My students observing the French in their natural habitat.

The character of a third place is determined most of all by its regular clientele and is marked by a playful mood, which contrasts with people’s more serious involvement in other spheres. Though a radically different kind of setting for a home, the third place is remarkably similar to a good home in the psychological comfort and support that it extends…They are the heart of a community’s social vitality, the grassroots of democracy, but sadly, they constitute a diminishing aspect of the American social landscape. Oldenburg, A Great Good Place

Today, I sent my students out to do some observing and note taking in informal gathering spaces that people inhabit when not at work and not at home. Third Places. The local coffee shops where people lounge during the day playing cards and gossiping, and the bars where people hang out in the evenings discussing politics over a glass of wine. Because I am teaching in France, I knew that even at 2:30 in the afternoon, people would be out there, in the plazas, in the cafes, in the bars, eating, drinking and talking. This is the south of France after all. Eating lunch can take two hours.

Recently, I attended an aperitif party with faculty, administrators, directors, and other resident fellows, where I became engrossed in a conversation with other moms (of course) both French and American, all living in France full-time. We talked about the school day and the two hour lunches that the children take, in the middle of the day, allowing them to come home if they choose. One of the husbands said that he used to take two hour lunches to sit in a cafe, but now he only takes one-and-a-half hour lunches, because he is busy. The minimum vacation time, they told me, is five weeks a year, which is sanctioned by the government, and people often take up to ten. The hospitals stays after giving birth can last up to a week, after a completely normal birth with no complications.

When it was my turn to talk, I told them: I rarely eat lunch back home, working throughout the day sometimes until eight. Then I eat dinner quickly, sometimes working until midnight. My sons go to school all day and the older one eats lunch on the bus during his in-between-school-shuffle. My younger son has thirty minutes to eat and to play and to get back to class, where he stays through after care, which costs extra, until either my husband or I can fetch him by six. My husband catches a train 6:45 in the morning and gets home around 6:00. He has a one hour commute, a one hour lunch, and two weeks of vacation a year. He has a fabulous job and a humane schedule compared to many professionals who usually work much later, through their lunches, and on the weekends. When I gave birth the first time, I was out of the hospital within 24 hours, and with the second one, after an unplanned C-section, I was sent home after two days, with some medication and an infant. And no, I did not have a nurse visiting me to make sure that I was alright.

What? They said, as they always do. Why do you work so hard and so much? Ca n’en vaut pas la peine. It is not worth your pain. We French, one woman said, we think about the weekend all week, and the vacations all year.

You don’t have to tell me. I responded.

And I have had plenty of these conversations with people at cafes and bars, all French, all opinionated (which is why they are so engaging in conversation) and I always think . . . wouldn’t I like to have to your life, but I don’t.  If I had time to sit in cafes for two hours in the middle of the day, it would mean that I was unemployed, or would likely very soon be. If I am lucky enough to find time to eat, I am sitting in my office, scarfing down an organic TV dinner with a student waiting just outside the door to meet with me. When I get home, my husband or I (whoever is home first and least tired) make a simple dinner from scratch which we all eat (together at least) in twenty minutes, promptly cleaning up and settling down in front of the TV, because we are too tired to do anything else.

The next day, we do the same thing all over again. We spend most of our time either at work or at home or in transit. On the weekends, we enjoy our Saturday, then we are back to work preparing for the week on Sunday: shopping, laundering, cleaning, prepping, homeworking, making sure that the children are showered, lunch money is on the counter and all the forms are signed. I suppose that is why “third places” are dwindling in the US. Who needs places to dawdle, linger and interact within the larger community when relaxing is an activity that is so elusive for most Americans.

Yes, we work hard, I say, because I do not think that I am special, but it is not like we have a choice.  Most of the Americans that I know have found no magic loop hole through the long hours, expensive child care, and ungodly commutes.

Clearly, we could do with working less and lingering longer over meals. But, I say to those who will listen, it is not as simple as that. No cultural inheritance is ever so easily defined, so black and white.  A desire for conspicuous consumption is not the reason for my long hours and my husband’s long commute. We are not working to pay for extras, like jet-skis, or fancy threads, or Prada bags.  We are just your perfectly average Americans. We have one car payment, student loans, a mortgage, and plenty of other bills that we pay, and some others that we float until the next go around. If we want to go on vacation, we work extra hours to save up for them. If my son needs new sneakers, I budget them in and tell him to make them last. We just work to pay the bills, to keep our health insurance —which goes up every year, the deductibles far outweighing the minuscule cost of living increases— and to afford to eat simple meals at home, and on occasion, at inexpensive restaurants as a family.

Do I have a choice?

We are the lucky ones. The educated. The middle class, even just barely. I am always fiercely torn in this debate, because I work like an American but I want my life to possess the qualities of balance that the French seem to have mastered.

No, I do not have a choice.

Until we have access to free higher education, affordable healthcare, eight months of maternity leave, and a top-notch public education for our children starting at the age of 3, I guess I will just go on working.

And I can’t even complain. We are the lucky ones.