This September, I am celebrating the 18th anniversary of life in France. Since my arrival with one suitcase, a seven-month teaching contract, and a tiny room in a sort of Parisian YWCA, my life has undergone numerous metamorphoses. These days, there’s a husband, a house, two kids, good friends, a business, citizenship, and a much greater appreciation and understanding of the country I now call home!
In the nearly two decades I have lived here, I have learnt so much. However, contrary to what popular Francophile literature and TV shows would have you believe, the most useful things I have picked up from the French way of life are not the correct way to wear a scarf or which wine to match with a given cheese. The French lifestyle has taught me much, for example, about work-life balance, the importance of enjoying simple pleasures, the benefits of slowing down, and the wisdom of prioritising quality over quantity. Currently on my mind is the particular (peculiar?) manner by which French structure their year and the ways it makes life easier and more satisfying.
The Franco-Gregorian calendar: a hybrid approach
The calendar starts in January in France, but in all other respects, the year really begins in September here – and not just for schools and universities. After the long summer holiday that marks the end of the last ‘year’, the word on everyone’s lips in September is la rentrée, meaning “the re-entry”; as in going back – to school, to work, to activities, to normal life. I struggled against this notion for many years – I wanted to start classes mid-year, join a gym in February and pay pro rata, launch projects in April, and actually achieve – well, anything – in August (sheer madness!). However, once I finally stopped swimming upstream and embraced this way of thinking, I was struck, as I often have been, by the wisdom of the French way.
Taking a French approach to your rentrée can make life easier, more satisfying and more relaxing – wherever you happen to live. Why? And How?
- The rentrée is a propitious time to make resolutions
Our minds tend to turn to self-improvement, changing habits and fresh starts in January, but September is, in my experience, a much more appropriate time to implement some life upgrades. In January, we are often run down by the winter cold and illness*, and exhausted from the Christmas whirlwind. In September, however, we’re fresh and relaxed after the summer break. We’ve recharged our batteries and have the energy to begin new projects and change our ways.
- It’s a natural launch date
Speaking of projects. Even if you don’t have children, you can piggy-back on the momentum created by lots of kids sharpening pencils and going back to school to launch your own projects. That might be taking up a new hobby, signing up for adult education classes, or starting to write your novel. Whatever you choose to do, the fact that the nights are going to start drawing in and the days get colder can also help you prioritise these kinds of projects that require time spent in the home.
- It forces you change pace and stay with the season
The change of pace from summer fun to serious work in the autumn is just one example of the ebb and flow that characterises the French year. As they wave their kids off to school in September, the French immediately start planning their late October mini-break. By scheduling in – even ritualising – their holidays, the French ensure they change pace and take breaks regularly – before they’re on their last legs.
- The French find the joy in what is
In my experience, the French are very good at accepting and reaping the benefits of the season in progress. Take food as an example: the French quite consciously change the way they eat throughout the year. Winter is welcomed because it brings with it a promise of fondu and raclette, mulled wine and seafood; summer is all about rosé, fresh fruit and drinks at pavement cafés. The rentrée reminds us to embrace the seasons mindfully – reassessing eating habits and looking at sleep routines, the quantity of social commitments we take on, cosmetics used, maybe even the books we read.
- The rentrée serves as a great yearly reminder
I use the rentrée as a reminder to do a certain number of chores (the kind that occur yearly or a few times per year). The whole family has their annual appointment with the dentist; I get my eyes checked; the kids have haircuts and new shoes. These preparatory rituals of the rentrée all contribute to my feeling ready in September and raring to go. Which in turn helps me make the most of my time and get moving quickly as opposed to spending a week (more?!) lamenting the end of the holidays and wishing I were somewhere else.
Be here, now
Ultimately, that’s what the French obsession with la rentrée means to me: it’s a way of enjoying the “be here, now”. The summer is coming to a close, the holidays are ending, and that’s natural, normal. Do you know the song “To everything there is a season”? It’s the one with the “Turn, turn, turn” refrain. It’s based on a Bible verse (for the 40-something women like me reading this, it’s the one Kevin Bacon uses to convince the preacher in Footloose to let the kids dance): “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…”.
Whatever your religious conviction, the notion that there’s a time for everything is helpful. To me, the rentrée is a yearly reminder not to try to do everything at once, to pace myself and undertake activities mindfully and at a time that is appropriate. I find that way of thinking takes the pressure off and offers me useful perspective – which is needed all year round!
*Apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere – some of what I am going to say will not apply directly but can be adapted to apply to your own post-summer rentrée in March…
If you’re seeking perspective and structure for your life, perhaps looking to make some changes this rentrée, supportive coaching that focuses on finding your pace and what’s right for you can help you create a life you love. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Nothing ruins time with my kids more than when I attempt to multi-task. They hate it when it’s “their time” and I am not giving them my attention; and, once they are off at school or in bed, I always regret when I wasn’t 100% present during the time we had together. Managing their dinnertime, for example, can be a fun moment to chat and talk about their day, but it is spoilt when my attention is split and I leave the table to hang up laundry, answer a quick email, or take out rubbish. In general, weekday time slots with the kids are short and precious. Make them the true focus of that time and it will be more enjoyable for everyone.
Don’t let technology pull focus. Of all the things that compete for my attention when I’m with the children, the most insidious and unrelenting is the smartphone. In the evening, put your phone on silent, stick it in a drawer or – whisper it – turn it off, to ensure you give your undivided attention to the people who are actually in the room. In most cases, your colleague won’t remember that she went to voicemail and you called her back later. Your friend won’t even notice that an hour elapsed between her text and your reply. But your kids will definitely be aware of how you made them feel during the golden hours between school ending and bedtime – seen and heard and important, or like they play second fiddle to your Android.
Try to get into it. Sometimes finding the strength and patience to make yet another Kapla tower or play an umpteenth game of Connect-4 it can feel like a superhuman act of will. In those moments, it sometimes helps to get genuinely super-enthusiastic – even if it’s just pretence at first. Get serious about winning the game, make your structure look like the Eiffel Tower, mix and match toys to create new ways of playing (my kids like making a massive “village” by combining the train set with the toy cars and the Playmobil saloon and farm). If you can find some true kid-like enthusiasm you might just tap into that Holy Grail of feelings: flow – that sense of being in the moment, connected and committed to what you’re doing. If you can hit that spot, everyone will have more fun and time will fly.
Asking yourself (and taking the time to answer!) these six powerful questions can help you emerge from lockdown with renewed purpose and a stronger sense of self.
One thing has dominated our lives for the last 18 months and, sadly, it has not been Bridgerton or Call My Agent! (although both definitely dominated quite a few of my evenings). The list of adjectives to describe the last year and a half is long – challenging and dismal for many, liberating and enlightening for some. I have read countless articles about how people are making the most of lockdown (this often involves sourdough bread-making and growing out hair dye), dozens on the impact it is having on our minds and bodies (we are calmer, less productive, happier, lonelier, fatter, fitter…), and loads about how the world will either be forever changed or will swiftly go back to how it was before.
How was it for you?
I myself have been – perhaps conspicuously – silent on the subject of COVID and lockdown in this blog and my newsletter. Mainly because I have felt so much was already being said and also because I – like many – have been zealous in limiting my engagement with the news, statistics and speculation in order to preserve my mental health and happiness. I am also acutely aware of how easy I have had it compared to many. My family is in good health, my husband and I can both work from home in our reasonably spacious house with all the tech we need, and we have suffered no bereavement due to the virus. The main emotion I have felt relating to COVID has been anxiety. Not really about actually getting ill, more about the loss of liberty, the need to fill the children’s days, and the general sense of uncertainty about the future. I am not alone, I know. So, while I feel I weathered the lockdown storm relatively well (the first one with two small children at home 24/7!), catching up on photo albums, writing, and keeping busy with house projects, I would have felt utterly unqualified to advise anyone as to how to find the silver linings in the situation. However, as we emerge from the latest of three fairly comprehensive and long lockdowns here in France, I now find myself tempted to weigh in.
Time to think
Apart from doing massive amounts of gardening and spending hours on crafts with the kids, my main lockdown activity was – unsurprisingly, given my profession – introspection and self-work. Stripped of all my usual diversions, I had the time to take a long look at my life and ask some questions about where I am and where I want to be. Ironically, “time for yourself to step out of your life and take a look at where you are and where you want to be” is generally how I describe the utility of a coaching session to clients. So in lockdown, I found myself face to face with the proverb of “physician, heal thyself”, or in this case, “coach, coach thyself”. Now, as we step out of confinement, as the French call it, it’s time to put all that introspection to good use in (re)constructing our lives and incorporating some changes, tweaks and enhancements based on insights gained while weeding, sewing and eating sourdough bread.
Questions to exit lockdown mindfully
These are the questions I am asking myself now, as I reclaim all the buildings blocks that make up a full life, so many of which were put on hold for so long – things like time with friends, travel, entertainment, hobbies, family time, learning, career development… I hope they will inspire you too.
