Fitness in France

Okay… Lets talk about health and activity in France.

We’ve all heard it – Americans are disgustingly obese, French people eat smaller portions and walk everywhere and are all the vision of health, all striking the seemingly-impossible balance between being able to eat dessert and baguettes every day without eating the entire dessert and baguette everyday. Exampe: the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. After living here for a few months I can’t say I fully agree.

First of all, there is a stereotype that everyone here is slender. Nope. I can definitely attest to the fact that that is not true. Yes there are plenty of slender people, but there are overweight people all over the place. There are plus size clothing stores. Statistically, France is around 40-50% overweight (including ~15% obese). What I have observed is that people in general are smaller than in the US. Whether or not they are overweight, their frames are just smaller than those for Americans.

I find the French approach to activity hilarious. I shouldn’t… it is probably much more balanced and sustainable than the way Americans do things. I have concluded that whatever Americans do, we do to an extreme. Fit people in America tend to be really fit. People who don’t exercise in America really don’t exercise. In France, I routinely see people running home from the boulangerie carrying a couple baguettes. Women wear their scarves at the gym, and Nike wedge heels have somehow been accepted as workout shoes?!?

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WHY ARE THESE EXERCISE SHOES?

The French (Europeans in general, really), walk and bike places so much more than we do in the US. Cars are not very practical or really necessary, so there is more activity weaved into their daily and weekly rhythm than a lot of people in the US. A number of the French, however, don’t go to the gym or do routine workouts. Since I joined my gym here, I’ve seen their idea of a workout. Yes, there are some people here who are really quite fit. The majority, however, are not. Their workouts are much more mild than what you tend to see in the US. You just aren’t going to see very many really athletic people here. I’ve never felt as strong as I do here…. I lift just as much or more than so many of the men in my gym (can’t complain about that!).

As a competitive, all-or-nothing type of person, I can’t say I don’t catch myself looking down on the French style of activity and movement. But, the truth is, they have a much more balanced + accessible movement lifestyle than what people think of fitness in the US. This is probably also related to the prevalence of sports in the US vs. France. Sports are not a big deal here, only some people participate, and they are not nearly as time consuming… there isn’t really a competitive side to exercise.

In terms of diet, it is another case of extremes. I’m not sure they ever got the memo about a lot of the popular diet ideas in the US (like no white starches, for example). A balanced French meal has a starch (rice, couscous, pasta, potatoes, bread), a meat, some veggies, bread, and a dessert (often a fruit + dessert yogurt). Let me tell you…. these meals can be BIG & rich. Frenchies won’t snack in between meals though, which is a huge difference. But this way of eating is standard, even for the body-builder types I’ve observed.

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What we eat for lunch at the lycée, a pretty standard example of a cooked French meal. (zucchini soup, beets, potatoes, cauliflower with sauce, cassoulet, a pudding type dessert)

I can say the French style of eating does NOT work for me. I can’t eat really large lunches and dinner everyday. It feels like too much, and I find it very difficult to not snack in between meals (regardless of how much I ate with my meal). Moreover, I find that eating a dessert at most lunches and dinners (even if it is just fruit or yogurt) makes me want to keep eating desserts after I finish eating. Also, once I start eating a baguette, I can’t really stop 😉

Anyways, these are my generalized observations and opinions. Not true for everyone, but definitely what I’ve noticed up here in Nord-Pas-de-Calais

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The First Few Days

The day after I arrived in Haubourdin, I met with my Prof Référent (the teacher responsible for me at the school) just to discuss what needed to be done, and to do paperwork. My prof is very friendly, engaged, and helpful. He helped me look through the phone plans, discuss which banks are available, so on and so forth. After we discussed these things, we went to do paperwork with the school, I was able to ask for a Justificatif de Domicile (proof of address), and I got my ID card for the cafeteria. Post to come on the French cafeteria food – it blows even college cafeterias out of the water (looking at you, Aramark!). I ate lunch with a bunch of the teachers, and everyone is welcoming and nice here.

