the proof is in the profiteroles: on “dieting” in france

Dieting is not an especially French activity. Nor does it feel particularly patriotic to live down the street from a small market and ignore the siren song of its milky white goat cheeses and fresh baguettes.

Flower market

But that’s what I did (or tried to) for a whole month.

All in the name of health, I did my best to follow the Whole 30 program, an eating regimen designed to “push the reset button with your health, habits, and relationship with food, and the downstream physical and psychological effects of the food choices you’ve been making.”

The simplicity appealed to me. This is a diet where the Yes is simple: eat real food.

The No, well that’s a little more complicated. No foods containing added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, or sulfites. At first I wondered what harm there could be in foods like chickpeas and brown rice, but Whole 30 has you eliminate the foods that commonly cause problems and could be negatively affecting you. For example, you may have a low-grade allergy to peanuts or an intolerance to dairy and not even realize it (a lot of people do). In doing so, it helps teach you a new way of thinking about eating.

When people hear “diet” they so often think of weight loss, but there are of course many other reasons to reform the way you eat. Mine were largely mental and psychological. I tend to eat when I’m sad, snack when I’m stressed, go without meals when I’m busy.

I thought of myself as healthy because I counted kale as one of my favorite foods. But when I took an honest look at my habits, I wasn’t impressed. All that kale and tahini sauce was drowned by the way I had no command of moderation. I would have a perfect eating day, and then someone would open a can of Pringles. Half an hour later, oops. The can is nearly empty and I’m fighting nausea.

In the morning before school, I spent more time putting on mascara than consuming protein and fat (both elements more likely to contribute to the success of my day than would the length of my eyelashes).

And like most people, I had my own array of little health annoyances: debilitating headaches, bouts of fatigue, and other things that might hold a connection to my eating habits. It was worth a try.

Whole 30 focuses on good fats, protein, fruit, and as many vegetables as possible. I started the program on a Sunday, rummaging through the cabinets at my friend Rémi’s house. He was going to move back to Bordeaux for over a month to finish his studies, and I would occupy his home in the time being.

“Nope, this has to go,” I tossed him boxes of cereal, a jar of Nutella, a bag of sourdough rolls. By the end of the morning he was ready to lug home ketchup and mayonnaise (because they had added sugar), a bottle of wine, a package of tortillas, several wheels of cheese, tiny cartons of cream, and a can of chantilly.

Rémi was devouring a hunk of Brie. He looked at me and for the third time, said, “You really can’t have cheese?”

“C’est qu’un mois !” I kept saying. It’s only a month.  acs_0514

His wide-eyed doubt was making me nervous, so I set off for Grand Frais, my favorite grocery store, to wander the wide rows of colorfully abundant produce. Those first-week post-paycheck groceries were a sight. Salmon and chicken and pork sausage and tuna. Mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, kale. A fresh basil plant. A huge bowl of blood oranges. Eggs, coconut milk, coconut yogurt, sweet potatoes. A papaya. acs_0270

Even Rémi could admit it didn’t look like the prison diet he’d been envisioning.

We hugged goodbye and without the devil on my shoulder, I respected the rules flawlessly for two weeks. The first breach of my new programme alimentaire happened on an innocuous Friday. That evening was a soirée entre collègues. I was looking forward to it, but as the event drew closer I had a comic moment of shock: I had agreed to eat in a restaurant–a French restaurant–during a Whole 30. What had I done? What was I going to do? The drama was real.

One “cheat” meal probably doesn’t sound like a big issue, but for two reasons, it is. The first is that Whole 30 strongly discourages bending the rules in any way, stating you can’t expect to reap the rewards of the challenge if you so much as consume a grain of sugar (for example). The second is that I have a bit of a self-control issue. “Just one episode” and I’m up half the night. “Just a little cheese” and the whole block disappears.

I wanted to respect the limitations of this “diet” so I could learn more control and thoughtfulness over what I consumed. It was all or nothing, and I wanted it to be all. Somewhere in the middle, “just doing my best,” is not a safe choice for my particular personality type. I’m either committed, you can count on it, or I’m not doing anything.

