I love France! The French inject passion into every aspect of life. The phrase, “joie de vie”, may well be a cliché, but it perfectly expresses French exuberance for family, friends and lively conversation, fine food, wickedly wonderful wine (ahhh, the wine) and...well, pretty much everything in life. It’s a philosophy that isn’t easy to describe, but mon dieu it is so seductive!
Don, and I have been living in Aix-en-Provence in Southern France for a month now and “les differences” in our respective cultures, while subtle, are definitely noticeable to us Anglos. Here are some of my early impressions!
First things first...the food! It’s not just about sustenance – the French celebrate food and turn meals into pleasurable social occasions. In fact, much of their (considerable) leisure time is spent shopping for, preparing and enjoying great cuisine – after all, the French invented the word!
The “Holy Trinity” - bread, cheese and wine...oh, and add to that decadent patisseries are all sacred. The French adore them and unfortunately so do we. How can you not? They are divine! I could write an entire blog post about each one. Suffice it to say, I appreciate the way the French enjoy such pleasures in life - with ritual self-indulgence and not an ounce of guilt.
Remember that little, non-diet book, “French Women Don’t Get Fat”. Please, dear God, let that extend to Canadian women living in France. I fear tart au citron and rosé wine may be my downfall. With respect to the latter, you can buy an amazing bottle for a mere 5 Euros. As both a oenophile and bargain-lover, Don's in paradise!
Markets seem to be an integral part of the French’s preoccupation with food. From meat, fish, cheeses, sausages to truffles, pasta, spices and a dizzying array of olives (...who knew they came in so many colours?), you can buy almost anything you’ve ever dreamed of eating in a Provençal le marché.
Already we’ve come to love wandering through stalls piled high with artfully displayed produce and golden, crusty baguettes. We have to pass through one or another of the many Aix markets while walking the 5+ km to and from our French language school (by the way, don’t ask me if I’m fluent yet...the answer is unequivocally, “NON”)! This daily stroll not only helps offset caloric indulgences, but is an exercise in self-control. Every market item is farm fresh, so appealing and almost impossible to resist!
One would think the French would have weight issues, but au contraire, they are among the slimmest people of the world. Perhaps they stay so stylishly svelte because they drive less and walk more – way more! Walking in any Old Town in France certainly beats driving. Operating (and parking) anything with wheels in the warren of hopelessly narrow, cobbled streets in the medieval center of towns like Aix is next to impossible. I swear every car is dappled with dents from trying.
Both of us have noticed the French smoke – a lot! Much more than Canadians. Smoking has been banned in restaurants (and other enclosed public spaces), but that doesn’t stop patrons from puffing away on terraces and in sidewalk cafes oblivious to the cloudy haze they’re creating for fellow diners six inches away.
On that topic, we have learned to keep our elbows in and knees bent. The chairs and tables in French eating establishments are as close together as seats in a theatre. If you stretch your legs, you’ll trip a waiter and an overly-animated arm gesture could mortally injure your neighbour noshing on foie gras next to you.
The whole work-life balance is taken extremely seriously here. With the standard 35-hour French work-week, five weeks of annual vacation time and more than a dozen public holidays each year, it’s a country that works to live, not vice-versa. Shops close early and often and the lunches are long - delightful, wine-imbibing, two-hour, 3-course affairs.
Trust me, it can be challenging to find businesses and/or restaurants that are open when you need them. The 24-hour consumerism that permeates North American culture is non-existent. Profits be damned, the French aren’t compelled to sacrifice their leisure (and meal) time so their customers can have access to their services and/or products 24/7.
Does a person adjust? Mais oui, it’s France! We have come to know many shops in Aix are closed every afternoon between 12:30 and 2:00’ish and also on Sundays (and often even on Mondays). We now plan accordingly! Oh, and forget dining before about 7:30 or 8:00 pm. We walked into a lovely, little bistro in Aix for our 7 o’clock reservation (yes, we had reserved the earliest table possible) and the owners were still eating their dinners. We were given the quintessential French shrug and asked to return in twenty minutes.
From the classic, little black dress (...merci Coco Chanel) to the tiny espresso, everything is smaller and simpler. It's so refreshing! The French are not hung up on bigger and more extravagant and seem only to want what they need - always preferring quality over quantity. Their focus tends to be more on experiences and people than things. The pace is slower too, leaving more time to fully engage and revel in the enjoyment of every moment.
Yes, I think I’m starting to get the elusive concept of “joie de vie” – it’s contagious!
Next we’re off to a small village of about 8,800 people in Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south called Pézenas to live in a convent - you think I'm joking, don't you? Stay tuned...
C’est tout, mes amis!. That’s all for the moment...multiple-cheek kisses everyone. By the way, I’m still working out how many. Is it two or is it three? And hmmm... what side to kiss first?