As it happened, the first true French girl I ever met was Natalie. She was living in an old renovated farmhouse at the time, just south of Paris, where her husband and a group of aspiring Truffauts were shooting a film on unrequited love and existentialism. (Only in France, no?) Natalie was wearing a close-fitting black skirt over a voluptuouslypregnant belly, a camisole under a sheer blouse, and suede ankle boots. Her long hair was pulled back with a tortoiseshell barrette, though several fugitive strands tumbled onto her shoulders in unruly wisps, and she wore not one bit of makeup.
She was perfectly content and undeniably sensual, and when she spoke, which she did sparingly, you could tell she had a superbly intelligent mind. It was just all there, that incredible mix of beauty and brains that seems to imbue French girls with such interesting faces, such refined strength. It would have been easy to suggest that Natalie's allure was a function of something physical (her hair, her clothes, her overall look). Too easy. Like so many French girls Natalie's je ne sais quoi was less about her look and much more about her history: She had been shaped by generations of independent feminine spirits (countless queens, courtesans, and traditional French mothers); by unspoken codes of social grace and courtly love; by a legacy of feminine guile and intellectual brawn--and at that moment, walking down a country lane in a land where the layers of civilization were so thick you could almost cut them with a knife, all I wanted to do was leave the planet and be reborn French.
That, alas, was not to be.
I did, however, have the opportunity to live long enough in France to ponder, with a certain privileged proximity, those essential qualities that make the French girl so French. And in coming to understand the core principles that shape her perception of the world, I began to wonderhow we, with our own cultural baggage and American juju, could integrate some of these qualities into our own lives and get in touch with our own inner French girls. Clearly we had to look past the fabled French style--"the look," if you will, that it is so easy to mistake for the defining feature of the French girl--and consider the expression of something much deeper, some basic truths about how she sees herself and carries herself in the world.
If you peel back the surface details, these essential qualities emanate like spokes into every aspect of the French girl's life: They influence how she carries herself, the clothes she wears, the men she brings into her life (or doesn't). They shape her self-image, what she reads, how and what she eats. They temper her experience of sensuality, her notion of time, and the tenor of her family life.
Like the smooth surface of a river stone, many of these qualities have been honed by centuries of culture and civilization. Still, many of them can be cultivated (to each woman, her own private garden), and in the following chapters we'll explore how. For now, just what exactly are these essential qualities, and how do they shape the French girl's perception of herself and the world at large?
She Is Self-Possessed
If you strip away the stereotypes and contradictions about her, one of the fundamental qualities associated with the French girl is her sense of self-possession. She is entirely, unequivocally self-contained. She is focused on living herown full life, following her own agenda and cultivating her actual self, rather than reinventing herself or pining away to be someone she's not. Throughout her life, she invests herself in learning and experiencing, not to change who she is, but to become more fundamentally and more fully who she truly is. Taking her cues predominantly from within--from the life of her mind and the exercise of her critical intelligence--she is imbued with a strength of character and a certain sensitivity. Because she is sure of who she is on the inside, she naturally, inevitably, appears sure of herself on the outside.
French Girls We Love
For listening to the voices and following her heart. La Pucelle (the maid) was honest and passionate and fearless--she really was the first guerrilla girl. We consider her short life of amazing accomplishment and we want to be better, believe harder, stand taller. See the 1928 classic silent film by Carl Dryer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, or the 1999 talkie, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc by Luc Bresson. Read scholar Regine Pernoud's Joan of Arc: Her Story or Vita Sackville-West's somewhat flawed but beautifully written Saint Joan of Arc. Or better yet, read Joan of Arc, Mark Twain's (yes, that Mark Twain) meticulous and lovingly executed biographical novel. He considered this his most important and finest work. Don't tell Tom and Huck.
There is also a lovely, dreamy paradox about theFrench girl, and it's this: in having a strong sense of self, she's able to let go of herself; that in being self-contained, she's able to be vulnerable--all without unraveling at the seams. It's that mélange of sensitivity and sang froid that so delicately lingers around her, like a subtle aura.
Every choice she makes underscores this basic relationship to herself: The French girl tends to her personal, private garden with dedication. By taking care of herself in ways both large and small, she is free to take care of others, free to focus on real living rather than rushing through the essentials. She understands that being of service to others is contingent on being of service to oneself. There is nothing accidental here, nothing random in her composure: It is the result of an awareness of--and commitment to--herself.
