How Living in France Changed Me: 4 Lessons for a Happier Life

A few months ago, I was sitting down with a good friend, helping her type out an email in French to a prospective landlord. She was searching for short-term apartment rentals in Villandry so she would have a place to stay during a fellowship on the castle grounds. She invited me to come visit her in the spring, and I happily accepted – I couldn’t wait!

Fast forward to today, the world is on lockdown due to a global pandemic, travel is restricted, and I dream of days when I could make a quick trip to the grocery store without risking my life. International travel remains a dream, and I won’t be visiting France anytime soon. Indeed, my friend was flown back to Pennsylvania in March, well before the end of her program.

But even though I write this from my home in Pennsylvania and not old world Villandry, I wanted to reminisce on the good memories that I’ve had in France. I lived there for about two years, and those experiences influenced my life for the better.

I think that reflection and introspection is so important during this unprecedented time because it gets you out of the habit of obsessive thinking and focuses your mind on productive thoughts. My friend remarked that she better understood my purpose and the content that I share on my blog because of her stay in France. I thought it would make sense to write this post for you, my readers, because it may give you a peek into my world. I also think there’s so much that we can learn from the French way of living, and we all could benefit from advice on how to live a happier life these days.

Below is a list of 4 ways living in France changed my life for the better – and even influenced my views on self-care, love, and indeed how I show up in life.

Lesson 1: Joie de vivre: I learned to take delight in the joy of being alive

I moved to Orléans, France for a year when I was 21. There, I taught English in French elementary schools. I lived in a little studio apartment with a futon bed, a desk, and a tiny kitchen. It was a 5-minute walk from the Loire River that snaked across the city.

My studio apartment in Orléans, Tours. I lived here for a year. I broke my digital camera, and for months, the only way I could record my memories was with a retro disposable camera.

On Saturday mornings, I would walk two blocks from my apartment to the farmer’s market on the Loire; sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. I would pick up fresh peaches, cheese, a bag of spinach, a freshly-baked baguette; and, sometimes, a hot crepe for the walk back.

I worked during weekdays, apart from Wednesdays, which I had off since most French schools are closed or only have morning classes on this day. Wednesdays are a break for children to disconnect from the weekday grind and participate in any extracurricular activities like swimming or ballet. I typically spent this time lesson-planning in the morning, then enjoying a bite to eat with friends or exploring the town in the afternoon.

Place du Martroi, Orléans, France. I loved walking through this town square. They turned the fountain off (left) during the wintertime.

What I’m getting at here is this: life takes its time in France. The pace of living is much slower than here in America. I had the time to enjoy each moment, to experience it as it unfolded. I learned how to savor the joie de vivre – to take delight in being alive. Literally translated, it means “the joy of living.” Even the seemingly mundane can bring you joy. Lighting the stove, pouring oil in a pan, sauteing a piece of salmon while listening to the euphonious tones of French newscasters from the radio perched on my windowsill…I lived for quiet moments like this.

My studio apartment in Orléans, France

To experience joie de vivre, you have to make time for it. It doesn’t come if you’re rushing. It doesn’t come if you haven’t planned ahead. When we have leisure time here in America, we often feel pressured to “do something” with it: whether it’s filling that free time with running errands or working a side hustle. Something I learned while in France is to make time for downtime — and to use that downtime actually relaxing and doing activities I love. I watercolor, I sew, I write. I enjoy my leisure time instead of feeling guilty for having it in the first place.

Lesson 2: Lunch is my little slice of paradise in the middle of the workday

When I taught English in French elementary schools, lunchtime was nearly two hours long – an hour and 45 minutes long, to be exact. Many children would leave school to walk home to eat “en famille” (with their family). The students who stayed behind at school would eat a delicious four-course meal in the school canteen.

I enjoyed many of these meals, since as a teacher I could spend a couple euros to buy lunch. The lunches followed a formula: first, there was a vegetable appetizer, followed by a meat or seafood main dish, then cheese, and finally yogurt or a dessert. TheFrench Ministry of Health carefully plans out each meal weeks in advance so that children have balanced, nutritious meals. For Christmas, my school cafeteria even served escargot! Although many of the French teachers complained that the quality of the escargot was less than sublime, I personally thought it was delicious.

While the caliber and the health benefits of food served at lunch is important, equally important is the act of taking a break from school and work during this time. The French take their midday meal seriously: stores like copy shops, banks, and even pharmacies close down between the hours of 11:30 am to 1 pm. Restaurants open their doors during this time, and everyone takes a midday break to relax and enjoy a meal – away from their desk and their office.

Savory lunchtime crêpe at a teeny restaurant in La Rochelle, France

In America, lunch is an obstacle to getting on with the rest of your day, during which you throw food down your throat out of biological necessity. Two-hour lunches don’t exist; depending on your company’s culture, you may get a half-hour, fifteen minutes, or (if you’re lucky) a whole hour. We lead busy, harried lives, and our day is filled to the brim with things we have to do. Our workdays lack the Gallic languor that allows — dare I say encourages? — one to enjoy taking a lunch, guilt-free.

