Category: Energize

Lessons learned from a year abroad

 

For better or worse we are back in the United States. Sometimes we longingly miss being in France: our boulangerie right across the street, the weekly outdoor markets with fresh delicacies, and how everyone always seems to look nice and proper (following an invisible dress code) no matter where you go. But we are also happy to be back: everything is in English, amazon US is way better than amazon France, and no one looks twice when I leave the house in leggings (a daily occurrence). A year abroad has made me older and wiser in many ways, and I wanted to share the basic lessons in keeping a happy or purposeful life that I learned. I don’t think they are necessarily particular to France, and maybe other [smarter] people already know these things, but they have helped me tremendously.

Stop being a perfectionist

This was my favorite lesson of the year. Instead of feeling like you need to run a triathlon every year and cook every dish in your kitchen from scratch, give yourself a break. The French don’t hold themselves to such high standards, and the result is shocking – they eat better and are more physically fit! When you don’t have to be perfect, it makes it easier to just be and accept any effort as a positive one. Exercise doesn’t have to be grueling, it should be pleasurable! If you’re truly French, exercise should be doable in street clothes (dresses, skirts, stockings, etc) and shouldn’t require any special efforts. Read  here for more on French exercise strategies. Similarly with cooking. In my experience the French do eat processed and readily made food – yogurt, cheese, spice mixes, charcuterie. But they regularly buy high quality ingredients such as fresh vegetables, fruit, freshly baked bread, meats and dairy products. Find and choose ways to do positive and healthy things for yourself, and then don’t worry if you have to cut corners on a regular basis. Breathe and relax. Stop being a perfectionist and enjoy life.

Leave your house

This may seem incredibly obvious, but with each child I’ve had leaving the house has become a bigger challenge. Whereas a single person need just decide to walk out of the door, leaving the house with little munchkins can feel like traveling to Siberia. Getting everyone dressed (and avoiding getting undressed for poopsplosions and diaper changes), packing snacks and food, packing diapers, getting shoes on, and actually leaving before the next meal or naptime can feel virtually impossible. And I’m guilty of easily throwing up my hands in frustration and giving up. But leaving your house EVERY SINGLE DAY is very important for your mental health. Even if you lose your mind trying to leave, you must do it. Outside air and new scenery, even forcing your eyes to use their distance function to look both ways when you cross the streets helps. Leaving the house is also a treatment for inexplicably cranky toddler and baby syndrome.

French weekend getaway recharge

Taking little trips is also very important, and if you can, do it monthly. I have yet to figure out the secret to stress-less trips with kids, but I find that despite the arguments and tantrums, taking trips is still worth it in the long run. Read about the European weekend getaway here.

Routines are good

I love Gretchen Rubin as much as the next person, and despite being a REBEL (go ahead, read the book Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life and take the quiz to discover your tendency), I’ve learned that routines are even helpful for unpredictable little me. Making certain habits automatic decreases the amount of brainpower you have to pour into them (and saves it for other better activities). Some habits even may bring you insurmountable pleasure; for me that would include lavishing in a morning coffee, prepared in the just the perfect way, or looking forward to the weekend farmer’s market, and seeing all the lovely multicolored produce sitting in aesthetically pleasing rows in the sunlight. Choose your couple of routines that make your life easier or bring you pleasure, and don’t falter!

Conformity can be a good thing

Of all the lessons, this one is very French. Without getting into politics, I feel that many urban cultures in the US prize individuality and every person being different. I’m not here to argue whether or not that’s a good thing, but there is some beauty in the conformity I perceived in France. When you see little girls all running around in their lovely sheer white, blue, and pink dresses, and see little boys wearing collared shirts and fancy khakis, something about the matching conforming lovely outfits makes you smile and feel part of a special culture. Just as important as honoring yourself and your individuality, I truly believe that conforming with respect to certain habits and attitudes can be very positive for mental health as well. Having collective life wisdom decreases your mental load (if you’re a mother and are not familiar with that term look it up), and helps you feel as though you belong and have a place in society.

