Romance, French Style
A hot late afternoon in July. My “kind of” French boyfriend—let’s call him Jacques—suggests we have a drink at Le Select, that famous café on the boulevard Montparnasse frequented by Picasso, Man Ray, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway and featured in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. How romantic can you get? He wants me to meet a friend of his, he says. “Fine.” I beam. “I’m always up for meeting new people.” I didn’t know it then, but I was part of a setup that was to change my life.
* * *
What I didn’t know when I accompanied Jacques to Le Select was that he and his pal had already made a gentleman’s agreement. If his friend and I liked each other and wanted to go out together, Jacques would “accept” (understatement: he’d be deliriously happy). The reason: Jacques was not into commitment and was eager to go on to the next girl. I was toast. (I’d be tempted to say “French” toast.…) Neither Jacques, nor I, nor the friend I was casually meeting could imagine that this encounter would result in a Franco-American courtship, marriage, a stepson and two sons, and five grandchildren.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. If, in writing about romance à la française, I start close to home, what could be more natural? I grew up in a small town in Iowa, and the chances I’d have a romance in Paris starting in a famous café in a magical and historic setting were frankly not high—until I decided upon graduating from the University of Michigan to purchase a one-way ticket to Paris (brilliant move!).
Romances That Start in Cafés
In the early seventies, it was a cinch for an American to find a job in Paris, and I did—several, in fact. When I wasn’t working (mostly as a secretary, which was worse than unfortunate for my bosses, who practically paid me to leave), I was doing more important things, such as hanging out in cafés and meeting people. Now, that was joie de vivre.
The fateful meeting Jacques arranged at the café was no more than one casual rendez-vous among others. I took one look at his ami and had two thoughts: (1) this isn’t going to be fun, and (2) what a pity—he’s good-looking. That was true. He was slim and handsome with blue eyes and good features, and nicely dressed in a blue blazer and tan chinos. But what a dark look. Jacques, I grumbled to myself, had done some serious miscasting, thinking he could join Ms. Open Smiley Face with Mr. French Frown. I reminded myself to give him a big piece of my mind next time around. For immediately after making the introductions, Jacques departed, waving a cheery good-bye. I didn’t know the good-bye was forever, and I didn’t know I’d been set up. All I knew as his compatriot and I settled down on our wicker chairs was that I’d give the whole ordeal no more than fifteen minutes—maximum.
One hour later we were still there, and the Gloomy French Scowler had me chortling and chuckling at almost every word that came out of his mouth. Was it what he said or that his droll remarks were so out of sync with the expression on his face? Deadpan humor, I decided. I have a weakness for it.
We decided to prolong the evening and repair to the next-door pizzeria for dinner, where during dessert we discovered a mutual love for chocolate. That settled it. Funny, good-looking, loves chocolate. And a gentleman. He picked up the bill, escorted me home, opened the car door (I may be a feminist, but I like attention!), and didn’t make any moves, the way most of the other fellows I went out with would have. I wondered why.… A few days later he crossed town to bring me a record player, trudged up six flights of stairs, and still made no advances. I began to see a strategy: he wanted me to wonder. Clever, I thought. I have a definite weakness for clever.
I soon found that Philippe (by now he had a name instead of the French Frowner or the Guy from the Café. In fact, he had a long one, Philippe Jean Pierre André) is opinionated. He has a point of view on everything, which he articulates clearly with nary a shred of political correctness. So refreshing. To add to this, not only did he not mind my disagreeing with him, he encouraged it. He taught me, among other things, that sparring is stimulating and fun when you do it without getting nasty and personal. An art form, one might say. Very French.
So, as you can see, this was hardly one of those film romances where two people meet, their hearts instantly go pitter-patter, and they walk off into the setting sun. What did happen was that I put off a trip to Argentina (my après-Paris fantasy at the time) and stayed to go out with my new boyfriend, whom I greatly preferred to the “now toast” Jacques. Not only did the faux curmudgeon make me laugh, but he turned out to be a walking encyclopedia. “What’s that monument?” I’d ask, and he’d tell me when it was built, under what king, for what reason, and supply the whole historical context as he did so. And he wasn’t pedantic! I could cast more praise his way, but I don’t want to make anyone jealous (he’s a great cook, he helps me in the kitchen, he offers me flowers and not only for anniversaries, he’s the most considerate person I’ve ever met, he’s…). Okay, okay, I’ll stop, but not before saying that he never did become a bore, and the combo of the deadpan face and what one friend called “quiet wit” has never ceased to fascinate, frustrate, mystify, and amuse me.
Oh, yes, he can still summon the scowl.
A dear American friend of mine met her French husband in a café as well, and it was, she tells me, love at first sight. “I was sitting on one of those long banquettes at the Café Danton reading an Agatha Christie. I’d been in Paris for nine months working as an au pair, but I was lonely. I looked up and saw a guy sit down three tables away. He kept glancing at me, and I thought, ‘Oh, no, another one trying to pick me up.’” Then, she continued, the man, who had on “a rusty-brown shirt in terrible taste,” stood up, came to her table, and asked her what she was reading. The shirt may have been unsightly but she found its owner handsome with “incredible eyes and an appealing deep voice.” He turned out to be French (up to then most of those interested in her hadn’t been), they started talking, he invited her out to dinner in one of those ten-franc places that existed at the time. “We hit it off immediately—it was definitely a coup de foudre [love at first sight].” Of course, this being France, the story had a hitch. As things progressed, she learned that he was (unhappily) married. You might think that at this point she threw something at him and trounced off, mais non. She was, she says, too deeply in love to care. He must have been as well—three years later he divorced, they married, and they are still together forty years later.
