As I walk through Aix-en-Provence on my way to class, I’m struck by the fact that there are no overweight people here. None. I would even go as far as to say that everyone here is actually skinny. In defense of the United States, I don’t feel that I’m surrounded by obese people. At Boston College, which has been ranked one of the country’s fittest colleges in the past, I’d say that there are very few people who are overweight. Still, the numbers don’t lie: while the obesity rate in the United States is about 36%, the rate in France is around 14%.
Yet, when I sit down to dinner with my host mom or stop into a café for lunch, I’m baffled. First of all, the stereotype about French people and their baguettes is true; there are dozens of boulangeries in town, and it is pretty normal to see people walking around with baguettes every day. Most sandwiches come on baguettes instead of the sliced bread that I’m used to back home. My host mom makes her own bread nearly every other day and each dinner is accompanied by bread and at least two types of cheese. Of course, Nutella is everywhere as well – in pastries, in crêpes, in my kitchen cabinet to eat with bread.
I’m beginning to think that the French have their breakfast and dessert confused. For both breakfast and dessert, my host mom offers me fruit and yogurt. This is normal enough, yet a croissant or a delicious pain au chocolat are both considered acceptable for breakfast as well. One night, my host mom served us some kind of cherry pie for dessert and then told me to finish it for breakfast in the morning. She seemed confused and slightly offended when I refused. I did my best to explain that it was delicious but that I don’t typically have pie for breakfast back home.
With a diet heavy in bread, cheese, pastries, and a strange concept of breakfast and dessert, how is it possible that the French stay so thin? For one, it seems like they walk everywhere. Rather than driving or taking a bus to school, I walk about a mile each way. In addition, there are fresh fruits and vegetables available at the market and at little shops all over town. Unlike in the United States, products don’t have preservatives in them and they seem much more natural and healthy. Also, portions at restaurants are drastically smaller. Even when I eat out, I never feel uncomfortably full after a delicious meal.
During my next three months in France, I’m hoping to learn the art of French eating. As my French professor says, “Vivre pour manger, pas manger pour vivre – live to eat, not eat to live.” The French appreciate their food and treat it like an art rather than simply a means of surviving. Since my arrival, I’ve tried cod liver and duck pâté in addition to countless types of cheese. I was unnerved at first when my host mom showed me that extra cartons of milk were in the pantry, not the fridge, but I trust that they’re still safe to drink. Although there are times when I crave my mom’s tuna casserole or a West Coast Chicken Sandwich from Eagle’s Nest at BC, I’m beginning to fall in love with French cuisine and I’m even learning a thing or two about seeing food as an art.