I didn’t want to give in because I was sure that meant I would just keep giving in, day after day, until there were no healthy changes left to speak of.

I thought of possible plats I could consume without derailing my progress.

On a scrap of paper I scrawled: moules frites, steak frites, confit de canard. All delicious options that should contain a minimum of wheat, dairy, sugar.

There was still the wine and bread to consider. But I would cross that bridge when I came to it. C’est parti. 

That evening the teachers carpooled to Pégomas, a little town 10km from Cannes where small farms produce roses and jasmine for Chanel. We stopped at a cozy country restaurant in an old wine cave. On était quinze, fifteen ladies decompressing after a day at school. Thursday had seen a big national strike on the part of government workers, including teachers, and the recent shooting in Carcassonne was fresh in the collective mind. This recent stress meant that the suggestion of wine from the restaurant’s propriétaire was met with actual applause.

Santé ! I raised my chilled water with gusto and escaped notice.

The restaurant was high quality, offering just a few seasonal choices scribbled on large chalkboards on the wall. I was pleased to see some options that weren’t too crazily indulgent. Comme entrée, I ordered bulgur with a poached egg, asparagus, prosciutto, and vinaigrette. For the plat, I ordered sea bream royale, a typically Provençal fish, with silky mashed potatoes and a sauce sweetened with shrimp. acs_0512

The food and conversation were both lovely. As I ate my dorade royale, I remembered our last dinner together in December and thought about how much had changed since.

Then: still a little unsure, doing my best at work but not entirely convinced, didn’t really know anyone at the school.

Now: feeling fully integrated as part of the team, proud of the job I’ve done, able to follow rapid-fire French at a big group dinner.

It came time for dessert. Slowly the propriétaire worked his way down the table, recounting the evening’s offerings in a drowsy rhythm. Tarte tatincharlotte aux poires, profiteroles. Tarte tatin, charlotte aux poires, profiteroles. 

But it stopped with my rien pour moi, merci. 

This was unacceptable.

I hoped this man would keep it discreet but no such luck. He paused, like maybe I was joking. The teachers caught on, and suddenly there were five women urging me to order dessert. “Oh, it’s just that– j’ai assez mangé,” I tried. I’m full.

Bah c’est pas grave ! Came the response. “You’ll take a bite, and if you don’t like it or are too full, you’ll leave it to share with the rest of the table! We’ll help you!”

The school’s directrice who I often see in classes at the gym, said “vas-y, Jess-i-cah. You can go to Fitlane tomorrow!” She waved her hand.

“It’s not that”– I started to protest.

“You’ll get some profiteroles, won’t you?”

“I’d say she should get the profiteroles. Bien sûr.

C’est le week-end, Jessica ! 

The man was waiting. And how could I say no? I got the sense that abstaining would be an abject rejection of team spirit.

Alors, I said slowly. “I guess I’ll be having the profiteroles.”

The order was met with cheers. acs_0513

I kind of had to thank them for the peer pressure, because these profiteroles were really good. The deep chocolate sauce was still piping hot. With the cold chantilly, it tasted like a luxury.

Later, my friend saw the picture and said “that looks like high fashion on a plate.”

At least I went out with some style.

The evening led to the development of a new plan I respected, one of my own. Chez moi, the Whole 30 rules stood.

But in public, I decided to prize social connection over maintaining a perfect diet plan. Because I think that would be missing the point.

I went on dates and had wine or cider. You can’t really agree to go out for drinks and then have a glass of water.

I had Italian aperitivo, eating a little bit of cheese with the prosciutto. I ate a pizza and relished every single bite.

But at home, I ate like a person transformed. Or transforming. And I still do, continuing my humble and nourishing meals featuring sweet potatoes, fish, steamed kale, baked chicken, and colorful vegetable soups.

Breakfast is not optional. I get healthy fat from coconut milk throughout the day. My protein intake has gone way up, powering my workouts. I drink double the water I did before. My snacks have changed from too much cheese and sugar-loaded Lindt bars to kiwis, blood oranges, dried plums, and cashews. And I actually crave and love eating all these things.

