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.

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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.

group date on the DL: adventures in digital friendship, pt ii

When making a questionable decision, it is always reassuring to have an innocent friend to drag along with you. After several days of glumly searching On Va Sortir (a French website for platonic meet-ups), I decided it was time to act.

Over dinner one evening, I showed the website to my friend Rémi. Like me, he was immediately skeptical.

“It gets worse,” I said. I read him an article from a French dating and “séduction” website where a young reporter decided to see if love could be found via OVS meet-ups. Over a year in Paris, she went on dozens of outings.

She never found love, but she did meet a lot of strange people, and could even sort them into types. In any group, she said, there was sure to be the Divorcée, who would monopolize the evening with tales of lost love, recounting the innumerable ways her ex had wronged her. There was always the Shy One, the Weirdo, and the person who was new in town and knew not a soul.

The writer did not mince words with her OVS roast. After we finished cringing, I thought I should tell him.

“By the way, I reserved two spots for an event Friday night.”

T’es sérieuse là ? He laughed nervously.

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Ben oui, I said, cucumber cool. I knew Rémi would never do something like this alone, and I was confident that while he would complain, he would ultimately be a good sport about it. Plus, I had found an event that I thought sounded pretty fun (bowling with Bob just didn’t make the cut).

I had signed us up for a photography expedition. Participants were instructed to bring their camera and “eye.” We’d embark on a walk around the city with the objective of taking themed photos: “winter in Cannes.” Afterwards, we would get a drink and discuss everyone’s shots. There were ten spots to fill.

I teased Rémi about it for the next week. “Can’t wait for Friday when we’ll meet our new best friends!” Really, though, I was looking forward to it. If nothing else, I’d get some good photos.

The day came and I double-checked the event details. Luckily. It turned out the soirée was intended as a discussion of the photos that people had taken at the last event, several weeks ago. No need to bring my camera, in other words. And no night stroll around Cannes. We were meeting directly at the wine bar. Oops.

Somewhat predictably, Rémi tried to beg off, citing post-work exhaustion.

“Ahh, you cannot do this to me,” I said on the phone. I was straightening my hair and applying lipstick. “Pokemon” and “Dave” would be there and I needed to make a good impression.

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He groaned and sounded positively miserable, but I had come to understand, through scrolling OVS, that not showing up to an event at the last minute was an unforgivable sin. It seemed these people had ways of finding you out and getting you back. Like the Mafia.

An hour later, we stood shivering in the dark outside the wine bar, peering in the windows. Inside it was bright and cozy, but we were both buzzing with first-date nerves.

Après toi, Rémi said, holding the door. “You got us into this.”

“But…” I looked for an excuse. “You’re French! It’s less awkward for you.”

He wasn’t convinced.

The place was packed, but I didn’t see any signs advertising “group of people who just met over the internet.”

I leaned towards a bartender with gray hair and hipster glasses and said under my breath, “Um, we’re with a groupe d’OVS ?”

“A what?”

“On Va Sortir.”

“Huh?”

I wasn’t at all sure how this kind of thing was perceived in France, but it felt like a secret. My instinct was to keep it on the DL.

I cleared my throat. C’est un site de rencontre. He then proceeded to ask every group in the place if they were awaiting two strangers who just might be Rémi and I.

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We found them, a small and friendly group of five people, and exchanged cheek kisses. A pretty woman in her late 30s, Rebecca, had organized the event. An expat, she spoke with a Spanish accent and seemed completely enamored by photography. She talked like a professor, discussing the philosophical and aesthetic values that make good photos. For her, it was all about the story. I felt like taking notes.

We procured glasses of Merlot and a charcuterie plate, and then everyone took turns showing off their work via USBs and Rebecca’s Macbook.

Apart from the man sitting next to me, who showed me his collection of professional portraits, everyone was an amateur. So I was stunned to see that these photos were good.

In the series, all five of them, each person had captured Cannes in a different way, though they had all taken the same walk. The professional photographer focused on people on the street–musicians playing for euros, little kids–as well as his fellow photographers, capturing them in the midst of shooting pictures of other things.