She Seeks Sensuality
There is also something more corporeal at play here--an inspired sensuality, an exalted simplicity that intoxicates us Anglo-Saxons when we visit France--and that is the premium the French girl puts on experiencing pleasure: Pleasure in ordinary moments. Pleasure in extraordinary moments. She does not confuse commerce with culture and the narrative in her life does not come from what she buys or sees on TV; rather, it comes from getting sensual satisfaction in the moment, from feeling an almost tactile pleasure and evocative power in the seemingly mundane. Remember Audrey Tautou in Amélie? She dips her handsinto sacks of grain just for the pleasure of how it feels. She relishes the crackle of a teaspoon breaking the crust of a crème brûlée. And she soothes herself skipping stones at Canal St. Martin.
Sensuality is so pervasive in her life that it is almost transparent. It is in the general texture of life, the patina of age that comes with time. It is in the baking of bread by hand, the aging of wine. It is in the color of inkwells or damask drapes, in the uproarious flamboyance of architecture. And it is fundamentally in the perfection of imperfections--the complexity and realness that create character, depth, and charm.
"One is not born a woman; rather one becomes a woman."
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
Being anchored in these priorities gives the French girl the sophisticated and sexy self-confidence that has put her in the Feminine Hall of Fame and made her an icon world-wide. She so fully and unequivocally inhabits her own space, and with such individualistic flair, that it seems as if even from the earliest age she has always been sure of who she is and where she's going. And perhaps she has. As Edith Wharton saw her, " ... she is, in nearly all respects,as different as possible from the average American woman. The French woman is grown-up."
LA DOUBLE VIE DE VERONIQUE (The Double Life of Veronique)
See this for the luminous, rapturous performance of star Irene Jacobs as Veronique, who reminds us that if we're not living with a truly sensual appreciation of everything around us, we're not really living at all.
She Practices Discretion
From her sense of self-possession flows another essential quality that shapes her world definitively: discretion. The French girl wears her discretion like a filter or a screen, and every decision in her life passes through it: what she wears, how she spends her time, who she lets into her life, what she says (and does not say). Discretion is an ongoing act of self-editing.
The French girl understands that even the smallest gesture is a choice, a purposeful selection of one path over another, one outcome over another, one impression over another. There is nothing random or haphazard about her. Everything is about personal choice and behind every decision is a deliberate, thoughtful reflex: Is this really me? Should I speak my mind or hold back? How should Iapproach this particular person? How much of myself do I reveal? What is the true value of this friendship, this experience, this thing? Does this make me feel good, sexy, alive?
Borrow a Page from the French Girl's Book: Self-Possession
Find your center and live there. Resist the pressure to be someone you're not; instead, focus on fully developing who you are. Don't get thrown off course by the prevailing winds of trend. Engage in real, in-the-moment pleasure, not mindless entertainment. Feed your mind. Cultivate impressions and opinions. Know what you think.
The French girl's discretion is often most apparent in what she chooses not to say. Like her culture she's private and nonconfessional. (We, on the other hand, are public and confessional. Sit two Americans on a park bench and you'll get at least one life story in five minutes flat.) By not revealing herself easily--her secrets, her inclinations, her inner life--she can sometimes appear self-centered. But in fact, what is often perceived as self-centered chez la femme française is actually the state of being centered on herself. And her distant allure is frequently the subtle glimmer of the exclusive world she keeps to herself.
History, with all its twisted tales, has taught the French girl that the intimate details in her world are a form of currency that she shouldn't just throw around. Being nonconfessionalby nature, the French girl largely avoids the full wrath of the gossip trap: The chitting. The chatting. The feasting on morsels of other people's pathos. She also understands that when you give away pieces of your own life, they go back into the oven half-baked, only to get re-consumed by other thrill-seekers of gab in an all-you-can-eat buffet. On a small scale it wreaks havoc in lives. On a big scale, it turns personal tragedy into tabloid entertainment and trivializes powerful moments.
The French girl does gossip (she's human, after all) but her culture respects privacy in ways that stupefy Americans and she, too, takes on this guard. Her tendency is to mind her own business. To be discreet. To think before she speaks. And because she doesn't need vicarious pleasures or the approval of others to exist, she often appears as if she could not care less what you think of her. And in fact, she doesn't.
"From their freedom of view combined with their sensuous sensibility they have extracted the sensation they call 'Le plaisir,' which is something so much more definite and more evocative than what we mean when we speak of pleasure. 'Le plaisir' stands for the frankly permitted, the freely taken, delight of the senses, the direct enjoyment of the fruit of the tree called golden."