Enjoy simple pleasures

My favorite thing about France is that simple pleasures belong to everyone, not just the rich or famous. Fresh and delicious produce, savory salty cheeses, a bouquet of fresh flowers.  The little things in life are cheap and accessible to many people.  I also love that people are aware of the seasons and live more in tune with them.  Devour pumpkins, apples, squash, zucchini in the fall.  Fresh peaches and berries in the summer. Root vegetables, oranges, and warm stews in the winter.  When you are connected to the natural world around you, its easier to enjoy the simple (and inexpensive) things in life.  In the spirit of fall check out this amazing recipe, I added fresh rosemary and it is heavenly.

The French Weekend Getaway

French weekend getaway recharge
Monet’s water lily pond in Giverny, one hour outside Paris.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could just stop, press a button or two to freshen up, and reset yourself? Like an old school VCR? Well the French can, and do, by regularly using their weekends to recharge and invigorate themselves.

The secret is the European weekend getaway.  It’s taking advantage of your time off to travel, to any place that bombards your senses with new experiences and distracts you from your day-to-day worries. This act of unplugging allows you to return to your “normal” life with a refreshed outlook and more positive attitude. I’m not making this up, research has actually shown that travel can improve your well being  by decreasing stress, boosting happiness, strengthening personal relationships, and even enhancing creativity, so you may function better when you return.

The French are masters of sneaking in little trips. Now they may have an natural advantage with a minimum of 5 vacation weeks (often up to 9!), and 11 public holidays; there is even debate over whether they have  TOO much vacation (bastards ;-)! Nevertheless they have traveling strategies that make it easy and low stress to take advantage of short little vacations, and not break the bank at the same time. Here is my list of French-inspired travel tips to make regular trip taking more attainable.

 

Keep it local

The key to keeping travel cheap, low stress, and suitable for even the regular weekend is to keep it local. That means keep it within your country, possibly your region, and for maximum ease in your own language.

  • No matter how much time off you have you can take advantage of it. If you have half a day go somewhere within an hour of your home; for a whole day travel up to 2 hours away; for the weekend or long weekend travel up to 5 hours away.
  • Pick up a travel guide for your hometown (or state), or search the internet for day and weekend trip ideas
  • Consider taking public transportation. Europeans prefer to take trains and buses over cars, because they can sit back, relax, enjoy a café, and watch movies, even tie up work emails, or hang out with their travel partners without having to navigate, all while saving money.
  • Have go-to spots where you have a known place to stay and get to know the local area to make running errands easy. This way you can decide to take a trip in a pinch without much advance planning required.

Here are little trips of varying distances from Paris that we have done:

Half day trip
Half day trip to Versailles, 30 minutes from Paris.

 

Paris day trip
Day trip to Monet’s lily pond in Giverny, one hour outside of Paris.

 

Towns of Provence, 3 hour train ride from Paris

 

french weekend trip grand canyon
The French grand canyon. 5 hours from Paris (3 by train + 2 by car).

Be healthy and save money

The French are fantastic at enjoying life, without overindulging. They enjoy delicious food and refuse to go to gyms without gaining excessive weight. Here’s how to adopt their strategies for weight maintenance on vacation:

  • Be active! Go for a hike, meander through a village or local market. Don’t exercise just to exercise, but engage in activities that keep you on your feet and having fun (i.e. don’t spend your entire vacation lounging in a hotel). For more on how the French exercise without going to the gym, click here.
  • Limit your dining out experiences. Have you ever gone on vacation and felt a prisoner to your dining schedule? Returned home barely fitting into your clothes after dining out three times a day? Don’t fall into this trap! Find local farmer’s markets and stock up on local delights, fresh produce, and cheaper food for your trip, or even go to the grocery store and pick up the basics. Our family has a policy of not going out to restaurants more than once a day on trips (often not even every day). When you control what comprises your meals you will usually eat healthier and cheaper. Plus not planning your day around restaurant schedules frees up more time to explore.
  • Picnic! Just because you are not eating out constantly (see above), doesn’t mean your eating experiences should be boring. Find cool new places – a park, a garden, a forest – and have a picnic. Enjoy the local scenery and people watching.  This is an especially great strategy if you have young children and going out to eat is an added hassle.

