The second epidsode of Kristin Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg’s By the Book podcast offers listeners a full-on, no holds barred insight into the best-selling book French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Giuliano.
Meinzer and Greenberg baulk at Giuliano’s ‘don’t get fat’ rules, especially her initial ‘rebalancing’ weekend, whose leek broth is found by the pair to be both unappetising and punitive. Indeed, Meinzer and Greenberg remark upon the way in which the book evokes memories of their past issues and struggles with food.
This doesn’t sound terribly healthy or chic, does it?
Ode to a French lifestyle
In fact, FWDGF is more an ode to the French lifestyle than a diet book per se. In it, Giuliano extoles the virtues of ‘la vie en rose,’ reminding us that a life lived well – but without excess – is the best life of all.
Indeed, Molière is reputed to have written:
Great is the fortune of he who possesses a good bottle, a good book and a good friend.
This reminds me that there’s something else the French can teach us: living simply also means living well.
Living simply also means living well
My oldest friend and her husband own a traditional French house in the Limousin region of France. In a small hamlet on the edge of Cussac, my friends enjoy long spells in this quiet, beautiful and unspoilt part of the country. Here, the pace of life is in sharp contrast to that of the British suburbs.
Life at a slower pace
In the rural district that is the Haute Vienne, there is a great deal less rushing around. Admittedly, this is likely to be the case because the industry and commerce that drive the engine of France are situated elsewhere. Nonetheless, there’s something about the Limousin way of life from which we can all learn.
The sharing economy, French style
In Cussac, neighbours share home-grown vegetables and fruits, as they enjoy a glut of fresh produce in the summer months. It is not unusual to arrive home to find a bowl of fresh cherries or bag of green beans on the doorstep. In the same vein, when my friends first ventured into their cellar (la cave), they discovered ancient jars of bottled vegetables and fruits, evidence of the tradition of preserving and bottling that is commonplace.
Further, neighbours come together occasionally in the evening to share a glass or two of ‘pineau de Charente’ and to share family news of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
If you can’t get the petrol mower going, someone will no doubt step in. Likewise, the ruby geraniums on the windowsill will not go unattended if you are away for a few days. And don’t forget to close the shutters! The daily ritual of opening and closing shutters is ‘très important’.
Make do and mend comme les Français
Here, consumerism is far less in evidence, as the make-do-and-mend culture is deeply embedded. This is especially true when it comes to home decor and clothing. Here, the nearest IKEA is some kilometres away in Bordeaux and no-one has heard of H&M, Top Shop or New Look. Fast fashion seems ridiculous when living modestly and living well is the name of the game.
Coffee the French way
Coffee is a straightforward pick-me-up in Cussac. No latte-mocha-frothy-syrup-two shot-grande-whipped cream extravaganza here. You might get a cappuccino and you’ll certainly enjoy a glass of water with your elevenses. That’s it.
There is a strong sense of community, as you would expect.
The library is the place to go for ‘L’internet’ and where you catch up on village news. The bread man arrives in the hamlet on a Tuesday morning with fresh baguettes for 1 Euro. On other days, a walk up the gentle incline to the village brings you to the boulangerie or supermarket (take your own bag for the bread and your shopping trolley to wheel everything back).
In the summer, local fetes bring the community together when table-top sales and ‘vide greniers’ (literally “empty lofts” ) co-exist with stalls selling local honey, vintage cotton, sausage and potato meals, and home-grown produce and plants. Merry-go-rounds for the little people offer a pastime enjoyed by kids for time immemorial. In the holidays, there are firework displays, live entertainment and picnics when the sun goes down.
These gatherings take place in locations with beautiful sounding names: Oradour sur Vayres, Champagnac la Rivière (my favourite village name), Rochechouart (amazing Chateau and fabulous local restaurant, Le Roc de Boeuf) and Saint-Mathieu.
Rose tinted spectacles?
This all sounds idyllic and it is. Romantic, even. And, yes, I’m painting you a rosy picture. But this is real, too, for the people who live and work in this little corner of la belle France. The gentle daily routine of French folk is now enjoyed by quite a few ‘Anglais’ who also now inhabit this peaceful spot. These English neighbours know a good thing when they see it.
What can we learn from this slower way of life?
The time spent lovingly tending gardens is tremendously good for us. The gentle business of hoeing and mowing fills up our ‘Vitality bucket’ (as Jonathan Fields* calls it), giving us a daily dose of nature’s health-giving vitamin D and some gentle exercise. The result of those labours – dark green and boldly coloured veggies – can’t do us any harm either, especially when food miles is no miles at all. We can perhaps dispense with the leeks, if you prefer.
Neighbourly cooperation fills up our ‘Community bucket’ and time for mutual support and kinship tops up our ‘Contribution bucket’.
Enjoy the slow rhythms of life
So, as my friends prepare to depart for their summer ‘en France’, it’s good to remind oneself that the slow rhythms of a French summer can be enjoyed wherever you are.
Set the table for a leisurely lunch. Hang your clothes to dry on the washing line, instead of reaching automatically for the tumble dryer. Walk into town to go to the market. Write a thank you note for a friend. Stop by and chat to a neighbour as you pass by. And enjoy the best that life has to offer.
Just enough; not too much. It’s the French way.
*Author of How to live a Good Life: Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom
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