Usually, there is a fruit, and an hors d'oeuvres as well - I was just late to this meal. Includes: green beans, mashed potatoes, chicken, sauce, apple tart, cheese
Usually, there is a fruit, and an hors d’oeuvres as well – I was just late to this meal. Includes: green beans, mashed potatoes, chicken, sauce, apple tart, cheese

After all of that, I was able to go to a Bouygues Telecom store just on the edge of Haubourdin (shoutout to the immaculate wifi hotspot from the night before – would of never been able to find it otherwise). This was simple: my phone was unlocked, and I just bought a prepaid SIM card. If any future TAPIFers are reading this: get your temporary SIM ASAP on arriving to France. I didn’t get mine for a day, and I already had to go around to where places I had been that morning telling people my phone number. It was 30 euros in all, 10 for the SIM and 20 for 1 month of unlimited calls/texts in France and 500MB (called Mo in France) of data.

I returned to my barren, white apartment (in the POURING rain – bienvenue au Nord) to find my Chinese roommate getting ready to leave. One of her teachers was driving her to the center of town so she could visit banks. Getting a bank account set up is infamously difficult in France, so I went along to get the process started. Centre Ville in Haubourdin is… uh…. Tiny. I actually think Haubourdin is very similar to Forest Grove. There are several farms on the edge of town, there are a lot of people without a lot of commerce, it’s towards the edge of the public transit line, everything is closed by 8:30 (even on Friday!), big ‘small-town’ vibe. Does this mean that I am a Grover? 😉

Not pictured: Frites food cart, canal, Friday morning marché
Not pictured: Frites food cart, canal, Friday morning marché
Not a lot going on.
Not a lot going on.

Back to the bank, I have heard that it is necessary to make an appointment at a bank to be able to open your account. I have heard the French banking system is horrible. True, and true. I am lucky, because I am housed at the school. This means that I have an address already – people who need to find their own housing here can’t even start the bank process until they have secured an address and are able to get proof it is theirs. I was able to start the day after I got here, and since having a phone, wifi, and getting paid are all dependent on having a bank account, getting one ASAP is important.

What I find hilarious is that even in a small town like Haubourdin, there are about 7-8 different banks – I think they make up about 40% of the businesses in Haubourdin. What I now know is that this is needed because each bank has such a slow rate of service. Despite the fact that you want to be a customer, they have zero interest in making the process faster. There is no way if a town the size of Haubourdin only had 3-4 banks people would literally EVER be able to get there banking done. The first bank I went to was Crédit Agricole, because the English assistant from the year before had used them. I went on a Tuesday, the earliest appointment was NEXT Thursday – more than a week away! So I tried several other banks in town, and was eventually able to make a rendezvous for that Thursday – 2 days later. This worked perfect for me, because I still needed my proof of housing from the school.

After we both had scheduled bank appointments, Josephine (roommate) and I returned to our apartment and finally went to the grocery store. There is, happily, a grocery store about a 10 minute walk from the dorm. Unhappily, it is similar to if you live next to a Thriftway. Yes, in a pinch for time-saving it works great. Otherwise, it is just expensive with a small selection. Nonetheless, was able to buy some food, and most importantly, toiletries etc. I did not bring very much with me, just barely enough for my time in Belgium before arriving in Lille so I was really excited to have toothpaste.

The next few days consisted of figuring out the bus line, getting a monthly buss pass, buying my Carte Jeune (train discount card), going to IKEA, going to McDo’s a 1000 times for wifi and McFlurrys, getting actual groceries, and trying to get my bank account set up (which has slowly but surely become the bane of my existence).

(Not) Fun Fact: they don't mix McFlurrys here and they come with a sauce
(Not) Fun Fact: they don’t mix McFlurrys here and they come with a sauce “flurr’it yourself” does NOT taste as good!