French Home Lessons

IMG_3090First lesson: “At school one learns lots of good and useful things: one learns to correctly speak and write one’s mother tongue; one learns the history and geography of one’s country; one learns above all to know and love chores of all sorts that morality commands us.”P1090437So begins a 1919 French home economics book aimed at middle school girls. It was among the trove of treasures we found in various cupboards, cellars and attics of the apartments we renovated. P1090440It instructs in detail, well, everything. For example, how to set a table: “First, place a cotton cover on the table, over which you lay the tablecloth. This cover absorbs the noise caused by contact with utensils, and prevents glasses from breaking.”

“Then, you place the plates, leaving an interval of at least 60 centimeters between them. The guests shouldn’t bump elbows or feel restricted in their movements.”

I guess today we have the Internet for these kinds of details, though what’s out there is mostly about selling something.P1090438The treasure trove also contained portfolios done by the previous owner herself, on sewing, cutting (separate from sewing!) and layette. Girls were steered along a narrow path 75 years ago.

The ones related to sewing fascinated me. I grew up learning to sew. My mom made a lot of my clothes, very much like Ramona’s in Beverly Cleary’s books. I remember going to the fabric store and flipping through the pattern catalogs, where anything was possible. The suits I wore to my first post-college job I made myself. They were dreadful. And I HATE sewing. But while I might not enjoy it, it is useful to know. P1090415

P1090416
“Pieces on thick fabric”
P1090417
Cross-stitch.

P1090418

P1090421
General notions of sewing. Necessary materials: thimble, two pairs of scissors, long needles (50mm) for thread, pins, tailor’s chalk…

P1090422P1090423P1090424I can’t sew without a pattern (unless it’s a simple rectangle, like curtains), just as I can’t play piano without sheet music. Sewing without a pattern–creating a pattern–is like composing music or at least like improvising jazz. I am in awe.P1090427P1090428

P1090429
How to make different kinds of sleeves.

P1090430

And then there’s the absolute worst: ironing.P1090425

P1090426
Instructions for ironing napkins, including folding.

Did you take home ec? I refused. I also refused to take typing, upsetting my mother to no end, though I eventually took it in summer school and now can type as fast as a person talks. I’m still not sure an entire year-long class on sewing, ironing and baby care is a good use of school time, but we might be a lot healthier and less wasteful if people knew how to cook and how to repair their clothes. The wonderful blogger Garance Doré (a must for francophiles!) interviewed Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C., who said that everyone should know how to mend their clothes, to not throw away perfectly good pieces that are, say, missing a button.

The young generation seems to be into DIY; the last time I was in a fabric store here, the other customers were very young, pierced and tattooed. I had the impression they knew not just how to mend but how to create and improvise–play jazz with material.

Do you mend? Iron? Actually sew and enjoy it?

Advertisements

Lions Around Town

P1060407I’ve been looking for lions. They are everywhere, especially on fountains. They usually look anything but ferocious. The guy above, in Toulouse, looks a bit pained.

P1060406
Three lions on one fountain! 
verdun corner
A little lion on the corner of a building in Carcassonne. It looks as if it might have been a fountain at one time.
lion light post place carnot
One of the four lions at Place Carnot in the center of Carcassonne.
P1060359
Pensively guarding an otherwise ordinary house.
la cite
Finally one that means business.
on fountain
Fountains like these were used for getting water before indoor plumbing was installed (in the ’70s!!!). 
P1060767
Not a lion but a horse. A huge one, glaring down at the Canal du Midi.

Lions are just one of the little details I see around me that remind me that we’re not in Kansas anymore. They make me smile and warm my heart.

Very Fresh, Very French

endivesEverybody likes fresh food but sometimes the French take it to another level.

When I first moved here, I noticed the utter chaos at the supermarkets on the day before a long holiday weekend. Shops at that time closed on Sunday and holidays (the custom is starting to chip away, but still, most stores stay closed). A friend explained that people waited until the last minute to shop so the food would be fresh.

P1020536
Actually, this is a flute, which is a bit bigger than a baguette.

