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How to Have Your Cake(s) and Eat It Too

How to Have Your Cake and Eat it, Too

New Years Resolutions à la Française

In France the Gods of Pleasure enchant the French with enviable regularity, reminding them that All Work and No Play Makes Jacques a Dull Boy (and Gives Jeanette a Headache). In fact when most Americans are repenting for their holiday sins and excesses the French, after weeks of serious holiday partying, do what appears to them as the most reasonable, logical thing to do: They keep partying. 

Even as early as January 6th the Gods get going: January 6th is the day of La Fête des Rois, also known as The Epiphany. It’s a charming tradition that involves making a frangipane cake inside of which a small trinket called a fève is hidden. A fève is a bean that has been replaced these days by a tiny ceramic figurine of a king, and whoever finds this figurine in their slice of cake gets to wear a gold paper crown and is king or queen for the day. The tradition of La Fête des Rois goes back to the Middle Ages and honors the day the three kings are said to have given gifts to Jesus, but I believe that it was actually Jesus who gave a gift to the French: He gave them one more excuse to eat cake and drink champagne.

Anticipating my whorish and debauched seasonal French binging all the way back in October, I’d taken out a lovely Claire Lafontaine writing pad and a cigar-sized cartridge pen filled with purple ink and written with great ceremony: NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS. #1. DIET. (Nine other resolutions followed suit since of course we must always have at least ten resolutions, don’t ask me why). I’d eat nothing but yogurt and raw cucumbers and would do jumping jacks along the Seine with ten pounds weights in each hand.


I’d barely finished nursing my holiday hangover, however, when my friend Chantal invited me to a gathering in her apartment. Chantal is a wiry and vivacious bookshop owner with a slightly school-marmish authority. In her book-cluttered salon Chantal had put together a beautiful but simple spread: Gold tablecloth. Gold paper crowns. Golden frangipane cake. Rows of champagne. “We are going to celebrate La Fête des Rois,” she said.

“La fête des quoi?” I asked.

That’s when Chantal explained the concept of this fattening little celebration.  Frankly I would have eaten a partridge in a pear tree at that moment to avoid eating more cake. But to say to Chantal and the group already gathered around her tablesorry folks, I’ve got  a New Year’s Resolution to respect herwould have made me a target of ridicule and contempt -- and who needs that from the French?

Refusing to revel, never mind the time of day or year, is a cultural misdemeanor in France. It singles you out as a slightly comic Spartan. It is anti-pleasure. Moreover the very term New Year’s Resolutions sounds Conceptually Incorrect in France. There is no French idiom for it, it any case. The French will make a voeux, a wish, and that wish might include some sort of salubrious activity like getting in better shape.

But a wish is a sexy, mutable thing that can be blown by the wind. A wish is like a cloud that might drift your way but that can’t be forced it to do so. It is languorous and fanciful and who knows where it will end up? A resolution, on the other hand, is a firm, concise obligation. It’s a contract between You and Your Conscious that is deep-fried in moral values. A resolution has edges and they’ll menace you forever if you don’t pay attention to them. A resolution, in short, can become one of those deadly virtues if it conspires too radically against the Gods of Pleasure.


“ This whole idea of New Year’s Resolutions is very American,” my friend Sandrine explains. “ In general in the French culture we are not taught to focus obsessively on long term goals, to project ourselves into the future the way Americans do. That is also why we ‘achieve’ less” – air quotes here – “and why we have more milder notions about ambition. In fact ambition used to be frowned upon as something that can be hurtful; something that might hurt oneself or others; something that might compromise your quality of life. There is something supremely egocentric for the French tied in with ambition.”

Ambition – another wonderful virtue that can become a wicked vice if you take it too seriously. Time is not money for the French. It’s an ephemeral currency and should be spent doing the things that make life worth living. Remember, the French woman might have an acute sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure; that said, she also has a strong predilection to enjoy not only the finer things in life, but the things that make life fine. As Vienne put it, “Let’s not confuse ‘living well’ with ‘getting ahead.’” No, let’s not. And while we’re at it, let’s not confuse the Good Life with having lots of stuff.

Excerpted from What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind with permission from the author. 

decembre 27, 2017