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Looking to Live Your Best French Life? Here's Your Guide to Language and Lifestyle

Laura Head

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Photo by Reuben Mcfeeters on Unsplash

Over the last three weeks, I’ve done my best to observe the French and their ways as I’ve settled in. My motivation for this was at first purely self-centered: Take note of the things the French don’t do, and also do not do those things. Don’t be the American that’s clearly American.

But while exercising my efforts at self-preservation, I recognized some differences between our culture in aux Etats Unis and theirs which simply cannot be overlooked. The following is a list of the most significant; I can assure you it’s likely filled with sweeping generalizations of the French and may at times discredit the potential Americans have to do the same.

Moderation

I’ve been in Paris for twenty-five days, and I’ve had alcohol on 24 of them. I’ve had drinks with my French parents, and with their friends and families. I’ve had drinks at open mics with strangers, in the park with classmates, and at cafes with friends. But not once in my twenty-five days have I been with someone sloshed. In English, we have a lexicon of terms available to us to describe one’s drunken state (buzzed, plastered, hammered, wasted, smashed, intoxicated, tanked, shit-faced, I could go on…), but I haven’t yet had the occasion to find the translation to one of them.

Certainly, the people here enjoy their liquor. But there’s less of an expectation that you’ll increase your BAC as fast as possible, and more that you’ll appreciate the dimensions of your drink and let it enhance your evening as you ponder the finer things in life. If you’ve become inebriated, it’s probably a byproduct of the leisure you indulged yourself in that evening, not the byproduct of the keg stand you did to impress the girl whose pants you want to get into.

It’s not just booze, either. The French are very sensible with the foods they eat, in both quality and quantity. Meals are smaller, but they’re more well-rounded. A typical French dinner will consist of a discreet entrée, usually complemented by a salad or legume, but always accompanied by bread and a medley of cheeses.

My own habits have shifted from eating like I’m preparing for my own hibernation to appreciating what I’m eating when I’m eating it.

I think that in America, we often get carried away with the things we practice. If we drink, we get drunk. If we eat, we “eat until we hate ourselves.” Conversely, we also get fixated on the most optimal combination of variables to produce the most efficient outcome. We’re extremists. So we have dedicated raw-vegans, exercise addicts, and meditative junkies, all of whom are aiming for the highest, purest quality of life…But I can’t help but wonder if having a little bit of everything in moderation is healthier than any binge or detox promises to be. Maybe the French are on to something.

Indulgence

I think that one of the keys to indulgence is, ironically, moderation. Indulgence is all relative, and if we were to indulge ourselves all the time, it would become the new norm. It’s why the French are so good at it, because they typically keep things so reasonably moderated. The French leave a lot of opportunities for indulgence, and maintain self-control.

Back home, eating a box of Oreos for Monday’s lunch would be an exception for the one day. Tuesday I would reason that I’d done it before, so I could do it again. By Friday, eating Oreos for lunch would be a routine, and the new indulgence would be Oreos with a chocolate shake, with a brownie for dessert. Indulgence just isn’t as fulfilling when it’s recalibrated so often.

Relaxation

The French know how to stop and smell the roses. For every trashy sports bar in New York City, there is a quiet café in Paris. And at any given hour of any day, it’s buzzing. People come to have a drink or a coffee, by themselves or with a friend. If it’s during the workday, they don’t linger like they do if it’s after five o’ clock, but they always have a look of serenity about them. The street side cafes aren’t filled with a frenetic, chaotic energy. There’s no short tempers or impatience from the wait-staff; on the contrary, you’ll probably have to wait upwards of ten minutes to be attended to after you’ve taken your seat. It’s quiet, it’s peaceful… it’s just a different pace.

At night too, things go the same way. When the French have stepped away from their work, they have removed themselves from it mentally. There’s no heavy-sighing or lamenting at the dinner table, no complaining about the work that still has to be done. The dinner table is for eating, drinking, and enjoying conversation.

I don’t know if the French are better at compartmentalizing, better at stress management, or simply less invested in their jobs (this I doubt), but the way they always seem to live in the moment is so very zen of them.

Melodramatic Language

I love the way the French talk. There’s a ever-present lilt in the voice of a Frenchman (or –woman) that has a conviction Americans just don’t emote. Words become less matter of fact and more an expression of what you’re feeling. Bonjour is never just “bonjour,” but two notes of a welcome to a new day. À tout à l'heure isn’t just a goodbye, but a sing-songy well-wishing. Every day Arthur and I walk home from school, we pass by a house whose tomato vine has grown over it’s perimeter’s cement wall. On it sits a plump tomato whose vibrant red color stands out from it’s backdrop. And every day as we reach the red tomato, Arthur stops, points, and says, “Oh la la. C’est super beau!” I can’t think of any other three year old who would stop to comment on the beauty of a fruit.

There’s also a certain beauty to the language that simply isn’t paralleled in English. In English when we talk about doing something, we indicate that we are in the process of getting it done. ‘I am writing;’ ‘I am working;’ ‘It is raining.’ There’s a sort of urgency to it, like it’s a means to an end. In French, it’s much simpler. To say that you are reading, you say, “Je lis;” it translates back to, ‘I read.’ ‘I’m eating’ becomes, ‘I eat.’ To me, it’s very in the moment. There’s no past, no future, and no present beyond the current moment’s occupation.

But my favorite is the translation for, “It’s raining.” In French we say, “Il pleut.” It rains. It’s just so film noir.

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Passionate educator writing insights on learning, sharing travel thoughts, and whatever else comes to mind. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.

New York City, NY
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