Meeting in a café, whether you’re being introduced or whether you happen to strike up a conversation with someone and it goes from there, is hardly uncommon. Even though their number has plummeted from two hundred thousand in 1960 to forty thousand today, cafés are a French institution par excellence and, pre-Internet, the place to go. After the war, many writers, the most famous of whom were Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, frequented cafés simply because they were warmer than their freezing apartments. In Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the café scene was lively, with students shuttling back and forth between the numerous spots. Hélène Véret, former photo editor at Life magazine, remembers, “The Flore was too expensive and too intellectual, so a lot of us went across to the street to the Royal Pub—which now houses Armani.” She also recalls that in the provincial town she grew up in, young girls didn’t go to a café alone. The first time she and her friends went to one, she says, “We were so proud. We got all dressed up in white gloves and felt rather sinful.”
Whether for a setup or by serendipity, cafés, bistros, and brasseries can be incredibly romantic places to meet. Why? Because you’re in one of those “you never know what can happen” scenarios. One recent night, Philippe and I returned to the Select, as we do from time to time, where I watched a pickup attempt play out in front of us. A beautiful young, blond French girl dressed in black with high black boots strolled in. She didn’t seem to be looking for anyone, chatted with the waiter, ordered a glass of wine, and sat alone on the banquette serenely and self-confidently. She wasn’t conventionally pretty but had something drop-dead attractive and intriguing about her. One of the two young men at the adjoining table couldn’t keep his eyes off her as he chatted with his friend, and finally, when he could no longer resist, he approached her. She talked to him briefly, smiled, and the conversation finished just as her boyfriend walked in and sat down. The disappointed suitor nodded to her as he left, and I couldn’t help wondering if those two might not see each other again. That’s what I like about the French and romance—you never know. Anything is possible.
In one of my favorite French films, Le Vieux Fusil, Clara, played by Romy Schneider, dines in a grande brasserie with Julien, a surgeon, played by Philippe Noiret. The film tells the story of a tragedy loosely based on the 1944 massacre by the SS of the inhabitants of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in the Limousin, but before the unspeakable disaster unfolds, the flashback of their first meeting shows Julien, impeccable in a well-cut suit with a flower in his buttonhole, and a resplendent Clara, in a stylish hat with a black veil and black outfit that accentuates her perfect figure. The bespectacled Julien is clearly overwhelmed by Clara’s beauty. The café scene is the prelude to their romance, marriage, and a moment of joie de vivre and happiness before the brutality of war changes everything.
The French Kiss
Cafés, as I said, are perfect places for budding romances, but almost anywhere in the French capital will do. Paris is a made-to-order setting for love and kisses.
Robert Doisneau, whose photos of Paris and its people are emblematic, captured the French kiss at the Hôtel de Ville in a picture that has become the symbol of “romantic Paris.” Nothing’s changed since he snapped that photo. Take a stroll around town: you’ll see couples kissing on bridges, in cafés, in parks, on buses, on billboards … even in cemeteries. I had never deemed a graveyard a locus for romance but had to reconsider after practically smashing into a couple locked in each other’s arms, embracing among the tombs in the vast and poetic Père Lachaise Cemetery in the east of Paris.
Our son David and his girlfriend, Rachel, were featured on one of those three-meter-high billboards in the metro kissing in front of the “new town” of Marne-la-Vallée, where the Disneyland Paris theme park is located. Obviously the city fathers, when cogitating on promoting their town, thought a handsome, young romantic couple would be just the ticket, and David and Rachel were only too happy to oblige. How hard is it to be paid to kiss? And do several takes? It was probably one of the most fun jobs either of them has ever had. As for me, what a strange and wonderful feeling to see a member of the family plastered all over the Paris metro.
Some Americans—maybe other nationalities as well—are surprised by what they call PDA (public display of affection). It’s one of the easiest things to catch on to in this culture, as the renowned humorist Art Buchwald attested in his memoir I’ll Always Have Paris, in which he wrote about courting his future wife, Ann: “Ann and I walked through Paris late in the afternoon, late into the night, and early in the morning—stopping every few feet to hug and kiss. Not one person objected, and even the gendarmes nodded their approval.” Doing what he did in Paris—kissing his beloved on the steps leading into the metro or “better still, rubbing her back at the Sacré-Cœur overlooking all of Paris”—would, he wrote, have been considered inappropriate behavior in New York City, and, as for Los Angeles, “the only place you could steal a kiss was when you were stalled in traffic on the freeway. In Paris, the citizens positively approved of open displays of affection at any location.” I have a book called The Best Places to Kiss in Paris and, after reading it, concluded there’s really no place not to kiss in this city (well, maybe in church, unless you’re getting married. The authors do, however, suggest behind a church, in the cloister of Saint-Séverin—if you try and succeed, let me know!).
The French kiss all the time and everywhere. Grandparents kiss children, children kiss each other, straight men kiss. Friends give each other la bise, a brief, light peck on the cheek whose number depends on whether you’re from the capital or the provinces (or other factors, none of which anyone can figure out). Deep in the provinces, it’s four kisses, two on each cheek. In Paris, it’s often one perfunctory kiss on each cheek. And some people, I can’t figure why, give three kisses. Maybe a compromise? More formal and less common, the baise-main is a gentle skimming of the skin as the man bows slightly and takes the hand of the married (not unmarried), gloveless (no gloves for a kiss) woman. A baise-main can take you by surprise. Suddenly your hand has been lightly lifted, and by the time you understand that the gentleman is rendering a brief homage, it’s over. Who practices the baise-main? Mostly people from traditional backgrounds, and mostly men “of a certain age.” My husband doesn’t do it. My sons wouldn’t even consider it. Some women find it positively feudal. I like it.
Do you know how to say “French-kiss” in French? It’s rouler une pelle (literal translation: “roll a shovel”!). Well, you get the idea. Hardly romantic—and vulgar in French. I asked my husband why. He couldn’t give me a reason but confirmed the coarseness of the expression and added, smiling roguishly, “The point is not to say it, but do it. It’s the only way to kiss.” Voilà.
