The summer after I graduated from high school, I spent five weeks with a host family in central France. It was an attempt by monolingual me to learn some French and my parents were generous enough to give me the opportunity before I started university that fall.
My host family co-owned and ran a small hotel and restaurant with another family. Everyone lived and ate on site all summer while the kids were out of school. My host father, Jean Claude, made it his mission to immerse me - their “petite Canadien” - in the French way of eating. At dinner, all nine of us would crowd around a table where we would stay for up to two hours eating our way through the variety of dishes he and Jean Claude - the other owner - had made. (Yes, two Jean Claudes. You can’t make this stuff up.)
I treasured those meals and found them surprising. I wondered how I could sit and eat for so long and not feel uncomfortably full at the end. I felt exhausted from trying to keep up with the dialogue, but never too full. In fact, I was always the perfect amount of full: happy and satisfied. I eventually realized that because we were eating slowly and savouring each dish, we actually weren’t eating a lot.
Almost two decades have passed and I’m afraid I haven’t maintained the act of eating slowly, although it turns out I’m not alone. On average, Canadians spend about 70 minutes eating each day, while the French spend about 135 minutes. In many respects, I think it’s fair to say that we eat just to get it done.
What made me think of this recently was watching my four year old son eat. He eats so slowly that I sometimes find myself wanting to hurry him up. Instead, I’ve decided to try to slow my eating to match his pace. He obviously knows something instinctively that culturally we haven’t changed in him yet!
Life lessons can take years to learn, and they can come in surprising packages. Sometimes our children really are mirrors to our better selves. What do you see when you look in the mirror?
*This is a popular French expression that literally means “eat well, laugh often, love much”.