Living in France taught me to treat lunchtime as my little slice of paradise every day – a mini-vacation within the workday. I pack my lunches in advance (even when working from home). I eat my lunch every day, and I spend time doing something I enjoy during my lunch hour – whether it’s reading a magazine or working on a sewing project.

Lesson 3: To embrace sensuality is to embrace life

When I say the word “sensuality,” what do you think of? In my experience, for many Americans, the word sensuality is synonymous with sexuality. Your mind may summon up images of screen sirens like Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor.

In France, I learned that sensuality means so much more than that. Taking pleasure in your senses – truly acknowledging and experiencing the feedback that each sense is receiving – means that you are embracing life! Or, to use a 21st century buzzword, embracing the senses is akin to practicing “mindfulness.”

In my many days exploring the Loire River farmer’s market in Orléans, I discovered these pears that were phenomenal. I never was a lover of pears previously, but the brown-speckled pale green fruit caught my eye one day. They looked so tantalizing. The owner of the produce stand saw me eyeing them, and he smiled and slipped one in my bag. “They’re delicious,” he told me.

Farmer’s Market by the Loire River, Orléans

When I went home, I unpacked everything I had bought and placed the pear on my table. I sat down and bit into it. Juice ran down my chin and onto my hands, and I laughed. It was so sweet and tasty! I took my time and savored that pear.

This is what I mean by sensuality: gratifying your senses and taking pleasure in the moment. If you’re playing music, really relax into that moment and listen to those notes. If you’re ironing a shirt, feel the fabric of the shirt as you hold it taut. Watch the puffs of smoke rise as you apply steam to any stubborn wrinkles. Get in tune with your senses.

I won’t lie — many times, I often ignore one sense or another. Their feedback is irrelevant to me unless I actively, mindfully pay attention. Only when I’m exploring gardens do all five of my senses light up effortlessly. This is partially why I love visiting gardens so much. It’s like I’m coming alive and experiencing the world for the first time. For me, to be sensual is to live life fully.

Lesson 4: My self-worth is not determined by my net worth or how hard I work

I was 18 when I first visited France. It was the summer after my freshman year of college at Georgetown University. I signed up to do an 8-week language-intensive program at the Institut de Touraine in Tours, France. There was a group of about 20, maybe 30 of us from Georgetown. We took classes at the Institut during the day.

My classroom at the Institut de Touraine

In the evening, we would all congregate at Place Plumereau. This was the town square. And it was an actual square — bordered by 16th century houses, restaurants, and one of the best gelato shops I’ve ever eaten at. In the center of the square were dozens and dozens of tables and chairs.

We would choose a restaurant, sit in their outdoor seating, and wait for a server to come to us. After ordering and enjoying a leisurely meal, we would chat about our day, our classes earlier that morning, the castles we were going to see later that week. In France, the server doesn’t rush over to hand you the check so you can vacate the table as soon as possible for other guests. That is seen as rude. People sometimes linger for hours after they’ve finished their meal. The restaurant cares about your dining experience, not getting as many patrons in seats as possible over the course of the day. There isn’t a tit-for-tat, “you ate, now pay” mentality. I felt less like a customer and more like a guest when I visited restaurants.

Leisure time is important in France. There are so many examples of this, some of which I wrote about above. Children have a midweek break on Wednesday, to disconnect from classes and refocus. The French government requires that businesses provide their workers with a minimum of 5 weeks of paid vacation – and the French use it. Banks, pharmacies, shops, and indeed almost entire towns close down for lunchtime between the hours of 12 and 2 pm. And when you go out to eat, it is a relaxing experience.

Lunchtime in Tours, café off of Place Plumereau

Living in France taught me that how hard I work has no bearing on my level of morality or my worthiness of respect. This is not to say that I don’t work long hours at my job because Lord knows that if I’m working on a special project, I will be burning the midnight oil. Rather, I don’t think I’m a better or more worthy person because I work these long hours. I don’t buy into the American Protestant work ethic of continual self-sacrifice and hard work for hard work’s sake anymore. Indeed, if you’re working too hard, you may be undervaluing your body, and you’re not doing life right. You only get one body and one mind in this life. Cherish them.

My time abroad taught me valuable lessons. I learned in France that you can enjoy life without feeling guilty about it. I learned to take pleasure in everyday life – and that everyone is deserving of a pleasurable, healthy, and rewarding life, regardless of income level. I realized that even with the mistakes that I had made in my life, and even if I didn’t become a C-suite level executive in corporate America, I still deserve the best quality life that I desire. It inspired me to work towards the pursuit of the highest quality of life that I could achieve.

Reliving these past, happy memories puts me in a good mood and gets me out of the present moment when this pandemic situation becomes too much. I hope that these 4 lessons that I learned can inspire you to continue living your best life as well.Party with friends, Orléans, France

Pyramid on the beach, Orléans, France

Interested in more content about France and my time living abroad? Let me know what you’d like to read more of, and I’d be happy to share in another blog post.

If you’re looking for ways to cope with the coronavirus situation, you may want to check out my previous posts.

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  1. Thank you for this reflection! It definitely resonates with me and helps me to put things into perspective. I miss the simple joys of life in France !

    1. Oh, how I feel the same! I’m happy this blog post resonates with you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts ^_^

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