“You’re so Protestant,” remarks a family friend as I explained my theory behind apple butter and cottage cheese. The theory is that you really only eat the cottage cheese as an excuse to eat apple butter (one of my favorite foods on the planet), so your goal in portioning out your serving is to come as close to 50% apple butter/50% cottage cheese as possible without tipping the scales. Too much apple butter would be self-indulgent, I explain.
This omnipresent sense of guilt followed me in the U.S. like mosquitos follow my mother at twilight. I couldn’t get away from it, but it really bothered me. In France, that’s starting to change. Although my contact with actual French people is less than might be expected, I’m still able to gain some sense of the cultural attitudes just by living here. While I think it’s important not to idolize or demonize any culture in entirety, I have to say that some French-ness seems to be the perfect antidote to my overly Puritannical way of thinking.
I am, as usual, influenced by my reading. Right now, that’s a stack of books, but the one that’s on top at the moment is a book the mother of my au pair family lent me: French Children Don’t Throw Food, by Pamela Druckerman who lives in France with her British husband writing and raising three children.
I’m not a parent, but I am an au pair, so I end up doing some “parenting” anyway. Something I recognize while doing this is that children are really very capable little beings, but a lot of the capability needs to be emphasized or brought out in some way–their default state is “wanting” help or attention or affection. Sometimes they need it, and sometimes they need to be taught how to do something on their own, or how to satisfy themselves.
As I’m farther away from my own parents than ever before, I feel as though I’ve taken up the role of parenting–parenting myself, that is. I want to continue to grow and develop and mature. Rather than relying on myself to change in a vacuum, I’m aware of the ability of place and situation to influence one’s attitudes and thought processes. (That’s why I uprooted and moved to France.)
Here, I’ve perceived something I had found difficult to pin down until I read Druckerman’s articulation of the idea. Balance–something I think and write about a lot–is a very different concept in France compared to the U.S. As Druckerman writes, “When we Anglophones talk about work-life balance, we’re describing a kind of juggling, where we’re trying to keep all parts of our lives in motion without screwing up any of them too badly.” In contrast, “the French also talk about l’equilibre. But they mean it differently. For them, it’s about not letting any one part of your life–including parenting–overwhelm the rest. It’s more like a balanced meal, where there’s a good mix of proteins, carbohydrates, fruit, vegetables, and sweet things.”
Rather than considering the apple butter scenario in terms of a mathematical ratio, a more useful way to consider it would be to think of the taste, of the enjoyment, of the relative pleasure. Although the American stereotype of the French is characterized primarily by laziness and arrogance, I don’t think enjoying life is either lazy or arrogant, but it does require a little bit of both, at least from an American perspective. The French guard their time and know how to really relax when they relax. Both of these things are almost unheard of in the U.S.
When it comes to environmentalism, Americans tend to go about the topic with the same desire for dichotomy and moral agenda. When it comes down to it, though, environmentalism is about ecological balance, not brow-beating.
And with that, I leave you with this: