French Trysts

Secrets of a Courtesan

Kirsten Lobe

St. Martin's Griffin

Believe me. I didn’t set out to be a courtesan. Mon dieu! Who does? It’s not as though it was a lifelong dream. In fact, back in high school in Chicago’s Elmbrook, for all my puritanical behavior I could’ve been voted “Least likely to be a courtesan.” Let’s just say, had there been a “Least likely to get laid” category, I would’ve been the titleholder hands down! I was such a goody-goody that I was, I kid you not, nicknamed Vanilla by my classmates for all my uptight propriety—check the yearbook!
Let’s shoot ten years ahead, shall we? Last night, I found myself actually mentally debating, “Hmmm, what earrings are apropos for an orgy? Diamond posts or hoops? Definitely not hoops, they’re bound to catch on something mid–orgasmic fuck frenzy. . . .” Well, I think it’s apparent, that Vanilla title is long gone now, isn’t it? By the way, I went with the 2-carat posts . . . a far more clever choice in the long run, as the sexual gymnastics got so passionate I think I started riding a man in one zip code and finished him off in another.
Possibly necessary sidebar: Hey, don’t be afraid to admit you’re a little hazy on what the word “courtesan” really means. At one time I only had a vague idea from my college French literature studies. I, too, just had the broad-stroke general idea, that is until all this fell in my lap. So, let me give you the crash course. And keep in mind—as you take this in—what follows is an actual quote given to me by a more experienced Parisian courtesan as I began my own adventure into this milieu:
The Grand Courtesans were, throughout modern history, the women who were the most sought after, revered, and pursued by the wealthiest, most refined men of Europe. Their suitors were exclusively men of high rank and prestige, from the emperor himself to the bourgeois tycoon. All great and notable men fell under the incomprehensible spell of courtesans’ sexual magic and charms: diplomats, aristocrats, barons, counts, marquises, lords, vicomtes, ambassadors, imperialists, princes, kings, et cetera. In fact, the men who had the most power and could have any woman they wished found themselves willingly powerless at the feet of these magnetic women.
The most famous courtesans were referred to as les Grandes Horizontales—clearly a name not to escape subtlety or notoriety. The careers of these well-known courtesans became an important part of the social history of the French Second Empire, as they earned immortality and influence not only by their own remarkable talents and achievements, but also as the muses and companions of the most notable men of their time. Les Grandes Horizontales were not only themselves accomplished writers, playwrights, and social stars, but they also inspired, during their time, no less than the opera Le Figaro by Verdi; innumerable novels by Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Colette, Proust, Dumas, and Dumas fils; poetry by Baudelaire and Théophile Gauthier; music by Franz Liszt; paintings by the likes of Delacroix, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet, and Courbet; posters by Mucha; sculptures by Clessinger; fashions by Worth and Poiret; operettas, plays, etc. . . . as they were also the worshipped muses, the idealized women for the most creative minds of the French literary and artistic world.
Ooh la-la! Right? Tell me that’s not the fuel for fantasies! Now, back to how I came to embrace this lifestyle and its delicious enchantments.
I will readily admit, I have always possessed somewhat of a vicious curiosity—obviously that can get one into heaps of trouble. And you could safely say I am a ridiculously impatient girl. I hate to be bored and thirst for new experiences. I love to throw myself into situations that challenge, stimulate, and scare me. Note: not scare scare, like I’m foolishly swimming with sharks, a bloody carcass strapped to my back for fun, or running into oncoming traffic with a blindfold on for amusement. I think you get what I mean.
On reflection, I could wager that if you took my obsession with being a good, wholesome young girl and threw it together with my really active imagination, maybe someone could’ve anticipated this . . . someone with a lot of psychology degrees on the wall. So I managed to simultaneously rebel against myself and leap into a life that is very much like playing a role in a movie. Not so bad, really, as I’m the director, the star, and am in control of every scene (okay, not every scene; we’ll get to that). But, seriously, I do get to live a lifestyle that is extravagant even beyond my childhood fantasies. You can be sure, I have given this “My God, I’m a courtesan!” idea a lot of thought, because it’s clearly not something you circle under “career interests” when you search for a profession. I have psychologically, emotionally, and philosophically tried to unravel why I do this, and why I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty or ashamed.
