9 Things Americans Can Learn From the French

La crêperie bretonne fleurie de l'épouse du marin // Paris, France

La crêperie bretonne fleurie de l'épouse du marin // Paris, France

{Below is the long, unedited version of an article I wrote that was published today on Matador Network, one of my favorite online travel publications. Check out their website--you won't be disappointed!}

1. How to slow down

    If there’s one thing the French don’t do, it’s rush through an activity (unless you’re in a Parisian metro station, then take refuge against the wall and try not to fall forward as hordes of hasty French commuters shove past you). The French take their time sipping coffee and searching for the right word to use in a sentence. Drinking wine, dining out, and strolling through city streets are all done at a leisurely pace. Unfortunately, nearly every task is carried out with a similarly relaxed attitude, meaning that setting up a bank account or applying for housing benefits like the CAF take a few maddening weeks to get done. And while waiting an entire month for your Internet connection to activate or your long-stay visa to be approved isn’t exactly fun, it’s important to take a cue from the French and revel in those three hours of sidewalk people-watching with your café au lait.

 

2. How to be comfortable with your appearance

    The French are confident in how they look naturally. French beauty icons and stars like Marion Cotillard, Catherine Deneuve, Léa Seydoux, and Mélanie Laurent are usually unaltered representations of the population. The culture doesn’t subscribe to packaged ideas of beauty; the French embrace different bodies and faces exactly as they are, no thick foundation or false eyelashes needed. French women generally opt for au natural makeup and stick with simple and relaxed hairstyles like a loose chignon, air-dried waves, or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s signature un-brushed bed head.

 

3. How to be respectful in public

    The French are reserved. Unlike Americans, they wouldn’t strike up spontaneous conversation about the importance of recycling, the killer Lakers game last night, or the horrendous traffic on the I-5 freeway with people whom they haven’t met and talked to at least once. This makes them inherently less talkative in public. You won’t hear the chatter of the French couple in the café next to you. In any given Starbucks in the states, however, you can be certain you’ll hear that the woman at the corner table plans to cook Brussels sprouts for dinner and that the guy behind you in line thinks Obama Care is going to shit. Speaking loudly suggests you are not aware of your surroundings and the people you might be disrupting. I’ve been the obnoxious American girl in France gossiping on a train ride many times, but after observing the quiet and courteous way the French conduct themselves in public, I’m striving for that.

 

4. How to enjoy a meal

    The French understand the importance of enjoying their confit de canard (duck confit), side of creamy au gratin (browned and topped with cheese) potatoes, and glass of Cabernet Sauvignon to the fullest, whether it’s at home or in a restaurant. In the U.S., we eat hurriedly from our work desks and can zip in and out of a restaurant in under an hour. For the French, dining out is not just another cabillaud au four (grilled cod) dinner with moules farcies (mussels stuffed with garlic and butter) to start and mousse au chocolat for dessert—it’s an experience that lasts several hours and spans three or four courses. And in most French cities, a two-hour break for lunch—la pause déjeuner—is standard. The French go home and cook a savory galette complète with an over-easy egg, mushrooms, Emmental cheese, and ham. Or they might throw together a quick salad with cherry tomatoes, red onions, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, gésiers (duck gizzards), and home made vinaigrette with diced shallots and Dijon mustard. Or they could take a laid-back approach and slice a crusty baguette, spread the soft inside with butter, and top it with sliced radishes and a sprinkle of salt. Regardless of what they eat, the French always take their time savoring a meal’s flavors.

 

 5. How to celebrate sexuality

    As a country, France is unafraid of sexuality. No one bats an eyelash when beach-goers sunbathe topless. Nor is it a big deal to peruse a Vogue or Elle magazine where nipples and breasts peek out at you from the pages. And watching a 12-minute sex scene at the cinema à la “La Vie d’Adèle” (or “Blue is the Warmest Color”) is far less shocking than witnessing violence or bloodshed on film.

 

6. How to vacation

    Like most Europeans, the French know how to vacation. French teachers and students attend school in 6-8 week periods with a two-week fall, Christmas, winter, and spring refresher between each one. The U.S.’s two weeks off per year is puny and unthinkable in comparison to the French school calendar and to the couple months the working population takes to relax and explore France’s warmer regions. Those eight weeks could include sunbathing and shopping in the Côte d’Azur, hiking in small mountain towns like Le Clusaz in the Alps, visiting family and friends in Paris, walking the breezy seashore in La Rochelle on France’s west coast, or taking a boat from Nice to the island of Corse. And if the French are feeling bored with their own backyard (not likely), they can always venture to other European and North African countries like Croatia, Greece, or Morocco.

 

7. How to dress for different occasions

    The French know how to make a single chic look work for every occasion. A French woman can take skinny jeans, ballerina flats, and a blazer from the office to the market to a cocktail bar, not change a single thing, and still make the outfit appear as though it was designed specifically for each situation. The French also possess an innate knowledge of when and where it’s appropriate to wear certain pieces: they know a tailored smoking jacket is cool for city streets and that a circle skirt paired with a slim sweater works for a night out but not for a job interview (and no, wearing spandex shorts to a restaurant or sweats to class is never okay in France). Whether they’re seeing a production at l’Opéra or tossing out the garbage, French men and women know what items to add to an ensemble—sports coats, leather jackets, simple gold earrings—to look stylish and effortlessly pulled together. Plus, their talent for rocking scarves during every season and in every type of weather is unmatched.

 

8. How to create lasting friendships

    My time living in France has shown me that the cultural metaphor that classifies Americans as peaches and the French as coconuts is extremely accurate. Peaches have soft, fuzzy exteriors and tough, unexpected pits at their center while coconuts are rough and hard on the outside and sweet and milky once they’re cracked open. Americans might have over 1,000 friends on Facebook but only a handful of people we would cry to about our neighbor’s cancer or be comfortable naked around. The French, however, won’t spill the details of their last breakup to their hostel bunkmate, but once they develop a friendship with someone, they tend to let that person in completely and permanently. The natural tendency toward reservation that makes the French appear equal parts mysterious and cold is actually one of their loveliest qualities. The French maintain a sense of privacy and intrigue to the world and reserve unabashed and indiscriminate intimacy for the people with whom they’re closest.

 

9. How to host a great dinner party

    The French have mastered la soirée, the fine art of entertaining at home. A French dinner party begins by sitting, conversing, and enjoying an apéro (short for apéritif) in the living room. The host or hostess offers wine, fruit juice, martinis, or pastis (liquorice-like liquor) with a light appetizer like cherry tomatoes and goat cheese or bread with olive tapenade. Once everyone gathers at the table for the meal, the host serves an entrée, something like poireaux vinaigrette (marinated leeks) with herbs or a radish salad. The plat or main course always includes meat and could be anything from a cassoulet au canard (duck casserole with string beans) to lapin à la moutarde (rabbit cooked with Dijon mustard, onion, and white wine). The cheese plate comes next and includes a couple soft cheeses like Camembert or Brie, a familiar and classic favorite like Chèvre, a hard cheese like Gruyere de Comte, an adventurous (or stinky) option like Epoisses, and a blue cheese like Roquefort. The French eat their cheese plain or paired with torn pieces of the baguettes that rest on the table. A crispy apple tarte tartin, raspberry crème brûlée, simple berry and yogurt parfait, or chocolate cake for dessert completes the meal. Everyone will continue to converse and laugh over tea, coffee, or more wine either at the dinner table or outside on the terrace if there is one. By the end of the evening, everyone is happily intoxicated and satisfied from good alcohol, good food, and even better company.