Europeans Just Want to Have Fun

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Walking across Boulevard St. Michel in Paris last week, on the night before Bastille Day, I bumped into an old friend — an American who has lived in the city for 25 years — who told me he was taking up the tango. When I asked him why, he suggested I take a stroll along the Left Bank of the Seine, opposite Ile St. Louis, and so of course I did.

It was one big party. A drop-dead-gorgeous crowd was tangoing away in a makeshift, open-air amphitheater. Nearby, a multiethnic group was doing the merengue. Hundreds of others were tucking into picnics by the river as a full moon rose in a cloudless sky. Much later that night, after a perfect fish soup in the Place des Vosges, I walked into the narrow passages of the Marais district and stumbled upon an impromptu block party. Someone had set up a sound system on the sidewalk, and the street was packed with people — straight and gay, young and old, black and white — dancing to salsa.

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Europe is enjoying itself. O.K., in late July, it always does. The weekend I was in Paris, an estimated 500,000 kids descended on Berlin for the annual Love Parade, a carnival of techno music, dope and sex. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of families started their treks from the damp north of the Continent to their vacation homes in the warm south. But even when the sun isn't shining, Europeans seem to be throwing themselves into fun and festivity with unprecedented zeal. Each weekend, central London is one great bacchanal. Cities that for reasons of politics or religion were once gloomily repressive — Madrid, say, or Dublin — now rock to the small hours. In Prague the foreign visitors who get talked about are not the earnest young Americans who flocked there in the early 1990s, but British partygoers who have flown in for the cheap beer and pretty girls. The place that British historian Mark Mazower once called the true dark continent — and from whose curdled soul the horrors of fascism and communism sprang — has become Europa ludens, a community at play.

Funny. This is how the U.S was supposed to be. In a famous series of essays collected in his 1976 book, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell noted how the decline of the Protestant small-town ethic had unhinged American capitalism from its moral foundation in the intrinsic value of work. By the 1960s, Bell argued, "the cultural justification of capitalism [had] become hedonism, the idea of pleasure as a way of life." This magazine agreed. In a 1969 cover story titled "California: A State of Excitement," TIME reported that, as most Americans saw it, "the good, godless, gregarious pursuit of pleasure is what California is all about ... 'I have seen the future,' says the newly returned visitor to California, 'and it plays.'"

But the American future didn't turn out as we expected. While Europeans cut the hours they spend at the office or factory — in France it is illegal to work more than 35 hours a week — and lengthened their vacations, Americans were concluding that you could be happy only if you work hard and play hard. So they began to stay at their jobs longer than ever and then, in jam-packed weekends at places like the Hamptons on Long Island, invented the uniquely American concept of scheduled joy, filling a day off with one appointment after another, as if it were no different from one at the office. American conservatives, meanwhile, came to believe that Europeans' desire to devote themselves to the pleasures of life and — the shame of it!--six weeks annual vacation was evidence of a lack of seriousness and would, in any event, end in economic tears.

Why do Europeans and Americans differ so much in their attitude toward work and leisure? I can think of two reasons. First, the crowded confines of Western Europe and the expansive space of North America have led to varied consumer preferences. Broadly speaking, Americans value stuff — SUVs, 7,000-sq.-ft. houses — more than they value time, while for Europeans it's the opposite. Second, as Bell predicted, America's sense of itself as a religious nation has revived. At least in the puritanical version of Christianity that has always appealed to Americans, religion comes packaged with the stern message that hard work is good for the soul. Modern Europe has avoided so melancholy a lesson.

Whatever the explanation, the idea of a work-life balance is a staple of European discourse, studied in think tanks, mulled over by policymakers. In the U.S., the term, when it's used at all, is said with the sort of sneer reserved for those who eat quiche. But it might still catch on. When Bill Keller was named executive editor of the New York Times last week, he encouraged the staff to do "a little more savoring" of life, spending time with their families or viewing art.

Even better, they could take up the tango.