I think you’ll be surprised to know I even consider myself a feminist. Or perhaps, better said, a truly modern young woman. I know it’s not a life for everyone, but it is a fantasy for more than a few women. As Anaïs Nin, one of my favorite writers, once said, “I’m a writer, I would’ve preferred to have been a courtesan.” She had a pretty good take on life, I believe, and I am equally convinced of her other famous line: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Put those two ideas together, add the attentions of a wealthy older man, et voilà—you have my life!
It is actually pretty damn empowering to realize that since I’ve embarked on this existence, I think I have bettered myself in virtually every way: I have become conversational in four languages; learned how to reach multiple orgasms on cue (my cue, merci!); have read the lion’s share of the Italian and French classics; become versed in opera (you name it—I can tell you composer, year, and original venue); have learned how to throw a formal dinner party for twenty at the drop of a chapeau; learned how to sail expertly, ride horses fairly well, ride men brilliantly well; can name the vineyard and year from a quaff of wine . . . and not to mention make a man come divinely. All the while acquiring confidence, knowledge, and assets. The truth is, for the time being, I enjoy it. I’ll explain. A bevy of sexual tales awaits, I assure you, but frankly, if I am going to confess all to you, I’d better bring you up to speed.
What feels like a lifetime ago now, I was your average all-American college student at Northwestern University. Studying for a master’s in French literature, quietly blending into the vast sea of other middle-class young women—all of whom had a passion for all things French as much as for devouring Ben and Jerry’s while watching Sex and the City. Yes, there was a smattering of earnest, arty boyfriends that amounted to nothing except the welcome and long-awaited loss of my virginity. Are you sitting down? I was a holdout until age twenty-three. Yeah, weirdish. Vanilla, alright. Anyway, after I finished my degree, it seemed a charming notion to round off my French cultural obsession by taking a summer job in Paris, as an au pair to a rather wealthy family living in the 16th arrondissement. Pourquoi pas?
With my suitcase jammed with a distinctly Midwestern wardrobe emblazoned with Gap labels, I arrived at my new job and my new life. I had a pretty brilliant setup: my own spacious bedroom and bath in the Chevaliers’ glorious apartment on Avenue des États-Unis, nannying from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. for a precociously adorable two-year-old, and pocketing a cool four hundred euros a week for my troubles.
Troubles? Well, yes, let’s just say, the wife, Béatrice, hadn’t managed to shed that baby weight after two years, and while being an attractive if diminutive woman, that kind of über-womanly figure is considered a crime in France—an intentional act of marriage sabotage.
So, she, well . . . hated me on sight, being that I’m about a meter taller and about half her body weight. Toss in the fact that her husband clearly had designs on getting me into bed, and you could say she “tolerated me” while he “lusted for me” would be putting it best. As he wasn’t exactly drop-dead sexy but did have drop-dead breath, I made it an art form to avoid his advances. Like when, get this, he “accidentally” entered my bedroom one chilly morning, clad in nothing more than his huge slippers and a smarmy expression.
I cut him to the quick: “Monsieur Chevalier, hmm, I guess that cliché, large feet—large penis, isn’t applicable in France.” Parfait.
