how to be French

5 Ways I’m Already Très Français (or How to Be French Without Even Trying)

As we prepare for our move to Paris, I realize that there are many ways in which I am very much not French. There will be some major adjustments. For example, according to L’appart, by David Lebovitz, dealing with bureaucracy will be a major challenge. As an American living in the heart of Silicon Valley, I’m used to doing everything online with instantaneous results–from setting up banking and investment accounts to selling my gently used clothing to ordering my Nespresso pods.

Apparently, things aren’t quite so simple in France. According to Lebovitz, as a Parisian, you must keep years’ worth of electric bills and be able to produce them at any moment to a surly government agent who will then send you home to find a totally separate document, which you must have notarized across town by a separate government agent who will tell you that the first agent was wrong and you need an entirely different set of documents, which must be printed on a particular type of paper that can be procured only in such-and-such arrondissement during a full moon and dipped in lamb’s blood, or something like that. So I expect that paperwork and some of the details of daily life will be très difficile.

However, I’m trying to look on the bright side, or du bon côté. Surely I must have something in common with the French. After much research into the nature of French life, I’ve discovered five ways that I’m already quite French:

1. I don’t give a f*** about my hair in the morning

Much has been written about “French hair,” that tousled, undone look. I do French hair out of laziness. I usually wash it late in the afternoon  (right after I look at the clock and realize, Holy crap, I haven’t had a shower yet today), sleep on it, then wake up looking like I slept on it. Back when I was in college, my boyfriend’s stepdad once said to me, “How do you always manage to look like you just got out of bed?”  So that’s one French thing I can totally do: bed head.

If I were to psychoanalyze myself (mauvaise idée), I’d guess my laissez-faire attitude toward hair care has something to do with growing up in the Deep South, where I spent my tender years with church-lady hair. My mother started giving me home perms at the age of 5. Hair spray was de rigeur–smelly clouds and clouds of it–especially on Sundays. Southern Baptist churches are an asthmatic’s nightmare. I look back at photos of myself from high school and shudder at the sheer volume of my hair. Is it possible that all adult fashion choices are merely a reaction to childhood fashion trauma? Discutons.

2. I don’t go to the gym.

Ever. When my son was small, I used to go to the YMCA in the Presidio, but that was more for the inexpensive child care than the weight machines. My son liked the play area and I liked the sauna. I do have an elliptical at home, which is apparently a habit I will have to break in Paris. For one thing, I’m sure our apartment won’t be big enough to house our elliptical. For another, I won’t need an elliptical as I’ll have all those wonderful places to wander. I’m a walker anyway. I walk several days a week, weather permitting (okay, I live in Northern California-the weather always permits) on the beautiful trails just a five-minute drive from our house. In Paris, I’ll have to get used to urban walking. While it won’t be as calming as my nature walks, I’m pretty sure I’ll adjust. Walking was one of my favorite pastimes when we lived in New York City, as well as when we lived in San Francisco. Je marche (even if I can’t get the accents right–burning question, is there a keyboard that makes that easier?).

In her Vogue piece The Five Step French Girl Workout, Mackenzie Wagoner says the French version of the cardio blast “is really just a walk, or rather, saunter, through the city.” Wagoner is clearly not a French girl, but every interview I’ve read with Isabel Huppert (oh, I’ve read a few) backs her up.

Isabel Huppert on exercise: “I am far too lazy to exercise. I hear yoga is good and I may try it one day but I prefer to sleep.” And speaking of yoga…

3. I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing yoga pants in public.

I just don’t do it. Even though I live in the suburbs, I’ve never been able to pull off the whole suburban mom uniform. In the summer, I mostly live in comfortable dresses and sandals. In the winter, I mostly live in dark jeans, Madewell boots, and a sweater (never a sweatshirt).  I do put on lipstick before I go out. Obviously, I wear sports leggings when I go for walks on walking trails. (I remember in China, at the Great Wall in the late nineties, I was dressed to walk, in shorts and sneakers, because The Great Wall goes up and it’s really quite a hike. But all the other ladies and girls were wearing delicate shoes, little kitten heels and pumps, and I felt like I’d failed to read the fine print, which is how I feel half the time anyway). When I see adults wearing leggings in public when they are clearly not on their way to or from a workout, I just want to shout, “Those aren’t pants!” Because, you know, those really aren’t pants.

