While in Europe, I informally interviewed some relatives about differences between American and French (and Belgian) women. The conversation was intriguing, and we ended up generating clothing styles and eating habits that I can share with you here.
By incorporating these simple, practical ideas into our lives, we may end up feeling just a little more European:
- Shoes: French and Belgian women never wear athletic shoes unless they’re actually in a gym working out. For everyday wear, they might consider city-style sneakers designed with gold or darker colors, but not actual running or cross-training shoes like we do.
- Dress Up a Notch: By typical American standards, European women dress up even to run errands. The thought of dashing out in a pair of sweats to get something at the store would be unheard of. They won’t necessarily don their skirts and heels (though maybe in Paris), but they’ll probably have on decent slacks and dark shoes. This summer trip I was seeing everybody in vacation clothes rather than everyday clothes: they wore long shorts, capris, sandals and cute flip-flops.
- Simple Wardrobe: Although Belgian and French women tend to dress up more than their American counterparts, they don’t own an abundance of clothes. Instead, they have a few nice things, most of which will complement each other in some way, and make the most of what they have. This may be driven by the fact that their closet and storage space is generally more limited than what a typical American home would offer. Also, clothes are more expensive there than here. Or, perhaps they realize what we have yet to learn–that more is not always better.
- Basic Black: Not all, but a lot of French and Belgian women really do like black as a wardrobe staple. It might be the background color of a dress, or one article of clothing (the blouse, the pants) worn with something patterned, but black is a color to depend on. I wore a long grayish dress with a black shrug and black shiny flip-flops and received several comments from my French brother-in-law that I’d achieved a very French “look” with that outfit.
- The Scarf: Every time I travel to Europe, I’m struck by how often I see scarves on women. In cooler temperatures, they wrap pretty winter scarves around their necks and often leave the scarves on even if they take off their jackets. In spring and summer, they tie a stylish scarf around their necks employing a variety of creative twists and ties. I wrote about this in another post and linked to a site with knot-instructions. Here’s that scarf-tying link yet again.
- Perfume: My sister-in-law explained that French women always have a spritz of perfume on and like to comment on each other’s scents. “Oh, that’s a nice perfume–it smells tropical.” “Yes, it’s my summer scent.” I’m allergic to so many perfume scents that I gave up wearing it long ago. After talking with my sister-in-law, however, I’m tempted to go out and try to find something that doesn’t give me migraines, just so I can smile and say demurely, “Why, thank you…that hint of honeysuckle you picked up on is my summer scent, reminding me of my childhood growing up in the countryside.”
- Unfussy Hair: The hairstyles of French and Belgian women look sharp, but not fussy. One sister-in-law said, “Even for a nice event, they’ll just pull their hair back with a barrette, stick a few clips in and be done with it. It’s simple, but they always look great.”
- Matching Fancy “Under Things”: My brother-in-law wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to bring up, but he remarked that French women like to match their under garments with their clothes. How he knew this, I’m not entirely sure, unless he’s going with what his wife has reported. But talk about attention to detail–I’m told that French women talk freely with their female colleagues about their totally matching outfits. A red blouse simply must have matching red lace underneath.
- Guilt-Free Treats: A French woman feels free to treat herself to a nice pastry at breakfast or a chocolate dessert completely guilt-free. She exercises restraint in that she won’t wolf down a dozen donuts, but she doesn’t deprive herself from simple pleasures like a small chocolate mousse. She eats it while sitting down and without being hurried in the least.
- Daily Soup (Belgian): Belgians have soup every day for lunch. It’s a cultural habit. Healthy, too.
- Aperitif: At 6:30 p.m. in a French home, it’s time for l’aperitif, the French cocktail hour. Some alcohol is served with something as simple as peanuts or as involved as creatively prepared appetizer-style snacks. Someone might make martinis or other mixed drinks. When I mentioned that I’m not much of a mixed-drink person, the French relatives assured me that sodas and fruit juices are an appropriate option, as well.
- Le Gouter: French women don’t snack between meals, but most do enjoy le gouter, a snack taken between 4 and 6. This New York Times article does a nice job describing it to Americans. Le gouter is a good time for the French woman to enjoy her guilt-free chocolate croissant, some yogurt, fruit, or a biscuit (cookie).
