The French are iconic for living differently than the rest of the world, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about the people, their culture and their lifestyle. Known as classy people with one of the most romantic languages, their signature lifestyle we find so fascinating boasts the best designer brands, wines, cheeses, perfumes and architecture in the world.
As an American expat living in Paris, there have been certain habits and customs I’ve had to lay down in order to welcome new ones that I discovered in my adopted country. Throughout the seven years of living in Paris I have observed, absorbed, and embraced certain aspects of the French lifestyle that have helped me to integrate and even thrive in France. These lessons are coming from my real and true experience of living with the French immersed as an expat that no traveler can attest to. You can also adapt these 10 secret rules into your life to rock a French lifestyle anywhere.
1. How to say NON
No one else knows how to say ‘No’ quite like the French do. They embody a culture of setting boundaries that I appreciate now, which I didn’t always admire. Saying ‘No’ is hard. I grew up in a ‘Yes, man’ culture, where the customer is always right, not to mention the culture of YOLO– You Only Live One, or FOMO– Fear of Missing Out that my generation is defined by.
When I first came to Paris, this ‘no’ attitude was such a turn off. A taxi driver turned me down because he was eating lunch. A cafe owner refused me service because he accepted cash only. I couldn’t secure housing because as a freelancer I was a “risky” prospective tenant. These experiences made the French feel like the cold and arrogant cliché I wanted so hard not to believe was true. But I slowly learned that saying no is actually a healthy part of life and helps avoid being taken advantage of. Saying no is the French way of playing it safe. I stole this secret rule of the French lifestyle and rocked it in my life, which brought me more balance. I embraced their culture of saying ‘no’ to unnecessarily long workdays or going out on most weekdays (a girl’s gotta rest, too). Buying the latest clothes or iphone are no longer a priority. I am content with my life because it isn’t carried away by the whims of the “yes culture” I used to exemplify.
2. The Art of Discretion
The French live and breath discretion— complete opposite of their American counterparts who want to be seen and heard by the world. Before I was a proper French resident, I visited Paris several times and did so in the least discreet way possible, attracting attention from all directions—ostentatious flirting with boys, public intoxication, and dancing on the streets of Paris in the rain— just to name a few.
In contrast, the French have this confident shyness about their allure. It leaves you wondering what the key is to these people. Their secrecy is what is so attractive because they say enough to be present but don’t overshare. Respectively, they are always the most interesting ones in the room. I’ve adapted the secret of discretion into my own rhythm of life, too. I’ve learned to shut my mouth and observe the world around me. You can learn a lot more from others when you aren’t the center of attention. Even my fashion reflects the French lifestyle by dressing modestly, simple and slightly anonymous, not to give too much of myself away.
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Next to their love for books, art, and the theater is their love for films. France claims the birthplace of cinema along with pioneering in cinema production in the 50s and 60s with the film movement known as the French New Wave.The French left a global footprint on the film scene that is still felt today. French filmmakers of the time left a lasting impression on my soul inspiring me to be a filmmaker. But it wasn’t until I moved to Paris that I discovered that going to the cinema is a coveted national pass time.
Paris claims the most movie screens per inhabitant at 1 per every 6,000 residents. The French boast the cinema carte ilimité or unlimited cinema card that gets you exactly that– unlimited access to movies at the theater every day. For a little over 20 euros a month, you can have your very own (recommended if you live in France)! Having access to films is one thing, but going to the cinema is another— in an age when Netflix and downloading is so entrenched in our culture. They make it a valued experience to leave the house, buy the popcorn and sit through a blockbuster or art house film. The French taught me that cinema going is a pass time that is alive and ingrained in the French lifestyle.
French people normally enjoy a small dessert to top off their lunch or dinner. Better yet, they have the whole dessert for le petit déjeuner in the form of un croissant au beurre or chausson au pomme. They love their sweet treats, but do so in moderation. Never three in one day.
Growing up, my mom was conservative when it came to what sweets we were exposed to as kids and rarely made dessert. So naturally, I didn’t develop a sweet tooth as a kid. However, when I moved to Paris and had patisseries and boulangeries available to satisfy that buried sweet tooth, oh, boy did I learn that I indeed have a huge sweet tooth. I jokingly once told my mom that I moved to Paris just for the croissants and she scoffed and saying that’s not a reason you move to another county. I laughed and said, you do when the croissants are this delicious.