Baguettes are bought daily, and most bakeries make them throughout the morning if not all day, so they’re fresh. Bread that’s straight from the oven is a different thing than something that’s been made off-site, packaged in plastic, and trucked to the store. If the baguettes are still hot, you have to buy two, because one is sure to be consumed before it gets home.P1090064But the thing I find most charming are the vegetables. Most of the local vendors at the Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday market pick the day before. They’ll even tell you that the asparagus, for example, was cut the night before (that’s in spring, when it’s in season, not now). P1090207And then there are things that come to market still alive. Like the endives, growing in pallets, and customers pick themselves.

Or the snails and chickens.125.Eggs market

P1090267Or the herbs sold in pots because cut wouldn’t be as fresh.P1090266

There are orchards and berry farms where you can pick your own, too.

Unlike some parts of the globe, we are not under a thick blanket of snow. In fact, we are having unseasonably warm temperatures in the 60s (usually winter temperatures are in the 30s to the 50s), along with buckets of rain from storms Carmen and Eleanor (in a week!). So we get fresh local vegetables throughout the winter–a million kinds of squash; root vegetables like carrots, turnips, parsnips, beets, celery root; brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard. P1090064P1090208P1090068P1050619Eating what’s seasonal is best for nutritional value as well as for the environment. And it ensures we eat a constantly changing variety of foods. Depending on where one lives, it isn’t always possible–when the ground is frozen and covered with snow, nothing is growing. But where the climate allows, such as in France and much of southern Europe, the garden produces all year.

Roadside Attractions et Bonne Année

P1090318One of the things that never fails to astonish me in France is driving along the autoroute–mostly just as soul-sapping as the U.S. Interstate–and then spotting a château, or at least the fairytale towers of one, in the distance.

Despite nearly two decades in Europe, my jaw still drops every time. The A61 autoroute has a great lookout point for admiring la Cité of Carcassonne, too.P1090320I apologize for the spottiness of posts over the holidays; I had prepared photos so I could write while we were visiting the Carnivore’s family, and then I went and paid attention to the people in front of me instead of to my screen. It was all very nice, with obscene amounts of rich food. I’ll share some highlights later.

We drove across France through the last dregs of Storm Carmen, although the rain didn’t get ugly until we turned east. At times, through Dordogne, it was so foggy we could barely see the taillights of the car ahead of us. Roadside broom bushes were already covered with yellow flowers because of the unseasonable warmth. It was 16 degrees Celsius (61 Fahrenheit) at 7 this morning. On Jan. 3!!!!

P1090321
And there were others that didn’t turn out.

At this time of the year, it’s customary to bestow best wishes on one’s friends and family. Usually Jan. 1 is the day the young pay visits to their elders, although at a certain age that gets tricky. One relative was juggling visits from grown children with visits to some aged aunts. Who is “elder” is a moving target.

One can extend wishes throughout the month of January, and cartes de voeux, or “best wishes” cards, are as big if not bigger than Christmas cards. In person, everyone recites the same formula, like a national mantra for good luck: “Meilleurs voeux, et surtout la santé!” or “best wishes, and above all good health!” And they distribute two or three or four kisses then look you straight in the eye while insisting on the good health part. Because not everybody in the world is cynical; plenty of people–even most, I’d bet–have good hearts and sincerely care.

So if you were here, I would take you by the shoulders and distribute, left/right/left, la bise, and then hold your hand in mine and tell you, sincerely, that I wish you all the best for 2018, and, above all, good health. You’ll have to make do with the virtual version.

 

Lights! Christmas! Action!

IMG_5633Christmas spirit is in full force around Carcassonne. The skating rink in the central square is resisting melting away (it’s 11 Celsius or 52 Fahrenheit as I write this). Even more lights are up, including new, illuminated Santas. Many grandparents were out with their grandchildren–there’s only a half day of school on Wednesdays (some schools have gone back to a four-day week with Wednesday off), and grandparents often babysit. I much enjoyed eavesdropping on a talkative girl of about eight who was ambling around la Cité with her obviously besotted grandfather. IMG_5658

IMG_5644
A municipal worker sweeping the streets with a festive touch.
P1090259
Rides for the kids. There’s a styrofoam “hill” for “sledding”–no snow here. 

