Perla Servan-Schreiber, the brains behind Psychologies magazine, was born in Fez, Morocco, but moved to France to study at the Sorbonne – and stayed. She has written books about the positive side of growing old, as well as on one of her greatest passions, cooking. Her latest book, Enjoy, has been translated into English.
What prompted you to write about growing old?
Old age does not have a good reputation in our society, and for women it is worse.
So when I wrote Les promesses de l’âge, published when I was 75, it was because I had realised I was in my 70s but neither my body, nor my activities, nor my levels of energy had really diminished. I thought “this is incredible, I cannot believe it”.
We hear about how disagreeable it is to be old, but I have never heard of anyone writing about positive aspects of ageing.
I wanted to share that with the increasing numbers of women who are in their 70s, and who, if they are lucky not to have serious health issues, are active, seductive, funny and curious. I also wrote it for 30- and 40-year-olds who may be worried they are showing the first signs of old age, so they know that the losses of old age are more than made up for by the advantages of mental well-being.
Is this a new phenomenon?
I belong to the first generation which, if they are lucky to be in good health, can live through their 70s and 80s with a great deal of joy. There will be health issues but as long as they are not due to a serious condition, they can be coped with.
What are the advantages of being older?
I find you have a special sense of freedom, which I have never heard anyone talking about before.
You no longer need to conform to any social codes, unless you choose to. You are free to dress as you wish, wear make-up or not, grow your white hair long if you want to, as I have done. You are free of constraints. All the 15 or so women I spoke to who are over 70 agreed that comfort and well-being are now the most important aspect to choosing clothes.
You also know by now what is important to you and concentrate on the essentials. For me, that is having contact with others.
To do that, you must maintain a sense of curiosity and joy. Someone who is not welcoming and amiable is not pleasant to meet at 20, and even less so at 70 or 75.
Do you have to work at being curious and feeling alive, or does it come naturally?
Of course you have to work at it. You have to work at life, at love and at growing old. You have to approach it with imagination and enthusiasm, even though it is not easy to do so every day.
Do you try to make every day special?
I am in love with the ordinary, out of which I try to create something extraordinary. Seven-eighths of our day is made of activities we repeat: eating, working, sleeping. But if you make an effort, no day will ever be the same.
This is true in love. People think that if you stay with the same person forever, a distance will come between you. I am convinced it can be the other way round. I was lucky to spend 34 years with the same person, a man I adored, who made me feel good. We created magazines, we worked and lived together and that was an incredible joy. I love him even more now than the first day we met, but it has to be worked at. The word “work” does not please people, but what I mean is that you must think, anticipate, imagine, organise.
If all there is in your fridge is one egg, maybe out of date, and a bit of mouldy cheese, it will be impossible to create any pleasurable experience. But if you have spent five minutes buying a few good ingredients, you can enjoy preparing a meal, however simple.
You speak a great deal about meditation in your book. Is this a good tool for growing old?
I believe a great deal in rituals. I have one for taking off my make-up, which only takes four or five minutes when I am totally immersed in what I am doing.
I choose products for the textures and perfumes I like. I go for a walk early every morning, and I will not miss out on it.
Cooking is another ritual, which is both joyous and meditative, because when I cook, I think of nothing else other than the task in hand and of those who will eat the food I am preparing, and that moment of pleasure when I will share with others.
You have recently written a book of recipes, translated into English. Should you always have projects, even when you are retired?
Projects are important because they root you in life. They can be very modest and short-term. Not everyone has the chance to be able to write a book, but all projects are worthwhile. It is what is so difficult about this period, with Covid-19.
It is so difficult to plan ahead as we do not know what the immediate future is going to hold. And that is terrible.
What kind of recipes are in your book?
There are recipes for 10 to 15 people. I have a big family and many friends so I often cook for big numbers and recipes for two to four cannot always be adapted.
I am Moroccan so I come from a culture of spices and I am curious about other cultures, like Iran and India, and have included recipes from several countries. I am also passionate about seasonal products.
In winter, I love soups. In summer, I love salads. I like to use basic good ingredients. There is a salad in the book made with watermelon and celery. It is pleasantly surprising and agreeable.
So your recipes for eating are similar to your recipe for life – you make something extraordinary from the ordinary, and you cultivate the social contact so important for you by cooking for others?
That is absolutely right.
Does this way of living, appreciating the simple things of life and cooking, come from your childhood in Morocco?
Yes. I come from a modest family. We never went without, but everything had to be thought through so we had one pair of shoes in the winter and one in the summer. But at mealtimes we always felt rich, because eating well was not expensive.
We were eating organic food, though we never called it that, because pesticides and chemical fertilisers were not used.
My mother was a magnificent cook and everything tasted wonderful. The culture of cooking and sharing what you eat has remained with me.
The creation of Psychologies magazine, which was a success in many countries including China, Russia, and Spain, showed that all cultures, however different, want to know how to live well, and to try to understand the fundamentals of human relationships. The answer is, in the end, to live simply and not complicate everything.
Some cultures appreciate and savour this more than others.
In Morocco, the mint tea ceremony can last four hours. There is a relationship with time which is very different in France and which favours a philosophy of serenity.
In Western Europe, we need to learn simplicity and serenity.
Cultures dominated by money do not support the search for simplicity I am describing.
Perhaps there is a cycle to life, and the dangers to our ecology and the virus will bring us back to values where what we eat and how we live are important.