A quiet older woman had put together a black-and-white series of what she described as Cannes ‘behind the scenes.’ She showed photographs of construction near the beach, litter, the jagged wood of a boat in need of repair. She had taken extreme close-ups of a single feather, a length of rope coiled on the sand, pigeon droppings. And they were beautiful.

I was perfectly content to sip wine, munch on salami, and admire everyone’s work. At the end, Rebecca gave her opinion on each series, explaining if she thought it worked as a cohesive set.

I was surprised and pleased by all the consideration given, this frank feedback. I’ll take passion over small-talk any day.

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I had halfway hoped for a funny horror story to share.

But there was a bigger surprise in store: I had a perfectly pleasant evening. (So did Rémi).

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I don’t think, though, that this marks the beginning of a thriving OVS-sponsored social life. I might be motivated to try again, if only the website wasn’t so clunky, archaic, and frustrating.

It’s not you, OVS, it’s me and my reluctance to spend hours clicking myself back to the late 90’s.

Better sometimes, anyway, to quit while you’re ahead.

the land of oz: adventures in digital friendship, pt i

On Va Sortir. When I moved to Cannes, the website was recommended to me several times. You’re new in town. Just try OVS! This site de rencontre, the title of which means let’s go out!, apparently had a lively presence in town. Cannes is flanked by mountains and the sea, so I pictured the city’s OVS page hosting a dynamic community of adventurous people meeting up to get drinks or hike.

And then I typed in the web address.

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Well, looks can be deceiving, I thought. Maybe the fact that they hadn’t updated the website since before the Y2K scare was just a nod to simpler times, a sort of cozy nostalgia.

On Va Sortir. The ‘S’ was stylized to look like a path that led up to a shadowed city, maybe Oz.

I created an account, ignoring my slight embarrassment. I scrolled. A widget on the screen’s edge informed me that today was the birthday of “Coco” and “Tropical Fleur” and “Flyman.” Bright pink or blue type represented the user’s gender.

A little box urged me to type in my current mood, as if the “107 members currently online” had the slightest inclination to care.

The front page hosted pictures of past “events,” which mainly featured people who were fiftyish and wearing feather boas and sequins and other evidence of a tipsy evening spent at a casino.

Mixed in with these photos was the occasional dating ad, targeting those seeking “fun, single, mature older women.”

So this was it. My social connection for the year.

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When I finally figured out how to navigate to the actual event-finding page, I saw there were sorties as simple as a pre-work coffee or a karaoke night (the horror). It works this way: you create an event, along with the number of people you would like to participate. Maybe 5 for an early morning run or 10 for apéro hour at a local bar. You set a time and date and then (you hope) people sign up. The majority are strangers, to you and to each other, and you know nothing besides their gender, age, and OVS name. It’s like a big, messy, hopeful, desperate, platonic blind date, and if it sounds a bit terrifying or like a breeding ground for awkward moments, I don’t think that’s too far off the mark.

The idea is that by connecting people with mutual interests, the site will engender natural friendships. But I wonder if they haven’t gotten a bit overzealous. In the “advanced” event search, I find I can select:

“Gothic.”

“Luxury.”

“I like aquatic life.”

“I enjoy beer.”

“I like Turkish food.”

Unsurprisingly, such searches return no results. Snorting, I can’t help but imagine the soiree that would combine all of the above.

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I pick through some events that sound kind of okay by title, but when I click to read the user’s message, I’m put off right away by the type. Some of these users have typed up event descriptions like manifestos, featuring a diatribe about how this will be a medium paced walk on the beach, and if you can’t keep up, you really should not bother coming.

Many of them are typed in Comic Sans (a font I had understood to be illegal) and boast proud titles straight out of the Word Art program I played around with in second-grade computer class.

