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.
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.