The French way:♦
Julia Child, Ben Franklin and us
Americans, Benjamin Olshin remarks in “Waiting for Café Culture,” “are said to spend more time on the job than any other culture. That means we’re working too hard just to stay where we are economically, or it means we’re not working efficiently. We ridicule Europeans for their shorter workweeks and longer vacations…. But somehow European companies produce products and provide services without compelling their employees to work overtime.”
A similar notion appears in the late TV chef Julia Child’s posthumously published memoir, My Life in France. Child recalls the late 1940s efforts of American “Marshall Plan hustlers” to suggest ideas for improving French productivity and profits. “The average Frenchman,” she recalls, “would shrug, as if to say: ‘These notions of yours are all very fascinating, no doubt, but we have a nice little business here just as it is. Everybody makes a decent living. Nobody has ulcers. I have time to work on my monograph about Balzac, and my foreman enjoys his espaliered pear trees. I think, as a matter of fact, we do not wish to make these changes that you suggest’.”
On one occasion, Child recalls, she and her husband were taken by a French friend to a wonderful little out-of-the-way café on the right bank of Paris and introduced to the proprietress. When the friend announced, “I’ve brought you some new customers!”, the proprietress waved a hand, saying, “Oh no, I have enough customers already.”
French culture is above all about savoring the roses; American culture is above all about growth and productivity. But it wasn’t always that way. In the 18th Century, the most productive Americans worked on farms; cities and towns were places where, as Benjamin Franklin observed in his autobiography, it was unusual for a man to be seen as busy with his business the entire day, much less actually be busy with it.
The typical 18th-Century Philadelphia merchant or craftsman, wrote Sam Bass Warner in The Private City, conducted his business not as a means to wealth or achievement but as an end in itself: His shop was the focal point of a leisurely daily routine spent communing with friends and neighbors, punctuated by long breaks for meals and trips to the tavern.
We can thank Franklin for changing that, and also for reminding us that we humans possess the collective power to change our mores once again if we so desire.
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