August 7, 2013
Xavier met me for lunch near my office the other day. It was one of those spectacular New York days where, if you work on Park Avenue, the space the sun takes up between the mighty buildings seems to expand the stretch and beam of the avenue. During lunch on these days, people flood out to take in the air. They sit on the steps that line the buildings, eating their salads and sandwiches. Like any good Frenchman in reaction to this situation, Xavier is appalled. From his perspective, they are not properly installed to be eating lunch (I am going to borrow and use the French terminology in English for this phenomenon - " Être bien installé"). The general lack of proper installation has led Xavier (and many other Frenchies) to diagnose this as a pervasive cultural problem that affects many aspects of life and the proper realization of living. At first, I used to giggle at the absurdity of these judgments. Now I think the French may be on to something.
Food: French companies respect the rights of their employees to take the time every day to eat food at a proper table - fork and knife (the fact that a knife is often missing from American eating situations is a prime illustration of improper installation, according to you-know-who - not to mention how very "gold rush" it is). French friends are appalled when I recount that my lunch at work is generally eaten at my desk in front of my computer. But you are not properly installed to eat in that way! They object. This applies to all humans. Babies of Colette's age are expected to install themselves properly before being served any food and to continue sitting properly if they expect to continue to be served. In our recent séjour in France, the family were somewhat wide-eyed and alarmed when Colette, mid-meal, would stand up in her chair, reach out her arms to be put down and I would continue spooning yogurt in her mouth as she stood there on the ground (like a dog). Oh my. For my part, I just don't see her as being developmentally capable of sitting through an entire meal. Xavier says I am training her to be incapable of ever doing so by not insisting on it. I am literally depriving her of this important skill. I used to roll my eyes and mock him for insisting Marguerite sit properly in her high chair and be spoon fed through toddler-hood, never allowing her to touch her food until she was literally capable of correctly using a spoon. Now, as I watch Colette-the-monster make her food demands (points to the bottle of water and demands to drink from it), I sheepishly mull over the notion that he may be right.
Sleep: To be fair to the Frenchman this round, I have always admired his insistence on being "well-installed" for sleep. Marguerite has provided a fascinating aperture into French culture because I've watched Xavier literally transfer culture in teaching her the proper installation for things. Her sleep ritual has been constant and solemnized from day one. In France, this ritual begins for all people with shutters (les volets). Proper sleep cannot be achieved without barring light (and preferably sound) from windows (keep in mind, blinds and shutters are not the same thing). In a sleepy town like Bauge, les volets are shut before the sun sets and if you didn't know better, you might think everyone had vacated their homes and boarded them up. Alas, no. They are just getting installed to sleep. Even in Paris, every room with a bed's windows are equipped with proper metal shutters. This is obvious to the French. This past weekend, Xavier and I were walking along a US suburban street, full of houses with little wooden shutters and he remarked again and again, "These aren't real shutters! They don’t work." (If closed, these decorative shutters would only cover half the window pane). Truth be told, I had never actually thought that people close shutters until we lived in France. I only knew of the embellishing variety.
On any form of transportation: I really do love when the French talk about being "bien installé - en comfort." A train, plane, car or subway ride cannot be properly enjoyed without the proper setup.
Anyway, I think they are right. We, as Americans, are far too casual about the way we install ourselves to eat, sleep and enjoy life. Proper setup leads to a rich enjoyment/the opportunity to relish.