The shops were welcoming beacons in the dark, looking all cozy inside, with little holiday touches and shoppers collecting presents. Year-round, French shopkeepers generally ask whether a purchase is a gift and will either put it in a pretty bag with a ribbon or will wrap it for you. They almost never charge, except when there’s a charity group doing the wrapping as a fund-raiser.IMG_5521A Christmas market encircles the skating rink. It isn’t a big market and more than half of it is devoted to food. It bustles with people having a drink with friends and snacking on delicacies like oysters or aligot (a cheesy potato dish).

IMG_5651
Merchandise side.
P1090251
Food side. Much more crowded!
IMG_5645
The skating rink was privy to a light show of garish intensity. 
P1090238
A former church that now houses art exhibits. Currently featuring a really lovely collection of photographs.
IMG_5647
Plaid blankets draped over the chairs at this terrace café.

P1090240

P1090258
The Porte Monumentale des Jacobins, built in 1779, named after a nearby convent, not after the revolutionary political club, which came later.

P1090246IMG_5626

The giant snowballs that loom over the pedestrian shopping street are much prettier by night.IMG_5665IMG_5629

Village lights are more modest, but charming in their own way.P1090226P1090228

Carcassonne added some classy chandelier-style lights this year.P1090253P1090254

P1090255
Carcassonne’s city hall looking regal.

One of the most charming things I saw was this sign at a café/restaurant:IMG_5501

“For those who are alone on the evening of the 24th, come spend the evening at Ô Deliz Café”…”Party meal and musical ambiance. A warm welcome…”

That’s the spirit of Christmas! Regardless whether you celebrate Christmas, I hope the lights where you are bring as much magic as I found in the display here. Wishing you the happiest of holidays.IMG_5619

Let Me Entertain You

IMG_1011The French are masters of the dinner party. One of the best ways to share meaningful moments with family and friends is around a meal. Preparing dishes they will enjoy is part of it, but nourishment comes not just from the food but also from the conversation.

BIO-300x300-bordered-1px-white-edgeThe “By Invitation Only” group of bloggers is discussing our ideal dinner party. Mine would be a mash-up of “Babette’s Feast” and the warm gatherings depicted in “Eat, Pray, Love.

It’s curious that when I was looking for titles of movies to give, I came across a wealth of bad examples. The dinner party seems to have gotten a reputation as a moment for Type-A, class-conscious stress. For example, in the 1998 French movie “Le Dîner de Cons,” fancy-pants Parisians have a dinner in which they must bring along an idiot for the others to ridicule, with the dumbest one winning. Or the recent Salma Hayek movie, “Beatriz at Dinner,” in which a Mexican-born masseuse is invited to stay for dinner with her rich, nasty client.

IMG_1013
The breakfast bar set up with aperitifs and hors d’oeuvres.

And then there’s “La Grande Bouffe,” a 1973 comedy in which a group of friends rents out a country house with the intention of committing suicide from overeating and which is a lot more hilarious than it sounds.

At holiday time, I think mostly about bigger soirées, like the one we had last week, a cocktail party with a supercharged buffet. Like any/all the Andy Williams Christmas specials, with more to eat (and no singing, alas). Or the New Year’s Eve bash that Meg Ryan goes to in “When Harry Met Sally.” 

Big gathering or small, I have learned things about successful dinner parties, especially from the French.

What matters:

The food should be made in advance and ready to serve when you move to the table.

IMG_1010
I spy two plastic tumblers for kids. 

Everybody should be seated around the same table; consider assigning seats. Small children can be exiled to a separate table if there are several of them, but whenever possible they should sit with the adults and participate in the conversation.

Comfortable seats for everyone. Nobody over age 30 should ever be forced to sit on a backless bench, no matter how good you think benches look.

Soft lighting, soft music.

What doesn’t matter (all these things are nice but not by any means necessary):

Matching plates, glasses, or matching anything.

Pretty place settings.

Fancy centerpieces.

Beautifully presented dishes.

Silverware set correctly.

IMG_0256
No idea why I have so many dessert photos.

Our dining table seats eight with a leaf, although we can squeeze up to 10. Even with eight, the conversation tends to split into two. That’s OK, but it can be wonderful to have just six at the table and have everybody in the same discussion.

Some years ago, the Carnivore and I cooked a French dinner for my family when we were staying with one of my siblings in the U.S. The entire family came, including aunts and a dear friend of mine. With extra leaves and a card table we got everybody around the same table—21 people if I counted correctly. Usually at family gatherings, there’s a big buffet in the kitchen and everybody grazes at will, finding a spot at the table or in the living room, drawn to the inevitable sports game on TV, with plate perched upon one’s knees.

IMG_0769
Chocolate cups filled with vanilla mascarpone and strawberries. Looks fancy but easy to do ahead.

For our French dinner, the TV was off and the living room was empty. It was a tight squeeze but we were together. The Carnivore and I “plated” the dishes and distributed them. We got a few serving dishes on the table for passing, but there wasn’t much room. We also served seconds. The benefit of an open kitchen is that the cooks are still present.

Wine flowed. I said it was a French dinner.

IMG_1015
Magnums are good for a crowd.

The main entertainment was the story-telling by my siblings, who are not only masters of the art but excellent at playing off each other, and playing off our father. Many tears were shed—of laughter.

As everybody finished eating, we collected the plates…but, next came the cheese course. So they stayed put instead of wandering away to check the game (to me, seeing them but once a year was special, whereas they get together quite often, so of course then the style is more relaxed). And after the cheese came dessert. I don’t think they had ever been at the table for such a long time.

IMG_0259
Cocktail station getting prepped for a different party.

That taught me an important lesson—if you want to break the magic, move. It can be nice to stand up after a long stretch of sitting, but the point of courses is that there is a reason to come back to the table after your break. If you are doing a buffet, the fast eaters will be on dessert while the slow eaters are still on the starter. A dinner party is enjoyed slowly, with plenty of pauses.

One of our friends here suffers from rheumatism and usually is the first to go home. But at one dinner party the conversation was particularly lively. Eventually nature called, which led someone to check the time. It was 4 a.m.! The amazing powers of a comfortable chair and scintillating chatter. IMG_4540One last French tip: in season (like now), have a big bowl of mandarines or clementines. Easy to peel, small, refreshing after a big meal, they are more something to do with one’s hands, to prolong the moment, rather than extra food. I’d say they have taken the place of the after-dinner cigarette, since none of our friends smoke. At most dinners we attend–or give–a big bowl of them comes out after the dessert and coffee.

Do check out the other participants in By Invitation Only!

Daily Plate of Crazy

Materfamilias Writes

Home

Big Night

IMG_4511The French apéritif dinatoire–cocktail dinner–is a way to invite a crowd for dinner without having them sit down around the table. More than just cocktails with hors d’oeuvres, it’s a whole dinner but not served in the usual French style with courses, and with everything in small portions that are easy to manage while standing and mingling.

On Saturday, our little house was packed to the gills with friends for the Fête de la Lumière, or the Festival of Light, a tradition started by dear friends who moved away and whom everybody at the party admitted to missing terribly. We picked up the baton because it was such a great way to see people, whereas with dinner parties the number of guests is limited to four or six (with us that makes six or eight around the table, which is about all you can do and still have conversation).

IMG_4484
By the morning of, most of the food was made and ready to plate.

Recipe testing began a few weeks ago, and, despite good intentions to make dishes in advance and freeze them, I made everything in the days before the party. I kept a spreadsheet with dishes, showing how many days ahead they could be done, ingredients and links to the recipes. Screen Shot 2017-12-12 at 11.50.08 AM

The spreadsheet was very useful for assembling the shopping list. I could go through and count, for example, how many eggs and how much butter and flour in total.

IMG_4474
Chorizo “cookies.” Instead of sun-dried tomatoes, we went with black olives. Prettier.

I could have cut the number of chicken wings by half; since they were done fresh, we froze the leftovers. The madeleines won raves, but I could have made a single batch (considering we ate the test batch quickly, I was surprised). Happily they freeze well. Also the chorizo cookies–double the recipe would have sufficed. It seemed to me it made such a small batch. Also froze the leftovers. Nothing wasted.