We Americans may have a hard time figuring out the bise or the baise-main, but the French have a hard time figuring out our back patting, which looks every bit as strange to them. In her brilliant chapter “Conversation” in Cultural Misunderstandings, Raymonde Carroll writes about the “patting on the back, against which the French body rebels.” For Carroll, the back pat at the end of an embrace between two persons of the opposite sex is a clear signal that their relationship is “not a sexual or romantic one.” All of which is rather dreadful to the French. “The back patters don’t really connect, or only with the upper part of the body. They’re physically close but take the utmost care to turn their heads so their faces don’t touch,” one clearly mystified Frenchman observed.
A Romantic Day in Paris
In the morning:
Have a cup of tea in the Musée de la Vie Romantique, rue Chaptal.
Or get a view of Paris as you sit on the terrace facing the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.
In the afternoon:
Take a boat down the Canal de l’Ourcq for an incredibly romantic view of old Paris and the locks.
Listen to a Chopin concert in la Roseraie de Bagatelle.
Or take two glasses (real glass, not plastic) and a bottle of champagne or a bottle of Loupiac and foie gras. Go to the quais near the Institut du Monde Arabe. Stake out a nice spot, place your drinks and food on a pretty tablecloth, and watch the Bateaux Mouches glide by.
Love in the City of Love
Sex is sex everywhere, but in Paris there’s the added quality of romance. Everywhere. All the time.
Before coming to France, I’d caught a few glimpses of French romance. One of them was the French film A Man and a Woman, by Claude Lelouch, which I viewed as a student at the University of Michigan. In this “foreign” film, everything was indeed new and different to me. As I sat in the dark cinema watching Anouk Aimée, with that becoming stage name, high cheekbones, and expressive dark eyes, opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant, playing a sexy race-car driver, chimes went off in my brain. Such romance. Such beauty. I’ve got to get over there as fast as I can. Another time, in San Francisco, I spied a French couple at a table in a restaurant. They were carrying on a low conversation and were totally oblivious to everything else going on in the room. They’d pulled around them an invisible bubble. That was French, and something I had never observed with any American couple in similar circumstances. How could they remain so private in public? I wondered. I knew I’d have to go see for myself.
When I finally got to France, I wasn’t disappointed, for it is the country of romance, where a new encounter can happen anytime—at a red light, on a street corner, at the grocer’s, in the metro, in the park. This was a revelation for me all those years ago and recently for Ann Lawson, a twenty-year-old student on a semester in Paris. Seated in the Luxembourg Gardens doing homework one afternoon, she was complimented by “at least four or five” different French fellows. “They told me I had beautiful hair, a nice smile, and then went their way without asking for my phone number or anything,” she marveled, noting, “This would never happen at my college in the U.S.” She admitted that she finds this whole new scene “very enticing. After you hear compliments like that, you want to keep on hearing them.”
She most probably will, for in Paris love and romance are in the air and everywhere—including in the metro. In pre-Internet days, there might be a look of mutual appreciation, maybe even a coup de foudre before the object of desire would disappear in the crowd. With the Internet, the chances of finding that person have improved, and if the number and success of search sites say anything, it’s that French people of all ages are having a coup de foudre almost every day. I checked out two sites, croisedanslemetro.com (crossed paths in the metro), which, as its name indicates, is only for the metro, and dilelui.com (tell him or her), which gives the frustrated searcher a stab at finding the vanished person whether the chance meeting was in the metro, the TGV, the airport, the bakery, the theater, or the shopping mall.
Messages range from brief—“Our eyes met. Contact me”—to the more elaborate, such as “It was a little after 18h15. You are tall, with blue-green eyes. You were reading Le Monde standing up, with your back to the pole before sitting down in front of me. I was reading a book in Italian, listening to my iPod, and my phone rang. You looked at me discreetly, then stared until a fat tourist came between us and prevented us from continuing. I saw you doing everything to try to catch my eye, but you were bothered by the tourist’s big paunch. I smiled, then became intimidated, and started reading again. I got off at Nation, saw you looking at me once again, then left. I am tall, slim, brown haired. I would love to see you again.”
That’s the metro; romance is also in the office—big-time. One recent poll showed that fully one-third of office workers have gone beyond being colleagues. I asked a French friend and my niece, both of whom work in large companies, if this presents problems. Do the couples hide the relationship or register it with HR to avoid sexual harassment charges? They both laughed. “No, thank God!” My niece told me that the big guessing game at her office is to try to pick out the couples. On one occasion, a young woman became pregnant, and, my niece noted, “Strangely, at about the same time, a young single man transferred to another department.” When the baby was born, he resurfaced, they got married, and then they went to HR—to announce the news and get all the benefits that come in France with having a baby. My niece concluded, “Who’s going with whom is above all a subject that has everyone talking and which is quite amusing.” I’d wager that a French person would have a real hard time adjusting to an American office situation in which the threat of sexual harassment and the necessity of spelling out relationships dampen the pleasure of spicy conjecture.
A Certain Vagueness
In France vague is the name of the game when it comes to love and romance. You never know who’s with whom, and even if you think you do, you may be wrong. If there’s one thing the French love when it comes to love, it’s mystery.
A French friend told me about a Parisian dinner party where she was seated next to a distinguished older man and woman. “I talked to them for three hours and didn’t figure out until after I left that they must have been married for the past forty years!” she exclaimed. That’s not unusual: many times in France you’ll go through an entire evening with people you don’t know, and when you leave, you’ll realize that you don’t even know their names, not to mention how they might be “related.” Are they boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, sister and brother, ex-husband and wife? You don’t know and they aren’t telling.
This “discretion” or “secrecy,” this French tolerance and, yes, even desire for gray areas, starts early on. As Debra Ollivier pointed out in What French Women Know, when little French girls pluck daisies, they don’t say, “He loves me, he loves me not.” Rather, they chant, “Il m’aime un peu, beaucoup, passionnément, à la folie, pas du tout,” spelling out the whole range of human emotions from loving a little, a lot, passionately, to the point of craziness, or not at all. At a tender age, they already know there are not two but several degrees and shades of love.
