Money – or lack of it – is a very hot topic these days. As the Western World teeters on the brink of a recession (dare I day depression?) a wave of panic at having less money than before is sweeping over most of us.
As a rule North Americans talk about money, and people who have money, much more than French people.
In Canada this summer, I couldn’t help but notice that North American society evaluates an individual’s worth on ludicrous criteria; weight loss success for one, wealth for another. The same reverent, stars-in-their-eyes tone is used for discussing both these facets of the North American dream.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that wealthy people don’t deserve respect. What I am saying is that, unlike North American society would sometimes have us believe, the wealthy don’t earn that respect for their bank balance alone.
In a society that was built largely on immigration I can see how the wealth = worth equation came into being.
Let’s face it, the bulk of immigrants to North America were not moneyed aristocrats. Mine were dirt poor scullery maids and the like who had nothing to lose. A miserable job, no money, and no hope of change was the best motivation for risking a perilous sea voyage and trying to carve out a new life in a rough new world.
In North America, the new arrivals found the playing field was far more level than back in Europe. They were a pragmatic bunch, and stripped of titles, families, and history, the simplest way of measuring a person’s success (or failure) in the New World quickly became the amount of money they amassed.
As is still the case today, in North America even people who became wealthy through somewhat nefarious means (think claim jumpers back then, leaky-condo developers now) were still granted grudging respect for the fact that they had come out on top. Survival of the fittest wasn’t an abstract concept.
However, two to three generations after my ancestors emigrated from Europe to Canada, I can no longer buy this belief that the wealthy have somehow acquired personal worth along with their scheckles.
While hard work can lead to material wealth, it doesn’t always. I am also convinced that Lady Luck has a lot more to do with becoming rich than many would have us believe. Also, this overly simplistic wealth = worth assumption doesn’t take into account people who, for example, spend their lives obsessively amassing money but neglect their children. Such a life is a failure in my book, no matter what the bank account says.
Here in France, wealthy people are not worshipped. If anything they are regarded with un peu of suspicion. In France, significant monetary wealth is a tip-off that the person in question has likely been neglecting the truly important things in life.
I would go as far to say that in France the wealthy are, if anything, pitied. The French seem to associate big time moola with intellectual starvation. After all, if someone is spending so much time and mental energy nurturing money they clearly don’t have sufficient time to enjoy stimulating conversations with friends, fall passionately in love, reflect quietly about a good book or a riveting philosophical debate…
The fact that wealth is given very little respect here in France is one of the main reasons why there is a lot less conspicuous consumption i.e. big cars, McMansions, obvious brand name clothing, etc. than back in North America. Make no mistake about it – there are certainly a good percentage of wealthy people, especially in towns such as Beaune – but the whole thing is kept very subdued.
As one of my close French friends, who sometimes struggles like many of us to make the ends meet at the end of the month, says, “Sure it would be nice to have a lot of money, but as long as I have enough to be able to have people over for meals and a roof over my head I’ll be happy. It’s just not something I think about very much.”
However, this distinctly French lack of respect towards money almost made me crazy at first.
When we arrived in Burgundy four years ago, I couldn’t believe the differences between the French banks and our bank back home in Canada. At the time, the Canadian banks were literally throwing low-interest mortgage loans at us as well as proposing (and approving) huge lines of credit. Franck and I went to Beaune to take out a small mortgage for La Maison de la Vieille Vigne, blissfully assuming it would be a cake walk.
Ah, mais non.
Five months later we had been turned away from every bank in Beaune except one. The bankers in France seemed supremely disinterested in approving loans, or in fact lifting so much as a finger to help someone get a small business off the ground. While this attitude doubtlessly contributes to the social stagnancy that remains a problem in Europe, it certainly forces French people turn their attentions elsewhere than making a quick buck.
And while what I’m going to write next will doubtless illustrate my meager grasp of micro- economic principles, I do have to wonder whether this insatiable thirst for wealth in North America – of both the banks who cashed in on the real estate boom like sharks in a feeding frenzy, and the people who overextended themselves with delusions of becoming real estate magnates- isn’t partly responsible for the current economic crisis.
After pitching our vacation rental project to French bankers they more often than not just looked at us with bemusement over steepled fingers.
“But why do you want to do this?” they kept asking us.
Finally I broke down and stated the obvious, “To make money, of course.”
At this point, one of the bankers shrugged eloquently and swiveled around in his office chair. He picked up something off the floor behind him.
“Take this,” he said, handing us a bottle of Premier Cru from one of Pommard’s best winemakers. “I can’t help you with the loan, but enjoy this bottle of my client’s wine. After a glass or two the loan just won’t seem to matter as much.”
And you know what? He was right.