Health Secret of the French

The French have long had a reputation of being one of the healthiest race. I come from India but I share a good bond with the French since many years. As a school kid, I was drawn to their language which made me host a French lady in an exchange program when I was in college. The lady, who was a teacher and of my mother’s age, invited me to stay with her in Chambery to continue my studies in the university where she and her husband taught. This stay, nearly 30 years ago, brought into my life two very sensible people, the Bauers. Now well into their seventies, the Bauers can be summed up as people who knew how to get the most of life by knowing what to focus on and what to let go. This has always kept things simple yet interesting.

The first time I saw this side was several years ago, when we were on a vacation together in Goa. There was a telephone call at about 3 am from their neighbor in Chambery informing them that a part of their apartment had burnt down. Their faces reflected their concern but once they learnt there were no casualties involved, they accepted the situation within seconds. They said they could do nothing about it sitting in India and they would not let an accident that had not taken a life spoil a perfectly good holiday. The fire had been caused by a nearby electric wire that had short-circuited and burnt their roof. The house, with its wooden floor, stairs, panels and columns, spared no time in reacting to the spark.

The attic, the study and a bathroom were destroyed and along with it, some antiques passed down from the family, a valuable portrait, and their entire collection of photographs and slides of their life’s journey together as a couple that they would sometimes watch together on cold evenings. And yet, the loss did not result in the loss of their spirit. They were neither in denial or despair, and most of all, they left the incident alone. Satisfied enough that their children had stepped in to handle the formalities, they went on to make the most of their vacation.

I was barely out of my teens when I lived with them as a student, and I hardly understood their ways then. They lived a life different from how I was conditioned to live. In India, we hardly walk in towns and big cities once we buy a car. We love to buy things. Our kitchens never close and we love snacking. And we rarely do anything by ourselves, except our duties because we have helpers helping us for everything. Here, on the other hand, I was living with a couple that would insist on walking long distances in biting cold and never opted for a bus, let alone a taxi. They would eat two home-cooked meals a day (apart from a small daily ritual of bread, butter and jam when they woke up), always on time and without anything in between. They never shopped except for the absolute necessities and they always bought fresh produce. Occasionally, they bought valuable old books and the carefully chosen artifact from their travels to their beautiful home, but they did not repeatedly invest in clothes, shoes, accessories etc.

They made sure to buy an item of fine quality and comfort, and then allowed it to last. They never changed an item in their house if it served its purpose- the refrigerator, the washing machine, the coffee machine, the radio, the furniture, the upholstery, and the accessories have been around forever. They lived in a beautiful old building that had no elevator and they climbed its grand staircase several times a day to their apartment on the fourth floor, which could easily be the eighth floor of a modern building. Their life was absent of a television and newspaper. And since their only passive entertainment came through a small transistor or their prized music system, it made conversations rich and mostly about experiences, travel and history. However austere I make them sound, to think I found them boring would be entirely wrong. I did not understand their ways, but rarely a day went by without feeling happily alive because they were full of energy.

In time, after hitting a few bumpy roads of life myself, I began to ask them questions. One of the first few things they told me was that the single most important thing, once having chosen a conventional life, is to know when to quit a big city. Their trajectory in life was practical and uncomplicated. After spending a few years in Paris and earning some money, they decided to live where they could continue to earn well but where the cost of living was lower. The two very important values they wanted to inculcate in their children were those of education and travel. (Their daughter, nearly 50, teaches Japanese Art at the Sorbonne and their son is an aeronautical engineer who designs rockets). Very earlier on in life they decided to take pleasure from activities that stimulated the mind rather than those derived from possessions.

They were not into any kind of sports but they were strict about keeping their bodies highly active every single day by doing everything by themselves, which included walking or cycling to their work, all household jobs, buying groceries and taking weekends off in nature to either walk or climb mountains. More importantly, they discouraged negative talk and took a solution-oriented approach to problems they encountered that involved discussions, healthy arguments and finally, action. As I listened, I sensed some regret for not choosing some of these methods in my own life over the years.

When I last visited them a month ago, I learnt they had shifted to an apartment on a lower floor. It registered then that they were getting on in years. The apartment was on the third floor of a relatively newer building and even had a nice lift. It was the usual warm and special meeting in a different home but one of whose every item I had known over the decades. They told me that apart from painting the house, they had set it up all by themselves over the year. They showed me the new old books that they had added to their collection and a beautiful kettle they had picked up in their recent trip to Korea. They were extremely familiar with the computer and showed me some montages they had made from their travels.