Here are some easy suggestions for eating while traveling:

Breakfast ·      If you have access to hot water or a coffee maker bring coffee, instant coffee, or tea to your room for a convenient morning caffeine dose

·      Fresh fruit is easy to keep in your room and the healthiest breakfast. Nut butter packets (peanut, almond, cashew butter) are portable and easily enhance the nutrition of a banana or apple

·      Grab a pastry from a local bakery

Lunch/Dinner (we usually eat out for our biggest meal of the day) ·      The ultimate French meal on the go is to grab baguette and cheese and bring your portable knife with a cover (don’t do this is you’re flying, getting stopped by security is a horrible way to start a trip). Other delicious toppings for baguette include pâté, foie gras, confiture (jam), butter, and honey.

·      Sandwiches. French keep it simple and simply stick deli meat and cheese in bread.  Take out sandwiches work too.

·      Crudites: adorn your meal with raw vegetables, like baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, or snow peas.

Gouter (snack) ·      Fresh fruit, dried fruit, nuts and seeds

·      Yogurt

·      Indulge with a pastry

 

Treats There are so many ways to enjoy local treats without a full sit down dinner. The local patisserie/chocolatier for little cakes, macarons, or chocolates, the quaint ice cream shop, the bar for locally brewed beer or wine, or a hip little café for an espresso.

 

Keep it simple

  • Pack lightly as traveling won’t seem like such an imposition on your life if you keep it simple and don’t have huge suitcases to unpack when you get home, exhausted on Sunday night (or Monday morning if you’re daring!). Nobody’s going to notice or care if you wear the same outfit twice.
  • Don’t try to do too much with kids. Having strict expectations for travel activities when there are kids in the pictures spells tantrums and disaster. Choose one or two activities to do per day, plan around nap time and scheduled meal times. Don’t ignore the regular routine of young children because sleepy and hungry kids means cranky kids and therefore monumentally stressed out parents.
  • Be motivated but flexible. Motivated to get out of the house and do things but flexible if it doesn’t work out.  So by all means get out of the house and go to the zoo with the kids, but don’t sweat it if it doesn’t quite work out how you planned.  Like the time we left for a three hour drive to Brussels assuming we’d make it by lunch, and it turned into a five hour drive when our 2 year old had a bad case of Montezuma’s revenge.
  • Practice the art of doing nothing.  Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean you have to jam pack tons of new activities into your day.  Doing absolutely nothing can be exhilarating when on vacation too: think, sunbathing on the beach, quietly watching a beautiful sunset.

Most of all, be like the French and worship the weekend!  When you step out of the office, do your best to truly unplug from work during your time off.

Achieving that Beautiful Effortless French Look

French beauty style

The French Beauty Philosophy

We all know the look, the elegant sophisticated French woman glamorously sporting her full locks of hair, pouty lips, and haute couture outfit, full of je ne sais quoi.  What is the secret?  How can we busy women and moms learn from French women?

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” — Leonardo da Vinci.

Let me start out by saying that I have always had a very clear beauty philosophy rooted in the principle of laziness. I will never be one of those girls following a Korean 10 step face-care regimen, or getting a monthly facial. I have nothing against it, I am just way too lazy for that and don’t get enough pleasure out of those activities to inspire me to do them religiously.  And I think I may have found my soul mate in French beauty culture, which values keeping it simple, and doing it right; of the course the right part is the challenge. What strikes you walking down Parisian streets is how the women look lovely, put together, and sophisticated, yet when you look more closely their hair is unstyled and makeup is minimally to tastefully done (I rarely see French women with makeup-mask-face). How is this possible? How can you seem to do nothing, and look fabulous anyway?

