In the house where I grew up, we had two living rooms: a formal one that we weren’t allowed to sit in, and the other that housed the television and, often, our overflowing toys and books. When my French husband visited my family home for the first time, the dual living room situation confused him: The house isn’t particularly large, and my parents don’t regularly host guests, so the formal living room sat empty most of the time. After some convincing, my parents gave us free rein to rearrange the furniture—we left them with twice as much usable space, and a chance to enjoy the expensive, comfortable, practically unused furniture that they’ve owned for 25 years.
My parents’ hesitance to use nice things isn’t limited to furniture, unfortunately. My dad was once gifted a great pair of loafers that he rarely wore—and now that he needs to wear supportive sneakers, he has little reason to. On that same visit, I unearthed a bottle of good whiskey that has probably been sitting in the pantry for a decade (unopened), and spied all the beauty products I’ve ever sent my mom for her birthdays—still in their packaging. (“I’m saving them,” was her response.)
Their habits definitely rubbed off on me: I used my beauty products sparingly, ate off of mismatched plates, and kept my prized leather boots for only the most special of nights out. When we were cleaning out our apartment for a move a few years ago, I noticed a few of my barely-used cosmetics had expired, pieces of the Limoges china were still wrapped in bubble wrap from when I’d brought it home, and my beautiful shoes had started to show some irreparable cracks in the leather.
Meanwhile, on our annual visits to my in-laws in Southwest France, I noted how my husband's family effortlessly incorporated items and rituals that I’d normally consider indulgences into everyday life. After one particular visit, it finally clicked for me: the nice things we have only hold value if we allow ourselves to enjoy them. It took a few years, but I’ve now finally rid myself of the guilt associated with taking pleasure in owning (and regularly using) the good stuff. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way:
One of my favorite apartments to visit in France is our cousins’ home in Toulouse. It has a modern dining table surrounded by Eames-style dining chairs and a sitting area with a nesting coffee table to expand for when they have guests. The art and mementos that hang around the apartment are so authentically them—books on street art, a Toulouse rugby ball on display, the family photos alongside artwork by the kids—nothing feels staged or extraneous.
Clutter is minimal but not completely absent. After all, a pile of book or pieces of mail left around are simply signs of life. I’ve taken that approach when decorating our current apartment by hanging photos that we love, dragging an antique street sign home from France to put on the mantle, saving up for a Moroccan tea table I’ve been eyeing for years. Now when we have friends over, we all squeeze onto our blue velvet sectional for drinks and enjoy spirited conversation without worrying too much about if our place is styled properly—for us, it’s exactly right.
My belle-mere insists that we set the table for every meal (even breakfast!) and I adore it. The gorgeous blue and white plates she often uses for dinner are akin to something you’d see hanging on a wall in an antique shop, but they are pieces she’s collected through years of visiting brocantes, the French equivalent to an antique fair. Silverware is carefully placed down, along with water and wine glasses and linen napkins. Putting the effort into creating a beautiful and purposeful setting at the table makes it more of an experience, and encourages you to enjoy what’s on the table. Even if it’s a frozen meal. Bon appetit!
Most French women are conditioned into having excellent skincare habits, so it’s no surprise that my mother-in-law has beautiful skin—she looks glowy without much more than moisturizer on her face. I’ll admit I’ve been blessed with fairly good genes, but that's no excuse for being slack. I arm myself with a small but intentional arsenal of skincare products—an inexpensive face wash and toner, higher-end serum, moisturizer, and SPF, and make sure I do my simple skincare routine in the morning and evening. That way, I’ll literally be putting my best face forward every day.
Aside from pajamas around the breakfast table, my French family is dressed to leave the house at a moment’s notice. I’ve taken this habit back with me to California to prevent myself from slipping into the habit of staying in yoga pants all day—getting dressed puts me into the mental state of starting a productive day. In addition, I’ve made sure that my clothes are pieces that I love so I always feel good when wearing them—why own these things if they barely see the light of day?