Dana McMahan: Eat What You Want On Vacation — And Wear Skinny Jeans Home

French women don’t work out. And what do they eat? Baguettes, cheese, chocolate. You won’t find them sweating it out at a boot camp. Yet they’re rail thin.

I work out. I rarely eat baguettes, cheese or chocolate (except when on assignment — I’m a food writer). And like many women, I like to fit into a small pair of jeans. But I wanted it both ways when I spent a week in Paris with two girlfriends last summer. I intended to indulge in the best of the world’s food, but still wear my favorite jeans home — the cutest but most unforgiving pair. So I resolved to tackle a different type of workout every day in Paris, eat everything I wanted, and hope the jeans would fit in both directions over the Atlantic.

Paris intervened.

I had grand ideas — rollerblading, running up the stairs in Montmartre, power yoga. My friends wanted to throw in some boxing and ballet. Then? The days overflowing with food and wine and adventures left no room for workouts. To wit: Over a wine-drenched lunch with a couple of expats I took down the number of one’s personal trainer; he’d helped her lose 20 pounds. But I never managed to call him.

Even worse, I stood up a power yoga class — I’d signed up because it aligned with my sensibilities as a former power-lifter. The class was set for 9 a.m. Morning, announced by the scent of cigarette smoke drifting into my room from the street, came early.

The day before we’d taken a gastronomic stroll with the Paris Greeters program. A volunteer guide led us through a fromagerie, the Poilâne boulangerie, a wine shop and a market to shop for an afternoon-long picnic. We followed this with a jaunt up the stairs at the Eiffel Tower, and bike ride back across the city to collect more provisions for a dinner pique-nique in our apartment. The French music from the staticky little radio led to a late-night dance party in our living room. Even after a restorative coffee I couldn’t summon the energy to get to the class in the morning.

This was the first time I have ever skipped a workout. Feeling slightly guilty for my last-minute cancellation, we pedaled to the Marais for some shopping before a lengthy private lunch in the tiny La Tête dans les Olives in Belleville.

We feasted that night at Philou — just the kind of chalkboard-menu-on-the-wall bistro I imagine when I dream of Paris. We swapped bites of each course allowing us to each try nine dishes (not to mention the bite of the fig tart the gentleman at the next table insisted I try when I inquired about his dessert).

I had one day left to squeeze in a workout and debated even doing that. But all I’d managed to do this week was bike, walk, climb a few stairs, and row a bit around Lac Inférieur at the Bois de Boulogne. And if I’m being honest, even that was just an excuse to eat. We packed a picnic of baguettes, wine in plastic cups with peel-away lids, and macarons. After taking turns rowing a few hundred meters, we gave in to floating and the bliss of our lunch.


In fact, I gave in to the bliss every day. I didn’t deny myself anything. Macarons were a daily staple. I indulged in the baguettes that I can only dream of at home, pain au chocolate, tender veal sweetbreads, pungent cheeses, dessert every night, wine beginning at lunch and really never stopping, duck, steak, game, even the most deliriously good burger I’ve ever had the joy to sink my teeth into at L’Atelier du Hamburger Big Fernand.

Through all of this I gave myself permission to not surrender a moment’s thought to calories. Though I wasn’t working out, and was stuffing myself as if I wanted to turn my liver into foie, I felt magnifique. Men complimented our trio nearly, calling out to us as we pedaled by, stopping us on bridges to tell us we were beautiful. In this city of thin and chic women, I felt alluring, eating with abandon as I was, and smiling with unbridled delight all day.

In the end I made it to the last-chance workout, mainly because I was too embarrassed to cancel again. One of our trio had an early flight, so my remaining friend Tracy and I made our way to le Jardin Villemin to meet Iain Waite, a personal trainer (whose yoga class I’d skipped). The scent of yesterday’s wine wafting from our pores, we began jumping jacks with little enthusiasm. Intensely competitive in fitness at home I just wanted to get through this hour without embarrassing myself. Curious Parisians strolling by stopped to take in our activities.

Where was my usual overdrive? I guess it was back home, though not from lack of leadership. Iain was an excellent trainer — surprising me with new exercises and a good pace. He didn’t cut us any slack, and the athlete buried somewhere inside me under the avalanche of macarons could appreciate that.

But I was thrilled when the workout ended. It was time to eat. By dinner my pedometer told me I’d walked about 14 kilometers. I doubt that even burned the camembert frit at lunch.

Yet the next morning, when it came time to face the truth of the rich food I’d demolished all week, I pulled on my jeans and looked in the mirror. They fit just fine. In fact, they were just a little loose.

I think French women have the right idea. Maybe it’s time I move to Paris.

Feeling happy (and) pretty in Paris. Photo by Better Paris Photos.

For more by Dana McMahan, click here.

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