I shudder. I am not like OVS people. I am not OVS people. Yet…here I am, reading about Bob’s soirée bowling tomorrow night, checking for an open spot.

bowling with the homies

My first week in Montluçon, I received a letter inviting me to the next meeting of a Club Anglais. An English club in Montluçon! Surely I’d meet some friends there, young worldly types who had spent time in England or the States…

The letter explained that the club meets the first and third Friday of every month. We showed up early, me and a few of the other English teachers, and had a drink outside of the aptly-chosen London Bar.

We didn’t know quite who we were looking for, and a bit later, a lady with an English accent came out from the bar. “Excuse me,” she said, “sorry to bother you, but are you perhaps here for the Club Anglais?”

We followed her inside. The bar was dark and cozy with people packed in around little wooden tables, drinking tea or beer as they saw fit. English greetings and French cheek kisses existed in cheerful symbiosis.

It was a high-spirited, lively group…and everybody in the room was over fifty. Oh.

We were warmly welcomed and offered drinks. I didn’t know which language to use. Some in the room spoke only French, like the lady who sat across from me–but I was misled by her cup of tea and P.D. James novel. Others were French but proficient in English, and still others were English but have lived in France for decades. I didn’t want to assume, which is how I found myself overly-enunciating: “yes, I am American. I am from the state of Missouri,” to Roger, who was actually English (and probably wondered if I was indeed speaking my first language).

Everyone was friendly and kind. At first I had trouble thinking of conversation topics, but my new Anglophone friends were eager to ask about my teaching job. And then I realized that this was exactly the place to ask some of the questions I’d had, like where was the best place to buy produce. You can bet they had opinions.

One man took a liking to Mary (well, so did the whole table) and made her plans for the next Saturday, non-negotiable in his view: she was to go to the St. Pierre market, early, and watch the vendors set up their wares. This, while enjoying a glass of white wine and a plate of oysters. At ten in the morning.

I believe he was explaining to her the history of Montluçon over the last two-hundred years when I dragged her away so we could go to dinner.

We’ve since joined the French septuagenarians several times. My expectations for nightlife contained a lot more electronic dance music and a lot less English breakfast tea, but this will almost certainly lead to better stories.

Friday night we joined the club for a soirée : bowling and dinner. Over thirty members showed up for a bit of friendly competition.

We saw transformations worthy of a good sports movie. Jean-Luc, one of the older members, who shuffled laboriously to take his turns and always lofted the bowling ball, had a sympathetic competitor take pity and help him adjust his technique. He then went, in a thrilling upset, from constant gutter balls to a series of strikes. The crowd went wild.

I talked with the president of the club, an English guy who told me Club Anglais has been a thriving social club for 45 years. Some of the members are even traveling to Greece together this year.

The afore mentioned Roger and his French wife Françoise drove us to dinner, where everyone regrouped in the back room. As I looked for a place to put my coat, a jolly Englishman who reminded me of Scrooge’s boss, Fezziwig, from A Christmas Carol, told me: “I always try to leave with a better coat then the one I came with! That’s the secret.” It was this man, later in the evening, who I saw engage in a sort of subtle food fight, flinging pieces of bread across the room with a spoon as a catapult. Though it seemed he was aiming for one particular woman, whole rows of people had to duck to avoid getting beaned in the head with a bit of baguette. In fairness I think his friend started the battle.

Dinner was over three hours long, and frankly, unimpressive. Still, it was fun to talk to the people around me, in particular to a Finnish woman who speaks something like five languages. 10:30 pm came and went, the room alive with noise (and breadcrumbs), and we had just finished our main course. I started to feel a bit feverish, overtired, and am still wondering if some of it really happened.

think a drunk guy from the local gendarmerie school ran in the room and sang a song to one of the women at my table. I think everyone around Mary and I started comparing tattoos, and we were the only two without any. The English man sitting across from me explained the subtle tattoo on his wrist. Interested, the French man next to him asked if he had any more, and, probably relieved to contribute to the conversation since most of the party was speaking French at that point, he pulled the hem of his shirt up to his neck, exposing a huge tattoo that covered his chest and stomach. Definitely not something I ever expected to see while eating crème brûlée.

Then again, I also didn’t expect to be the new youngest member of a cross-cultural social club in rural France.