- Yogurt & Cheese Course: The French enjoy a cheese course with their meals that may replace the dessert or be served just before the dessert. The French love their yogurt, too. Because French women don’t drink milk, this is a way to get some easier-to-digest calcium into their diet.
- Hostess Gift: When a French or Belgian is invited to someone’s house for dinner, it’s customary to take a cake, pie, box of chocolates or some nice flowers and a bottle of wine as a hostess gift. Whether or not it’s customary in the states, it sure sounds like a fun idea to me.
- Mushroom-hunting: My sister-in-law in France said she was amazed at what a big deal mushroom hunting is there. Women will head off in their high heels with bags in hand to aller aux champignons, to go in search of mushrooms. I’m a little fearful of incorporating this into my life simply to feel more European. I mean, I don’t know a deadly mushroom from a morel. I think this is one custom I’ll leave to the French women in their completely matching outfits and nice shoes.
So. There you go: Ideas straight from the experience and observations of my Belgian/French relatives for how you, too, can incorporate small changes into your life to feel a little more European.
Everything but the matching undergarments and mushroom-hunting works for me.
I think the no-sneakers rule would do a lot to boost the rest of the look. I’d be less likely to throw on a T-shirt if I knew I’d be wearing snazzy shoes.
I love the guilt free treats idea. If I did that then I would be less likely to eat the entire dozen doughnuts! Thanks.
Memarie Lane says
I remember your scarf post from long ago, it inspired me and probably saved me from a sore throat or five. 😉
I have noticed the scarf thing. I have a few but don’t wear them much..I should.
Ann @ Holy Experience says
I usually quietly read and savor your words here, but this makes me pipe up with a whisper… ~smile~
When in Paris, I was taken with Parisians penchant for scarves–the colors, the textures, the vibrancy. Caught up in their joie-de-vivre, I bought a few. But to wear them here? I am venturing.
Insightful post, Ann… and thank you for the scarf link!
Always a pleasure to read here…
Can I substitute actual mushroom-hunts with Playing Mario Bros. 3 on a daily basis?
brittany marie says
I love scarves…but southern Georgia is far too hot in the summer months for a scarf…no matter how stylish. I wear them a lot in the winter though…not that Georgia really has a winter.
Kathy S Cassity says
You could wear a light gauzy one.
Stacie: Good–you’re welcome!
Nichole: That’s a good point. By the way, they even wear nicely pressed, great-fitting, stylish jeans, but paired with a nicer top than we would probably wear and, of course, a cool pair of shoes.
Sheri: I think that’s a big point that the woman makes in the book _French Women Don’t Get Fat_; that by satisfying their sweet tooth with a very nice taste pleasure, they avoid the urge to binge. But it’s also an entire culture backing them up. I think we have to fight the cultural tendency to either deny ourselves completely, or just give up and give in.
Memarie Lane: Wow, I’m delighted to think that a post I wrote might have contributed not only to your style but also to your good health!
Robin: So few people wear them, I find that if I do, I have to wear it with confidence…almost like it’s my signature accent piece (like a unique perfume).
Ann: Ooooooo…you have some *real* Parisian scarves? *Definitely* venture. You’ll look tres jolie!
kataztrophy: Hey, that’s a good solution. Better than sinking one’s heels into the mud and making a quiche with poisonous mushrooms.
brittany marie: That’s a good point. It’s too hot even here in the Midwest most days. I wear them more in the fall, winter and spring. In Belgium it’s a bit brisk, even in summer, so they have their scarves and they also tie a sweater around their waists or shoulders. That way if the temperature drops, they have something to slip on. In Georgia, I’m guessing you never need a sweater in the summertime!
a thick slice of warm buttered brioche is topped with orange marmalade, Nutella and chunks of toasted hazelnuts
Oh my gosh! What a “snack” that is! Only the french would think of that. The recipe is at the NYT link, btw.
I’d love to be more European and try out a few of these ideas! 🙂 The list creates an image of a simple yet dignified woman. Sounds good to me.
Who knew that I should live in Belgium. Sounds like such a fab place. I especially liked the “dress it up a notch” idea. Aren’t we Americans kind of sloppy?
Did you know the worlds deepest indoor pool is there also?
Very interesting! I didn’t know all that.
About mushrooms: I recently heard of a doctor who moved to my state (Okla.) and found mushrooms while on a hike. She recognized them from her home state, so she picked them and cooked them for dinner. She wound up in the ER. How embarrassing would that be for a doctor – poisoning herself! They turned out to be a different kind of mushroom than she thought, of course.