I’ve noticed a higher level of energy and a stabler mood. I don’t eat because I’m bored. I don’t overeat. Simply put, I’m a lot healthier.

In technical terms, I failed the Whole 30. Miserably. But I did find balance and learned something important: moderation is possible, even for me.

a vision in pink: the mediterranean villa fit for a baroness

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Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat

acs_0491 In 1905, Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild, heiress to a banking fortune, was so wealthy, restless, and enamored with the color pink that she oversaw the construction of a bubblegum mansion overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

A native Parisienne, Béatrice warmed her new summer home with splashes of her favorite color. It was everywhere: from the eye-catching exterior paint to the marble columns to the roses in the nine surrounding gardens. Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild was a veritable island of pink: 17 acres of la vie en rose. acs_0496

Béatrice filled her winter home with art from her personal collections and established a small private zoo, featuring such exotic specimens as mongoose, gazelles, and–naturally–pink flamingos.

The villa sat on a cape, so Béatrice could enjoy a view of the sea from almost any window. The nine gardens were themed in a display of worldly botanical abundance, from Spanish to Florentine to Japanese. No less than thirty gardeners worked to maintain the property. They dressed as sailors to further the comforting illusion of the villa and gardens as adrift on a lazy sea. In fact, Béatrice called the property the “Ile de France,” also the name of a grand ship on which she had traveled.

Béatrice knew how to throw a party. And like the classiest of hosts, she was inconspicuous, though the poet Andre de Fouquières wryly described her fêtes as  “generous.” He noted one particular image that stuck with him: that of Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova dancing in the gardens to Chopin nocturnes, “bathed in moonlight.”

On my visit to the villa, it was tempting for me, a mere peasant, to dream myself into this world. Baroness Béatrice’s pink confection of a house brought to mind the Barbie Dream House I had as a little girl. Complete with a working elevator, it was magic itself. And here I was in the South of France twenty years later, staring at a much bigger pink house, this one a delight to my grown-up heart.

img_2748There were no flamingos and I didn’t spy a single gazelle, but there was a fountain choreographed to elegant classical music. There was a café with a garden view, where you could linger over tea and a luscious tarte aux fraises.

I imagine living with so many choices, so much power. I imagine hosting parties lit only by the moon and tiny candles placed in the garden. I imagine swans in the fountain. Shimmering necklaces that lay heavy across my collarbone. Piles of exotic fruit topped with fresh chantilly. A treasured white mare brought by sea.

But I must keep my feet on the ground. On my feet, anyway, are heavy Vans hi-tops. They clomp on the aging wood floors, floors that squeak and tilt just a bit. They slap inelegantly on marble patterned with pink and white diamonds. I walk through intimate rooms where people once slept, now open to me and my camera and my sneakers. The rooms are still furnished with mirrors and bedding and vases of fresh flowers and might have seen all kinds of human emotion: joy or strife or simple boredom–a world-weary party guest staring bleakly out the window. There was life here. What are my Vans doing stomping through this early 20th-century glamour? Suddenly it looked so strange and anachronistic that I laughed.

Baroness Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild died in 1934 and was buried in La Père Lachaise in Paris. She bequeathed her property, all of it, to the Institut de France for the Académie des Beaux-Arts, and wished her home to be reopened as a museum. “It is my wish that as much as possible the museum keeps its current appearance as a salon.”

Would she have been pleased? Here there is dust, there, a chip in the paint. The villa remains grand, but the subtle decay is undeniable. Slowly going the way of all things.

Exploring places where people have lived tends to make me consider mortality.

A palace or villa or château that has outlived its owners does a much better job bringing the dead to life than does a graveyard, with its sober finality. These empty spaces evoke a bittersweet melancholy.

Look at these treasures, stored where “moth and rust doth corrupt,” already succumbing. Look at the owners–gone. Look what they took with them–none of it.

I am again struck by what terrible predictors physical possessions are for happiness.

