From a glance at the bestseller list, it’s clear the French have something to tell us about the art of living well. Frenchwomen don’t get fat—nor do they get facelifts, and yet they manage to remain elegant toujours. And French children don’t talk back, thanks to the way French parents have raised them.
I wonder if there’s an enterprising French author out there writing a book on retirement. From the American writer Adam Gopnik’s memoir “Paris to the Moon,” it seems that the French do it differently than we do.
Americans, says Gopnik, feel that “to stop working is to stop living. It is the vestibule of death.” But in France “there is no equivalent anxiety.” Indeed, the opposite holds true—there’s a “romance of retirement,” he says, and the earlier the better.
Gopnik cites a series of articles in Le Figaro on young retirees who boast of having the time to “reflect”—in other words, to do nothing. The pieces are written, he says, “in exactly the same admiring spirit that an American daily might use for a series about old people who are as busy as all get-out.”
I am one of the lucky ones with a foot in both worlds. I like to work, and I’m still at it in my 60s. But because of the nature of my job, I have downtime, too. I work for a quarterly publication, so I am busy four times a year during our production cycle and off duty in between.
What do you do when there’s nothing that has to be done? Time becomes elastic. A morning or afternoon might pleasantly pass with nothing much to show for it. It’s easy to put things off, because after all, there’s always tomorrow. I don’t have to cram all my chores into Saturdays, as I did when I worked full time.
An errand like grocery shopping may make an afternoon. There’s time beforehand to check the cupboards and contemplate my list, time later to have a cup of tea after putting everything away. When I was working, going to the supermarket was something I did in spare moments. It’s roomier now.
There’s time to take a walk, time to read, time to meet a friend for coffee. We have a couple of spots in town where you can while away an hour over an espresso without feeling pressured to leave. They may not be Parisian sidewalk cafes, but the croissants are just as good.
I have scheduled events in my life too, meetings and appointments and the like—enough of them to anchor me in the here and now. I don’t lose track of what day it is.
But I’m happy to stay a little laid-back and resist the temptation to be overly energetic. Let’s call it my homage to the French. Soon enough, my production cycle will kick into gear again and I will be thrust back into the working world. Let me revel in the pleasure of doing nothing while I can.