This summer we finally realized my lifelong dream of going to France. I spent hours excitedly planning our 10 nights—6 in Paris and 4 in Normandy/Brittany region. After dealing with very severe health issues since Memorial Day until right before we left for the trip at end of June (horrific total body hives of unknown cause, several doctor’s appointments, blood tests, feeling helpless and debilitated, missing work, and another 10 days of unrelenting cough after the hives), I am so grateful and inspired by our memorable trip during which I finally felt healthy again.
As tourists, we enjoyed all the incredible history and sightseeing as we visited the Eiffel Tower, Arc De Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Giverny/Vernon/Monet Gardens and house, a cruise on the Seine, St. Chapelle, Versailles, Champ Elysse, etc.
After Paris we rented a car and drove four hours westward to stay at a Chateau De La Ballue in Bazouges-la-Pérouse, which was built in 1620 with the most breathtaking gardens and flowers. From there we spent a day with a guide in Normandy, profoundly humbled by our world history, an understanding of the immense casualty for many countries, and unmeasurable loss and grief for humankind. We visited Mont St. Michel in complete awe as all senses were engaged in disbelief of what humans can build with their bare hands 1000 years ago: smell the ocean, invigorated by the cool breeze, suppress the nerves from the incredible height at the top of the Abbey, hear calls of the seagulls, and feel our achy calves from climbing so many steps!
I indulged in 12 days of not cooking, enjoying French wines (sulfite free, delicious, and affordable) and cuisine, and yes, amazing pastries and desserts which were NOT sweet compared to what Americans are used to. As I inspected all the incredible dishes, took photos, and tried to chew and eat SLOWLY (highly unusual for me and my body), I was excited and inspired as I gained ideas for cooking which I hadn’t thought possible or at least was in my own routine making similar dishes most of the time.
Since returning back home, here are my 11 insights and inspirations as I savor our memories from each day of our amazing trip:
Perhaps it’s because we were in France, but it felt like everything tasted better. Dave, Claire and I joked that French onion soup was simply “onion soup” in France. At a nice restaurant, toast served with a can of sardines were so delicious, I could not believe why we don’t eat sardines at home. Many nights for dinner, whether we had beef stew, fish, or my favorite, duck, food was wonderfully prepared without heavy butter or creamy sauces. Always sautéed or steamed veggies were served with the main dish. I will never tire of a great cup of coffee and a freshly baked croissant for breakfast.
Quality over quantity, and presentation is KEY!
We enjoyed lunch at Laduree and Dave declared he had the best “club sandwich” ever! I remember when it came on the plate, it was two rectangular halves which probably equated to one half of an American sandwich. Thin slices of ham, turkey, sliced egg, and mayonnaise, yet my husband loved it. I had a Caesar salad with chicken, beautifully plated, few and thin slices of chicken breast with baby romaine hearts! Maybe food is just cuter and more fun to eat when smaller! I realized it takes time but even when I cook great meals, I almost never really think about presentation except when we have company or am hosting! I will be more mindful about how to present meals at night.
Walking and MOVEMENT is key to healthy living!
Despite unfortunately arriving in Paris on the 2nd of a 6-day heat wave across Europe (94-95°F daily), each day we took the metro then walked between 7 to 10 miles as we went from sight to sight. We climbed as much as 17 to 41 flights of stairs! While we did complain quietly amongst ourselves and eagerly returned at night into our air-conditioned hotel rooms, I had forgotten how great it feels to sweat, really sweat, and get “tired” from physical activity. Playing tennis is what gives me that same feeling every weekend. This amount of walking and climbing is obviously not realistic in our day-to-day life especially when working, but research and current science shows that it’s not just about exercise, but it’s consistent total body MOVEMENT that impacts our health. The French and Europeans carried their infants/toddlers in baby carriers next to us as we all climbed countless steps at historic sites and monuments. Elderly men and women also walked, natives and tourists alike. I am committed to daily walks after dinner with our dog and together, accepting that whatever frequency is better than none.
Assembling various ingredients creates a new dish!
One day for lunch, Claire ordered soba noodles with blanched Shitaki mushroom, broccoli, edamame, avocado slices, and some pickled cabbage slices. The noodles were minimally flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil, and the veggies were arranged beautifully. Light, healthy, flavorful, packed with protein and nutrients! I remember stating with confidence: “Hey, I can make this!”
Being engaged as a family requires we are focused, talking, listening to one another, and NOT just in same space each on our own devices!