There is a French expression, d’etre bien dans sa peau.  It alludes to being comfortable in one’s skin, and I believe the answer is partly in investing in the basic elements of your physical appearance but also cultivating a strong sense of self, together this gives you a sense of confidence that becomes clearly visible to others.  Having a simple strategy and routine that helps you feel good on a daily basis, but does not require excessive effort or time will keep you feeling energized and put-together.  For example, having a generic outfit (for  Parisians this almost always involves at least one item of black clothing) that makes you feel elegant and stylish (and comfortable) but does not require much effort, since you repeat this strategy over and over.  Or a 5 minute makeup routine that highlights your favorite features and works for you.  It’s about developing good habits that require little effort or thought on your part, once established.  This strategy works for other aspects of life too, but I’ll stick to the aesthetic benefits here!

From a cosmetic standpoint, this means investing in good products that you use regularly and work to decrease how much effort you need to put into your daily beauty routine.  There’s an extra 15 – 60 minutes in your morning to energize: enjoy extra quality time with your morning cup of joe, do yoga or light stretching, do some light reading, or just getting that extra bit of sleep to feel your best all day.  How do you discover those wonderful products? Luckily, in France, pharmacies are wondrous institutions with knowledgeable salespeople that patriotically and exclusively sell high quality French beauty products. Here are my discoveries that I cannot live without:

Product Recommendations

Face care: I used to be one of those people who religiously washed their face; I actually could not fall asleep at night unless my face was freshly washed.

This all changed when I became a new mother. When your stubborn little blessing refuses to fall asleep for hours, and out of sheer exhaustion and acrobatic manipulations you get them to fall asleep on your shoulder, arm, or breastfeeding bosom, a level of sheer exhaustion is reached; for me, that meant learning how to fall asleep without a freshly washed face. Once I finally got the little angel to fall asleep, there was no way I was getting up to wash my face. I still cheated and stashed facial cleansing wipes in any place where I might conceivably pass out with my munchkin, but those were horribly irritating to my skin, and I once opened a new package with visible green mold inside. Yuck!!

Now my munchkin is a little older, but my beauty regimen has changed forever. I’ve realized that washing my face, while a godsend through my teenage years, may not be the best strategy for my sensitive wrinkle-prone Caucasian skin. And here is where French beauty products have come in handy.

My favorite face wash is Avène extremely gentle cleanser lotion.  If you must choose only one product to have this is the one to have. You can use it as a traditional facial cleanser with soap and water, or you can squirt a small amount on a facial cleansing pad and use it without water. It is a very mild cleanser, but also removes oily shine making it a good product for use throughout the day. Another favorite is Avène Micellar lotion. It functions as a gentle makeup remover. It’s most effective for facial makeup. As a note Avène uses thermal spring water in all of their products and is known for gentle healing products geared at sensitive skinned individuals.

 

Hair care: When I first moved to France my hair went through culture shock. It became frizzy, unruly, and impossible to detangle. In my desperate search for a solution I discovered Klorane. This brand creates plant-based products that balance beauty with the desire for natural products. I particularly love the peony shampoo and flax fiber conditioner. It takes a few washes to see the results: your hair becomes fantastically sleek and well behaved. I no longer even need to use my usual post-wash hair serum, I just wash and let my hair air dry. Klorane is perhaps better known for their famous dry shampoo, which leaves your hair soft and fluffy. I like the oatmeal based version, which is very gentle.  It is  not only eco-friendly but they also have a non-aerosol version which is probably healthier for your poor lungs that inevitably get a hefty dose of whatever hair spray you use.

Voila! Beautiful hair and skin the French way, with top notch maintenance and minimal fuss.

How to exercise like the French (and instantly feel better about yourself)

As we know, exercise is considered a large part of the ideal American health lifestyle. Americans talk about their gym workouts and exercise classes the way my French coworkers discuss their daily yogurt choices. Besides being a key component of a weight loss strategy, exercise is part of a mental health strategy for many Americans. A fascinating neuroscience article was published recently discussing how exercise improves mental functioning and coping ability (1).  People swear by their fitness routines with religious fervor (looking at you, Crossfit crusaders) and the national end goal is to be an exercise devotee, never missing or skimping on a workout.

