Without beating around the bush too much, I’ll just flat out say this: French people don’t seem to know, or care, at all about health or fitness.
Now, thats not to say that there aren’t people here in France who do genuinely care or who are working hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle… I know well enough than to truly believe that sort of generalization I just made. But, in general, I see more people that are just misinformed or disinterested than people who are “enlightened”.
You see, French culture, or the culture I have come in contact with, is mostly focused on pleasure. French people enjoy the finer things in life, and that is something I admire in many ways. They have longer vacations each year and structured meal times every day to spend with family and children only go to school 4 days a week. French people know how to enjoy the worlds finest wine and champagne, bread, pastries, and cheese and they live in some of the most beautiful cities and countrysides on the planet. So much about French life is about pleasure, beauty, culture, and knowledge and it is this attitude that gives so many Americans (and others around the world) an intense yearning for and obsession with France. This is a place of dreams and of fantasies and kings and romance and lavender fields and yachts and museums and macaroons, not to mention the absolutely beautiful French language. It seems to be every girls (or guys) dream to come to France and be swept off her (his) feet by a sexy French (wo)man, speaking to her in his(her) mother tounge, wooing her(him) with nights at quiet wine bars and strolls along the river. Cue this song:
Well, as you may have guessed by now. It is not quite so. I’ve been there… you know, the whole “getting woo-ed by a beautiful French man” thing… It’s really not that exciting. And getting woo-ed by France, well, I’m still in the thick of it, trying to figure out if I love it or hate it, and more often than not, its both. France is all of those poetic things… it is beautiful and the food is delicious and the language is sexy and the wine is great. But its not a fantasy. Its just a place, like anywhere else. Yes, even Paris. It smells like piss, the metros are ugly as hell, and you can’t walk 10 feet without inhaling cigarette smoke or stepping in dog shit. It’s just a city. And half the time, I’m like,
And with that comes the slow realization that the French mentality on food, health, and exercise is really not as glamorous as the world likes to think it is. French people live for pleasure, and as amazing and admirable as that is for us in America (where we live and breathe for work), the culture lacks an awareness of many important things outside of those related to immediate sensory stimulation. When it comes to food, the mentality is purely flavor-based. When it comes to exercise, its purely based on getting skinny and looking pretty.
I “interviewed” a French friend recently about food and exercise in France and she confirmed this. Healthy food is considered “diet” food, and you only eat it when you’re trying to lose weight. Grocery stores have a small section of organic products and they are usually paired right next to the meal replacements, supplements, diet pills, and other skinny-oriented hocus-pocus. Organic food is not prevalent and you often have to go to special stores to buy it, however this is considered snobby and only for rich people, so people don’t eat organic, ever. Whenever someone starts eating healthy, the assumption is that they are doing it to get skinny, and along with healthy eating comes just straight up not eating, another “secret” to how the French stay so thin.
Exercise is viewed in the same way. Gym memberships are expensive and hard to come by, which naturally excludes a huge portion of the population from access to a gym. The few that are willing to dish out the cash for a gym can be seen doing one of two things: men lift weights without proper form, women mindlessly trot on the elliptical while reading Elle.
Walking out in public in your workout clothes is still frowned upon (remember, French people always are put-together) and sometimes even running along your street is greeted with stares of confusion or disbelief, depending on where you are. I was surprised to see any runners at all in France. There are quite a few… enough for a marathon, apparently.
When it comes to meal times, a typical French meal will have at least 3 courses, often 4 or 5. Every night when I have dinner with my host family, we sit down for our meal, and after I’ve eaten what I consider to be way too much already, we move on to cheese and bread, or yogurt… generally some type of dairy product (someone please explain this to me. I honestly do not understand what this part of the meal is about. #confusedamerican). After that, we will have fruit, and/or dessert. I have started to learn when to stop eating during this long dinner process, but often the social pressure of participating in the meal is stronger than my ability to say “non, merci” and I end up eating way more than I am capable of or than I should. Lunch is the exact same way. Fortunately I do my own thing for lunch, but if I ever decide to have lunch with the family on weekends, I know I will be sitting down for almost 2 hours to eat, and eat, and eat. It’s the French way, and it is so vastly different from my American ways, where I want to eat something quick and easy and light and get on with my day.