There are also many ways to be together. Two French university students who are now “just good friends” told me that when they were a twosome, they didn’t tell anybody. They recalled that on a trip to Turkey with a group of friends, no one knew they were together. On purpose. For the young woman, not telling the world that they were a couple was a mixture of propriety and pride. The secrecy wasn’t restricted to their pals. “I never would have told my parents who I was going out with because it might not have worked,” the young woman said.
So how, I asked them, do you know who’s with whom, if they’re a couple, married, or available? “It’s not easy,” the two friends replied, almost in unison. “There might be mini-details; you might talk more to one person than another or be seated next to him. But it shouldn’t be obvious.”
Why? Because the French value their private lives. It’s well known that the sex lives of the powerful are considered private—but so are the sex lives (and lives in general) of everyone else. When you are invited to a French person’s home, you’re confined to the living room because the rest is considered off-limits. In the same way the French only open parts of their home, they only open up parts of their lives—and that’s even with their best friends. There’s no “need to know” or “need to tell” in the air. You don’t have to announce that you’re going out with so-and-so, or that you’ve been married for X number of years, or that your husband was married twice before. In the States, you might go to a gathering and know not a soul, but you’d soon get filled in as to who is with whom. That doesn’t happen in France. I’ve been at many a party where I could absolutely not figure out how the people I met were connected to one another. I finally stopped trying. Who cares, anyway? (I’m becoming French.…)
Here’s what Anne Sinclair, whose private life became fodder for the international media after her husband, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a New York hotel, replied to a journalist at Elle magazine who asked her if she was still in love after all she’d been through: “It’s none of your business.”
She was replying to the journalist but also, one felt, to the moralizing French and American feminists who criticized her for not condemning or leaving her husband. Every couple has its internal workings, she noted. And the arrangement two people have together is their business, no one else’s.
As far as spelling things out and “the conversation” in which the woman sounds the man out on “where they are” and “where they stand,” it doesn’t happen early in the game, if at all, probably because any Frenchman who gets the feeling he’s getting an ultimatum would flee. It may come later, not labeled as such, when a couple’s been together a long time and are deciding to live together—or not.
All very, very subtle—and very, very French.
Francis I was one of the favorite kings of France. He was tall, six feet six inches, handsome, a patron of the arts and letters, and a friend of Leonardo da Vinci’s. He built or added on to a dozen castles, including Fontainebleau, Blois, and Chambord, and adored les fêtes, food, wine, and women, for whom he possessed an “immoderate” love. In addition to his wife, Claude (whose only gift to French history is the name of a small green prune, the Reine Claude), who gave him seven children, François had two official mistresses and a bevy of pretty young things around him all the time. His motto was “a court without women is like a garden without flowers.”
The French find love, romance, and sex vastly amusing. They have “always been a gay and free and Rabelaisian people,” observed Edith Wharton in French Ways and Their Meaning. “They attach a great deal of importance to love-making, but they consider it more simply and less solemnly than we. They are cool, resourceful and merry, crack jokes about the relations between the sexes, and are used to the frank discussion of what some tactfully called ‘the operations of Nature.’”
Not only do they find sex one of the greatest inventions, but they don’t bother to hide their interest, which can sometimes shock more puritan peoples.
When it comes to sex, they say, “Yes, we can,” and go for it. While we Americans shower and brush our teeth before making love, chew on breath mints before going to a party, and generally avoid any odor that smacks of strong or raunchy, the French gaily consume garlic, don’t always roll on the deoderant, and think that a good wash before lovemaking is not very sexy. Remember Napoléon’s writing to Joséphine: “Don’t wash, I’m coming.” As a famous Frenchman commented in a French Toast interview, “We like the jungle smell.”
Louis-Bernard Robitaille, the Paris correspondent of the Canadian newspaper La Presse, recounts in his hilariously astute book Ces impossibles Français the following anecdote, which illustrates the difference between the French attitude to sex and the North American one. At a dinner party in the seventies he shocked the American hostess, a high school teacher married to a Reuters journalist, by mentioning that the last interview the famous Italian reporter Oriana Fallaci had with Fidel Castro was in Playboy. The hostess immediately cut him off by saying she didn’t read Playboy. Robitaille’s rejoinder: “In Paris, the women at that table would have not only asked to see the interview, but probably to leaf through the magazine with an expert and not very indulgent eye to make comments on the bulging breasts in the photos.” All Frenchwomen? No way to know, but some of the Frenchwomen I know would most assuredly have had the reaction Robitaille describes.
I’ve got legions of anecdotes of my own that show how truly freed up Frenchwomen are when it comes to sex and discussions of sex. That includes what we call off-color jokes, and if you disapprove of them, you’d better not attend French dinner parties. Imagine that you’re at an American (or British or Australian or Swedish) dinner party and a Frenchman tells the story about a famous phrase uttered by the womanizing King Henri IV, who never washed and chewed on garlic all day long. He is said to have remarked, “Until I was forty, I thought it was a bone.”
I was at a French dinner party where the Henri IV story was told. The Frenchmen and Frenchwomen all laughed. I confess I didn’t get the joke (but I never get jokes, so count me out), and the other American woman present remained stone-faced. Fortunately, she didn’t do what one American friend of mine did one evening, which was to throw a glass of water in the face of a man who had told one dirty joke too many at the dinner table. Why did you do that? I asked her. “I was the only American with a group of French. I was fed up and wanted to bring a halt to the incessant tasteless jokes they all found funny.” She used the only means available but told me later she realized she had gone too far. You may be saying, No, he had. But we’re in France, a country where talking about sex is not a taboo, so guess what? She was the one people thought strange because her reaction was so out of proportion, so inappropriate in a French setting, where when you don’t like what’s going on, you find a subtle way of expressing it. And not to worry: even and especially when there’s a change of tone or expression or a verbal dart, the person gets it immediately. You don’t have to bring out the big guns. Lamented my water-tossing friend, “I should have used my wit like Frenchwomen do.” (I felt for her—the French verbal dexterity is an art form that takes years for foreigners to attain and some never do.)