I was happy to see that they were ‘with it’ even at this age. After being professors all their life, they retired to take on new hobbies, one of them being learning Italian and the other, spending time with their grandchildren so that they could teach them things which were taught young. So they took them to the mountains to learn skiing and on travels where they could teach them about new places and give them early experiences. This time, I learnt that the husband had fulfilled his dream of completing his PhD and that his lovely wife had edited his thesis, as she is now editing his novel. She also writes poetry, wins awards and makes collages on the side. The purpose of all this of course, is to keep the minds ‘from dying before their bodies do’ as they say. I guess, that’s what I admire most about them- their sense of life. They like to live with fervor at any age, at any stage. And they still take the stairs every single day.

I meet the French from time to time and of all ages. And it is in the small encounters that I see how differently they perceive life. For instance, when I met Janne. She’s an eighty-four- year-old woman, who had invited me for dinner in her apartment that overlooked Le Jardin du Luxembourg. She uses a walker to move around but she had prepared the dinner by herself. Her independence was admirable, and even though her daughter was visiting her at that time from New York, she was determined to show it. Janne was a renowned art historian in the famous Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris, and the mention of my article on Picasso brought fire in her eyes. She announced that she did not like Picasso because he hadn’t been responsible in life and had behaved like a coward by not using his art to comment on the war like his contemporaries.

When I argued with her that she was being unfair by judging a man’s art by his character, she asked me to never forget that a war was always more important than art. I had never met a woman speak with a neck held-up so beautifully that it hurt to watch. When I asked her how she felt at this stage of her life, she said, she had no regrets, that she just missed the energy her body once provided. Like using the stairs, I quipped. To which she replied, “Oh, I don’t miss that. I have done it all my life”.

I think the French choose to take the stairs out of a conscious habit. But I can’t help seeing its symbolism to their life approach. The stairs represent no short cuts when it comes to staying healthy. I think the French are clever enough to look at life from a larger perspective. Health is very important to them, not out of fear but out of love for living fully. They are very aware of old age and its inevitability, and they work backward to live life in a way that supports their aging. They want their old age to become as reliable as possible because more than longevity, it is the the quality of life that they aim for. And that is what keeps them slightly ahead of the life curve. I have met so many of them and they eat everything- no fuss about gluten or dairy and they don’t believe in dieting. But they hardly ever fall sick.

Their secret lies in eating slowly, in moderation, on time, and in using their mind and body optimally all through their life. They believe all supplements come through food so they keep a watchful eye on what they consume in a single day so that protein, dairy, sugar, minerals, vitamins and carbs, are in balance. Besides, they are strongly individualistic but in a way that inculcates a healthy respect for another’s personal growth as a human. This attitude minimizes chances of being conditioned heavily by outside influences. An individual, thus grows to discover life for himself/herself and hence, embraces everything with the least amount of resistance, which is a great start. For people with a reputation of not being the cleanest, they sure keep their life pretty tidy!

When I was in Paris last month, I was staying with Estelle, the elder child of the Bauers. In the two weeks I stayed with her, I could see that she had embraced her parent’s attitude to life and also something more. If I had met a truly positive person, it was her. I asked her how she managed to stay that way despite life not always being kind to her. In her words, “Buddha says one must have a disposition towards the spiritual to experience awakening, but I am not inclined towards the spiritual. So I keep a disposition towards happiness and experience life instead”. And that was it. That was the health secret of the French- their attitude to life. I had seen it often enough. I recollect asking one of my very close friend, Dorine, what she liked most about being French and had replied instantly “La joie de vivre”.

That’s why the time I spent with Estelle was smooth and joyful. Not a single day went by without laughter. It was not surprising then that everything in her own system was functioning smoothly and that she had never really been sick even as she touched 50. At 50, women face all kinds of issues with their unforgiving hormones, and yet, she had been through it all without having the need to even notice the changes. On top of that, she ate everything like all healthy French people do- the white bread, the cheese, the butter, the jam. When I left, she helped me put my big suitcase in the elevator and said, “I’ll see you downstairs”. And as she ran down the stairs, I knew she would be waiting for me because she was always ahead of the elevator both ways.