By Suzanne Saxe-Roux
There are a variety of things Americans have learned from the French, but when it comes to closets, it is not one of them. For the past two years, my husband, young daughter and I moved to France to live in a small country village and take time off from our life to rejuvenate and figure out the next phase of life. Our goal was not specifically to simplify, but to live a different life that would provide balance unknown to most professional dual-career couples. Simplification however comes in many forms, and learning what the French have to teach us is what we were after.
French homes, many of which are hundreds of years old, all have one thing in common: no closets. They just aren't built. Gorgeous wooden armoires, tall as the ceilings, new modern creations, and cupboards are used, but not closets.
Moving into our home for year-round living, we had to figure out some method to handle all of the clothes, books, and work supplies we had mailed from California. We didn't want to invest in furniture, but instead pulled upon our college day resources and nailed heavy-duty antique hooks on the wall and purchased old coat racks with character for hanging clothes. This worked fine until all of our winter clothes arrived by post in large boxes. Figuring out where to put the additional clothes was one problem, but the fact that they were winter clothes (heavier, thicker, and bulkier) posed another.
With no closets, there is just only so much room. Trying to stuff old jeans and winter coats into the back of a closet was not a possibility; there was no closet. Hanging them on the coat racks and hooks just wouldn't do (the weight was more than they could take) — thus the reason closets were built. However, here we were and we had to figure out what to do before the hat racks tipped over and the hooks came out of the wall.
By necessity, we decided to clean out last season's clothes. Yes, no, it fits, it's too small, it doesn't flatter me, do I look fat? All these questions we went through while deciding if the object was worth packing away. My daughter's wardrobe luckily changed every six months as she grew taller. Next winter, the jeans would definitely be too short and the coat, well maybe? Convincing her however that the red cowboy boots would be too small, took time and the promise of a replacement. With this completed, we thought we could fit the clothes on the racks and in the drawers.
Not needing an assortment of corporate clothes, my husband and I chose a week's worth of outfits we might need and hung them on a rod pushed between the plumbing in a tiny cubbyhole under the stairs. Our major corporate wardrobe, which we can barely remember, was left in storage in California. That's another story about hanging on to stuff you don't need or want.
Living in the French countryside, our need for clothes has been reduced to a few basic items with some wonderful scarves and accessories to create the sense of a lá Française. Not being bombarded by beautiful stores and the newest fashion, I've been able to not be enticed to buy, buy, buy and get away with a spring and autumn shopping trip for those must have peach colored capris and black leather boots. It's a very different experience from my frequent, "I'll just pop in," trips to Nordstrom's. These trips also spur us on to getting rid of something else. My husband's favorite sweater he wore all winter was great last year, but now it looks tattered, full of little balls, and basically old and worn out. With little argument he agrees to replace the old with the new and we are all happier.
Each season we replace our coat racks, hooks, and drawers with the next season's clothes. If it doesn't fit in our small space, we start over, clean out and get rid of something. Twice a year in our village, a "vide de grenier" ("clean out your attic") sale is hosted in the Place du Marche. At 8:00 on a sunny Sunday, families come out with boxes of outgrown clothes, bikes, knickknacks, toys and books. By 5 P.M., what is not sold can be donated to charity and we all leave with some money in our pocket and usually more books and toys that Zoe has bought with the money she earned.
This works great for clothes because our needs and space are less, but when it comes to books, the whole family is a little less disciplined. "Let's just get another bookshelf," my daughter says after reviewing her collection of over a hundred French comic books. A library would be wonderful, and we do have the school library nearby in French, but when it comes to English books we have to buy them. Luckily Amazon now has tons of used books to buy that are stacked up around our office, but when it comes to paperback novels, I found the solution. A used bookstore in a nearby village accepts my English novels and I get new ones in return. Zoe sells a few comic books and gets a few more as well. We give, we get, and we pay just a little and my daughter is learning about buying and selling.
I have to say however, living without closets feels somewhat Zen-like, requiring us to clean out our clothes at least twice a year, donate, recycle, pack away for the winter and replenish for the summer. This alone is important for the psyche and soul to feel free versus cluttered.