I recounted the anecdote to a Frenchwoman who has never been to the States and doesn’t speak English for what I hoped would be an authentically French reaction. Like the tolerant soul she is, she understood that my friend was upset and offended by the jokes. However, picking up a glass of water and throwing it in the offending party’s face when at the table? Mon Dieu! No Frenchwoman, she mused, would even think of doing that. It would spoil the meal! I asked her what a Frenchwoman would do should a man be telling a dirty joke, or worse, several. “That happens regularly,” she stated matter-of-factly. “Men are like children. If they have an audience, they’ll keep going. You need to give them limits. You either say gently but firmly, ‘Okay, ça va,’ which means ‘Okay, that’s enough now,’ or you make him understand he’s gone too far by not participating or even turning your back.” Basically, she said, the Frenchwoman would do everything to avoid overt hostility. Bad form!
Anyway, in a country where naked men and women (or parts of naked men and women) don’t shock, no one gets too upset over things that would make most Americans apoplectic. At the end of a meal in a Thai restaurant in Paris with an American friend one day, the waiter brought us each a teeny cup of sake. At the bottom was a raised glass into which one could gaze and see, for the women, a naked man with penis in full view, and for the men, a naked woman in a provocative position. My friend did a double take and said, “You would never see this in the States. And if you did, rather than seeing it as a joke, you’d get extremely upset, politically correct reactions.” When I told the anecdote to Philippe, he wryly said, “Make sure you tell your readers you’re talking about an Asian restaurant, not French.” Come to think of it, even though the French have no hang-ups about nudity, I’ve never seen such a thing in a French restaurant … but the point of the story is that nudity in itself is not shocking. Unlike my astounded American friend, a French person would look at the bottom of the cup and either laugh or yawn. Ah, those worldly French!
The French take sex, body parts, nudity, as a matter of course, and not too seriously. Remember when Janet Jackson accidentally revealed a breast at the 2004 Super Bowl and everyone went ballistic? Jackson issued an apology to anyone who may have been offended. The same thing happened to French actress Sophie Marceau at the 2005 film festival in Cannes. She laughed and shrugged it off. No apologies.
Catherine Millet, the author of the bestselling La vie sexuelle de Catherine M., simply went back to her day job as the respected editor of an art magazine once the book, in which she recounted her active sex life, was published. Active is an understatement, but that wasn’t a problem. I’m fairly certain that a woman in the States writing a book recounting her sex life in grippingly graphic detail would have a harder time. In France, Millet wasn’t judged. If readers criticized the book, it wasn’t because of the juicy sex or because they thought it “immoral.” It was because they either found it “boring” or didn’t believe her!
In France a well-known politician can attend partner-swapping evenings without any journalists reporting on it even though they are perfectly informed (it’s a free country, isn’t it?). There’s a high tolerance in France for behavior that would get a philandering American or British politician on TV making a public confession, upright, forgiving wife by his side. (The French are as mystified by these “confessions” as we are about their telling off-color jokes in mixed company—with both sexes cracking up.) A cardinal of the Church can, and at least one did, die in the arms of a prostitute—and people found it funny, not shocking. (The worldly-wise French know that even the “purest” of the pure can succumb to temptation.) Huge billboards in the metro show ads of seminude women in scanty underwear. Hardly anyone gets upset. I say hardly because, depending on the ad, some feminists aren’t amused. But it’s safe to bet that the vast majority find nothing shocking, distasteful, or prurient in them. I’ve also seen ads of men in their underpants and they weren’t boxer shorts. Equal opportunity!
Any one of the above examples would be greeted by disapproval or scandal in an “Anglo-Saxon puritan country.” But then, France is not an Anglo-Saxon puritan country.
To take a recent example, each summer French newspapers try to put in as much entertainment in the form of games and special features as they can since it’s a slow season for news, not to mention a slow season for journalists, who are massively on vacation. The national Sunday newspaper the Journal du Dimanche ran a series called “Correspondances amoureuses,” in which it published excerpts from the love letters of famous public figures. Some of the letters were touching, some romantic, some sweet. And some, such as the ones between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, were sizzling hot—for a Sunday newspaper.
Since sex in France is a “simple” thing and “less solemn,” it’s not always about things that shock. However, there are degrees of “less solemn.” Try to imagine this off-the-charts story recounted by the weekly satirical newspaper Le Canard enchaîné: “A sixty-three-year-old woman retiree and her lover were arrested by police in the streets of Carcassonne. The lover, whose penis was outside his slacks, was attached to the woman by a little chain she had put around his testicles. In court, the couple justified themselves by explaining, ‘We did it for fun, we were having such a great time.’” The prosecutor, who could hardly keep a straight face, asked for “an extremely severe punishment of a ten-euro fine with suspension” … and destruction of the chain.
As for sex being a “simple” thing, “Sex,” muses an American friend who’s married to a Frenchman, “is about the little things here. Just having a cup of coffee can be sexy.” “Sexy” in France can be a smile, an atmosphere, a secret look between two people who don’t know each other—yet. Sexy in France can be beautiful legs shown off by high heels. Sexy can also be what’s not revealed, as opposed to what is. And sexy can be something that’s “off,” something that makes the person interesting and intriguing. Perfectly aligned white teeth and the blond, tanned California look doesn’t translate into “sexy” in Parisian terms. Anne-Marie Lecordier, a Parisienne image consultant and former chef de cabine on Air France, smiled as she recalled her many travels to the States, which she loves, and the comments of a French steward friend as he checked out the California girls. “Did you see that one?” he would say. “She’s got fake nails, fake boobs, and talks too loudly.” Of the three, the last was definitely the worst point for, as Anne-Marie explained, “In France, well-mannered people are shocked by loud conversations.” Add to that the impeccable hair, the piano-key teeth, the “everything perfect” look, she said, and you don’t get the Frenchman’s idea of sexy. “For a Frenchman it’s not conceivable. There’s not enough subtlety.”