While in France the days were long with daylight by 5:15am, and sunset at 10pm (not dark until 11pm). I wondered why we felt so close as family other than the obvious 24/7 togetherness without work and school separating us. What I realized was that the greatest difference was what we did after dinner. Instead of resting and “chillin” on the couch watching a show, or Claire in her room, Dave in the office, and I on the cough, each evening after dinner we walked from the restaurant somewhere, or even if back to the hotel, or to another sight, we were together walking and talking. Having at least 1-2 more hours together, before we retrieved to some individual down time only when back at the hotel or our room, allowed us to feel so close. One evening after our “picnic” dinner at the chateau, Dave and I enjoyed our wine moving from one garden to the next, feeling the breeze and talking about Claire and our life. I felt so connected to him, and will forever remember and try to recreate that by making sure we sit and focus on one another for at least 20-30 minutes every evening. Sounds easy but usually not prioritized in our evening routine.
Grateful Americans forbid smoke in public places!
The real disappointment is how much the French and Parisians smoke, especially the women. As we sat in cafes to enjoy the people watching and soaking in the culture, often I was overwhelmed by second hand smoke. Some areas it’s amazing to see the countless cigarette butts, but most of all as a physician I was humbled and grateful that in the US smoke-free is the norm in all public places! The health hazard is of concern to me, but perhaps all their walking and movement provides them additional health benefits? Curious what their cancer rates are.
Nature heals all over the world!
Whether at Omaha Beach and Utah Beach in Normandy, St. Malo, or just looking out into endless stunning cornfields in the French countryside, looking at ocean, water, trees, fields, and wow, the hydrangeas of all rich and stunning colors were simply a luxury for our senses and instilled a sense of incredible well-being for me each and every day. Humbled to be at the American Cemetery where our fallen Heros are forever honored overlooking the bluff at Omaha beach.
American norm for “sweetness” likely a result of using high fructose syrup, is unnecessary and hurting our health.
As we come across incredible boulangeries and bakeries, patisseries, etc, the gorgeous baked goods as well as desserts we indulged in at restaurant meals, all were incredibly delicious yet without what our American taste buds expected in terms of the level of sweetness. Every single time we commented, “Wow, it’s not “sweet!” Desserts and “sweets” can be enjoyed without a sickening level of “sweetness” that has caused the epidemic of sugar addiction to our entire population, worst of all our innocent toddlers and children of all ages. I will use less sugar and have become highly aware of what we can enjoy while re-setting our taste buds for what is “sweet enough”.
Experiencing “different” is a gift to life!
I am humbled and grateful as I know not every family can enjoy a trip to France, or anywhere outside of the country, or a vacation of this duration and magnitude. The most important lesson I emphasized to Claire, as I reflect on my own immigrant background and experiences in early childhood becoming an American, exposure to a variety of cultures, foods, languages, sights, experiences, and appreciating people of all religious and cultural backgrounds, makes one appreciate how amazing and rich life is, and how similar humans and people really are in our origins. Our values and intent to preserve and protect life, health, happiness, and love of children and the elderly should be more similar than different. Without exposure and experiencing “different”, we become more judgmental, narrow-minded, love less, less compassionate and open to others, and less “human” in our capacity and how we are created. By limiting ourselves to routines, only what we have known and experienced, we breed ignorance and judgment. Even if we are able to only travel to the next town, state, or region, as diverse as our country is, everyone has the opportunity to make new friends, try new foods, and read and learn about others through books and the internet. Let’s open our minds to open our hearts, or perhaps vice versa and open hearts first.
Time away from our routine is KEY for creative thinking and learning.
The brain conserves energy by trying to anticipate routines, so that we don’t have to focus whenever necessary. With my work schedule, I have learned that “staycations” don’t work for me. Invariably if I take a day off and we don’t travel, I spend the day working on work stuff from home during a “vacation” day, doing laundry, cleaning the house, picking up dog poop, cooking, and frankly back to my daily activities never really taking time to journal, reflect, workout more, and allow my brain to recover and think about something other than daily routine activities that do not lead to greater engagement with family, friends, or any aspect of my life other than the immense pressure as a surgeon/physician and all responsibilities in my roles at the hospital. I suspect everyone has the same challenges regardless of your job, roles, and responsibilities. Even if we can’t take days off at a time, small chunks of time of 1 or 2 hours, even minutes, journaling or reading can make all the difference.
Healing comes from within and GRATITUDE!
This vacation allowed me feel physically health again, and I became acutely aware each and every day, of the incredibly gift of this trip to France with all my senses. Separate from the trip itself, I was acutely aware of my interactions with my husband and daughter, even during the tense moments from heat, looking for water, jet lag, and flight delays. I am so grateful for all the moments we shared as a family laughing, or just being, and being together. Sharing experiences together, or even sitting and playing UNO, all were moments spent with people that I say matter the most to me. Yet Dave and Claire gets the least of my best energy and time each and every day as I devote time and energy to patients, families, colleagues and my organization. While they may never receive in quantity of time and energy what I would like them to have, it is absolutely my choice to give them at least in quality, the best that I have. I am grateful for my health again, and plan to live with awareness and intentionally in a way that “heals” from within.
What a wonderful experience and thank you for your great insights into life abroad and how we can benefit, as always! Brian