FRENCH WAYS AND THEIR MEANING by Edith Wharton
It's no secret that Edith Wharton had a giant crush on the French. She lived in France for several years and had a front row seat on the workings of French culture. Despite certain dated notions, this little-known treasure of essays sheds the kind of light on the French--and especially French women--that only an astute observer and perceptive writer like Wharton could pull off.
The French girl is brought up to be polite, but she is not necessarily brought up to be a good girl. Lucky her--that Anglo-Saxon imperative to be liked (and be like everyone else) is not high on her list. Her culture exalts the iconoclast, the nonconformist, the artist and original thinker--all of which makes it more natural for her to say No to prevailing pressures. She is able to draw the line between who she is and who she is not on every level, so she is able to discriminate without ambivalence--whether it's about a skirt or a man that simply isn't right for her life. It also makes it easy for her to ignore the pressure to be all things to all people, and to appreciate the company of herself--with a book, a glass of wine--over the filler noise of other people who don't really rock her world.
This ability to say No--graciously, thoughtfully--reinforces her natural discretion: What she eventually does let into her life is more a reflection of herself--and bydefault more authentic. Even in her impulses there's a certain intention, but she's not quick to jump on any bandwagons. Like the painter who knows the rules well enough to break them (and create an oeuvre d'art), the French girl knows conventions well enough to move beyond them. Which means that when all's said and done, her life ends up custom-made, not made by custom.
"When I was growing up in the suburbs of Paris in the 60s and trying to figure out who I wanted to be, the essence of what it was to be a French woman seemed both obvious and elusive. It was not something you could buy via the right pair of shoes or pants or haircut--although those things definitely helped. It had to do with sexual self-confidence, and with a deep conviction that being a woman was different in every way from being a man. You recognized it immediately in some women--and not just in Paris and on the pages of Marie Claire and Elle, but even in tiny, obscure French provincial towns ... . The essence of French femininity for me: brainy, erotic, self-confidentand vulnerable, yet eminently in control."
The Art of Saying No
Having discretion means never having to say you're sorry for saying No. It means being able to gracefully say No without remorse, guilt, or making excuses. It means not saying Yes when you really want to say No (then backpedaling your way into what you really want through white lies and entanglements).
The French girl has mastered the art of saying No by rejecting the "shoulds" that throw her off her personal path and waste her time. That includes advertising that lures her into the pastures of self-doubt and friends who drag in drama.
(Are they really essential friends in the first place? As Bette Davis once said, "Yes, burn your bridges!") No (non!) is one of the most useful words in a French girl's vocabulary. Seize the moment or it will most definitely seize you.
She Takes Time
"I abhor the digital watch!" Chantale once exclaimed while glancing at a display case. "The analog watch is so much more human, with its hands going around the dial like the earth going around the sun. Did you know that digital time is measured by the 9,192,631,770 oscillations per second of a cesium atom?" (Frankly, I did not.) She sighed and rewound the tiny stem on her analog watch. "Who needs that kind of pressure?"
The French girl's notion of time is that of a flâneur--astroller, one who does not go places with a particular objective or precise schedule but allows the ambling course of general intentions to guide her into unplanned encounters and special unexpected pleasures. In her world, time is not money. Time is life. As Wharton once described it, real life is deep and complex and slowly developed, and has its roots in fundamental things. And you cannot experience those fundamental things, or true pleasure in life, without taking your time.
These fundamental things to which Wharton refers are the backbone of ritual, and by their very nature rituals are about time: They honor time. They take time. And they've existed over time (lifetimes, that is). We're not talking about grandiose or ceremonial rituals (though they can be either) but rather the countless small rituals that imbue ordinary life with pleasure and meaning: The family meal. An hour of uninterrupted solitude. The pilgrimage back home. The monthly evening out with an inner circle of friends.
Borrow A Page From the French Girl's Book: Discretion
Think before you speak. Leave some things unsaid. Respect secrets. Consider your life your personal currency--and invest it wisely. Resist the impulse to turn over other people's stones. Cultivate the art of saying No with mindfulness. Make decisions from your own center. Be wary of shoulds. Exercise deliberateness in all decisions. Stay on the high road but make room for compassion. Bring unconventional wisdom into your life. Go gently against the grain.
