Vert-dant, or Going Green French Style

Posted on January 03, 2014 by Louise Tosun | 0 Comments

Green market, Limours, France

It is quite fashionable, and indeed, commendable, to go "green" these days. What we often forget is that due to poverty, modest circumstance and resources, and fewer time saving devices, many practices from the "olden days" were green as well as gracious. I learned a lot about this when I lived in France, where such practices continued well into the modern world. I like to think that some of it has stayed with me and colored - no pun intended - my view of the world and our obligation to pass it on to the next generation.

As a young woman, I studied in Paris at the Sorbonne and boarded with a genteel divorcée, who had a private house in the 16th arrondissement. I will never live in such grand surroundings again, I'm sure, but while my landlady had many suggestions of wealth, she practiced economy in a way that did not impair her lifestyle in any significant fashion.

Madame F. always washed her dishes in the dish-washer - after the boarders helped clear the table and put dinner away - after 10 p.m. when electric rates decreased with the demand. She had a "poche serviette" for each of us - a little cloth pocket shaped like a business sized envelope. Each had a different design, and after each meal, we returned our cloth napkin to its "poche," for the next meal. At the end of the week, the napkins were washed for the next week. This saved Madame from buying paper napkins and paying to dispose of them. Washing once a week, unless the cloths became really soiled, saved on water, electricity and soap. Perhaps very modest savings, but multiplied every night by millions of French men, women and children, I'm sure it was a significant benefit to the environment. While at her house, we could wash our hair every day, but were permitted only three baths a week. We managed just fine. I never felt unclean or unhygienic, and it must have saved her considerably on the water and fuel bills.

Some of her economies did make us laugh - the carpeting on the stairs only went as far as the third floor; boarders were on the 4th. Likewise, our bathtub was about three feet long. I'm only five feet tall, and I couldn't stretch out in it. We could drink wine, but not milk. However, I want it duly noted that she fed us like queens, and she was a terrific cook.

The French have other long traditions of treading lightly on the earth's resources. Reusable shopping bags, in the shape of baskets and more recently cloth bags, have been the norm for centuries. We've just beginning to really embrace the concept. Another example: it was common in France, from medieval ages up to the 1960s, for many villages to have a communal oven to bake bread, beets and other food that has a long cooking time. Communal laundries were often attached, so the women could do the wash while tending to the baking bread. These can still be found in many French villages (and some are still in use), if you know what to look for. The communal oven and laundry in Ville-Franche-Sur-Mer is by the deep "rade," or harbor, by the modest sail boats and can-only-dream-of yachts. At first my party thought it was a big trough, until a nice local set us straight.

You will often see photos of French farmhouses with beautiful copper pots hanging from the kitchen rafters. Did you know that these pots were treasured, and never thrown away? They were retinned, and the owner would have his or her initials engraved on the pot to ensure the tinsmith sent back the right one. 

A handmade, retinned, initial-engraved French copper pot from 19th century

Take a look at the "vélibs" (short for vélos libres, or "free bikes") in Paris - bikes that may be borrowed for a modest and refundable fee. They are so beautifully designed:

Vélibs - Complete with basket to tote you and your purchases, books, etc. around town

You can see these all over Paris, cutting down on traffic, pollution and gas consumption. Bike riding too, is of long tradition. I remember seeing my professor from the École du Louvre riding her bike to the museum, in her mink coat. My landlady, a woman in her sixties, used to ride her bike to work as well.

You don't need to ride your bike to work to help save the earth. But there are some simple ideas we can borrow from the French. Get out those cloth napkins - assign a different pattern to each member of the family, and only wash them if they are really soiled. Turn your own oven in to a communal oven - invite your friends over to bake their bread, and turn it into a party while you save on fuel and time. Let someone else host the next baking party.

The next time someone brings you a lily for Easter, or potted daffodil, save that bulb and replant it! Save your flower seeds, and see what you get when you replant. Re-oil your wooden utensils with a food safe oil to rejuvenate them and make them a pleasure to use again, instead of throwing them out. Learn to appreciate the patina of well-loved, well-used items in your house that may have been your mother's, grandmother's or even great-grandmother's. One of my most cherished belongings is a sugar spoon, with a grape vine pattern. My mother gave it to me. It came from her mother-in-law's (my grandmother's) house, but the pattern was not the one Grandma picked out as a bride; it was older, too, than she would have picked. So it must have been from Grandma's mother, or her in-laws' house. That makes me the fourth generation woman who has sat and served tea and coffee with this spoon, literally in times of great sorrow and great joy - just as they must have. I am honored.

Look around and see what you can repurpose. I remember feeling quite a rush of triumph when I realized that the sturdy pulp cardboard insert from some furniture my daughter had bought for her French apartment would make a perfect dish drainer! It did, and still does, and she just dries it out between uses. She didn't have to pay for it, it's recyclable, and she won't have to throw it out or otherwise try to get rid of it when she comes home.

Vintage linens, scarves and shawls are easy to repurpose. Old (or new, for that matter) kitchen towels can be easily turned into fun curtains that you won't find at Target, WalMart or Williams Sonoma. I used two dishtowels from Parlez-Vous Provence, added a simple casing (you could even use safety pins or iron on tape if a sewing machine is not available to you) and voilà, a fun and very French curtain for my country kitchen. I can always take out the casing, use it again as a towel, make a cushion out of it or a really sturdy napkin.

Use a lacy scarf as a sheer curtain for your door windows. Tack up a pretty linen with hand embroidery across your fireplace mantel as a pelmet, as you so often see in French country houses. Fold a favorite tablecloth lengthwise, and hang it on a tension rod for a valance. Take it down, wash it, and it's a tablecloth again. Remember, things are what YOU make of them, not the other way around.

So go green, and be very French at the same time. It's très facile being green.

À la prochaine,


Posted in France, French Decor, Going Green, Paris, Parlez-Vous Provence



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