Lessons from Madame Chic
I relax in the upholstered living room armchair. The smell of tobacco lingers in the air. The grand windows are open, allowing the warm Parisian night breeze to flow through the room, and the exquisite tapestry drapes end in an elegant puddle on the floor. Classical music plays on the vintage record player. The dishes are nearly cleared away but the last coffee cups still remain on the dining room table, along with a few crumbs of that day’s fresh baguette, so eagerly consumed earlier with a slice of Camembert cheese—the roi du fromage.
Monsieur Chic sits smoking his pipe in tranquil contemplation while nodding his head slowly to the music as though conducting the orchestra in his imagination. His son paces by the open window, holding a glass of port. Madame Chic walks in, removing the apron that so efficiently protected her A-line skirt and silk blouse. She smiles contentedly, and I help her remove the final coffee cups from the table. It has been another satisfying day in Paris—where life is lived beautifully, passionately.
In January 2001 I went to live with a French family in Paris as a foreign exchange student. I left the casual comforts of Los Angeles, boarded a plane with my fellow students from the University of Southern California (with two very large, overstuffed suitcases), and embarked on an adventure that would alter the course of my life in the most profound ways.
But, of course, I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that I was going to spend the next six months in Paris. Paris! The most romantic city in the world! I confess my excitement was clouded by some concerns. When I left California, I had only taken three semesters of French—my command of the language was clumsy at best. Also, six months is a long time to be away from one’s family and country. What if I got homesick? What would my French host family be like? Would I like them? Would they like me?
So a few nights after I landed in Paris, when I found myself sitting in the formal and austere dining room of Famille Chic, partaking in a five-course dinner, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows and precious antiques, I was already in love with my new, fascinating family. This family who was beautifully dressed, eating a well-cooked homemade meal (in courses!) on their best china on a Wednesday evening. This family who took tremendous enjoyment from the small pleasures in life and who appeared to have mastered the art of living well. This family with their nightly rituals and immaculate customs, built on tradition.
How could this simple California girl, who was so accustomed to flip-flops and barbecues, have found herself living amongst the Parisian aristocracy?
Yes, Famille Chic (the name I will use to preserve their anonymity) were of an aristocratic heritage. Their tradition of fine living had been passed down to them from their illustrious ancestors, and generations upon generations of Famille Chic had practiced their art.
And who was this enigmatic Madame Chic? She was a mother and a wife. She worked part-time and volunteered. She was very traditional in her style; she never wore jeans. She was a brunette with a no-nonsense Parisian bob. She had very strong opinions. She was kind and nurturing and she could be bold and blunt (as you will see). She was a woman who knew what was important in life, and her family was the most important thing of all. She was the head of this household that lived so well. She made all of those delectable meals. She managed the intricacies of everyday life. She steered the ship.
In the beginning of my stay I thought all French families lived like Famille Chic—in a traditional and ceremonious manner. Then I had the pleasure of getting to know Famille Bohemienne (another host family in my study abroad program). Their household was run by Madame Bohemienne, a single mother with curly hair, a rosy outlook on life, and warmth and charm that illuminated her wild dinner parties. In contrast to Famille
Chic, the Bohemiennes were casual, relaxed, boisterous, and well, bohemian! Yes, the two families lived their lives very differently, but both families lived passionate lives and lived them very well. It was my pleasure and privilege to observe them both.
This book originated on my blog, The Daily Connoisseur, when I did a series called The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris. I received so much interest from readers, I decided to elaborate on the lessons I learned from Famille Chic and Famille Bohemienne and record them in this book.
Each chapter presents a lesson I learned while living in Paris. Many of these lessons were learned directly from Madame Chic, whom I had the pleasure of observing in her own home and who so kindly took me under her wing. I learned some of the lessons from Madame Bohemienne. Some lessons I learned from the City of Light itself.
As a young college student, I had many ideas about what I’d learn while living in Paris, but I didn’t expect to learn so much about how to live life. How to really live it. How not just to exist, but to thrive. Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself . . .
Lessons from Madame Chic
SNACKING IS SO
When living with a different family (especially in a foreign country), one finds many causes for anxiety. One cause, for me, was food. Back home in California I was used to grazing all day long. A handful of crackers here, an orange there, some cookies here, a yogurt there . . . Would I feel comfortable going into Famille Chic’s kitchen and foraging as if I were in my own home?