5. How to Look Chic with Little Effort (and red lipstick)
‘Less is more’ is a way of life the French apply to their culture and style.Parisians aren’t out to prove anything. But with this very attitude they end up proving they are chic with little to no effort at all. Contrary to their American friends who love makeup, the French tend to focus on the au natural and would rather be caught dead with no makeup than with too much of it.
Nothing is sexier than a bold red lipstick and a downplayed casual look. My fav classic beauty combo (that’s not so secret) I pull together to rock my French lifestyle is a striped tee, slim cut denim jeans, my hair in a bun or shaken out (depends on my mood), and black flats finished off with a touch of mascara and rouge à levre. This look is perfect for Paris– embodying simple, sleek and sass, with a touch of class.
The French indirectly taught me this rule. If you weren’t aware, most things are slow here. France is notorious for bureaucracy and systems that don’t function as smoothly as in other parts of the world. Although the secret is patience, the French are still learning this one, too. Patience is a prerequisite for living, working and making your life in France.
From the wait time to get your coffee sitting at a terrace to learning the French language, to waiting for your papers to push through the French bureaucracy– patience is needed if not demanded of one to live in this beautiful country. I’ve spent countless hours at the Prefecture over the 6 years I’ve been in France waiting to get visas and work permits. If you move to France, you may be blessed to find the perfect apartment, loving boyfriend, and ideal job. But chances are it will take time and trial and error to get there. One thing that living in France proves is that it’s the art of patience and perseverance to build your life and livelihood here. From my personal experience, the most thriving French people (and expats) are the most patient ones, too.
The French fancy their petits plaisirs. From a two hour long lunch, a 5 minute cigarette break, the bottle of wine shared between lovers, sitting on the terrace of a café and talking for hours on end, les soldes (twice yearly commercial sales), to their jours fériés (bank holidays)— the list is endless! They simply love to enjoy all aspects of life. It’s those little moments that count for them and make life worth living.
Since moving across the pond, I’ve welcomed, no– I’ve taken advantage of the French lifestyle of indulging in the little things. From the enjoyment of sitting at a cafe reading a book mid-day, to enjoying a glass of wine at dinner, to snacking on the hot out-of-the-oven baguette. The French mindset is naturally focused on the little things. I challenge you to take a pause in your work day and go for a walk, buy yourself flowers from the florist every week, or take a bath before bed.
8. Moderation & minimalism
Apart from la cigarette, I would say most French people don’t tend to overindulge in food, entertainment, or commercialism, as say their American counterparts. The French lifestyle reflects moderation and minimalism. The French tend to buy less consumer or household goods but of higher quality. Many own one television set in a household and limit their TV watching time. They enjoy more food courses at restaurants ranging from the apéritif to dessert, in consequence, enjoying smaller portions of better quality food. Apply this French lifestyle rule of moderation and minimalism to your life by embracing quality over quantity in consumerism.
9. Les vacances
The French adore les vacances like none other. A French salary employee in France has 30 potential paid days off in a year (not including bank holidays!). That’s a lot of time off! BUT the French are still one of the most productive people in the world in terms of work productivity even though they work an average of 12 hours less during the week than Americans.
Paid vacation time has been one of the most exciting aspects of the French lifestyle that I have definitely adopted. It’s introduced me to an aspect of self-care I didn’t even know existed and is 100% necessary for the average working adult. Plus, more holiday means time for gardening, reading, visiting friends and family, and exploring the world. Ever wondered why the places you visited seem to have a higher concentration of French travelers than other nationalities? It’s because of all those holiday days the law requires them to take. Vacation time is part of their lifestyle and a vital contributor to their happiness! Even if you don’t have as many paid days off, maximize on your vacation days. Take long weekends to recharge or plan smaller trips throughout the year to visit new places. This is one alternative to using all your vacation time at Christmas and New Year.
10. Life is more than work
The best-revealed secret I discovered about the French lifestyle is that life is so much more than work. Yes, it certainly is important, but it’s not all that life is about. The French have mastered the craft of work with play, the mélange of business with a little pleasure. They build their lives on the essential and special moments of the day, not making their whole lives career centered.
I’ve grown to embrace my career, but not obsessed over it. If the French lifestyle has left me with anything, it’s that your work should run parallel to your life, not be the engine running the show. I’ve interacted with dozens of career-focused French people but even they know when to pause and have fun outside of their jobs. The French typify balanced lives and truly know how to embrace and cherish the little treasures of everyday life.
You too can embrace and fearlessly apply these French lifestyle rules to your life wherever you are! And don’t stop there – continue your study of French lifestyle secrets by picking up a copy of any of the books on my book list below.
Books to inspire you to live out a French lifestyle: