“Paris is so very beautiful that it satisfies something in you that is always hungry in America.” – Ernest Hemingway
Jennifer L. Scott spent six months living with a family in Paris
Parisians often turn mundane aspects of everyday life into something special, she says
Cultivate an air of mystery and become comfortable with silence, she advises
Scott: Always look presentable and make life a formal affair
Jennifer L. Scott arrived in France as a California girl, but she returned home as a Parisienne.
As a foreign exchange student in college, she spent six months living with a family in Paris: an elegant couple she dubbed Madame and Monsieur Chic.
Scott observed them carefully, took part in their everyday rituals and delighted in the experience.
“Before I lived in Paris, I would go through life on autopilot,” said Scott, who writes The Daily Connoisseur blog and is the author of the new book, “Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris.”
“Paris taught me not how to just exist, but to thrive and make every small moment meaningful.”
Here are five of the lessons Scott learned in the “City of Light.”
1. Live a passionate life
Scott noticed that Parisians often turned mundane aspects of everyday life into something special.
“For example, every night after dinner we would have a cheese course and every night we would have Camembert because it was Monsieur Chic’s favorite cheese. And every night without exception, before we cut a slice of Camembert for everyone, he would proclaim it to be the ‘Roi du fromage’ – or the king of all cheeses,” Scott recalled.
“He did it with passion. They turn the smallest things, the smallest rituals and they make them passionate events.”
Dinnertime was a great example because every night of the week, whether it was a Wednesday or a Friday, it would be an experience that included a three-course meal and lively conversation, Scott said. Afterward, the family would listen to classical music.
“They never sat in front of the television with a box of pizza and zoned out, never,” Scott said.
The joys of slowly savoring Paris
2. Cultivate an air of mystery
Scott thinks the French get a bad rap for coming across as cold and aloof when they’re simply very picky about who they open up to and how much they reveal about themselves.
“I think we can learn a lot from this,” Scott said.
“I would attend at least two dinner parties a week when I was there… and I wouldn’t really (know a lot about) the guests. I wouldn’t know what they did for a living, but yet I would know the best book they read recently or the most interesting film they saw or the art exhibit that they went to. They loved to discuss these areas of life but they don’t overshare details about their personal lives.”
It’s considered rude in France to ask someone what they do for a living, Scott said, so when she returned to the United States she stopped asking new acquaintances this question and liked the way it fueled her wonder about them.
She also discovered that staying mum can be “delicious.”
“Being OK with silence is important. I think a lot of people are afraid of silence in conversations, I know I am,” Scott said.
“French people are very OK with silence. You can see this in a lot of French films – there’s lots of silent pauses in French films that you don’t get in American films.”
3. Look presentable always
Madame Chic wouldn’t even go to the corner store to get a baguette without applying lipstick and tying a scarf around her neck, Scott recalled. Looking presentable was a way of honoring the people she came in contact with everyday.
“This isn’t to be confused with being high maintenance,” Scott said.
“She wouldn’t spend an hour in the bathroom flat-ironing her hair and applying meticulous makeup. She had a very quick (routine): ‘Le no makeup look’ and a very easy hairstyle to follow. Her 10-item wardrobe allowed her to pick something really easily. She wouldn’t agonize over what clothes to wear every day like so many of us do.”
Scott also noticed the family would routinely wear their best clothes for everyday occasions, a lesson she took to heart.
“It’s funny, we’ll go and spend money on beautiful clothes and we won’t wear them. We’ll be saving them for some unknown occasion in the future because we don’t want to ruin them,” Scott said.
“We should use these clothes on a daily basis. Why not use our best? I think you should never save your best clothes for later. Use your best now and get rid of anything that isn’t up to par.”
4. Don’t forget the simple pleasures (and do not deprive yourself)
Scott thought the movie “Amélie” showed off this lesson perfectly as it introduced its whimsical characters and their little pleasures.
“For some of them it’s cleaning out their handbag, and for some of them it’s breaking the crust on a crème brulee with a spoon,” Scott said. “These are things that a lot of us just mow over in life and don’t even notice.”
She observed that Madame Chic took great pleasure in making her own preserves or baking a strawberry tart, while Monsieur Chic always looked forward to eating his favorite cheese every evening.
Food was a big part of life in Paris, but Scott was amazed to find that she didn’t gain any weight. She attributes this paradox to lots of walking, little TV watching and no snacking.
“There were no snack foods in the house and I just did not snack the entire time I was there. So when I went to meals, I was hungry,” Scott recalled.
“But the meals were long, drawn-out affairs so I wasn’t scarfing down this decadent food. I was sitting at dinner and we were having conversation. The meal would take about an hour and I would eat mindfully, so I wouldn’t overeat.
“I had dessert at least twice a day. I had it every day after dinner, and for tea every afternoon, I would get a crepe or something in the city. And I enjoyed my food.”
5. Make life a formal affair
Scott was impressed by the formal manner in which her host family lived. They were always elegantly dressed, their apartment was beautifully furnished and they maintained graceful rituals.
As a visitor to their home, for example, Scott was considered the female guest of honor and was always served first at dinner, ahead of her host and hostess and their son.
“They just observed these formal protocols and manners and etiquette were very important to them,” Scott said.
“They used their best china and their best crystal on a regular basis. … They used the nicest things that they had on a daily basis and it elevated every experience that we had.”