Hear ye, hear ye, all you women looking for a French boyfriend or husband. Having everything right is a turnoff. That’s really great news when you think about it—to be sexy and attract a Frenchman, you don’t have to be perfect or conform to the current idea of what that is. On the contrary, something quirky, something funny, a flaw, will get him interested. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.
Crimes of Passion
Love, romance, and sex can be pleasurable, light, and amusing. And love, romance, and sex can be sad, dark, and dramatic. A popular French song written in 1784 laments that the pleasure of love lasts only a moment, whereas the chagrin (sorrow) of love lasts forever: “Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment, chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.”
Sometimes that chagrin can go so far that terrible crimes are committed. In France an estimated 150 to 200 crimes a year are considered crimes of passion. Juries now judge these crimes severely, but up until 1975 the penal code stipulated—are you ready?—that “in the case of adultery, the murder committed by the husband on the wife, as well as the accomplice, at the moment he surprises them in the act in the conjugal home, is excusable.” Note that it was the murder committed by the husband on the wife and not vice versa. Fortunately, times have changed.
I’ve never heard revenge-fantasy songs in France, such as “Before He Cheats” by Carrie Underwood (that doesn’t mean there aren’t any—it simply means I haven’t heard them), in which the wronged party swears she’ll slash the tires of her lover’s car so he’ll think before he cheats. From what I’ve seen, the wronged Frenchwoman would be more likely to work things out with her mate or go off and have an affair of her own. Or get a divorce. And rather than slash the tires, she’d probably smile sweetly and put a killer dose of sleeping pills in his Bordeaux.
It seems to me that almost every time I read the newspaper there’s some story about a passionate crime in which the wife has poisoned the husband or the husband has strangled the wife. This happens in other countries, but somehow, in this romantic country, it is jarring. Oh, well, I tell myself, the French are nothing if not a passionate people. But at least these days husbands can’t get away with murder. Perhaps because of increasing woman power? In a seismic shift, seven out of ten divorces in France are now instigated by women.
Foreign Women Look at Frenchmen
What’s so special about Frenchmen? Why do foreign women succumb to their charms and even end up marrying them?
For American Jennifer Jourlait, who married her French boyfriend, “Marc’s Frenchness was definitely an attraction. He was only a couple of years older than I but so much more worldly and mature than anyone I had dated before … plus he was a real man who was not, I repeat, not afraid to wear pink or purple and didn’t own a baseball cap. He was the antithesis of the typical college ‘dude’—knew how to drink responsibly and well, preferring wine to beer. Imagine that.” Speaking of drinking, one young American woman dating a Frenchman learned that “the French know and care more about what they eat and drink. I made the mistake of bringing a subpar bottle of wine to a dinner party once—from then on, he chose the wine.” She laughed, adding that he was also horrified that she practically lived on frozen food.
My friend Elizabeth Mudd Beguerie, now married to her French boyfriend and the mother of two young children, told me, “When Jerome first started to court me, it was just that, he courted me. American men have a hard time remembering that opening doors, buying flowers, pulling out chairs, and thoughtfulness go a long way.” What impressed her the most, she says, was “the fact that he treated me like a lady in such a sophisticated way. He would write me love letters and poetry, but it seemed so second nature to him that I didn’t question it. Frenchmen are in touch with their feminine side without being the slightest bit cheesy or less manly.” She added that she also loves her French partner’s “self-deprecating humor” and his “adorable” accent. “My favorite example,” she said, “was when he told me he loved the ‘bitch.’ It wasn’t until I made him describe the ‘bitch’ that I realized it was the ‘beach’!”
Not only are Frenchmen not afraid to show their “feminine” side, one young American told me, but she found that “in this man-oriented culture, Frenchmen aren’t afraid to step back and let the women lead” and “they know the right thing to say.” Her idea that a true macho wouldn’t want to be seen with a taller woman was turned on its head by the image of France’s most famous power couple, Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni. Even with his two-inch elevator shoes, Sarkozy is still a full three inches shorter than his five-foot-eleven wife. (Well, you’ve got to give him credit for something.…)
Kathryn Gaudouen, one of my American journalism students at the Institut d’études politiques, more commonly known as Sciences Po, met her future husband at a party Philippe and I gave for both my students and his fellow history students at the Sorbonne. Kathryn well remembers that night and especially a few “French things” that happened, particularly la bise that a “cute, well-dressed Frenchman” tried to give her before she pulled back because she felt he was breaking her personal space. To prove it was a cultural misunderstanding and that she wasn’t snobbish, she stuck with him the whole evening. And, she concluded in an understatement, “I guess it worked.” As the evening rolled on, Hadrien was obviously totally captivated by the charm of the blond, blue-eyed, French-speaking Kate, and Kate by the charming Frenchman. So captivated that the two, who carried on a long-distance courtship, married in the States four years later.
In the beginning he seemed “so French” to her, she told me. At our party, she remembered, “My fork dropped off my plate. Immediately, Hadrien handed me his own and went into the kitchen to find another for himself, also bringing the dirty fork with him to put in the sink. I knew I was in France when he did that because no American man would have … it’s more likely an American would have picked it up, blown on it, and said, ‘Here—good as new.’”
I laughed as I thought of all the mixed stereotypes the two cultures entertain about each other. Since we Americans are so hygiene conscious and the French are said to be less so, you’d think the behavior would go the other way, with the American picking up the fork to clean. But since I have a French husband and he would, and has done, exactly the same thing, I know that the fetching of whatever has been dropped is about more than hygiene. It’s a quick Gallic reaction, a combination of gallantry, attentiveness, and charm. Can I imagine a Frenchman letting the lady pick up her own fork? Not unless he was what the French call a goujat (boor), and you wouldn’t want him anyway.