IMG_4471
Nut bars. Easy and yummy. From the Silver Palate cookbook.

On the other hand, the meatballs and deviled eggs disappeared. The nut cake was nearly gone and a fan happily took the few remains home.

IMG_4486
For deviled eggs: mix yolks with mayo and mustard (same number of spoonfuls, but use tablespoons for the mayo and teaspoons for the mustard, until you have the consistency you want). Put into a plastic bag whose corner you’ve reinforced with at least six strips of tape. Seal the bag, cut off the tip and you have no-mess filling of the eggs.

The list above, plus charcuterie, cheese and baguettes, came to about €200 for a guest list of 36. Cheese alone was about €40. The total doesn’t include the wine because we tapped our cellar. IMG_4494Most of the food was on the dining table, with no decorations but a silver tray with candles. We put the charcuterie on a buffet and the cheese board on a small bookcase near the table. We had two conversation areas, but people stood for the first two hours, mingling and eating, before slowing down and migrating to the chairs and sofas. IMG_4490Although everybody was from the village, not all the guests knew each other, though they all knew at least some of the others. The grown daughter of a neighbor had come back to visit her parents; she had been our babysitter back in the day. She came, which I took as a high compliment, since she certainly had other options for socializing on a Saturday night than hanging out with neighbors her parents’ age.

IMG_4488
Crudités, for something light and fresh amid the carbs. I love that purple cauliflower.

Here are the links to the recipes again:

Zucchini cheese chips (no need for a recipe, since it’s grated zucchini and cheese, dumped in little piles and baked–you can find many similar).

Chorizo cookies (I made them mini)

Salmon croissants

Pizza croissants

Ham and cheese pinwheels

Curry-cheese madeleines

Cheesecake bars

Raspberry mousse bars (if you use frozen berries, thaw them first)

IMG_4523
Chocolate cake done as mini cupcakes for easier eating.

The Thai chicken wings and nut bars are from cookbooks; I’ll share those later. The meatball recipe changed when we couldn’t find the ingredients (no hoisin around here), so I just mixed ground pork with breadcrumbs, eggs, lots of minced onions and herbes de provence and baked them (honestly, the onions made them. OMG). The crinkle cookies and chocolate cake are old family recipes that I also will expand on later.IMG_4464This shouldn’t sound intimidating. It was a lot of work for two days and totally worth it. The advantage of cooking ahead and freezing is that the work gets spread out into small bits; but the advantage of doing everything just before is that it’s all fresh and you can freeze leftovers. A win either way.

Also, don’t overthink. We decorated the tree and put Christmas balls here and there, plus lots of candles. No elaborate centerpieces. The food is the main event. Actually, the conversation is the main event, and the food is just fuel for it.IMG_4516

 

 

 

 

Party Organization

IMG_4431The countdown to Saturday’s apéritif dinatoire begins. Shopping, decorating, cooking, cleaning, and more cooking.

We put up the tree and added a few decorations. We even strung lights outside.

We did most of the shopping. My favorite sous-chef made a double batch of chocolate crinkle cookies, which passed the freezer test with flying colors. Just as good thawed as fresh.

IMG_4413
You can’t see the snowflakes here, but it looked a lot like Christmas.

My do-everything-ahead plan was thrown off by two days spent in Carcassonne at our apartments. Still, it felt like a mini vacation, especially the sauna, and was a nice breather. Our kid had events all day on Saturday, when it snowed. People here panic when it snows. The ones with SUVs drive far too fast, not realizing that big vehicles still slide on ice. Other people creep along at a maddeningly slow crawl, causing backups and then some idiot comes along and decides to pass despite not being able to see whether it’s clear. Some years ago I had to drive to town during a snowstorm. I cut my speed by half–not a crawl but slow enough that I wouldn’t need to brake hard to stop. I counted a dozen cars in the ditch in a 20-minute drive. Rather than take any risks with snow forecast, we decided to stay in at our Carcassonne AirBnB apartments, which was empy between guests. The snow fell as if cued by a movie director, light flakes drifting down cinematically all day. All the kids had their faces turned skyward to catch the fleeting flakes. It was cold for here (low 40s) but too warm for snow, which melted as soon as it touched the ground.