I learned quickly in that single life-changing summer, everything from how to calm a screaming toddler to how to discreetly repel and endure the unwanted seductions of a married man. Still, I took it all lightly, as my main focus was just falling madly, crazily in love with Paris! So when that nanny gig ran its course, I took another and another, just too entranced with the City of Lights to even go home for Christmas. Frankly, I would be curious if anyone could resist the constant seduction of Paris, given the realization that if you just decide to stay here you could—spend your spring days sitting by the magnificent Fountain de Medici in the Jardins du Luxembourg listening to the soothing murmur of the water flowing as the sun shimmers through the tree canopy, sparkling diamonds of light off the water as the fragrance of the opulent blossoms in the gardens embraces you. All the while you sit in a peaceful reverie, enjoying the tranquillity, leisurely making your way through a fresh brie et jambon baguette, an ice-cold Perrier in one hand, a collection of Baudelaire’s poetry in the other, while the charming voices of playing children mingles like music with the ancient church bells of St. Sulpice, resonating in your soul as they toll the twelve strokes of noon. And that’s just lunch in one park, in one season! Imagine how many beautiful and varied visions just one park, say the Tuileries, can offer as it passes from day to night, from spring to winter. Then imagine how many thousands of breathtaking sights there are, how many new and delicious foods there are to experience, fragrances there are to smell, stories in history that each building and setting evokes. . . . The pleasures are endless, as Paris offers just a dizzying array of ways to fascinate, captivate, titillate, astound, and amaze you. For those with a taste for the new and unknown delights of this world, Paris is an addiction that has no antidote, a thirst that cannot be quenched, a lover that never disappoints.
You get it, right? Paris became my lover, my best friend, and my savior. This city grabbed hold of me passionately, and seduced me with its charms and secret pleasures, and I wanted nothing more than to remain drunk within its clutches.
To succumb to and embrace la vie française is a charming transition to experience, as the French live their lives with such a passion, it’s simply enthralling to share in it. A passion for living well, eating well, dressing beautifully, for music, for history, for literature, for art, for cooking, for making love, even for driving! The smallest act, whether it be laboriously debating the selection of just the most perfect cut of viande at the boucherie or the extreme care they pay to keep their skin radiant—it’s passion to l’extrême!
Par exemple: you know the sweet way we American children pull the petals off a daisy as we sit, starry-eyed, experiencing our first crush. And little breathy voices chant, “He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, etc. . . . he loves me!” In France this little rhyme is far more rich and expressive and totally captures the different way they look at amour. “Il m’aime . . . un peu (he loves me a little), beaucoup (a lot), passionnément (passionately), à la folie (crazily), ou pas du tout (or not at all).” Vive la différence!
And really, who isn’t utterly hypnotized by the mouth-watering aroma of freshly baked croissants filtering from a boulangerie’s open doors into the breeze. The mind-blowing architecture and staggeringly beautiful monuments soothe your soul’s deepest desires for history and aesthetic delights. Ah, yes. . . . The blooming gardens of the Tuileries, the glittering fountains of Jardins du Luxembourg, the elegant boutiques, the magnetic pull of spending an afternoon on a sunny café terrace. And the men! I honestly don’t think I was all that wild about men—felt the lure of their masculinity, a desire to discover what excites them—until I began living in Paris. Okay, I’m a late bloomer, but there’s more to it than that. There is a sensual intrigue about the way men and women relate here that doesn’t exist in the United States. It’s difficult to explain, other than that there is just a universal appreciation for the differences between the sexes. And that creates a mystique, a power that each sex celebrates and wields in relationship to the other. It’s partout (everywhere), as they say here—present in all interactions between men and women. Whether it’s simply a new mother buying fresh saumon at the poissonnerie or a young man serving an older woman her vin blanc at a brasserie, there is always an element of seduction. Really. From the florist lovingly stroking the stems of the tulips you have chosen to the tailor tenderly caressing a lapel, this culture exudes sensuality. Between men and women it is almost a tango, with the illusion of ambiguous flirtation but the understanding that it’s born of an unspoken dizzying, raw, wanton sexual desire.
Oh, don’t get me started; I get all hot and bothered just thinking about it. They don’t call this the City of Lovers for nothing.
Copyright © 2007 by Kirsten Lobe. All rights reserved.