As for Philippe’s Frenchness, he wasn’t exactly wearing a beret or carrying a baguette when we met, but was he ever French! In France, family is important, and unlike in the States, where everyone scatters, French families often live in proximity, which is why I was almost immediately introduced to and welcomed into his. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying for the first couple of years, but that’s all right—I could get in that kitchen and watch what my future mother-in-law was cooking up, I could check out what Philippe’s well-dressed sister-in-law was wearing and when (for example, no apron in the kitchen and yet no spots on her fashionable clothes, as I point out in French Toast, something that still today remains a mystery to this American klutz), and I could admire his tall, stylish, and slim French aunt who, dressed in black from head to foot with only one large, stylish gold brooch, was the embodiment of Parisian chic. His father, Henri, was a prince of a man who possessed an old-fashioned gallantry that his son fortunately inherited. I’m a feminist, but I appreciate his opening doors for me, taking my arm, jumping up from the table to get me whatever I need, showering me with flowers and compliments. Believe me, after all the inattentive loser boyfriends I had (oh, how I hope they’re reading this), it was a sea change. Philippe introduced me to some unbelievable French food, including pied de porc (pig’s foot) and every raw-milk cheese he could find, and took me to the Basilica of Saint-Denis to “meet” the kings and queens of France, most of whom are buried there. It was a freezing-cold day and I complained, but he wasn’t having it. “You Americans always think of your comfort,” he said, laughing, putting his arm around me and steering me to contemplate the majestic Renaissance tomb of Francis I.
Have you ever noticed that when you don’t really care about what happens, it happens? If I’d come to France to hook a Frenchman, it would never have come about. Being nonchalant about the whole thing, I ended up in a serious relationship. Go figure. And who could be as nonthreatening as I? No conversation about “where we stand”—but day-to-day pleasure. No conversation about “Shall we live together?” We did. Then, gradually, one thing led to another, until one day we actually found ourselves discussing marriage, a subject on which my significant other was extraordinarily relaxed, and for a good reason. He knew that to accomplish that act, one of us (shall we say the most interested party?) would have to trek to the mairie (city hall) to get all the necessary papers. Since he had witnessed me desperately trying to fill out French social-security and other such administrative forms and knew I was beyond hopeless when confronted with any kind of official paper, he was 99 percent sure that once he told me about the mairie, he’d hear no more about marriage, weddings, parties, and the whole lot.
How wrong he was. I was more motivated than he thought. The evening after our discussion I had all the papers in hand. All we had to do was fill them out.… Forty years later, I remain convinced that he married me out of sheer shell shock.
So it was that we stood before Monsieur le Maire in the city hall of the fifth arrondissement in front of the Panthéon on a sunny, crisp November day and tied the knot. (In France, you are obligated to marry in a civil ceremony at city hall. After that, you do what you want. It can be a religious ceremony or nothing at all. The two events are totally separate.) We hosted a lunch for our immediate families in a private salon at the Coupe-Chou, a fifteenth-century restaurant in the Latin Quarter, where we spent the entire time interpreting, for his family spoke no English and mine no French. Later in the afternoon, my new belle-mère and beau-père hosted a champagne party in their vast apartment on the boulevard de Vaugirard for family and friends. It was simple, elegant, and undoubtedly one of the most stress-free weddings in the history of weddings.
Whether a long religious service and a reception and dinner in a castle or a brief civil service followed by a dinner party on a boat floating down the Seine, weddings in France are an occasion for pleasure and panache. My friend Dorie Denbigh, a former fashion reporter, who married French tennis businessman Jacques Laurent, turned up at the mairie in the fashionable sixteenth arrondissement in a dress that Japanese designer Issey Miyake had made especially for her. Depending on where you live in Paris, the ceremony takes on different tones. When I lived in the upscale neighborhoods of the sixteenth district and Neuilly, the weddings, even the civil service at the mairie, were quite proper, with everyone conventionally dressed (although I’d hardly say that an Issey Miyake dress is conventional—that exquisite creation was definitely an exception).
Our current apartment in the trendy east of Paris is quite close to the mairie and right on our way to the rue des Pyrénées, where we shop for food, so on many Saturdays we find ourselves smack in the middle of a wedding party. Since the neighborhood is multiethnic, that can be Arab women belting out the traditional youyous, smart-looking Frenchmen and Frenchwomen in all kinds of creative garb you’d never see in the wealthy west of the city, Africans in colorful turbans that match their dresses. As for children—and this perhaps is true all over the city now except for the most conservative families—many times one of the babies or children present is the offspring of the couple getting married. That was the case for David and Rachel, our youngest son and his wife, whose Hannah was nineteen months old when they stood before Madame la Maire. In my day, you lived together, married, and then had children. The growing trend these days is living together, then children, then marriage—maybe.
Marrying a Frenchman
It’s one thing for a foreigner to have a romance with a Frenchman. It’s totally another to marry one. As I’ve said when commenting on my own marriage with a Frenchman, everything gets mixed up. If I were married to an American whose behavior mystified me, I’d know it was because of our different personalities and backgrounds, especially if he came from a big city in the East and I came from a small town in the South or Midwest. When an American marries a Frenchman, those factors are amplified: small town, big town, of course, with, added to that, cultural differences involving the way we think and act and “are” that are major.
Sometimes the differences are subtle, sometimes they are as big as an elephant. Sometimes they’re positive, sometimes negative. What I’ve noticed, and many Americans married to Frenchmen notice, is that their French partners are particularly attentive to details. Of course some Frenchmen aren’t that way—ask any woman who’s divorced one or is in an unhappy relationship. This being said, the Frenchmen who do pay attention pay attention to everything: how the dinner table looks, how the food tastes, what you said you liked in a store window that suddenly pops up a few months later as a gift, how you look not only when you dress up, but all the time. That’s because they’re French; they pay attention to those things in general. Aesthetics are ever present.
