Many have wondered, are the French just better at everything? Mais non. They are not even the best at cheese! (That would be the English, who invented Stilton.)
Word on the street is the French somehow got the Golden Key to life. There they are in the popular imagination, enjoying their kir royales and their two, perhaps three, almonds for l’apéritif, posture perfect, while the rest of us are drinking Bud Light out of the bottle and wiping Cheeto dust on our acid-washed jeans.
Maybe not completely.
The French do have some stuff dialed in that seems harder for us anglophones, which is why there is a robust category of how-to literature devoted to translating all things feminine and French into English—no travel required.
I have a long, uncomplicated love for this genre, which my husband has dubbed the “Get French Quick” category. But is that so wrong? We like quick.
We also like easy, and here’s something I’ve gleaned from my study of Frenchwomen: they don’t go in for overwork. Theirs is not a Puritan culture. Their concerns are about enjoyment. Pleasure is their patrimony.
The “Get French Quick” genre is strangely silent on the topic of career, and all the advice is concerned with romance, style, food and home comforts. Right up our self-care alley.
What follows isn’t a comprehensive survey of French culture—just some self-care(ish) ideas you may find fresh and useful, or at least amusing. Everything here comes from women who live or have lived long-term in France, but beware: cultural stereotypes and overgeneralizations abound.
The myth may be no more than that, so take these trucs (tips or tricks) with a grain of salt. (And if you are French, and are already weeping with laughter, please do comment!)
Voilà! A few of my favorite Get French Quick authors:
On cultural differences, Ollivier quotes Isabelle Huppert, who says it’s easy to see why Americans consider Frenchwomen icy: it’s because they’re private, and in America, much is exteriorized.
Frenchwomen don’t care to be popular, which to them equals a kind of blandness. They don’t care if not everyone likes them, and their culture doesn’t punish them for it.
On beauty: France doesn’t insist on a single beauty standard all women must meet—and if there were one, the Frenchwoman would resist it. They have the ability—taught by maman—to transform their features, as they are, into a compelling magnetic whole, and they learn to do this the same way American women learn to perform cheerfulness and project “can-do!”
On age: France is not a youth culture. It is a grownup culture. (Which surely helps with the beauty standards, n’est-ce pas?)
On food: Ollivier writes that the Frenchwoman takes her time. She’ll have modest portions of excellent food, which she prepares and eats ritualistically. She’ll have zero portions of so-so food.
Her home cooking is simple and local. She’s got a small repertoire of signature dishes. “Haute cuisine” is what reservations are for.
An invitation to a Frenchwoman’s home is itself exceptional, and you may wait years for one. It will not include a house tour, which would be reserved for the most intimate friends. Certainly no dinner guest would expect to view the hostess’s bedroom.
On cultural differences: what looks like arrogance to the British [a recurring theme] is actually confidence, in contrast to Anglo-Saxon humility—but also in contrast to Anglo-Saxon humor.
On lingerie: good lingerie brings confidence. In France, tops and bottoms must match, The End. In the Galeries Lafayette department store, there are dimming switches in the dressing rooms so you can preview how your lingerie will look at night. (What!)
On age: “Anyone between 18 and 80 can wear a well-cut pair of jeans, a T-shirt and jacket and look great.”
On cosmetic surgery: the Frenchwoman will always choose pleasure over work. Thus, there is no “getting work done.” Instead, there are potions and creams, spa visits, and “taking the waters.” If there is surgery, the Frenchwoman doesn’t take it too far—she aims to look beautiful—not young.
On skin care: the French are loyal to their brands—they stick to the big ones—and they are devoted to products like cellulite creams. If you ask a Frenchwoman “but do they really work?” she will say “Of course they do!”
Or do they? You aren’t going to find out, because they won’t reveal their status right away, unlike Americans.
On cultivating the self: every woman needs a “secret garden,” a place to dream, a place where the cellphone isn’t allowed, a place to nourish the soul. This might be a window seat, or a mere notion. Either way, the secret garden is where the psyche goes to be nourished.
Here’s an idea from Jamie for your secret garden: begin a new hobby. Tell no one.
“Changer les idées” is French for not letting things get stale. If you’ve got a friend in the country, go visit, and return with a fresh outlook.
And this: allow yourself to change your mind.
At the same time, a Frenchwoman would rather hold her ground and be herself than give in to keep the peace. Callan writes about her French grandmother, who would fight with her husband and then “ragefully” make pastry to sort herself out. (And be ready to make up before bedtime.)
Well, they might. But not so’s you’d notice. They certainly don’t go in for anything as comprehensive as a “facelift.” (Sounds so old fashioned, suddenly.)
Like a number of the writers here, Mme. Guiliano points out that a French femme d’un certain âge is not out of the game. She does not experience invisibility.
Mme. Guiliano says that Frenchwomen prefer non-invasive solutions, like sleep. After work, Parisians come home, make dinner, eat, clean up and go to bed, perhaps to read for half an hour. “The city is dark at 11.” Dinner is the entertainment.
On the secret garden: The boudoir is an inviolate space, a room for a woman to retreat to when the world is too harsh and she’s in need of a good cry—or a good pout. The very word boudoir comes from the verb “bouder,” to sulk. You might like to create one yourself, if you’ve got a spare room or corner.
On home layouts: the modern passion for open-plan living means imprecise use of space, and that in turn erodes a sense of ritual. For example, the dining room is used only for the communal meal, and the communal meal takes place only in the dining room. Which is deliberately very distinct from the kitchen.
(This arrangement erodes a sense of snacking, we can guess.)
On kitchens: you will not find a comfy chair here, as the kitchen is not a hangout. It’s a technical workspace, a highly organized environment for a zero-waste culture. Shopping is done for a day or two at a time; the French “don’t act like they live on the prairie.”
To the French, minimalism is a “heartless discarding of the past.” You won’t get a house tour, but you will get some family history, as artifacts and memorabilia are displayed in the entrée.
On reading: you will be sized up based on your personal library. Your bibliothèque sings your praises so that you can be silent. The French care about money of course, but it doesn’t confer power or status the way it does in America. One’s taste—le bon goût—is more important than wealth or profession.
On the bedroom: There’s no TV in there.
And there you have a small sampling from my bibliothèque, and I’m dying to know what books you recommend.
If you got any good takeaways, I’d also love to read those in the comments. Below are mine.
Get French Quick To-Do List
- Make plan to “take the waters.”
- Announce plan so as to use phrase “take the waters” in conversation.
- Feel justified when dinner is “the entertainment.”
- Salt bibliothèque with a few books that sing my praises a little louder.
- Embark on secret hobby.
A Few More “French” Faves
Paris Street Style, Isabelle Thomas and Frédérique Veysset
Dress Like a Parisian, Aloïs Guinut
French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano. (Killer croissant recipe in this one.)
Parisian Chic City Guide, Inès de la Fressange and Sophie Gachet