Traveling outside the U.S. is always a great reminder of our particular culture and of habits that we believe are shared by the entire world. Until we cross the pond.

I recently drove through Catalunya, Spain, and the South of France. Needless to say that the region is one of the most beautiful areas in the world. But besides the gorgeous Mediterranean Sea, the snow-capped Pyrenees, the vast vineyards, the castles, the historic, cozy towns, and the extraordinary food, what caught my attention was the fact that most locals enjoy all these things as much as the tourists do.

You see, over there people put less emphasis on their jobs and professions as a way to define who they are. Unlike Americans, Europeans don’t start a conversation with “What do you do?” Sometimes that piece of information will come at a point much later in the conversation, but more often than not, you will part ways before anyone finds out the occupation of the other person. This makes for a completely different way of life.

There’s a sense of enjoyment of the good things in life (the French call it joie de vivre) that we seem to lack here in the U.S. In that part of the world, food is cooked and savored slowly and friends are given full attention, so cell phones are not as ubiquitous over dinner tables. I noticed much less multitasking of the kind that landed my Blackberry at the bottom of a toilet at the Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain. I learned my lesson fast.

The looser attachment to a job-defined identity makes people freer to move around to follow their passions or to live in places they like even if they are far from home or in the middle of nowhere.

Many of the people I met during the trip, professionals or not, had worked in diverse jobs so that they could live where they wanted and do with their lives as they pleased.  For Marion, for instance, a woman who had lived as a young person in Argentina, pursuing a wide range of interests has always been her priority. She has supervised the storage of nuclear equipment; worked as a teaching assistant and as a theater hand; and now repairs furniture, sells her own paintings and rents out her house to tourists. Her resourcefulness mixed with the joie de vivre makes for a great lifestyle. But she’s not the exception. She, as many others I encountered, travels several weeks a year, something many of us wish we could do if only we could get time off work.

I wonder what it is with Americans and the obsession with work to the exclusion of most other activities that give us pleasure. Why do we say, “Now, back to reality” when we return from a great vacation? Isn’t the time spent leisurely pursuing one’s other interests as much reality as the time spent behind a desk? Why is our identity so entwined with our jobs, our professions, and our careers to the point that when we lose our job we seem to lose our identity with it?

With the ongoing recession we would be much better off if we could take a page from the Europeans (and our relatives back in Latin America) and understand that our identities are not defined only by our jobs. If we could pay homage to all the other things we love to do or to enjoy, we might even open up many more work options for ourselves. Work that provides flexibility to live a meaningful life and that allows us to pay the bills at the same time.

Mariela Dabbah is the CEO of Latinos in College and an award-winning, best-selling author and speaker. Her new book Poder de Mujer will be published by C.A.Press (an imprint of the Penguin Group), March 2012. 

Follow her on Twitter: @MarielaDabbah

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Mariela Dabbah is a published author and founder of Latinos in College, a not-for-profit organization, and of the Red Shoe Movement, an initiative that invites women to wear red shoes to work on Tuesday to signal their support for other women’s careers.

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