I may have gotten lucky, but my husband has always encouraged me to keep my American side, my American connections, and my American spirit. He didn’t need to encourage me to keep my American accent—there’s nothing to be done about that. He’s been supportive in every way. The “French” part of that is that he doesn’t “suggest,” he tends to “order,” so we have nice arguments about that (see chapter 4, on disagreements). I want “consensus,” he doesn’t function that way. But as far as support is concerned, I couldn’t have asked for more. I write this with apologies to all those women who found themselves with egotistical, inattentive, selfish Frenchmen. I guess Kathryn and I, and a few other people I know, got the best.
That doesn’t mean there’s no effort to make, on both sides. If you marry a Frenchman, you will need to know how to play his game. Thirty-seven-year-old Iranian Leyla Lebeurrier, by her own definition a strong-minded lady, confessed, “I often give the impression that my husband has made a decision, especially in front of other people.” Believe me, she is not alone. Frenchwomen, as I learned early on, may know tons more than their husbands, have made a decision he claims as his, and sit through a tall tale that has little connection with reality. My husband, for example, multiplies most figures by three for the sake of a good story. I inwardly gasp at his daring but say not a word—I learned in France that interrupting would spoil the fun. Unlike American wives, French wives don’t feel the need to set their husbands straight, especially in public. Feminists will hate this, but for me that means they truly have more confidence in themselves as women. They are also polite and considerate of their husbands’ male pride. Why shoot the guy down?
Three of Us in This Marriage—Him, Me, and Our Cultural Differences
In case you’re thinking of marrying a Frenchman (or Frenchwoman), two pieces of advice. First, to meet one and keep him or her interested, you must play the game of hard to get. Anything that’s too easy lacks mystery, challenge, and is no fun for them. Second, once you’ve hooked your Frenchman or Frenchwoman, know that the going may get rough because you don’t understand each other’s reaction to the same things. This is one thing if you’re seeing each other occasionally. When you live together, the cultural differences are daily.
Here’s an example. On one stifling day in Paris, I open two windows in the insane hope of getting a cross breeze going.
It’s not long before I get the Typical Reaction.
“What’s going on in here? Do you want us to get pneumonia or TB?” my husband yells, genuinely horrified, as he rushes about shutting the windows.
In the early days of our marriage, I would have been riled, wanted to argue. Chez moi aux États-Unis, I would tell him, we don’t get pneumonia or TB from open windows, we get a frigging breeze.
Now I’m much wiser on this score. (I took a few tips from Frenchwomen.) I smile. I know that this is one of those innumerable Franco-American marital disputes that is never going to get resolved. For my husband, a breeze is not a breeze. It’s a draft. For my mother-in-law as well, come to think of it. Every weekend for years we’d trot off to the family country home, where, ensconced in my favorite chair, I’d start relaxing after opening the front door and the back justement to get some airflow.
You would have thought I’d wished a plague on their house.
Much fluttering. Some good-natured lecturing. “Mais, ma petite fille,” my mother-in-law explained, surely thinking that my own mother had shirked her duty, “don’t you know that you could get a terrible cold or worse?” (We’re talking ninety-degree heat here.) Okay, I’m not fighting that battle any longer, and I do allow that it could be this particular family and not all the French, especially because my husband did actually have tuberculosis as a young adult and spent a year in a sanatorium, so maybe I should let them off the hook. That’s another challenge of a bicultural mariage: Is the person doing what he’s doing because he’s French or because he’s himself?
Nor do I get my dander up when I spill a glass of red wine on a white tablecloth and my husband acts as if I should go to court for the crime.
As usual, I ask myself if this overblown reaction is typical of all French husbands or just my French husband. I thought it might be my husband’s particular behavior until I compared notes with a dear friend who’s been married to a Frenchman as long as I have.
“He drives me crazy,” she told me. “Every time I break something, whether it’s inexpensive and easy to replace or, God forbid, porcelaine de Sèvres, I get the ‘You Americans are so clumsy’ act.”
What’s that all about? we asked each other, and concluded it could be several things: (l) A question of space. After all, the United States is seventeen times the size of France, which explains why we Americans are so klutzy when on tiny turf. (2) A different attitude toward consumption: as American wives, our attitude is clearly “break something, spill something, no big deal.” Buy a new glass, wash the tablecloth. French husbands find this intensely irritating. Why not be more careful? (3) We agreed this is the most plausible explanation: because they can have their hissy fit with their American wife in a way they couldn’t if their wife was French—the French wife would totally ignore their “show.”
You’d think that after all these years I’d have the way my dear French partner thinks, acts, and reacts completely and totally figured out. Not at all.
But you know what? It’s not a one-way street. He can’t figure out my behavior any better than I can figure out his.
One day I screwed up my courage and asked him to give me a list of five to ten typically American things I do that exasperate him.
“I’ll tell you if you make me a really good dinner,” he promised.
How’s that for being French?
We dined, the dinner was good, and he never did answer my question.
La galanterie française—which is why I married him in the first place all those years ago.
Interview with Philippe
HWR: What would you advise a foreign woman who wants to marry a Frenchman?
PHR: She should not expect him to change and he shouldn’t expect her to.
HWR: What? You mean I haven’t become French? I speak French all the time!
PHR: Uh … your French is perfect, chérie. It’s fabulous and makes all the Frenchwomen jealous [I told you he was gallant], but there are still some différences.
HWR: What differences? I suppose you’ll say that when you yell and gesticulate and are generally going bonkers, you’re just being French and having fun, whereas as an American I think I’m living with a nutcase—although, come to think of it, I’m actually starting to enjoy the histrionics …
PHR: Et voilà! You’ve become a little bit French after all!
Copyright © 2012 by Harriet Welty Rochefort