Borrow a Page from the French Girl's Book: Time
Don't take short-cuts. Don't multi-task. Do one thing at a time, completely, in the moment. Remember that time is not money, it's your life. Let go of the desire to fit everything into a day. Take time for yourself. invest your time in what is personally relevant and meaningful, because time, in the eternal scheme of things, passes swiftly. (Remember how fast you grew up, how fast your children grow up?) Keep each thing in its place. Work at the office, play at home. Toss the digital watch; go analog.
Each small ritual involves an investment of time, and there is no greater return than the investment one makes in oneself. The French girl understands that time is immutable and that she, on the other hand, is not. By taking quality time for herself she's free to give it back to others. And because she puts her time into high-yield meaningful things, the return on her investment is not measured in monetary value or social gain but rather in the deeply satisfying pleasures of the moment.
This is not to say that the French girl has the patience of a monk. She does not. She sometimes drives like a bat out of hell, would park in your kitchen if she could find aspace, and cuts in line (a French speciality), but when it comes to the essential things in life--the personally relevant, the intimately clear--she does not rush. She does not force today what can get done tomorrow. Time is relative: life is short, memories are long. To all things a season, quite literally.
French Girls We Love
For being a perfect combination of femininity and intelligence, sophistication and sensuality, heat and light. As rocker Patti Smith once said of Moreau, "She's so self-contained, she could start a forest fire. Anna Magnani was great. Piaf was great. But they were so much emotion. Jeanne Moreau, she's got brains. It's like she's got an intellect in her movement." Precisely. See Jeanne Moreau in Louis Malle's Les Amants (The Lovers), Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and Tony Richardson's Mademoiselle, for starters.
She Values Quality and Authenticity
My friend Frédérique embodies that very French principle of quality over quantity. She has an almost singular precision in the way she dresses (a closet full of just the right clothes), in what she owns (things with meaning, things that evoke memories), in all the things that inhabit her world. Even objects that are propped up against a corneror thrown onto the floor of her country home (a battered hoe, a pair of muddied, well-worn boots) have a certain particularity about them, as if they were each imbued with a soul. Less is truly more, as long as it's an expression of quality and authenticity. She resists the expendable, the disposable, the trendy, the faux. She knows that having too much choice does not necessarily give her more ways to define herself. She prefers the singular wild flower to the pre-made bouquet. The small car to the big machine. She invariably buys one perfect high-quality dress and not several less satisfying, on-sale ones. And she instinctively knows how to mix and match with natural creativity.
The French girl's preference for quality over quantity ties directly into her ability to say No: No to excess in people, things or ideas; No to what doesn't grace her world. Quality over quantity is not just about material things. Who inhabits her world, who feeds her mind, who's allowed into her private garden? The French girl would rather spend time alone than with people who simply fill a void. As Frédérique puts it, "Give me Proust or a good short story over idle chatter any time."
How to Shop Like a French Girl
It is impossible to shop American-style with Frédérique because instant gratification is not part of her gestalt. Neither are credit cards. If she can't afford it, she won't buy it. If it doesn't fit (or make her feel good, or flaunt whatshe's got), she won't wear it. If she can't find it, she won't compromise. If she loves it, she won't toss it. She reuses it, rethinks it, lets it age.
Like Frédérique, Anne is also influenced by the natural constraints of geography. "I shop mainly in the center of Paris," she says, "next door to my office or flat. I hate big stores and I have no car: I shop as I walk, which limits the quantity of my shopping as far as holding bags is concerned! If I'm on my way to a business meeting I might stumble upon a new pair of shoes, or a beautiful silver ring, or an old crystal bowl. Paris is full of unique opportunities, and to see them you really have to live in the city, not just speed through it on your way to somewhere else."
"The beauty that addresses itself to the eyes is only the spell of the moment; the eye of the body is not always that of the soul."
When the French girl shops, it isn't a solitary act of buying something new. It's part of a lifelong process of editing her environment, making small but meaningful additions or adjustments to her home, her closet, her life.
When you shop like a French girl, you buy only one of anything--and make sure it's the best quality you can afford. You know what you want and where to find it (andif you don't, you learn: You have your carnet d'adresses filled with details on special shops--where to buy those velveteen pants, that whimsical frock coat, those fetish shoes or the lofty Viennese hats. Where to find those private twice-a-year sales and exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime deals in unmarked loft warehouses, where the French girl's passion borders on frenzy). You update with accents that are both unique and timeless. Crimson linen napkins or vintage porcelain to use with your grandmother's old ivory tablecloth. A distinctive antique watch or flamboyant scarf to nuance your specific look. An Italian leather portfolio or South American satchel to carry to meetings. You invest in authentic things of quality that will endure and you focus on what's essential. And when you do find those essential things that work for you, you jump. "There is an antique shop I love on the rue Oberkampf," says Anne. "I look at the window every day, just a glance, and if something attracts me I buy it right then, otherwise I will miss it and regret it all my life!"
