Fashion, France, Wellbeing

Frenchy Fetish

Why are we all so obsessed with wishing we were French? And how smug must all those French people feel?

In Australia and America, there is a huge market for all things French, blogs and books designed to help us lesser mortals unlock the secrets of the je ne sais quoi of this superior race (is the UK also beseiged by Frenchy Fetish, or are they maintaining their historic disdain for their continental neighbours?). There are many, many blogs espousing the wonders of the French lifestyle, and bookstore shelves are jammed with titles like Paris Street Style, Lessons From Madame Chic, Ooh La La!: French Women’s Secrets to Feeling Beautiful, French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Children Don’t Throw Food, to name a few.

All of these media conspire to create the image of the flawless Frenchman (or, given their target market, French woman), one who appreciates the finer things in life, knows that a wardrobe is never complete without a well-cut navy blazer, can tie a scarf in 1,372 unique ways, and never jams a chocolate bar into her face while walking down the street checking facebook on her iphone.

I will admit, I’m a sucker for this sort of thing and have perused many of the blogs and books mentioned above. I, too, want to pair classic ballet flats with tailored-for-me skinny jeans, and have a signature dessert ready to bake when guests visit. Having visited France several times as a tourist, I’ve found it enchanting and beautiful, stimulating to the senses and imagination, although not so vegetarian-friendly, and littered with the crap of thousands of tiny dogs.

Interestingly, very few of these French lifestyle guides are written by real live French people; at a glance, it seems the trend is for English-speaking writers to visit France for an extended period, and to return brimming with advice, the veil lifted from their eyes and the true secrets of good French living revealed. All of this makes me wonder… what’s really going on over there?

If we move away from stereotypes into actual studies, the good people of France don’t seem to be living it up quite as much as we thought. In 2009, The Economist suggested that France has a higher rate of antidepressant use, and of suicide than its Western European neighbours, and although, the French government has announced its intention to incorporate a happiness index into its national economic indicators, France doesn’t rate so highly on the Happy Planet Index, coming in at a pretty miserable number 50. Indeed, this recent happiness study seems to suggest that “there is something in the culture that makes French people miserable.” Ouch! The same study points the finger at the French school system for cultivating a culture of unhappiness, perhaps suggesting that French children don’t throw food because they lack the self esteem to do so.

But then, the French did kind of invent ennui, didn’t they? Bonjour tristesse, and all that. Perhaps feeling a little blue is part of the charm (it matches your navy blazer). Baudelaire, Sartre, Rimbaud, Camus, Derrida and Delueze can’t all be crazy (actually, I’m pretty sure they were all crazy). Not to be flippant about such serious issues as depression and suicide, of course. I mention these statistics because they sit pretty uneasily with the stereotype of good living that the rest of us try to desperately to adopt. Perhaps French people struggle and strive for the good life as much as we chubby, clueless étrangers?

Spending a little time this week mulling this over has left me unsure of what to conclude. I think it’s a given that the experience of being French (on which I have no authority whatsoever to comment) and the perception of “Frenchness” expounded upon by non-French writers and marketers are two utterly separate things. What is up for exploration here is the stereotype, and as someone who enjoys both navy blazers and critical thinking, I’m on the fence. I’m not even really sure what my question is. Am I trying to prove that this vision of Frenchness is fake, or to validate my own obsession with what I perceive Frenchness to be?

Most of us know we’re buying into a myth, a stereotype, and like many stereotypes (although not all), there may be a grain of truth in it that has since been massaged and smoothed into a marketable ideal, which can’t possibly encompass the complexity of a national identity. But when all you want to do is build a stylish capsule wardrobe, does it really matter? We want to look more put-together, and be more put-together. Less distracted, more engaged. Less overwhelmed by stuff, and more selective about quality and style. Less guilty about eating carbs, more open to the pure and simple joys of a butter-laden baguette. Maybe this kind of French-ness is just a myth, but if it encourages us to live better, is there any harm? Is this just another way for the “style” industry to make us feel bad about ourselves and our circumstances? Are we harming the French by assuming them to be uniformly parfait?

I know it isn’t real, but in an X-Files sort of way, I want to believe! Do French people even watch Le X-Files, or were Scully’s wide-cut, cropped trousers simply too great an offense for such a style-conscious nation? As far as I can find, there isn’t yet a guide on the market to Gallic-approved extra terrestrial hunting attire, but they say the French can dress for any occasion, so it probably isn’t far away. My hunch? Navy blazer.

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Books, Writing

Muck Raking

I am reading pornography. It is filled with cinematic zooms, a voyeuristic eye that scopes out the most intimate of movements, sensations, declarations. No reaching hand or roving eye escapes its notice. It’s not quite as T&A as you might think though. It’s literary productivity porn. I give you Mason Currey’s excellent collection, Daily Rituals.

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Who wakes early (Hemingway), who wakes really early (Murakami), and who never gets up at all (Proust). Who walks (Darwin), who dopes (Sartre), and who suffers for their art (pretty much everybody). It’s probably safe to say we’re all fascinated by how great artists work, the hope that in the details of the routine, in understanding the process, we might understand the work, or even hope to emulate it. The true pleasure of this book, though, is not in celebration of the output, but indulging the notion that your literary, artistic or musical greats might too be encumbered by the practice of everyday life. Combating noisy neighbours, allocating time to correspondence, making midnight phone calls, taking multiple daily walks, and smoking even more cigars are the stuff that great art is made of. Well that, and a few original and well-executed genius ideas.

One of my favourite parts, an idea that could account entirely for my interest in this collection, is the psychologist and philosopher William James’ insight about the importance of routine and habituation to a satisfying life:

“The more the of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” (p.81)

Are we overly obsessed with habit? Myriad recent publications focus on ideas about “life-hacking”: breaking habits, making habits, understanding habits, the psychology of scripted behaviours, beating procrastination, how to improve our willpower, how we rely too much on willpower… Is it, like the notion of “organisation”, list-making, time management, a trip to Officeworks before a deadline, just a placebo that gives us the sensation of accomplishment without requiring us to do anything of substance other than planning to do something of substance? Probably, we should be more concerned with the work. But then, aren’t these minute instants, the “how” of the work, the time we take our tea and how we take it, the matter our lives are made of? Speaking of tea, what of the Japanese tea ceremony, routine actions deployed in a mindful manner for a higher purpose, the arrival of the mind in the moment?

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. How to establish a routine, write more, be regular with my work and my ideas. Here be the weekly deadline, the impetus to think, and formulate full and grammatically correct sentences. I arrived at the idea after reading an old interview with Ann Patchett (having just finished reading one of her books, State of Wonder, the perfect novel for a week off work with a chest infection). Patchett described one of the most valuable lessons of her creative writing class:

“‘[Allan Gurganus’] lesson was how to work,’ she says. ‘We had to write a story a week, and a revision didn’t count. He said think of yourself as a pipe with a lot of muck in it and you have to get it out. The only way you can find out what you’re good at is to have written a ton of work. In the same way that if I was learning the cello I would understand that I had to practice hour after hour.'”

My pipes are full of gunk. My brain seems unable to form a thought into a coherent sentence, a paragraph, an essay because of all the muck (I think its technical name is the detritus of hours spent watching youtube videos of small mammals). So, this blog, a weekly ritual (comprised of smaller rituals of daily writing [i.e., daily hand-wringing and procrastination]), exists to sweep the chimney, so to speak.

Now, if only, like Proust, I could sleep until 4 pm and then have Celeste bring me a croissant.

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