I recently spent a week in Paris on a journey of self-exploration. I went to the City of Light with the intention to be. I had no museums on my list of Things to Do, no landmarks, nothing even remotely touristy aside from taking a stroll through Le Jardin du Luxembourg. I went with an open mind and an open schedule, waiting for adventures to find me.
The concept of traveling without an agenda is a foreign one. But, as I soon discovered, it was the perfect plan. If I had been consumed with hiking up to Sacre Coeur or standing in lines at Le Louvre, I wouldn't have been available to learn these wonderful lessons.
11 Things I Learned About the Good Life in Paris
1. Slow down
I don't want to propagate the myth that the Parisians spend their days strolling along the Seine, sipping wine, and having naps. Paris is, after all, a major city. People do honk their horns, ring their bells, rush along the sidewalk, run for the Metro, listen to their headphones on their commutes, eat fast food, and, you know, work. It would be irresponsible of me to claim otherwise.
However, you also see people lounging in the gardens on a sunny afternoon. Cafés are shoulder-to-shoulder crowded for hours midday. Readers stop and peruse used books on the street on their way home. Home chefs breeze through a neighborhood market to pick up fresh fruit, warm breads, and savory cheeses for the night's meal. And don't even get me started on dinner—that's easily a three-hour affair.
It's not that Parisians don't get stuff done—they do. But they intersperse their doing with being.
2. Dine well
This feels like a slightly cliché thing to say, but it bears saying: the food is amazing in Paris. Ribbony potatoes poured from a copper pot. Melt-in-your-mouth duck, nestled into its crispy skin. Delicate desserts that crumble when you dig in.
Dining well is a way of life in France, and one that comes with big dividends: (allegedly) few people have food allergies or digestive issues, you need less food to feel satisfied, and weight is surprisingly easy to take or keep off.
3. Wine is a necessary part of a good meal
Another slightly cliché thing to say: the French drink wine often. It doesn't matter if it's the middle of the day and you have to head back to the office—you're having a glass of Bordeaux to go with your Steak au Poivre.
4. Self, Home, Food
The (stereotypical) French Woman spends her time and effort first on herself, then on her home, and then on her food. Contrast this with the American woman's (stereotypical) focus on everything except herself—her children, her husband, her work, her social status, etc.—so as to not seem selfish.
This focus on the inside out, rather than the outside in, totally rocked my worldview. The belief that the French Woman holds is that by first caring for herself and that which is closest to her, she is better able to take care of everything else around her. (Or if she can't, she doesn't really care—the most important things are cared for first.)
5. Under trumps over
This concept applies to many things, most notably fashion and beauty. Lingerie is considered more important than the clothes worn over them. Caring for the skin is more highly regarded than the makeup adorning it.
This isn't to say that The French Woman doesn't love her lipstick or her calf-skin coat—she does. But if she's going to drop some serious coin, it's going to be on products that pamper the skin and lift the ladies.
Interestingly, this also applies to the person as a whole. It is preferred to be well-read and rock the jolie laide thing than it is to be flawless and vacant.
6. Find—then own—your personal style
Many Parisians seem to follow some of the same style maxims—wear tights with your skirts, put on a scarf and jacket, show a little ankle if you're wearing pants—and then work within those boundaries to curate their own fabulous styles.
Owlish glasses, bohemian scarves, and long skirts? Sure.
Sleek hair, tailored jacket, petit scarf at a jaunty angle? Why not?
Military pea coat, wild curls, blood-red lips? Gorgeous.
In all cases, these were clearly carefully honed looks meant to compliment the woman within. In fact, one woman I met remarked,
Before buying anything, the French Woman asks, "Does this enhance me?" If it doesn't, she doesn't get it, no matter how trendy it is.
7. Spend where it counts and get the best you can
Interestingly, this advice first came to me from my mother, who grew up halfway around the world from Paris. She was—and is—a big advocate of investing well in your possessions and experiences.
This appeared to be the case in Paris, too. I didn't see too many people spending their money on tat—for example, I tried to find a toy store in Paris, but the closest I came was a game shop—but I did see a lot of people in bookstores, the markets, nice shops, tucked-away cafés, and a purveyor of Perfums Rares.
8. Find and wear a signature scent
While visiting a high-end perfume shop, I had a lovely chat with the woman helping me. She said (paraphrased),
When you have a perfume that is for you, and you wear it every day, it eventually becomes what you smell like.
Elegant in its simplicity, this woman's words make sense: when you choose and wear a specific perfume that is uniquely suited to your body chemistry, it becomes part of your essence.
And there are plenty of people walking around Paris with their essences wafting everywhere (mostly in a pleasing way).
9. Go all in
I didn't see much half-assed stuff in Paris. Outfits were carefully selected. Meals were plated *just so*. Service was astonishingly pleasant and well-paced. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing well.
10. Manners matter
I feel like this is something that's been stamped out of me lately, and it was pleasant to have that reminder the manners are important.
You walk into a shop and say, "Bonjour." In fact, you don't even speak to someone without first greeting them. It makes sense, yet too often, I find myself at a restaurant going, "I'd like blah blah blah," without first saying hello.
As a note, you say, "Merci, au revoir," when you leave a shop. One word. "Merciaurevoir."
11. Pleasure is positive
Finally, my favorite lesson. Pleasure is a good thing. It's not something to be avoided, or tempered, or binged on and then flagellated for. If it feels good, if you enjoy it, by all means, enjoy it.
Why else would you be spending your time and energy on it, darling?