The concept of moderation in France is a tricky one to breach, not only because it involves some taboo topics, but because it’s easier to understand after having directly witnessed it. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best to show you as if you were in Paris, stuck inside on a rainy day.
Watching one’s figure here is extremely important–there are several expressions for this sentiment, one of them being “Attention a ta ligne”. The figures of the French are indeed much slimmer, on average, than the ones I saw back on the streets of Chicago. What’s the reason for this overall svelteness in the City of Lights ? Moderation in the kitchen is key. It’s a delicate combination of smaller portions, excellent culinary ingredients, and longer lunch breaks that allow one to savour food for longer instead of guzzling it down in a half hour time block. Conviviality when dining is also prized much more highly in French culture than eating healthy, while in America it’s the opposite. So if the meals are small but unhealthy (read : red meat, butter, cheese, and dessert,) then how do they stay fit ?
Well, Paris is a circular city that one can traverse horizontally in a matter of an hour, and vertically in a matter of an hour and a half. Even if they have a car, each and every Parisian walks throughout the day (and many of them smoke cigarettes,) so their legs gain muscle and their appetites stay curbed with regular nicotene consumption (and maybe some caffeine as well). V-lib bike rental is cheap and convenient, and there are bike lanes on almost every street with concrete barriers separating bikers from drivers.
The bikes themselves are heavy clunkers, and in order to pay for them you need to own a European credit card with a chip in it. Since my card is painfully American with a big United Airlines label on it, I wound up buying an ugly, used Peugeot mountain bike that I’ve been touring around on the weekends. It was a thrifty purchase and I will most definitely not be boxing it up to ship back to the States, where my red Motobecane awaits me in a 4×4 storage unit.
Finally, the French obsession with n’Espresso machines is a serious matter. Filtered coffee is sub-standard, and is thus dubbed ‘Americano’ with the quintessential sneer and rolling of the eyes that so many Parisians are known for. Expresso is where it’s at, and n’Espresso machines have hit the French market in a big way the past couple of years. My favorite capsule is Rosabaya, but I’ve yet to try all of them.
There’s nothing like a steaming expresso to top off your filling lunch, much like a maraschino cherry on a sundae (if you want a sundae in France, you’d better go to Haagen Daaz). Suffice it to say that the French don’t eat their feelings, and “la ligne” is a national obsession. It pays off, though, because their skin is impeccable, they have lower obesity rates, and they live on average three years longer than the Americans, who have a lower rate of cigarette smoking. Go figure.
When it comes to going out, the point here is not to ‘get wasted’. There are plenty of verbs for being drunk, but the most common expression is “j’ai trop bu” (read : I drank too much). It’s much more classy to sit at a bar and have a drink or two with your group of friends and discuss the upcoming elections, gossip, philosophize, and what have you, than to overdose on alcohol and lose control of your own actions. In fact, doing so would make you prey to innumerable creeps and might cause you to do the walk of shame the next day. And yes, it’s still called ‘the walk of shame’ even if you look damn good. Unlike the beloved red line in Chicago, the metro in Paris does not stay open all night–even on the weekends. This way, people are forced to either have an earlier night or to stay out until the first train at 5:40 AM. The latter strategy usually makes for a memorable time in which you have the opportunity to watch the sun rise at Sacre Coeur or participate in excruciatingly public displays of affection, French style, at the top of Notre Dame or along the Seine River.
Keep in mind, though, that the national drinking age is 18, and that many European families allow their children to taste wine as early as the age of nine. This method tries to wear off the novelty of tasting alcohol so that by the time kids are old enough to go out with their friends, they know not to overdo it. Not a bad concept, considering the amount of alcohol-related deaths there are every year in the United States. I had my first drink at the age of nine and was allowed to try alcohol at family gatherings. Being from a Russian family, this is nothing out-of-the-ordinary, but many of my friends are shocked at such leniency and wonder what their teenage years would’ve been like without binge drinking on the weekends.
America is the country of excess, whether it be in portion sizes or in expectations (doggy bags in restaurants don’t exist in France). You just get more in the United States–more bang for your buck, that is. When you consider places like The Cheesecake Factory, Buca di Beppo, and Chipotle with their gargantuan portions, it’s hard to deny the concept of excess. Snacking, too, is practically obsolete in French culture, and that was the hardest adjustment I made while living here. The most acceptable time to have a snack is around 5 or 6 PM, and it usually involves something small like a piece of fruit or a yogurt. Dinner is eaten at 8 PM or later (20h in military time,) as French people start the workday later and finish later than the Americans and the Brits. However, I don’t miss snacking at all, because now I’m able to enjoy my meals fully and eat until I’m satiated. Although I consider many traditions in France to be outdated, I love their way of eating and their approach to food because it reminds me to appreciate meals to their fullest and to prize the quality of the food I consume over its quantity.