Then we get to the French, who for lack of better wording don’t give a crap about working out. I’ve seen one gym since moving here, it is a sad little grey shop with empty workout machines in the window that are so sick of begging to be used, they look like they’ve given up on life. I’ve seen joggers around the Eiffel tower but if you look and listen closely you will see that they are outfitted in lululemon (the ultimate Anglophone workout gear) and speaking in English (i.e. tourists or expats). How can the French be healthier, thinner, and just as mentally healthy (if not healthier) than Americans without ever setting foot in a gym?

It all comes down to definitions. The basic concept of exercising is being active. Americans are purists and interpret this to mean performing a defined activity with the primary and sole purpose of achieving fitness, such as running, strength training, etc. French consider any motion to be activity, and they actually take this quite seriously. In fact they are one of a few countries to highlight basic physical activity as part of their national nutrition recommendations: it is a component of their food pyramid(2). France puts out a free informational booklet with nutritional recommendations for pregnant women, with an entire section on the necessity of daily movement. There is a very clear national message – get off your butt, do it daily, and do it for at least thirty minutes. Almost anything counts: a walk through the grocery store, a stroll through the park, walking to a local café to meet your friend during your lunch break, even your (ideally) nightly romanticism, as they like to say.

I think this could be a powerfully liberating concept for many Americans. If you are one of those fitness nuts who truly loves waking up at 4 AM for your daily fitness routine, then by all means, skip this post and keep doing whatever you are doing. But if you are one of those people who is only mildly interesting in frequenting the gym, gets too busy in your daily life to exercise regularly, and perhaps feels guilty for your lack of fitness fanaticism, why not do it the French way? Rather than forcing yourself to go to the gym, find some activity you enjoy (a walk on the beach, going shopping, playing with your kids) or an activity that you have to do anyway (grocery shopping, cleaning the house, tending to your lawn), make sure you do it for at least thirty minutes without sitting down, and voila, count it as a daily activity (see below for more ideas). How easy is that?? I love this approach to exercising. Without changing a single thing, I have gone from a “sedentary” or “lightly active” American to an “acceptably active” French person. No need to plan your entire day around getting that elusive workout, or feeling bad when your perfect planning inevitably falls through. Just make any type of activity a part of your daily routine, so you don’t have to go out of your way or torture yourself to do it, and you will be exercising à la française.

Here are some French-inspired activities to satisfy your daily requirement:

Activity Added bonuses
·      Go to the grocery store. Every day. Weightlifting (heavy grocery bags), eating fresher food
·      Take the train, and walk to and from the station Decrease your transportation costs and ecological footprint
·      Meet a friend for lunch/coffee/any reason!   Just choose a place at least 15 minutes from where you are Keeping up with your friends. Enjoy tasty food or drinks
·      Go shopping. Ideally an outdoor market where you have to walk from store to store, but an indoor mall can work too Getting your errands done, keeping your closet fresh, treating yourself!
·      Walk to your local boulangerie for a baguette. Repeat up to two times a day. Delicious baguette for your meals. Please note this activity cannot get you to the recommended daily minimum in Paris, since there are bakeries every 5 minutes.
·      Go to a museum or local exhibit Educate yourself
·      Bring your kids to the park The mess they make won’t be in your home
·      Pick your kids up from daycare/preschool/school on foot Not dealing with a confusing carseat and unnecessary tears; upper body workout (if your kids are small enough to be pushed in a stroller or carried)
·      Take the stairs Buns of steel
·      Clean the house A clean house
·      Go for a stroll/walk/hike outside. Choose whatever scenery works for you: park, streets, beach, woods Get some fresh air (which science is showing to have other health benefits), appreciate natural beauty, enjoy alone time or socializing if you go with others
·      Liasons romantiques (Sexytime) Umm, obvious?

 

Citations

(1) http://qz.com/592569/a-neuroscientist-says-theres-a-powerful-benefit-to-exercise-that-is-rarely-discussed/

(2) mangerbouger.fr