Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

Your Weekly Voilà: Tidying Up the French Way 😊💕🧹🧺🇫🇷


A designer friend once said, "Interiors are just as much about subtraction as they are about addition." She would empty a room and then leave it to you to put back only 50%. The exercise illustrates how easy it is to add things to a space but very challenging to remove. I would live with the new arrangement for a few days and see if I was reaching for something that was not there. Was I missing furniture or objects? Usually not. The space was clean and open and I could truly enjoy what remained. That was 30 years ago, long before Marie Kondo and the magic of tidying up asked us if our possessions "sparked joy."

For me, it has always been a simple evaluation: Is the item both useful and beautiful? For the most part it works. Some objects might not fit as neatly. Artwork's function is to inspire me. Precious photos and children's drawings allow me to relive memories and bring me joy. This question of usefulness and value works perfectly with my new French lifestyle. It keeps my home from being cluttered and reminds me to to find the beauty within each space.
When I moved from Hawaii, I already knew which of my favorite clothing items were coming with me. So it was easy to "tidy up" my wardrobe. Currently, I have only a portion of an armoire so I need to be careful when bringing anything new into the mix. I tend to wear neutral colors so everything goes with everything. When paring down your clothes, think about what you love to wear, feel good in, and buy for lasting quality.
When Marie Kondo wrote her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, she was a millennial woman without children living in a tiny apartment in Japan with a Shinto, minimalist mindset. This is important to consider when applying her techniques to a larger family home with a different set of cultural values. It doesn't always translate well.

Yet, there are tenants of her tidying up philosophy that dovetail perfectly with French culture that embraces the ideas of "less is more" and "quality over quantity." A good example is looking in the closet or an armoire of a French woman. In general, you will find quality pieces meant to last and be used interchangeably with other items in her wardrobe. With the coming of big box stores such as H&M, the younger generation tend to purchase inexpensive, disposable clothing. But second hand shops and consignment stores are growing in number across Europe as this same generation rethinks mass consumption, the cost of the clothing industry on human labor and the environment, and adapts to smaller living arrangements by going with a more minimalist aesthetic. 

From my personal story, moving from one end of the earth to the other, forced me to touch and consider everything I shipped to my new home. I was reminded that maintaining less "stuff" makes tidying up so much easier. 
I have a mild addition to scarves and shawls. Winter scarves. Silk scarves of all sizes. And shawls for every occasion. I usually folded them flat and stacked them on a shelf. The challenge is when I tried to get the one I wanted which was almost always located on the bottom. I would tug and pull and make a mess of the entire pile. This week, I decided to apply the Marie Kondo folding method and stacked them vertically in a box. Voilà! It works. Now I can see all my scarves and easily get to the one I desire.
During my first few months in France, I was keenly aware of cultural differences. I was a sponge (forgive the pun) ready to observe and learn new things including domestic skills. I noted, although maybe not applicable to all French people, that my aunt cleaned in the morning just after her breakfast and reading the paper. Each day of the week, with the exception of Sunday, different tasks were completed. On some days, windows were washed, floors were scrubbed, or furniture dusted. The idea was that the house would be clean to welcome guests and to enjoy the space throughout the day. No work is done on Sunday. Not inside or outside. It is a day to enjoy visiting with family or friends, or partaking in a favorite hobby. Today, I mirror my aunt's routine and do a 10-minute tidy in the morning. The bed is made. The living room sofa pillows fluffed. The dust mop is quickly run across the floors. Of course there are larger spring cleaning tasks that need to take place and happen as I can carve out time with my work schedule. But on the whole, our little apartment is ready to be enjoyed throughout the day.

I also have to share a cleaning tool that I have adopted into my life: the Alsatian "schwooper." Think a long stick with a cotton rag towel wrapped around the end. Or, an old-fashioned Swiffer minus its expensive, non-eco-friendly disposable plastic cloths. In southern Florida, it's called a "Cuban mop." You can purchase one at a ridiculous price on Amazon. (I guess they're having a bit of a moment.) Or, buy one for $4.99 at a Cuban grocery store. Its genius lies in the simplicity of its design. No bells or whistles. No plugging it in. Just two sticks that screw together into a "T." Inexpensive, lightweight, a cinch to clean. My aunt has an ancient scrub brush on the end of a long broom handle that she uses for her "schwooper." The previous owner of my apartment left a broom of sorts and I made it into my personal "schwooper." Simply, use old cotton cloths to wrap around the brush and throw them into a hot wash when finished. Use the rags dry for dusting floors or wet for a good scrub. As to what is the best cleaning solution? My aunt's favorite for tough jobs like floors is now my favorite, savon noir, a versatile, olive oil based liquid soap. Made in France - bien sûr. Add a capful to a bucket of hot water and you are ready for squeaky clean floors.
If you haven't added savon noir to your cleaning cupboard, you are missing out on a universal cleanser that in small doses can clean, degrease, nourish, and shine all washable surfaces in the house and even in the garden. It removes stains from clothing, can sanitize a cat box like nobody's business, and keeps pests off your roses. Look for the real thing made in France. Remember, a little bit goes a long way. It's time to kick the Swiffer habit.
Place the mop in the center of the cloth. You can use it either wet or dry. Starting on the bottom edge, fold one corner over the mop and then the other. Repeat on the other side folding each corner toward you.
Lifting the mop head slightly, move the mop toward you just enough to catch the loose ends. Push the mop along the floor, being careful not to lift it up. When one side gets dirty, then flip the mop and use the other side. When both sides are soiled, remove the cloth, rinse, dip into the hot soapy water, squeeze, and rewrap. 
Appreciating beauty in every interior and keeping things neat and tidy is not just a French cultural trait or a Japanese Shinto process. Together, these exercises are adaptable to most cultural lifestyles. Living in Europe has reminded me to surround myself with the things I love, use them every day, and enjoy my home. If Aunt Sophie's armchair does not "spark joy" for you - out it goes. Allow only quality things that are both useful and beautiful into your home. Use your good towels and expensive soaps. Having them languish in a drawer for guests seems wasteful to me. Invest in fine linens for they get better and better with every wash. In France, tidying up each week includes adding fresh flowers to a room, using the copper cookware you just polished, and line drying your sheets with a spritz of pure lavender water. It also means changing up the pillows in spring or replacing an old coffee table with a great find from a brocante.

A house is meant to breathe and change over time. 

This weekend, celebrate spring by tidying up. Declutter your closet. Move the furniture around in the living room. Purchase a bottle of French savon noir. Step back. Admire your work. And enjoy the beauty of your new space.  
À bientôt mon amie,

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I tend to hoard vintage French linens. I wait for just the right project. When inspiration hits, I know which fabric to use. I love this set of bowl covers with their matching enamel bowls for purchase in Le Shop made from the softest tea towel. I found it in a small charity shop in Amboise, a lovely French town on the Loire River. This past week, I designed several bowl cover sets and will begin making them up and adding them to my online shop.