 

IMG_4422
The market has been displaced from its usual square, which now is filled by a skating rink.
IMG_4435
An unusual dripping tree. I like it.

The best-laid plans still go astray, whether due to weather or other reasons.

Here are some of the things that can be made well in advance:

 

 

Chocolate crackle cookies. They need to chill for a few hours or overnight. I think that, like chocolate chip cookies, they are better if the dough sits overnight. When they are cool, store them in a plastic container with the layers separated by parchment paper. Freeze.

P1090223
My handwriting, from 1979. Talk about a keeper recipe! Melt the chocolate, stir in everything, chill, scoop out little balls, roll in regular sugar then in powdered sugar, bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes. 

Other things you can freeze:

 

Chocolate cake–not frosted. Chocolate cake also gets better after a couple of days. I will make it three days ahead.

Cheesecake (I’m using the Smitten Kitchen recipe). Also keeps up to three days.

Spanish tortilla (a thick omelette with potatoes). This also keeps fine for up to three days.

Hummus, which can keep for a week in the fridge.

Cheesy curry madeleines. These thawed out nicely in our test, but I must admit the fresh ones were more amazing, even after a couple of days.

IMG_5472
Some of the shopping. 90 eggs!!!

Timeline for other items on the menu:

 

Nut bars, which are like a sheetcake version of pecan pie, from the Silver Palate cookbook. A favorite of one of the guests: up to 7 days ahead.

Chorizo “cookies”: 3 days ahead

Satay chicken wings: 3 days ahead. Will reheat.

Peanut dipping sauce: 3 days ahead.

Meatballs: 3 days ahead.

IMG_4417
I bought one of these beauties. No filter! They are really that color!

Crudités: 2 days ahead. Store carrot sticks and radishes in water, which keeps them sweet and crisp. The rest will be cut and put into plastic bags. I’ll blanch the cauliflower and broccoli.

 

Deviled eggs: 2 days ahead to hard-boil the eggs, cut them in half and separate out the yolks. The whites and yolks will be stored separately and assembled same day, or maybe the night before.

Day ahead:

Puff-pastry rollups

Zucchini-cheese chips (but I’ll grate the zucchini a day before that)

Salmon mousse

Date/olive/goat cheese tart 

Raspberry mousse bars

IMG_5421
The little potato gratin stacks I mentioned last time. Delicious but way too fussy for a crowd. Why it’s good to test recipes in advance.

Depending on how things are going, I might also make a kind of French “cake,” which is a savory loaf with vegetables and meat or fish. I was disappointed with the tuna-zucchini recipe, but might try a different one.

 

Today I am going to make the nut bars, deep clean and rearrange the furniture. More photos coming Friday!

IMG_4419
More Carcassonne Christmas décor. BTW, the bûches de Noël in the top photo are from across the street from here, Noez bakery.

IMG_4438

IMG_4420

Christmas Prep

hotel in la cite 2Signs of Christmas in Carcassonne have been sprouting faster than mushrooms after a rain. Lights have been strung on the pedestrian shopping street.

P1090117
That’s supposed to be a kind of lit-up snowball.

More lights went up on the central square, Place Carnot. The fountain of Neptune was swathed with fake snow, because on the day of the photo temps were in the low 60s Fahrenheit. No snow in these parts. It’s supposed to get cold next week, which is just as well for the big ice rink that will take up much of the square.

P1090118
I found it funny that the guys putting up the “snow” were dressed in white.
P1090128
Huge piles of lights…imagine trying to untangle them. Did you know they get recycled? The plastic is stripped off and made into soles for slippers.

The chalets for the Christmas market were installed. The market runs from Dec. 6 to Jan. 7 this year. It’s lively all day but best at night, when the lights are on. P1090125In general, the folks around here stick to low-key decorations. I’ve seen more people put up lights, but not as much as in the U.S.P1060354hotel in la cite

rue trivalle gutter
Notice the creature at the end of the gutter.
P1060380
This is the most elaborate house I’ve seen around here, in a photo from last year.
P1060382
The spiral going up is a palm tree. I love that a palm tree is decorated for Christmas.

