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8 Things Americans Can Learn From the French

France United States Student Work
by Paige Smith Sep 24, 2014
1. How to savor every meal

Never rush through a confit de canard (duck confit), side of creamy au gratin (browned and topped with cheese) potatoes, and glass of cabernet sauvignon. In the States, we eat hurriedly from our work desks and zip in and out of restaurants in under an hour. We need to learn that dining out is not just another cabillaud au four (grilled cod) dinner with moules farcies (mussels stuffed with garlic and butter) to start and mousse au chocolat for dessert — it’s an experience that should last several hours and span three or four courses.

A two-hour break for lunch — la pause déjeuner — should be standard. Go home and cook a savory galette complete with an over-easy egg, mushrooms, Emmental cheese, and ham. Or even throw together a quick salad with cherry tomatoes, red onions, hard-boiled eggs, nuts, gésiers (duck gizzards), and homemade vinaigrette with diced shallots and Dijon mustard. There’s also the laid-back approach of slicing a crusty baguette, spreading the soft inside with butter, and topping it with sliced radishes and a sprinkle of salt.

2. How to slow down

Whether you’re sipping coffee, searching for the right word to use in a sentence, drinking wine, dining out, or strolling through city streets, do so at a leisurely pace. Don’t be afraid to enjoy three hours of sidewalk people-watching with your café au lait.

3. How to accept (and be comfortable with) your appearance

Don’t subscribe to packaged ideas of beauty. Take a cue from Marion Cotillard, Catherine Deneuve, Léa Seydoux, and Mélanie Laurent and embrace your body and face as it is, no thick foundation or false eyelashes needed. Au natural makeup and simple, relaxed hairstyles like a loose chignon, air-dried waves, or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s signature un-brushed bedhead can all be beautiful.

4. How to be more reserved in public

Speaking loudly suggests that you are not aware of your surroundings and the people you might be disrupting. Therefore, it’s not very polite to strike up spontaneous conversation about the importance of recycling, the killer Lakers game last night, or the horrendous traffic on the I-5 freeway with people whom you’ve never met. It’s okay to be less talkative in public. Strive to be more courteous and quiet when you’re amongst strangers.

5. How to celebrate sexuality

No one should bat an eyelash when a beach-goer decides to sunbathe topless, or nipples and breasts peek out from the pages of Vogue or Elle. And watching a 12-minute sex scene at the cinema à la La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color) should be far less shocking than witnessing violence or bloodshed on film.

6. How to choose your friends carefully

Americans are peaches and the French are coconuts. Peaches have soft, fuzzy exteriors and tough, unexpected pits at their center. Coconuts are rough and hard on the outside and sweet and milky once they’re cracked open.

You might have over a thousand friends on Facebook but how many of them would you actually cry to or walk around naked in front of? You should be comfortable spilling the details of your last break-up with every person who you consider your friend. Once you’re that comfortable with someone, let them in completely and permanently. Initial reservation shouldn’t be mistaken for coldness, it’s a mysterious and lovely quality. Maintain your sense of privacy and intrigue to the world and reserve unabashed and indiscriminate intimacy for those with whom you’re closest.

7. How to dress well

A single, chic look should work for every occasion. The right skinny jeans, ballerina flats, and blazer should take you to the office, the market, and the cocktail bar. You’ll still appear as if you’ve dressed specifically for each situation.

It’s important to know when and where certain pieces are appropriate. You should know that a tailored smoking jacket is cool for city streets and that a circle skirt paired with a slim sweater works for a night out but not for a job interview. And, no, wearing spandex shorts to a restaurant or sweats to class is never okay. Whether you’re seeing a production at l’Opéra or tossing out the garbage, you should know what items to add to your ensemble — sports coats, leather jackets, simple gold earrings will always allow you to look stylish and effortlessly put together.

8. How to master la soirée

Entertaining at home is a fine art. Always begin by sitting, conversing, and enjoying an apéro (short for apéritif — an appetite-inducing cocktail served before a meal) in the living room. Offer wine, fruit juice, martinis, or pastis (liquorice-like liquor) with a light appetizer like cherry tomatoes and goat cheese or bread with olive tapenade.

Once everyone gathers at the table for the meal, serve an entrée, something like poireaux vinaigrette (marinated leeks) with herbs or a radish salad. The plat or main course should always include meat and can be anything from a cassoulet au canard (duck casserole with string beans) to lapin à la moutarde (rabbit cooked with Dijon mustard, onion, and white wine).

The cheese plate should come next with a couple of soft cheeses like Camembert or Brie, a familiar and classic favorite like Chèvre, a hard cheese like Gruyere de Comte, an adventurous (or stinky) option like Epoisses, and a blue cheese like Roquefort. Eat the cheese plain or pair it with torn pieces of a baguette, which should always be resting on the table.

A crispy apple tarte tartin, raspberry crème brûlée, simple berry-and-yogurt parfait, or chocolate cake for dessert will complete the meal. Then you can converse and laugh with your guests over tea, coffee, or more wine outside on the terrace. By the end of the evening, you’ll be happily intoxicated and satisfied from good alcohol, good food, and even better company.

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