While back home in Seattle, I found myself in the foreign travel section of the local Barnes and Noble, or maybe it was the relationship section. I can't remember. Wherever it was and however I got there, I found myself staring at the spine of a book with an irresistible title: French Women Don't Sleep Alone.
I was almost embarrassed to take it off the shelf -- I even made sure that le Petit wasn't watching from his stroller -- but I discreetly skimmed the blurb on the back, then cracked it open to take a quick look. The subject isn't exactly ground-breaking: much ink has been spilled, mostly in between glossy covers with curlicue letters in bleu, blanc et rouge, explaining the French to Americans, and particularly explaining how French women eat, cook, argue, shop, dress, think, and simply be so mysteriously French.
(I'll admit right now that I can't stand the genre. I think that writing as an ex-pat expert earns you credibility a bit too easily. After all, you only write from where you stand, which for most ex-pats is in a tiny urbanized slice of an incredibly diverse country. I should know. But if I ever get a book deal I'll eat my words.)
As I held the book in my hands like a hot potato, I chuckled to myself. The premise, as I determined in one very brief minute of flipping through the pages, was that French women are all highly successful in matters of the heart. They know the secrets of ensnaring a man, of fanning the flames of passion, of choosing when to leave and how. They can shrug philosophically when they discover they've been cheated on; they can face years of singlehood without tears because they do so on their own terms. That's what I gleaned, at any rate, but let me be clear: I didn't actually read more than a few sentences of the book, and this is by no means a review. What had me rolling my eyes and mentally preparing a blog post was that while one could argue that French women are slimmer, more fashionable, better cooks or choosier eaters than their American sisters, nothing in my experience proves they are happier or luckier in love.
See, I've cried with heartbroken girlfriends over bottles of wine in dimly-lit Parisian cafés. Dimly-lit Parisian cafés are among the best places to cry out heartbreak, and I think that is the only advantage lovelorn parisiennes have over lovelorn Americans.
So, is there anything at all mysterious about romance à la française?
Over lunch today I discussed the mechanics of American flirting with two female colleagues. I explained that in the US, flirting isn't the same game that it is in France. Over there, the stakes are high; you flirt when you mean it, and when you want a result. Flirting can be insulting or it can be welcome but it is rarely innocuous. Here in France, two-thirds of flirting is (mostly) innocent conversation, with no outcome sought, no assumptions made. You're dressed nicely, so the door is held open for you just a second longer than usual while eyes stray and you catch a smile. You feel happy, pretty, or you just bought a new dress, and a colleague notices and compliments you. No one pretends to forget that the world is divided into men and women: everyone remembers and revels in it.
I'll admit that I'm still oblivious to 90% of the flirting that takes place around me (or is even directed at me, I fear). So when three men absorbed in a conversation in French about the mechanics of flirting sat down next to me on the RER this afternoon, I'll admit I guiltily put down my book, closed my eyes, and feigned sleep... all the better to eavesdrop and learn.
I only caught a few small pieces, alas.
"...And [a girl's name], she's cute, isn't she?"
"...the new one on the third floor?"
(I think to myself that elle est très mignonne sounds so much classier than "she's so cute, man.")
"So I saw her at the coffee machine and..."
"...yes, and she looked over and I just caught her eye, and..."
(Some very interesting details were disclosed that I missed entirely.)
"...and there's [another girl] on the top floor and I think that she thinks..."
"...really? You think? But, [skeptically] how old is she?"
"Oh, well that explains it. If she's only 20, she just flirts with you because all the men in suits still look alike to her."
I kept my eyes closed and did my best to keep the corners of my mouth from curling into an incriminating smile. Soon the men changed subjects to talk of cell phones and I stopped listening so intently. As amusing and mostly innocent as the conversation was to overhear, I'm glad I'm not one of the women they were comparing -- and I'm glad I'm happily married and not playing the French flirting game to win. But maybe there is still some new material out there for some single ex-pat writer to fully research, after all.