Each meal in France is made entirely for the sake of flavor, and health is rarely considered, or if it is, it comes from a seriously misinformed perspective. Most meals have an absurd amount of one or many of the following: red meat, heavy cream, butter, salt, carbs, or sugar, and no matter how strong I am (often not as strong as I wish), I can’t escape these heart-killing ingredients. As you may know, I have high cholesterol, so coming to France clearly was not the best way for me to start lowering that.
A typical ingredient used in most dishes is lardons, or as described on Wikipedia, strips of subcutaneous pork fat (aka bacon-ish). I find myself staring into the eyes of this artery-clogging little bitch pretty much every day and there is nothing I can do but eat it and pretend like this bit of pork fat is some type of useful protein. It’s not. French people, mark my words… lardons KILL.
I can’t escape them!!
Okay, maybe not, but eventually we’re all going to regret eating those little fuckers. I swear.
Aside from lardons, creme fraîche is used in everything. Making pasta sauce? No problem. Just one whole container of creme fraîche and some lardons and cheese, et voilà! (I’m not kidding about that.) It’s on dessert, its in quiche, its in gratins, and on chicken and in your water and it comes out of your shower head and you use it to fuel your car and to wash your windows and to paint your nails and and when you light a match in France, you get creme fraîche instead of fire.
Again, my arteries are like,
Red meat? Yep, stick that in the lardons paragraph. It’s everywhere.
Butter? Holy fuck, what would we eat if butter didn’t exist? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing.
Okay, I could go on but I’m about to get rude here and, well, it would be very Parisian of me and everything, but I think you get the idea.
As for exercise, I recently overheard this comment, and this should be telling enough. The conversation was about wanting to lose weight, and I heard someone say, “No, riding my bike to work wont make me lose weight. It’ll just make me bulky and muscular.”
So you see, staying healthy and fit in France is an enormous struggle. It’s not just that I’m away from home and away from my usual foods, which is very true. Its that the culture I’m immersed in is built for an entirely different set of habits than the ones I’m trying to adopt. My diet here is basically,
and I have struggled so much in trying to find a balance. I want to be immersed in French culture, but I also don’t want to have a heart attack! Fuck, is that too much to ask? I revel in my mild successes because they are so few and far between. Having one good day seems to me to count so much more here than it did back home. Most of the time, I feel like,
when it comes to being healthy in France.
I’m trying. I really am trying. I want to be healthy and strong and I want my cholesterol to go down and I want to improve my fitness and learn more about healthy cooking and I want to have stronger willpower and I want to be in an environment where I am supported and encouraged for my positive choices, but I think maybe that environment doesn’t exist in France. At least not yet.
I’m lucky that I have a host family that cooks really well and often does keep decent healthy options around the house. If you’ve read my other posts about food, you’ll see I do have vegetables and fruits and sometimes quinoa or eggs at home, and I try to use them as much as I can when I’m on my own. But at dinner time, I’m frequently faced with the dilemma of not having much of a say over what I eat, sometimes not even how much (because my plate is often served for me), so the best I can do is resist the multiple courses or carefully try to exert some type of control by asking for a little less on my plate. I try, but I don’t always succeed (social pressures, fear of being rude, not wanting to offend, and also the fact that the food is always SO good… these things make it hard to put my foot down every night). Part of me has accepted this reality and decided that I can only really start living healthy when I get back home to America, but the other part of me doesn’t want to give up that easily. That’s part of why this blog is here. To help me get creative and find ways to beat the system, for the sake of my heart, my body, and my willpower. There has to be a way!
French people out there, please share your thoughts, insights, and wisdom with me. There is so much I have yet to learn and I know there has to be a way to be healthy here, but I just haven’t found it yet. And for anyone else out there, suggestions? Similar experiences? Reactions? Thoughts? Recipes?
Until next time… Over and out.