When was the last time you felt like a stranger in a strange land? And an unwanted stranger at that?
I am living with some French roommates for the summer in an apartment in Beijing (I’m here through MISTI-China). To every American who buys into anti-French propaganda: get over yourselves. The French have done some things correctly. They have a right to look at us like we’re crazy because, frankly, we are. Compared to them, we seem to have done everything wrong. We are fatter, more stressed, unhappier, less environmentally friendly, and generally poorer cooks than the French.
In honor of these great people and their putting up with me, “The American,” I have decided to share with you some lessons that Americans can learn. If you are extremely conservative, both politically and socially, don’t hate what I’m about to tell you. Keep an open mind. Dance. Eat a baguette, and enjoy the lessons of the French.
1) Lose weight by eating more. The French look forward to their meals in the same way MIT students anticipate their three day weekends. Every time I arrived at work with my French roommate, I found myself wondering by 10 a.m. what we would be eating that day. At 2 p.m., I began pondering what my roommates would concoct for dinner, because it was so mouth-wateringly delicious (they made dishes like Ratatouille, eggplant lasagna, baked chicken with caramelized onions). I started eating twice the amount I would ever eat for dinner at home. We always ate freshly cooked food, even if it was fattier than anything I would have eaten in the U.S. (They scowled when they found out I had been storing Instant Mac and Cheese in the cabinet.)
And yet, I have lost something like four pounds in a month because the French only use fresh foods and eat mostly fruit for dessert. If Americans got off the couch and started cooking some vegetables instead of eating KFC or McDonald’s, they might look more slim and beautiful too.
2) Do not stress out. Under any circumstances. Ever. When I told my roommates about a typical day and week at MIT, they looked at me with such looks of pity that you would have thought someone ran over my beagle puppy twice and then fed it to a coyote for fun. The French do not stress. Work is not worth worrying about, because it’s only one tiny aspect of their lives. They come home to family and friends, cook their meals, relax, and then start thinking about the work they have to do. Or they don’t think about it until they go back to work the next day. Worry is not a worthwhile effort for them; it’s almost as if they see it as a threat to their freedom. There are more important things in life, like dancing.
3) Weekends are for dancing your heart out. I have accompanied my roommates to a French restaurant and a salsa club almost every weekend since I have been in Beijing. To return to the eating for a second: we sat at the restaurant, drank Pastis, ate bread and butter, and main courses of red meat and mustard tarts followed by chocolate mousse for four hours. But I still didn’t gain any weight, because afterwards, we burned everything we just ate by dancing. The restaurant moved its tables and chairs to the side, and the patrons danced for at least two hours after the meal.
Two weeks ago we entered the restaurant and my roommates said hello to a friend wearing a neck brace. After we sat down I asked them what happened. “Car accident?” “No, too much dancing,” they answered. Here’s a secret for all of those Americans who think they can’t dance if they’re not behind closed doors: the French aren’t always great dancers either. But they don’t care, because it’s fun and that is all that matters.
4) You have to support your fellow countrymen. (Don’t read this section if you’re a Republican.) One of my roommates told me her family was in the lowest income bracket and thus they were not taxed. Her father and mother were both bus drivers at one time, and yet they still have a house and two cars and enough money that they can pay for fresh food for their children and vacations once in a while. She said she knew that the only reason she was able to live the way she did was because other people were paying for it, but that was the way it had to be. Everyone has an obligation to everyone else, and everyone has a right to a comfortable life, no matter their job. Some Americans may be disgusted by this, but if you think about the fact that France’s rate of incarceration is about seven times lower than that of the U.S. (normalized for population, so you can’t use the argument that they have less people), it seems like providing the people with what they need and making sure they aren’t up to their eyeballs in debt has paid off. Maybe French society isn’t perfect, but it’s a lot more perfect than America.
5) Contrary to the Republican belief, promoting safe sex actually lowers teen pregnancy rates. On average, French women lose their virginity later than American women. They have a deep sense of self-respect, and they usually wait until they have a serious boyfriend to plunge into anything. But more importantly, everyone uses birth control because it is cheap, easily obtainable, and encouraged by parents.
In addition to contraceptives, most parents allow and even encourage their high school age children’s boyfriends and girlfriends to spend the night at their house. When I first heard this, my jaw dropped. “You mean your mother let you sleep at your boyfriend’s house? In his bed? In high school?” “Of course,” my roommate answered, “She knew we were dating and we were in love. She knew we were safe that way.” The boyfriend or girlfriend helps the parents cook dinner, and when everyone wakes up, the whole family (plus significant other) eats breakfast. Everyone sits together, and the parents are supportive and accepting of the relationship. The result? Lower teen pregnancy rates, increased family time, and no reason for parents to worry that their children are being pressured into anything.
So why exactly do we hate the French?