I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but Americans need to hear this: The French are better at living well than we are. Way better. Compared to the French, we Americans are galumphing, unrefined, consumption-addicted clods.
Even peasants in France use tablecloths. A new book by American Jennifer L. Scott, "Lessons from Madame Chic: The Top 20 Things I Learned While Living in Paris" (self-published, available on Amazon), reminded me of the unflattering differences.
"They would never, ever eat pizza from a box in front of the television and zone out. Never!" said Scott, now 31, whose book reflects on the time over 10 years ago when she was a student at USC, and lived in France for a semester. She landed in an upscale Paris apartment belonging to a sophisticated couple she dubbed Madame and Monsieur Chic.
"I was blown away by how well they lived," Scott told me this week when I called to ask her to tell me all about it. "And it was not at all about money."
Scott's lessons made me wonder what Americans could do to move along the continuum toward a more gracious lifestyle. I decided a 12-step program was in order — for me, too!
• Step one: Admit that we are powerless over our innate American ways, that our lives have become unmanageable. (Unless you're okay with eating McDonald's while ricocheting between the office and your kid's karate lesson.)
• Step two: Believe that a power, namely the French way of life, is greater and could restore us to sanity. (Or go ahead and binge on a Kohl's-bucks-fueled shopping spree.)
• Steps four through 12: (I've condensed to meet Americans' decreasing attention spans and demand for faster versions.) Make a searching and fearless inventory of our homes and lifestyles, admit the exact nature of our wrongs, seek to remove our shortcomings, and, finally, having had an awakening as the result of these steps, carry this message to others, and practice these principles in all our affairs. (Unless you still think cheering for grown men wearing full body armor and charging into each other is civilized.)
"I have to work on this every day," confesses Scott, who writes The Daily Connoisseur blog.
As Americans forge into a season of overconsumption, Scott's French lessons may help us slow down, spend less, enjoy more and live better. Here's a leaf from her book:
• Start by living in the moment. "Everyone needs to calm down," Scott said. The Chics took pleasure from every aspect of their lives, from their early morning ritual of a breakfast of good café and homemade preserves, to the slice of after-dinner Camembert.
• Use the best you have. The Chics used fine dishes and good cloth napkins daily. In America, we only pull out our good dishes on special occasions. But those in our family are the ones we love most, so why not pull the best out for them every day? Scott, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif., with her husband and 16-month-old daughter, uses her Blue Willow china — a gift from her mother-in-law and the same pattern Madame Chic had — every day. "Tonight we had fish sticks and steamed corn. Nothing fancy. But good dishes made it nicer."
• Relish the little things. No American-manufactured soap beats handmade, French-milled. "The French are picky about soap," she said. "That gets back to using the best every day. I could never use Irish Spring again."
• Reject materialism. In America, we like to keep up with the Joneses. We are a consumer society. In France, they don't need to have so much stuff. Madame Chic didn't shop constantly. Their home had zero clutter. They only kept their best things. Anything sub-par went to someone who could appreciate it.
• Make what you're blessed with work. "This upper-class family lived in a one-bathroom apartment, which they once shared with their five kids," Scott said. "That concept to me was crazy. But they didn't upgrade or add a bath, because they were fine with what they had. They also had a tiny bare-bones kitchen, yet she produced the most wonderful meals."
• Pursue quality pastimes. Every evening the Chics shared a three-course dinner (always with dessert) accompanied by very nice conversation. After dinner, they listened to rapturous classical music, and they read. They rarely watched television. Life was about conversation and connection through the arts.
• Entertain with confidence. While in Paris, Scott went to weekly dinner parties. Some were sophisticated affairs hosted by wonderful cooks, others casual by less-accomplished cooks. "Both were enjoyable. The company was enough," Scott said. But the thought of hosting a dinner party in America is daunting to her, because "everyone is a vegan or has gluten intolerance or some food issue, so I'm paranoid to cook for anyone." She learned that the main thing is to have confidence. "Nobody enjoys a host who keeps apologizing."
• Enjoy the best of both worlds. Nonetheless, Scott says she'd still choose America over la vie de France. "I love so many aspects of American life." Topping her list are comfort, service and convenience. "When I'm in France, I long for good, old-fashioned American service, where every employee you pass asks if you're finding everything all right." In that, Scott and I share a goal: to adopt the best aspects of French living right here in the USA.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is a humorous syndicated home-design columnist, speaker, and author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Reach her at marnijameson.com.