She ended up just being sick, but I think she was very lucky!
Oh, this made me so happy! Seems as though the French in my genes (nee Doto – (bastardized verision of Doteaux) has held. I still have many of these French habits! Not all, but many. 🙂
Some of my French friends say they have soup regularly before dinner in the colder months when with their grandparents. It does help you eat less during the meal.
I’ve picked up some of these habits from living in France, but I could never master the scarf. It just looks silly on me.
I’ve been reading through some of your posts and nodding in agreement at much, especially your thoughts regarding reading and communicating online. But I had to chuckle when I got to this part about borrowing from the French and their “totally matching outfits!” I’m no fashion diva but I always get a kick out of how “matched” I can be!
An interesting post. I think I may try a few of these. In regard to the perfume migraine issue I understand completely. It took me quite a bit of effort to find a few that don’t give me headaches or make me sneeze. I have several friends who have issues with this also and all the scents I found and can wear they can also wear. I’m not sure why. However here is what I did if you are interested in finding something lovely to wear.
#1 Sephora will make up testers for you they hold enough to try the perfume 5 times if you spray one wrist and dab the other and spritz your shirt once.
#2 Auric blends perfume oil (the bottle has a dream catcher on the front) it rolls on which is half the battle with the sneezing issue for me. From this brand I can wear Vanilla, Egyptian Musk (fabulous summer scent) and sometimes the Jasmine. If I already have a headache Jasmine makes it worse but if I don’t I’m fine. I always get compliments when I wear these oils and it cost me under $10 a bottle.
#3 They use a lot of the same oils in candles that they do in perfume. So I went into stores with scented candles because I found I was able to test scents more easily than going straight for a perfume store. For one thing I could keep the lid on and read the ingredients first. I also wasn’t spritzing it on or near myself. Which I found very helpful in the process. Blue candles were instant migraine triggers for me.(most blue candles have freesia or rose in them)
I found Sephora’s La Vanilla Laboratories Coconut Vanilla was soft enough to wear on a daily basis with no issues regarding headaches. English Laundry also sells a perfume in a pink bottle that is equally soft but more suited for winter and early spring.
I hope this helps you in your search for a headache free perfume. (I hope I didn’t give you way more information that you needed.)
Oh and Kenneth Cole Reaction for men is the only cologne I found for my husband that hasn’t ever given me a headache.
An AMERICAN in Belgium says
Well, I am an American living in Belgium and I think you are generalizing people. Have you ever lived in Belgium or France? Some Americans do these things as well; it isn’t a trademark of Belgian or French women. You should probably experience these countries yourself and write about your experiences vs. writing about the experiences of others especially info coming from the mouths of the natives. Of course they are going to say European ways are better.
I wear my NB shoes proudly in Europe. It’s not because I have poor fashion taste; it’s because I have terrible feet and can’t wear heels and flats, so if I am doing a faux pas because I am wearing sneakers then so be it.
Someone is also bashing what Americans eat, how they dress and how they act and I think that is ridiculous. If you think that the culture is better here than in American then why not move here instead of trying to change what Americans do in their own country? No country is perfect and people have the right to eat what they want and dress the way they want without being criticized.
Ann Kroeker says
Thank you for taking time to share your experiences here. I hope that helps people to visit to get a fresh and alternative perspective. Please note that this is dated 2008 and styles may have changed a lot. I noticed in some photos of one of my sisters-in-law that she was wearing running shoes. Also, please note that I was simply visiting and made it very clear in the opening paragraph that I was interviewing European relatives, because I like to learn about other cultures, especially those that I married into. I did not claim to be an expert, and we tried to move there several years ago and ran into some issues. It would have been enlightening to live in Belgium, as you are, and learn from the inside how it feels. I’m sure I would have written many posts over the years had I moved to Belgium, and I would have learned a lot about myself, my culture, and Belgians, and their culture. On that visit in 2008, I was interviewing people who live there–family members–merely sharing their opinions in a lighthearted post…opinions that they might even change were I to interview them today.
I’m sorry that this put you on the defensive, and I hope you feel confident living just the way you like in Belgium–just the way you need to, to accommodate your feet and style, the way you feel comfortable. I’m sure people love and appreciate you just as you are, as an American! I hope you enjoy your years living abroad. Again, thank you for chiming in!