A few hours after my first dinner with Famille Chic, I began
to feel hungry. I had had a delicious dinner, but being slightly nervous around my new host family, and feeling anxious about conducting an entire conversation based on three semesters of college French, I hadn’t eaten as much as I would have liked. So I thought I’d tiptoe (in my pajamas) to the kitchen, which I had, up until then, yet to visit.
Famille Chic’s kitchen was not easily accessible. It was at the back of the apartment, down a long, dark hallway, and was not attached to any other room. I thought I’d sneak down the hall and have a peek. Perhaps there was a bowl of fruit for me to nibble on.
Of course the door to my room (being as ancient and fabulous as it was) let out a grandiloquent squeak as I began my stealth mission, and after a few moments, Madame Chic was down the hallway in her dressing gown, asking if I was okay. I assured her I was and that I was simply going to get a glass of water. She said she’d get one for me. And apart from the strange look she gave my pajamas (which I will address in another chapter), everything seemed to be okay. Except it wasn’t. I wanted my midnight snack!
I went to bed that night slightly hungry, a sensation I was not accustomed to. The feeling wasn’t that bad; in fact, it intrigued me! I had never allowed myself to get hungry. In California I would find something to eat at the first sign of hunger pangs, completely eliminating the feeling as soon as possible. That night I relished my hunger and had fantasies about what would be for breakfast the next day.
It did take me a while to catch on, but I finally realized that most French people do not snack—and Famille Chic was no exception. The entire six months I lived with them, I never saw a single member of their household eat anything outside allotted mealtimes. They had excellent eating habits, were not overweight in the slightest, and gastronomically speaking, led very balanced lives.
I never saw Monsieur Chic rushing out of the house with an apple in his mouth and a takeaway coffee in his hand because he was running late for work. Every morning the family would have breakfast at the same time (and breakfast was a very satisfying meal), then lunch would usually be eaten outside the home, presumably sitting down in a café, and dinner was always at least a three-course sit-down affair at home. If you had that to look forward to every day, you wouldn’t ruin your appetite by stuffing yourself with crackers either!
Le No-Snacking Design
Many modern American homes boast an open-plan kitchen, where the cooking, dining, and living spaces all seamlessly flow together in one giant room. This kind of interior is not common in Paris’s ancient apartments. The journey to Famille Chic’s kitchen was a small trek. Not only was the kitchen not attached to any room (certainly not the dining room), but it was situated at the end of a long, dark corridor that usually had washing
hanging in it. You might argue that having an open-plan kitchen is warmer and more welcoming (after all, the kitchen is the heart of the home), but it also presents temptations. It is terribly difficult to avoid the cookie jar if it is staring you in the face while you try to mind your own business in the living room.
Famille Chic’s kitchen was purely functional. While many modern kitchens boast granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, and espresso makers, Famille Chic’s kitchen was tiny and quite dated. Its main function was to turn out meals (albeit spectacular meals). Breakfast was the only meal of the day consumed in the kitchen; dinner was always served in the dining room.
Famille Chic’s living room was very formal. It was not the sort of place one would lounge in while snacking. There was no comfy sectional with throw pillows, no La-Z-Boy chair, no giant flat-screen TV. Instead, there were four antique armchairs. They did have a tiny, dated television, which they rarely watched—but it was tucked away in the corner. Famille Chic’s living room was set up for conversation, entertaining, or reading a book. And because it was so formal, one would have felt quite strange devouring cheese puffs out of the bag whilst in it.
Snacking is not chic. Have you ever watched someone mindlessly snacking? Sitting in front of the television with a bag of pretzels or a pint of ice cream—absentmindedly eating while not really paying attention? Perhaps crumbs are falling down the front of his shirt. Or an errant drop of ice cream ruins
her freshly pressed skirt. Snacking is the opposite of chic. And in Paris, that simply won’t do.
Back home, I admit that I will snack, but only if it’s a high-quality snack. Before living in France, I would think nothing of eating really poor-quality foods like drugstore candy, potato chips out of the bag, or crackers out of the box. Now I avoid eating these things at all costs. My snack foods must be high quality—Greek yogurt with blueberries, a bowl of tomato soup, or a piece of fruit. And I have definitely eliminated the midnight junk food snack I used to have. My husband and I have dinner quite early now that we have children, and I no longer need anything after dinner. I find that if I have a well-balanced, quality dinner and a small dessert, the need for a snack is completely eliminated.
I suggest that you do not even bring low-quality snack foods into your home. Don’t even go down that aisle in the grocery store. If it isn’t readily available, you won’t miss it after a while. I promise you will not think back fondly about those addictive cheesy powdered crackers. Instead, you’ll wonder how you could ever have consumed such a horrid thing in the first place.
Never Eat on the Go
The French do not eat while on the run. In the book Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, authors Jean-Benoît Nadeau
and Julie Barlow recall walking out of their apartment building in Paris while simultaneously eating a sandwich and being met with a sarcastic “Bon appétit” from the sneering doorman. The only people you see eating and walking at the same time in France are tourists. I can’t even imagine Madame Chic doing such a thing—it just would never happen!
I used to think nothing of eating and walking at the same time. Now I would rather not, merci. In fact the other day I was out shopping and realized I was quite hungry. I briefly considered stopping in one of those pretzel places and getting a giant pretzel to eat while I shopped, but when I imagined Madame Chic’s disapproving glance, I simply could not bring myself to do it. I opted, instead, to walk to the food court, sit down, and eat my lunch like a lady.
Eating should command your full attention. After all, you are bringing things into your body. The act should be civilized and respectful. This cannot be achieved on the subway. If you must snack, do so in a controlled and civilized manner. Pop into a café and have a seat to enjoy your cappuccino and croissant.
Allow Yourself to Feel Hungry
So many of us snack because we don’t want to feel hungry. I learned in France that feeling hungry is a very good thing. You’re not starving. You have an appetite, which is the result of lots of stimulating activity.
My days in Paris were extremely active. I was out all day long, walking in the city, going to classes, meeting with friends. I built up a tremendous appetite! And that marvelous appetite would be satisfied every evening when I came home and dined with Famille Chic. I was able to appreciate Madame Chic’s well-cooked meals and really savor them. If I had spoilt my appetite by indulging in crackers or candy beforehand, I wouldn’t have appreciated her meals at all. Who wants to ruin sole with beurre blanc, new potatoes, and haricots verts, followed by a crème caramel, by eating too much bread before dinner? Not me!
Diagnose the Problem
Many times what we think is hunger is actually something else. If you are eating three balanced meals a day and afternoon tea, you probably aren’t hungry. You might be feeling thirst or acute dehydration. The next time you feel like snacking between meals, have a tall glass of water with lemon instead and wait twenty minutes. Chances are your hunger will dissipate.
If you are not thirsty and you have a feeling you are not really hungry, could you be bored? Most of us have snacked out of boredom at some point in our lives. Amuse yourself with other pursuits—reading a book, getting some fresh air on a walk, or playing the piano . . .
And finally, try not to snack in front of the TV, unless you are watching the Super Bowl.
Make Dining Well a Priority
Of course, all this effort to not snack is futile if you are not eating at least three balanced meals a day. Do you feel like you can never get ahead when it comes to planning meals? Are you always wondering where your next meal will come from? (Take out? Delivery? Rummaging around the kitchen cabinets?) Are you slightly neurotic when it comes to food? Maybe snacks are taking the place of meals in your life.
Famille Chic made meals a priority and enjoyed them ritualistically. There was not one night where we considered ordering pizza delivery because there was nothing for dinner. Or, even worse, stood above the kitchen sink while eating a bowl of cereal at nine p.m. because dinner failed to happen. (We’ve all been there—especially me. I’m not denying it!)
Madame Chic had a set of recipes that she made very well, and she provided them in rotation. The pantry was always stocked with the ingredients to make a satisfying meal. On the nights when we didn’t have a spectacular casserole or some other delight, we would have salad with select cuts of cured meats from the charcuterie. Even this dinner held importance, and the tray of cured meats (salamis, sopressatas, etc.) was passed around the table as though it held the most exquisite delicacies.
Every day they enjoyed real food (no fake butter, fake sugar, or diet anything). Their meals were rich, decadent, and very traditionally French.