- What is my relationship to uncertainty?
Some people are happy winging it and going with the flow. I know many and like them immensely, but I am not, nor will I ever be, one of them. I am one of life’s planners, organisers and charge-takers. The uncertainty about the future generated by the health crisis has been, in some ways, a positive influence on me in this respect. It has forced me to become more adaptable and allow for the unexpected. As lockdown lifts, I know life is not going to suddenly become predictable again – we may still face more lockdowns, for example. But instead of fearing the unknown, I am asking myself: How do I want to deal with the current lack of certainty? What tools do I have to help me through it? What pleasure can I find in not knowing what’s around the corner?
- Which people did I really miss?
Think about the people you really yearned for during lockdown. Now think about who you spent most of your time with in the days before COVID. If the two answers aren’t the same (for example, maybe you were having drinks with colleagues a lot but could only find one evening every three months to chat with a close friend who moved abroad), think about how you can find more time for the really important people. Maybe you need to weed out a few uninspiring or unfulfilling commitments and people from your planner to make time for the things that matter. Or perhaps you can structure calls and meet-ups into your calendar more regularly?
- How do I want to spend my time?
For a while there, our choices about how we spend our free time were severely restricted. Now that our options are multiplying, it’s our chance to break old habits and make more mindful choices about what we do and who we do it with. Pre-lockdown, I spent a lot of my social time “having drinks”, and yet actually during lockdown what I really missed was the theatre. I have therefore resolved to scale back on the Chablis and aim for a monthly theatre outing once everything’s up and running.
- What’s my busy-ness limit?
One of the most-cited “gifts” of lockdown was the permission it gave many of us to slow down. (I‘m excluding certain groups with this statement, of course, people such as healthcare professionals, for example – but to them I wouldn’t dream of giving any advice, the only thing they should be told is “Thank you, here’s a raise, some time off, and lot more funding”. But I digress.) It really took off the pressure to take in exhibitions, keep up with film releases, make dinner reservations, fit in the gym, organise play dates, and plan outings. It simply allowed us to stop running. As invitations and possibilities start to present themselves again, we have the opportunity to ask: How often am I comfortable going out? How much time do I like to have between appointments? How many commitments can I really enjoy in a single weekend?
- What habits do I want to maintain?
Many of us formed new habits during lockdown that it would be a shame to let slip now that life is becoming slightly more normal. Some people took up a sport, or started morning meditation. All jokes aside, some people discovered the pleasure of baking their own bread. My husband and I used to (and still do) sit on our front step after putting the kids to bed for a brief moment of quiet time to check in with each other and debrief about the day. Now that other activities are competing for our attention, it’s the right time to think about the things you started doing (often out of necessity or simply to help you cope) that you don’t want to give up.
- What didn’t I miss?
We might think a lot about the people and things we missed during lockdown, but I’m sure we also all had things we were happy to let go. Commuting. Wearing a suit. Eating at your desk. Running for the train after work to ensure you pick up the kids on time. It would be so easy to fall back into our old ways of doing things, so take this opportunity to go “back to normal” on purpose and with purpose. For some that might actually mean not going back, that is to say making a total change in job and lifestyle. For others, it might mean smaller adjustments like doing weekend batch-cooking so you can take a home-made lunch to work instead of buying a sandwich. Or perhaps having a firm “no meetings after 4pm” policy so you can leave work on time and your evening is less rushed.
Major life transitions – whether positive or negative – can be incredibly stressful. And just because we’re happy to emerge from lockdown doesn’t make it any less a source of stress than going into it. But transitions are also a prime opportunity for us to make changes – both to our outward-facing lives and our inner selves. Asking yourself a few powerful questions right now can help make the difference between whether you look back and view the last 18 months as a zoom, home yoga and online scrabble marathon or a time when you seized the chance to press “reset” and move a little closer to the life you truly desire.
If you’re looking to make some changes as you emerge from lockdown and reconstruct your life, expert coaching that focuses on fulfilment and personal satisfaction can help you figure out how you want your life to look and how you can make the vision a reality. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Of late, my family has been enjoying our first small but successful crop of tulips, grape hyacinths and narcissi. They have provided a joyful burst of colour in some slightly bare patches of the garden and offered a much-needed springtime boost while the rest of our plants take their time unfurling and emerging. Whilst we were taking our morning tea outside recently (yes, I binged on Bridgerton during the latest lockdown and have decided that I no longer drink but “take” my tea), my husband commented that he had no recollection of me planting those bulbs. “Of course not,” I answered, “I did it way back in October just after we pruned everything else back”.
