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.