This past weekend, thirty-five of us piled into a bus and drove for three hours deep into the French Alps for a weekend of white-water rafting and randonnée — hiking, the activity this part of the country is famous for.
If you go white-water rafting in this particular part of France, you will float along a river that winds its way through magnificent gorges and past the medieval ruins you can’t escape in Europe, but you won’t really be able to appreciate that because you will be getting pushed into the water every other minute by both the guides and your fellow rafters. Wearing the appropriate safety gear, you’ll live out your childhood dream of becoming a pirate. Yes, it was dangerous. But the air was warm and the waters of the Durance River were benign enough, and quite frankly the French don’t care. It’s not that they don’t think about our welfare – they do. The difference is that here the balance between fun and safety is calculated very differently than it is in North America. I’ve taught sailing in my hometown of Vancouver every summer for the past five years: I’m used adding up how much those peals of laughter are worth in potential risk. And although I know the kids I teach each summer would love to be able to shove each other off their boats out of the sticky heat and into the cool waters of the Burrard Inlet, I also know if anything went wrong it would be me and my bosses on the line for the consequences. The business I consider to be a second family would be feeling the effects of those moments of laughter for long after they had faded. And so most of the time, I make the decision: it’s just not worth the risk.
That is the difference between France and North America, right there. The French live for the moment and North Americans live for tomorrow. The French don’t care that if they worked lunch times and Sundays and Mondays and Wednesday afternoons and all the other hours they take off, they could make more money. When you go white-water rafting in the French Alps, you get pushed off the boats and you stand on the edge of the raft going through rapids and sure, it’s dangerous. Sure, there could be a rock lurking just below the surface that could change everything. When you grow up in North America, you learn to think in these “coulds”. When you grow up in France, you learn instead the calculations necessary to maximise the enjoyment out of each day.
We’re constantly being told in North America to “seize the day!” Where did YOLO originate? In North America. Because in France, they don’t need YOLO. It does not need to be said: their entire society is built around a culture of living for today.
This is most definitely a double-edged sword. You only have to be in France for twenty-four hours before it becomes glaringly obvious why the French economy is going to hell in a handbasket. It cannot cope with modern paces and what’s more, it doesn’t want to. In France it is seen as their natural-born right to take holidays and sick days and long lunch breaks; the French have died for their rights before and they’d die for their rights again.
While nobody could say that Canada’s economy is booming, there is at least a definite national commitment to improving it. That element just isn’t there in France. The greatest national commitment towards anything is focused on keeping everything the same, the same as it was yesterday, the same as it was fifty years ago, the same as it will be in another fifty years. The reason the French can live so comfortably for the moment is because they feel quite assured in the assumption that everything will be tomorrow as it was today. In North America things are moving too fast for anyone to rely on that – and yet instead of living for today with that understanding, we use today to plan for these presumed changes that may or may not occur. The French live as if nothing will be any different than things were for their grandmothers; in North America we make all our decisions based on the off chance that our grandchildren will need the twenty dollars we made today by taking a half-hour lunch instead of a two-hour lunch. Not only is the French calculations different from North American in terms of risk versus gain, worth it versus not worth it, we’re not even working towards the same answers.
I’ve lived in North America for twenty years and by the time this year is finished I’ll have lived in France for one. I’m still not sure which is better.
Of the English-speakers among the thirty-five of us that went on the weekend away, most of us were pretty astounded at the level of horseplay that went on while rafting. The general consensus was that in our own countries, that never would have happened. “If everyone follows instructions and no one does anything silly there should be no reason for anyone to fall in the water!” That would have been the general gist of what we would have heard, had we been anywhere but in France.
“That was kind of scary when he was pushing people overboard!”
“Yeah. But… it was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Haha! It really was.”
Moira, I’ve just read your article about rafting and the french carpe diem. Before reading, I thought : “I’m sure that it’s an article which criticizes french culture, again…” And in fact not. I’ve really enjoyed reading your article because it surprised me. It’s not common cliché about us, I discover another view of my culture. Even if I disagree for some points ( rafting in this river is not dangerous ) it remains really interesting.
Really, I want to thank you for having written this article, and I congrats you for your blog. 🙂