can you?
A few photographs from my Strasbourg and Paris photo diaries…
February 23, 2019
2016 - 2019 Helena Woods | Helena Woods Portraiture is located outside New York City in Fairfield County Connecticut and travels worldwide for her clients. Helena Woods is Connecticut’s premier family, children, baby and newborn photographer specializing in modern classic custom family photography with a timeless look that's always in style. As a professional photographer, Helena captures maternity, newborn, baby and family portraits in NYC, Westchester, Trumbull, Easton, Weston, and Westport, Bridgeport, Greenwich, Darien, Westport, Norfolk and all Fairfield County surrounding areas.