Apparently, the French (for the most part) agree. Aloïs Guinut, the French personal stylist behind Dress Like A Parisian style coaching services, told The Local, “We do not wear yoga pants as real pants!” Apparently, sneakers are actually okay in public as long as they’re stylish sneakers, but you’d never wear your workout sneakers in public.

Of course, I am not French at home. At home, I live in my flannel Garnet Hill pajamas, because they are the most comfortable pajamas ever made. According to Elaine Sciolino, author of the wildly informative La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, many French women keep up the seduction game at home, maintaining the mystery for their husbands at all times. You know, walking around in chemises and negligees and such. Sorry, but…Just. No. The world is too cold to give up flannel.

4. My trench coat is my BFF

I have a black trench coat that I wear year-round. It a summer staple when I lived by the beach in San Francisco, where it dips into the 50s most days of the year. Now, in my home down the Peninsula, summers are warmer, but I still take the trench with me every time I drive the 15 minutes to San Francisco or the 15 minutes over Highway 92 to Half Moon Bay, or when my son has a cross country meet in Pacifica. I didn’t realize how old the trench coat was until I recently saw a photograph of myself in said trench taken at Notre Dame de Paris (pictured above). I haven’t been to Paris since my son was four years old, which would have been 2009, and the coat wasn’t even new when we went to Paris. Mais, c’est bon!  According to Ines de la Fressange in Parisian Chic, the best way to wear a trench coat is as if “you’ve been wearing it forever, like a second skin.”  Oh, trench coat, I just can’t quit you.

While French women believe in investing in key pieces, I’ll admit my trench coat wasn’t very expensive to begin with. I bought it at Banana Republic with a gift card from my mother-in-law. I think it was probably forty percent off. Still, it’s a keeper.

5. I love wine (but not too much).

Like the French, I love a glass of wine with dinner. According to Mirielle Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, “We drink it not to dull our senses but to awaken them. And it is vitally important to our enjoyment of food.” In France, drinking to excess is not something one does. “Its potential as an intoxicant doesn’t loom large in our thinking,” Guiliano writes on her blog. That, I can get behind. I usually pour a glass of wine with my dinner, and, to be honest, I rarely finish it. For me, it’s more about having a taste and enjoying the ritual. Of course, I’ve been sloshed on occasion. Okay, on many occasions (shall we talk about how I ended up on the floor beneath our bed on my wedding night? No, we shall  not). But those days are behind me. Drinking too much makes me tired, and I don’t really like cocktails.

Sadly, the French only drink wine with food, and I do love to have a glass before dinner once or twice a week. It’s as relaxing as my morning coffee is invigorating–a welcome ritual. Alas, “French women find it utterly odd to sit sipping a glass of Chardonnay, as if it were a cocktail,” Guiliano writes. “The full taste of wine reveals itself only when paired with the right food.”

The right food. That is an entirely different subject, fraught with peril. To be truly French, doesn’t one know how to cook elegantly and well? I’m afraid my weekly special, taco Tuesday, just won’t cut it. One step at a time…

(P.S. (Anyway, at our friend Panico’s wedding this summer, we sat next to a woman who told us that a bartender had told her that people in the bar and restaurant biz refer to chardonnay as “cougar juice,” and since then I haven’t ordered a single glass of chardonnay at a bar or restaurant, although I more than make up for it at home).

For further reading:

How to Dress Like a French Woman: Five Tips to Remember (and Five to Forget), via The Local

Parisian Chic: A Style Guide by Ines de la Fressange

French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure, by Mirielle Guiliano

Aging Gracefully, The French Way – Ann Morrison for The New York Times

Fifty Shades of Frugal Living France (blog)

A note on French throughout this blog: you’ll notice I sprinkle in French phrases here and there. Feel free to correct me. While I am valiantly attempting to learn proper French, I’m mostly just making it up as I go.

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