There are some interesting interpretations of Christmas trees.

P1060410
What won’t people do with pallets?

IMG_2955

gourd ornaments
Decorations from a squash/pumpkin vendor at the market.

Another sign of the season: the arrival of Graisse de Noël (Christmas fat), which is a cross between Cantal cheese and butter. OMG it is fantastic.

graisse de noel
See it at the top?

The municipal workers also have been busy removing the frost-sensitive flowers and replacing them with hardier varieties like pansies, cyclamen and chrysanthemums. Having grown up with snow, I am enchanted by the idea of planting winter flowers.

P1090131
Out with the old…
P1090132
In with the new.

We hope to get a tree this weekend, if they’re available. We are throwing a big holiday party (more on that coming soon…menu and recipes), so the decorations will rise beyond the usual.

Have you decorated yet? Real tree or fake? Less is more or more is more?

How to Live Like the French

P1070601I see articles about la belle vie française all over the Internet. Most of them promise that if you just buy the 10 products they suggest, then you, too, will have a beautiful life, full of stylish clothes, high ceilings and herringbone floors, well-behaved children and delicious home-cooked meals.

They are lying to you.

The secret ingredient can’t be bought in a store, not even on Amazon.

What the French have is time. And they generally choose to spend it making their lives beautiful. P1060893They benefit from a 35-hour workweek and a minimum wage that’s enough to actually live on (largely thanks to other government aid) so they don’t have to work multiple jobs.

P1040987Even so, lots of French will tell you they need more time. It’s like money. It’s rare anybody says they have too much. The French are a bit like the folks who earn half a million a year and consider themselves middle class because they see so many millionaires and billionaires with so much more.

Plus, the French are no slouches when it comes to complaining. Even what’s right could be better.

And why not. One shouldn’t rest on one’s laurels.

Here’s why time—and what you do with it—is the special sauce that makes life beautiful.

—Home cooking takes time. There’s shopping, prepping, cooking, preparing the table, eating. It requires planning and forethought. Parisians might shop every day. Out here en province, they tend to hit the supermarket every week to stock up, but also to buy at the open-air markets, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, oops. There also are plenty of roadside stands and little produce-only shops called primeurs, for fresh produce on non-market days.

Cooking meals takes time. Many jobs in France start later and end later, making dinner time later as well.

P1020492
Is this your idea of buying groceries?

—Relationships take time. Those long lunches are for camaraderie, whether with co-workers or friends you meet up with. Restaurants have decent lunch specials, and some employers give cheques repas—meal tickets. Maybe once or twice a week, folks hit the gym during lunch (it really fills up at noon), but that’s also an opportunity to socialize. Even shopping is social—the market is lined with cafés where people greet their friends and stop for a coffee or glass of wine.

—Families take time. (See home cooking.) Meals aren’t the only thing, but they are the excuse for a lot. Sundays are dedicated to a big, multigenerational family meal. There might be outings, to a vide grenier (a kind of mass garage sale) or biking or hiking and picking mushrooms in fall or asparagus in spring in the woods or visiting one of the many village festivals.

You can tell the value system by what professions do work on Sundays: bakers, florists (so you can take a bouquet when you go to the in-laws for Sunday dinner), restaurants. Basically it’s about eating. Everything else can wait.

I found it hard to adjust to strict hours for everything after living in the city that never sleeps. Most shops open at 10, and even the supermarkets don’t open until 9. Smaller shops close between noon and 2 p.m. Many people still go home for lunch. Everything is closed on Sunday. Run out of milk on Saturday night and you’re out of luck until Monday morning. There are a few stores starting to open on Sunday mornings, but they are the exceptions.

IMG_4549
Taking time to smell the coffee.

At the same time, people are clearly lucky to have an incredible level of stability in their lives, thanks to this inflexible schedule. Work hours are written in stone, often 9 or 10 a.m. until noon and 2 p.m. until 6 or 7 p.m., for a 35-hour workweek. No scheduling software that dictates at the last minute that you’ll work late tonight and early tomorrow. Dinner time is dinner time. Nothing is open late, nobody works late. They go home to their families.