What This Island Girl Learned in Paris

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Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to travel to France for the third time in my life. I had one specific goal: to come home with memories of Paris that were vivid and quiet, unlike the blurred frenzy from my first two visits.

I first visited Paris on my honeymoon. After seven years of studying French in high school and college, my list of major tourist destinations was thorough, so my honeymoon wasn’t about meandering through the cobblestone streets of Paris holding hands and gazing lovingly into the eyes of my new husband.

My second trip to France was for the wedding of a dear friend in Lille, a city in northern France. The days we spent in Paris during this trip were at a hotel near the Moulin Rouge. Our room had a balcony across the street from an apartment building with picturesque balconies adorned with pots of bright flowers. I spent many moments standing on the balcony admiring the balconies across the street, but my memories of running around Paris were, again, a blur.

Lesson learned, I made a deliberate attempt to absorb as much of Paris and the French as I could during my third visit. I was an amateur anthropologist determined not to let anything – physical environments, modes of human interaction, nuances of language, styles of dress, and especially attitudes – go unnoticed.

As I had hoped, I came home with special moments and beautiful images committed to memory. What I didn’t expect was my new intuition about why the French are able to elevate the appreciation of life into an art form.

It’s true that Parisians, even elderly Parisians, walk everywhere and at a good clip. You’ll get stampeded in the streets and in the Metro stations if you don’t keep up. It’s true that Parisians are often face down in their cell phones as they walk in the streets or ride the subway trains. If you scratch beneath the top layer of Parisian pace, however, you’ll find that Parisians still have the French attitude toward life, and this attitude is similar to the Hawaiian attitude.

What the French and Hawaiian cultures have in common is what American culture lacks – age. A mere 239 years old, American culture is more like a newborn baby compared to the French and Hawaiian cultures that are thousands of years old. Is it any wonder that the French and Hawaiian cultures approach life with more maturity and more wisdom?

Have you heard of “Island Time”? It’s a double-edged notion that life on an island is idyllic and peaceful, but also that islanders are lazy. Think of Donald-Trump-types who think people in Hawai’i are poor because they spend too much time lying on the beach, playing their ukuleles, enjoying tropical breezes. Think of the stereotype that people from Hawai’i are late for everything. Think of the exasperating way island businesses open late or close early without notice. All these things are often explained as “being on island time.” Rules of punctuality and etiquette aside, however, critics of “island time” should ask themselves if they subscribe to the same value system and priorities as the people who live on island time.

I’ve come to recognize a dynamic I call “French Coffee Time.” The rare take-out coffee cups I saw in Paris were from Starbucks – clearly not French. The French take time to sit down and enjoy their coffee. What looks like wasted time to an American is actually a recharging of physical and mental batteries and a tending to an overall sense of well-being. Unlike Americans who are taught to will themselves to keep going when they run out of steam, the French actually take time to rest, recharge, and refuel.

Are my observations simply about knocking off from work early and enjoying coffee, or do these seemingly insignificant practices reflect a more grounded perspective about life? Maybe what the French and Hawaiians have learned over the course of thousands of years is that the world will not come to an ugly end and lives will not be ruined if people don’t squeeze another nickel, another report, or another meeting out of an already productive day. Maybe they don’t run on empty and try to force creativity or problem solving before their subconscious minds are ready, because they’ve learned that the human brain can’t be rushed, caffeinated, or otherwise drugged or tricked into optimal performance.

So is our belief in “all work and no play” as the formula for world domination and happiness merely a product of our culture’s immaturity? We could test this theory for a thousand years, perhaps two thousand for good measure, or we could give some thought to what the French and the Hawaiians already seem to understand: Time is not money. Money is money. Time is priceless. Shall we discuss this over coffee at a quiet cafe or under a palm tree on a beach?

© Living off Island, Writing Wahine, 2015.

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