Saturday, June 26, 2010

It's deliberate

Ah, the odes that Americans sing to the "European way of life"! Can you believe those French work only 35 hours a week? Can you believe that I get up to two months of PAID vacation time? And that's to say nothing about the way life is in Portugal, where a good friend of ours is doing a postdoc; he occasionally drops by for a visit and waxes eloquent about spending hours cooking with his buddies on a random Tuesday night and stuffing themselves until the wee hours of the morning. I've been taking advantage of the long days to take pictures. At home, in Nijmegen, I usually read a good book or update this blog or write in my journal or clean the apartment in between loads of laundry.

I don't think Europeans actually get that much free time: nobody I know has actually ever used their 41 days of paid vacation. Sure, there are some folks who take a month or a few weeks off, but I don't think anybody has ever gone missing for the full 41 days. The biggest difference, I think, is that Europeans use their free time more effectively than most Americans. For most Americans, for instance an hour-long commute by car isn't abnormal. In Europe, it's considered almost unholy. To say nothing of two hours--which is a stretch for Americans, but most of my former lab in Leiden would just shake their heads in disbelief: "Why not just rent an apartment?" they'd ask. At that time, I hadn't yet saved up enough, but moreover my contract was only being extended piecemeal.

Anyway, that's one major difference--that Europeans tend to look upon commuting as something to be avoided if at all possible, rather than a fact of life. The other major difference is that the shops all close at 6 pm, which gives you a damn good incentive to finish up before 5 if you want to pick up, say, more deodorant or a new book on the way home. Albert Heijn does stay open until 10 pm, but most supermarkets close at 8, and in any case you still want to try to beat the rush because they're liable to run out of popular things like bread and milk.

But what this all means is that the delineation between working and leisure is a very nice, clear line (most of the time--editing tasks always seem to lend themselves to eating up my Saturday mornings). You go to work, work, and then you go home and do Fun Stuff. It could be going out with friends, waiting for the sun to hit that perfect sweet spot, cooking something tasty, browsing the local thrift store if it's koopavond, or working at your second job. One guy I know of does an awesome webcomic. I alternate between finding cool things to photograph and painting.

And what's even more telling is that people are simply NOT IMPRESSED if you tell them you spent 60 hours in lab last week. They'll look at you quizically and ask, "What for?" Last time I pulled those kinds of hours, I also wondered "what for?" I couldn't answer the question then, and I still can't answer it now. Especially since I've gotten some really nice photos.

I don't quite know when the whole idea of living deliberately became so deeply internalized, but I know that it didn't come naturally to me. I'd like to place it as happening at some point two years ago, when I started working in Leiden: commuting for four hours per day really really SUCKED, and the only way I'd ever be able to do things that I wanted was to either hope I wasn't too exhausted by the time I got home, or plan them into my weekends. It means that I almost always get to do what I want, just not necessarily when I want.


  1. Didn't you spend most of a year doing a 2 hour commute? Was that so uncommon? Studies in the US show that 2 hours is about the maximum people will commute, the actual distance involved doesn't matter. Of course, commuting by train is a lot more pleasant than alone in a car.

  2. Yeah... my husband works 9-6, which means 8:10-6:30 (roads are blocked in the morning)
    Add in a couple of rambunctious kids, a few loads of laundry, and a wife with fibromyalgia, and even a 45-hour work week (actually, 48, he usually stays late one day a week) leaves him with no time to himself except for the commute time, which he's using to study...

    We are taking 3 weeks of vacation this summer, though!!! Yay for Finland.