Some 20 years ago I was lucky enough to live - and have my first child - in Paris.
During the almost 6 years we lived there I learned many delightful things:
- The joy of 5-hour, 5-course dinner parties
- The importance of pairing wine to specific ingredients
- The secret to picking the perfect café seat for crowd-watching
- The correct texture of a ripe Camembert
- The restorative power of sitting in the Rodin Museum garden
This list of temporal and (literally) consumable experiences speaks to the most meaningful lesson learned during my time in France: the enduring value of conscious consumption.
In France, centuries-old homes with bubbled windowpanes and vines creeping up the wall hold an enchanting beauty to be noted, enjoyed, and experienced. Flaking plaster in an old Chateau is considered charm, not a siren to renovate. In friends’ homes we sat on graceful chairs with a slight sheen of wear, and at tables burnished with the use of generations. Things did not need to be shiny, new, and perfect to be valued.
Grocery shopping was a daily affair at the local market, where my chef friend taught me to pick the best trompette de la mort (a wonderful rich-flavored mushroom that must be cleaned carefully to ensure beetles don’t remain in the name-sake trumpet) and the freshest quail, heads still on (yup, I learned how to snap them off…). Then on to the cheese shop to find a Camembert ready to serve THAT day, not the next, nor the day before. The French do not eat; they have an immersive food experience.
Though closets were smaller and wardrobes sparse by North American standards, my French friends always looked polished and suited to the occasion. Fewer, better quality, core pieces conferred a timeless style. As Coco herself said “Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” The shoulder pads of the red coat in the old Paris photo may belie Coco’s maxim, but its quality allowed it to achieve retro-treasure status for my now grown daughter.
I love the fact that my French friends acquire things – from food to fashion to home goods - sparingly and thoughtfully. They live by the opposite of the snack, snack, eat, eat, buy, buy, buy, buy, change, cull, toss, stuff, store, strategy we so often employ in North America. Most French people I know are shocked by American food portion sizes, let alone the over-abundance of goods in our stores. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. North America’s obsession with acquisition and volume is good news for the self-storage, closet-reno, fast-fashion, and fast-food industries, but not particularly good for the environment or our pocketbooks.
These days ads are ubiquitous and purchasing whims can be indulged 24/7 with one click, delivered to your door. Consuming consciously, considering quality, and reframing value and beauty are not part of our culture’s go-to mind set.
Earth Day reminds us to be better earth citizens. Rather than being overwhelmed by lists of things we should be doing (or not doing), perhaps we can slow down and pay attention to the experience of consuming and existing. It might lead to the desired results and more pleasure along the way.
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