While you're sensitive to the winds of change, you're not prey to the whims and persuasions of every fad and ad. What's in or out is less important than what's you: your passions, your personal style.
She Cultivates Her Own History
One afternoon I stumbled into my friend Helene, who was off in her high heels to march the streets in protest over threats to socialized medicine. "Inconvenient but imperative!"she shouted as she waved me off on her way to the metro, brandishing a handmade banner.
Fine and Ordinary Things
The French girl understands that luxury is not about glamour. It's about beauty in ordinary life. It's about great power in small things. Proust had his madeleine. Colette had her pens. She also had a wealth of other writing accoutrements she described in loving detail:
"A pad of virgin blotting paper; an ebony ruler; one, two, four, six pencils, sharpened with a penknife and all of different colors; pens with medium nibs and fine nibs, pens with enormously broad nibs, drawing pens no thicker than a blackbird's quill; sealing wax, red, green and violet; a hand blotter, a bottle of liquid glue, not to mention slabs of transparent amber-colored stuff known as 'mouth glue'; the minute remains of a spahi's cloak reduced to the dimensions of a pen wiper with scalloped edges; a big inkpot flanked by a small inkpot, both in bronze, and a lacquer bowl filled with a golden powder to dry the wet page; another bowl containing sealing wafers of all colors (I used to eat the white ones); to right and left of the table, reams of paper, cream-laid, ruled, watermarked."
The French girl's inner strength and her sense of self-possession are honed by a relationship to history: not just her own personal history, with its peaks and valleys, its particular geography; but also to her culture's collectivehistory. She has two thousand years of history at her doorstep, for starters, and reminders on almost every street that heads literally rolled down the cobblestones in bloody revolution against the hubris of royalty. The value of memory and political engagement is passed down at a young age, and she carries it into her adult life.
And so the French girl is a political animal in the best sense. She has a long memory and an unwavering appreciation for hard-won privileges and a drive to maintain them: Her rights, her children's rights, human rights ... The French girl has conviction and opinions and she expresses them wholeheartedly in the streets, high heels and all. Says Helene, "There is nothing more unfashionable than political apathy."
Ironically, over the years Natalie, this complex and intelligent woman, would teach me the enduring truths behind certain clichés. Like beauty is more than skin deep. Think before you speak. Don't wear your heart on your shirtsleeve. Be true to yourself.
On many occasions I'd watch Natalie dismiss the images in fashion magazines ("Fairy tales!" she'd laugh, looking a little bit like a lustrous Snow White herself), read voraciously, excuse herself in the middle of an event to take a little nap "because I feel I must," and wear the same three things in hip and varying combinations over the course of several days. I watched her eat with a certain lustful, guilt-free pleasure, refuse to wear a watch, and get passionate about politics or about simply being alone. I admired the fact that she could hold her alcohol (lots of it), make a great quiche with half a cup of flour and one egg, and speak Latin because "it's beautiful, and why not?" To say that Natalie was self-possessed is an understatement: She lived her life willfully but mindfully and one day, without realizing it, she summed up her French girlishness in one single line:"If you stay true to yourself, you will always remain on track, even if that track takes you off the beaten path, to places you could not possibly imagine."
French Girls We Love
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR
For turning the lights on with The Second Sex and for giving Jean-Paul Sartre a run for his money. Philosopher, novelist, essayist--Simone de Beauvoir is known as one of the twentieth century's most interesting and important women. Her memoirs reveal an independent, self-defined woman who made conscious (if existentialist!) choices regarding love and work, her path as an intellectual and a writer, and of a lifestyle informed by brutal honesty and complete freedom. She was unapologetically committed to Sartre, who by all accounts was no picnic of a life's companion, and even chose to be buried in the same grave. We love that kind of love and we love her fierce individualism. Read The Second Sex, of course, as well as her first novel, L'Invitée, a fictionalized account of one of Sartre's early affairs. In it, the motto of the protagonists, who represent de Beauvoir and Sartre, is: "You and are simply one. Neither of us can be described without the other.
ENTRE NOUS: A WOMAN'S GUIDE TO FINDING HER INNER FRENCH GIRL. Copyright © 2003 by Debra Ollivier and Lark Productions. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.