Who was this eccentric woman, really? Was she happy? What did she long for? Did she know love? Did she find truth?

History remembers her…is that a solace?

History remembers her, of course, because of her father’s wealth, because of La Banque de France. Because she had the whimsy and the means to build a pretty pink house on the sea. acs_0510Some other facts: she was married at 19 to a friend of her father’s, much older than she. Her husband gave her a disease that left her unable to have children, and his serious gambling addiction threatened the marriage until it broke, culminating in divorce in 1904.

We love to glamorize the wealthy and dead, as if fine clothes and cakes work to redeem suffering.

 


Further reading:

Béatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild: creator and collector

Rothschild Family Archive

Tour the Villa with Exploring Provence

sixteen-mile walk: marseille in a day

acs_0044It’s always a bit wild for me to confront the glaring misbeliefs I have carried around, innocent and ignorant and unsuspecting. Why did nobody tell me? I wonder. How was I getting along in this world?

I’m particularly prone to misunderstandings in the areas of pronunciation and geography.

I read like a fiend, which means that my written vocabulary grows much too quickly for my pronunciation knowledge to keep up. There just aren’t enough appropriate opportunities to test out “chimera” or “stygian” in my everyday life. When I do toss out a brave new word, there’s a good chance it doesn’t quite translate.

In the realm of geography, I like to blame my first-grade teacher for my obscene misinterpretation of the compass rose. Somehow I came to believe that “North” was whichever direction I happened to be facing at the time. The embarrassing part is how long I carried this idea around, far past the point of cuteness.

Just a few months ago I thought that Corsica, our island neighbor to the south, was a separate country, and one that I could effectively tour in a day. My AirBnb hosts had a good laugh before advising me to allow two weeks to see this area (definitely a region of France, by the way).

Another misconception: I thought I had seen Marseille. acs_0046

I spent less than a day there on a rushed study abroad weekend trip four years ago, and I checked it off my list. A mistake! Marseille is more than paella and the Palais Longchamp.

I had the chance to visit last Sunday when my friend Rémi invited me along to the Bordeaux-Marseille football match. We made a day of it, leaving early in the morning from Cannes. Judging by the map, the two cities seemed a considerable distance apart, but I had forgotten how smushed together are all the cities on the coast. It took us less than two hours until we were parking near the formidable Cathédrale de la Major, one of the largest cathedrals in France. Before we could get out and gaze at it, though, Rémi took special care to back his car into a corner in the parking garage, doing his best to obscure the huge “Girondins de Bordeaux” sticker on his back window. He was worried about vandalism–even a little paranoid, it seemed to me–but it’s true that things can get ugly, as the two teams have quite the rivalry. acs_0068

Plus, Marseille has a high crime rate and a bad reputation. As you’ll see if you google it, this is no Cannes or St. Tropez. And I was kind of glad about that. I’m not advocating crime, but the string of sweet little towns from St. Tropez to Menton is so sleepy that the most excitement I see on the street is two leashed poodles having a disagreement.

The oldest city in France feels alive, bright and vibrant even on a Sunday (of no small importance in a country that likes its weekends). Upon exciting the garage I saw a wall depicting King Kong terrorizing Marseille: recognizable by Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde, largely considered the symbol of the city. The gorilla roared and clenched the Virgin Mary in his fist. img_7657

This was the first street art of the day, but I would see loads more: everything from mosaic trees to colorful fish to phallic symbols (but surprisingly artsy ones).

Rémi and I didn’t have a programme, but I had some tips on what to see from a blogging friend. It was sunny out and we were both wearing sneakers so we walked. And we walked. And we walked. We ate octopus and squid, climbed stairs, peered into dark crypts that smelled of candle wax, listened to the creak of boats in the port, and watched a purple sunset. By midnight (the time we collapsed in the car post-match), my phone pedometer read 15.9 miles. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following in our (often retraced) footsteps, but I had a great day. Marseille won a new fan, and not just in soccer.

Have you been to Marseille? What were your impressions?

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