First, a confession: I usually hate this question.
OPINION: It has inspired an entire genre of literature which, with its syrupy diatribes, transcendental stupidity, and abundant misogyny should be legally classified as a hate crime.
A quick survey would suggest that the most exalted lessons we can learn from the French are how to push food around on our plate in a visually pleasing manner (French Women Don't Get Fat), how to let your baby cry itself to sleep (French Kids Don't Throw Food), how to be a good wifey and cook for your family (French Kids Eat Everything) and how to live your life entirely dependent on male approval (French Women Don't Sleep Alone). YAWN!
Unbeknownst to the diverse population of French women, we have cast them in the role of Marcia while we play Jan. They're the Heathers. We're Winona Ryder. They're Quinn and the Fashion Club. We're Daria.
All of which is not too bad. I love Daria, Jan and Nony. It's just that France can teach us more than how to be a hungry, sexy mother who knows how to knot a Hermes scarf.
Having lived in Paris on and off for over three years, here's my top-five list of useful French lessons:
1) Kill the Carb Police inside your head
A few years ago, a shadow fell over our restaurants and homes. Phantom illnesses called 'intolerances' began to appear. Stomachs turned concave. Potatoes and pasta were spat upon. And bread was expelled from the city walls. The carb police had arrived in full force.
The French, however, remained free. Never was their breadbasket violently snatched away before the dinner arrived and nor was it ever empty. And in spite of smearing wallops of butter on their bread, rates of obesity remained low. Why? Because French bread, like most of their food, is fresh and unprocessed. Next time you're in France watch one of these happy folk strolling home nibbling on the tip of their baguette and DARE to do it at home.
2) Learn the art of flaneuring
Yes, the French often stroll home. Parisians in particular drift down serpentine boulevards, perambulate around leafy, outdoor markets and cycle at night alongside inky canals. They are a nation of skilled 'flaneurs' (a wonderful French word that has no English equivalent but means sauntering around the city observing its patterns and people.)
Where we have lonely suburban streets lined with fortress-like houses and eerie street-lamps, they have high-density apartment living where an absence of space forces social life outdoors. The streets in Paris bubble and teem with life. Australia has cities designed for cars and devoted to work. France has cities designed for people and devoted to pleasure.
3) Just do less
Part of the reason why French cities are such sites of sensual indulgence is that the French give themselves the time to savour their delights. Where we live to work, the French work to live. The French no longer have their 35-hour week, they DO spend a lot of time sitting outside cafes smoking cigarettes and being French. They also take at least one month holiday a year. There is no sense that work should define who you are. I have no idea what some of my French friends do. Banish tedious competitiveness over social status from the conversation, and watch it meander into philosophical musings and political debate.
4) Militantly defend your right to do less
The French don't just talk politics. They do it. Regularly. Which is why they have the best healthcare system in the world, it's why university education is still free, and why they have excellent public transport. In a context where the rest of the Western world is privatising itself into a Hobbesian hellhole, the French take to the streets en masse to defend their right to a high quality of life.
5) It's cool to be clever
Part of the reason for our apathy may be that we lack a robust public intellectual culture. Not for want of talent. But for a virulent anti-intellectualism expressed in phrases like 'that's just academic.' Academics are shunned and artists endure a lifetime of being asked what they REALLY do. We are living through the age of Nero. The barbarians are at the door.
In France, a higher value is placed on intellectual labour. Streets are named after thinkers, there's a national radio station devoted to esoteric intellectual debate and curiosity, not commerce, drives knowledge.
In learning the joys of strolling and thinking whilst nibbling on bread in a well-serviced city devoted to pleasure, we could do worse than to follow the French.
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