There are habits I developed while living in France that I carry with me no matter where I travel in my life. Keeping these takes me zero effort. They are all small things - les petites choses - that, when practiced daily, somehow make my life infinitely better.
Here are five of the life-enhancing french habits I have adopted:
1) Open up my windows to airé, or air out, my house for a few minutes every morning
Granted, this habit is even more satisfying when you have a real pair of french shutters to fling open, but even without them opening your windows to let the morning air in your house just feels good. In the summer I leave the windows open for an hour or more, in the winter just five minutes. No matter what length of time I open up for though, the fresh air helps us all feel more alert and alive.
The French are also convinced that this habit helps reduce the spread of viruses and other air-born nasties. Regardless, it is completely free and the ritual and fresh air never fail to make me feel better.
2) Answer honestly when people ask how you're doing
I got my first taste of this in Beaune, when I ventured to ask a fellow mother ça va? at school drop-off one morning.
"Holy Christ," she answered. "I'm ready to murder my husband and in the backseat of the car my kids were punching each other again about Pokemon cards. I swear to god I almost stopped at that gypsy camp near the autoroute to see if the gypsies might be interested in buying them - my offspring, not the Pokemon cards, I mean. Now I have to go to the ob/gyn for my pap smear. Just kill me and get it over with."
My first instinct was to run in the opposite direction, but then I got in the spirit of things and confided how Camille had thrown up all over the backseat of the car on the way to school the day before. We went back and forth like this and five minutes later I began the day refreshed by an edifying venting session.
I learned that when you ask "ça va?" to a French person, you have to brace yourself for an honest answer. Some days they are doing great and they will tell you why, in detail. Some days they are wretched and they will tell you why, in detail. They expect you to be just as honest.
I found that it is so much less exhausting to jettison the façade of everything being "just great" all the time. I also learned from my fellow French moms that on a bad day sometimes a good vent is all that is required to turn it into a good one.
3) Eat a bit of raw, unpasturised cheese every day
You know all those studies that try to figure out the "french paradox", or why french people can live to ripe, healthy old ages despite a diet that is heavy in cream, butter, and carbohydrates? The consumption of good-quality wine (i.e. not Two Buck Chuck) certainly seems to be part of this riddle, but more and more studies are pointing to something else too - the variety of raw, artisan cheese the French consume.
I have never taken much convincing to taste even the stinkiest, mouldiest French cheese. Imagine how delighted I was to find that this raw cheese habit of mine may be contributing to healthy gut mircobiota, better immunity, not to mention extreme gustative satisfaction and pleasure.
There are more and more artisan cheeses available all over the world, both imported and made locally. Be like the french - invest a little extra time and money to make your cheese habit a truly beneficial one.
4) Kiss (or hug) your family every morning and every night
Anyone who has stayed in France can tell you that greeting family members the first time you see each other in the in the morning and saying good-night to them as you go to bed is an unassailable daily ritual.
It is not merely the words "bonjour" and "bonne nuit - dors bien", but the act of giving and receiving les bises, or a kiss on each cheek, that cements the greeting.
When we first came back to Canada after five years in France I found we were swept up into such a quickly paced life that we let this ritual fall by the wayside until one day it dawned on me how much I missed this brief but important moment of family connection.
Camille was laughing yesterday about how La Mémé (Franck's grandmother who is a main character in all my books) was such a stickler about everyone in the family - even the young children - saying "bonjour" and "au revoir" properly with les bises. She would withhold a snack from the non-compliant great-grandchildren (*ahem* meaning Camille) until the lure of La Mémé's pastries overcame Camille's stubborn refusal about giving her great-grandmother a kiss on the cheek.
Us humans need contact to ground and reassure ourselves, so the hello / good-bye ritual benefits everyone in a family - parents and children alike. It also prevents us from passing by each other like ships in the night day after day. It is a moment to pause and communicate to our loved ones -I see you. I appreciate you. I love you.
5) Make your own vinaigrette
I have not bought bottled salad dressing since my first year in France when my lovely first host mother, Madame Beaupre, taught me how to make her delicious vinaigrette. It is so quick and easy and only requires three ingredients:
Madame Beaupre's Vinaigrette
1 TBSP mustard (Dijon or grainy Dijon my favourite) + 1 tsp vinegar + 2-3 TBSP oil
Put mustard of your choice (but stay away from hot dog-type mustard) into bottom of salad bowl. Add vinegar of your choice (any kind of wine or balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or anything else that takes your fancy) and stir into mustard with fork until blended. Add oil (olive oil, canola oil, or any other type of oil you like) and stir in vigorously with fork until blended.
Optional: You can add to this basic mix freshly ground pepper, a pinch of fleur de sel, diced shallots, diced or pressed garlic clove(s), herbs - fresh or dried - or really anything that appeals to you.
Voilà! Now you too can dispense with store-bought vinaigrette and like any french person worth their salt serve delicious salads at the drop of a hat. Bon Appetit!