Planting bulbs is a funny thing to do, isn’t it? Just as the rest of the garden is shedding leaves and retreating for the winter, it’s time to plant bulbs that will sit in the frozen ground for months before pushing their way up to the light almost half a year later. It’s actually an incredible metaphor for hope. We put these vulnerable little plants in the ground as the weather – and sometimes our mood – begins to feel bleak, in the hope that, come spring, they will flourish – daffodils trumpeting triumphant over the dark days; the crocus bursting forth to celebrate renewal and rebirth.
All about the now
Our enjoyment of the long-awaited patches of colour provided by spring flowers is particularly relevant today, in a society where instant gratification has become the norm. I recently ordered a coat stand for our entranceway and was shocked – outraged! – appalled! to discover we would have to wait four whole weeks for delivery. Meanwhile, the foot rest I bought for my desk arrived in just 48 hours. Now, that’s more like it, I thought to myself. But that kind of quick fix, no-sooner-thought-than-bought, make the call – get it done result is so rarely how life works. In my experience, more often than not, the real rewards we reap in our lives come from the tiny seeds we planted months, maybe years ago, in the hope that one day they would bear fruit.
Playing the long game
Online shopping notwithstanding, very few of the actions we implement in our lives are immediately rewarding. Not only do most of them require some degree of patience, but many also depend on repetition and consistency. My choice of a salad over a burger this evening will not register on the scales tomorrow morning. But making that choice consistently, day after day, will result in weight loss over time. The same can be said for the efforts of parenting. Taking the time to foster a love of reading in your child, teach them about different religions, or let them help with household chores (even when it actually slows you down) can often feel like a drop in the ocean and you sometimes wonder how much is really going in. But wait a while, and you’ll see that all those choices have planted seeds that will grow into trees of literacy, tolerance, and a sense of responsibility.
Four years ago I spoke at a conference on self-care and wellbeing. I came home and told my husband, “Well, that was fun, but I don’t know if anything with come of it”. Nothing much did, really, until a month ago when a man I met that day contacted me to start coaching sessions as he finally felt ready to start working towards a more fulfilling life. Now, that’s a real example of playing the long game!
You gotta have faith
I have to admit that I had to – as the French characteristically dramatically put it – me faire violence (do violence to myself) when I decided to plant those bulbs last autumn. I really had to force myself. It was cold, I was lockdown-weary, and I wasn’t convinced the on-sale bulbs I’d bought looked that healthy and would actually sprout at all. But now, as I sit in the garden surrounded by flaming red tulips and nodding narcissi, I am so pleased I found some motivation that day, even when I felt the result was uncertain. Looking at them reminds me that often in life, we have to take action and just have faith that – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow (and maybe not even soon or for the rest of our lives) – but that at some point what we do will pay off. Because the explanation for a successful, fulfilling life is the same as for a colourful, flower-filled garden: it’s blooming because I planted the seeds necessary to make it that way.`
If you’re looking to re-landscape your life, plant the seeds of some life changes, or maybe pull out a few old weeds that are holding you back, coaching can help you target your actions and accelerate change. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
1. Adopt a holiday attitude – When we are on holiday, everything around us seems interesting, beautiful or memorable. A building, a park, a meal in a restaurant, even a bus ride. In the right setting, all of these things become photo-worthy. But what if your whole life were like that? On your daily walk or jog, as you by your newspaper or as you wait to take your kids into school, take a second truly to look around you and see your life as if you were a tourist in it. I guarantee you’ll notice something that is usually relegated to the status of hum-drum backdrop and find it astounding.
2. Put down your camera and pay attention – Psychologists have found that we remember less that which we photograph; that, far from helping us recollect a scene better, the act of taking a snapshot actually means we pay less attention to what we’re seeing. So, before you whip out the smartphone to capture a beautiful image for posterity (or, for the really brave, instead of doing so at all), take a moment to look at what you’re about to immortalise and take it in 100%.
3. Take a memory picture – A wise friend told me before my wedding to stop occasionally during the day to commit a moment to memory. I followed her advice and, to this day, I can still shut my eyes and find myself right back there in my dress, champagne in hand, listening to the band playing Summertime. When you come across a breath-taking moment in your life, stop and look, then mindfully close your eyes, like the shutter of a camera. Give your picture a caption, attach to it the smells and sounds around you. I’m sure that the next time you need a happy memory to brighten your day, reaching for the family photo album won’t even be necessary.