Anomaly in Paris : the je ne sais quoi of the French Girl, and how to survive when you’re not one …

Up in smoke …

It’s one of the most endearing things about Paris: the clichés are true. I am even sitting writing this in a garret on the Left Bank, in Saint-Germain-des-Près. The smelly cheeses, the baguettes under their arms, the poodles, the accordionists on street corners: you couldn’t be anywhere else. A short walk from here, the glorious façades of the Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, Nôtre Dame, and the glittering Eiffel Tower (on the hour, every night-time hour, it bursts into sparkles), the glow of a bateau mouche sweeping illumination down the Seine, and the buildings bathed in dim champagne brilliance at night justify the name: City of Light. Oh, and Love. Paris also does not disappoint in delivering on its reputation as the city of romance. But it might be a good idea to get the romance bit sorted out before you get here. It’s a complicated business anywhere, but here you sometimes get the feeling that you’re playing high stakes poker with nothing in your hand but Pokémon cards.

Of course, the half of the tourists who aren’t Japanese all seem to be couples on a romantic getaway, but what of those of us who came here once upon a time and then just couldn’t seem to get away? The chances are, if you’re one of the many foreigners who have ended up here, that love was oneof the main reasons you chose to stay. There’s a difference though; meet a foreign guy in Paris and he may tell you about falling in love, but it’s often in a more general sense; he is in love with Paris, with French life, with walking down the street and falling in love on a daily basis. As for the French girls, well, yes we love them, but it’s the rarer and better man than I who has convinced one that the feeling is mutual.

Women, however, are a different matter. Among the female expats in Paris, it seems quite the standard situation that their main reason for being here is a French man. For many of them, the love affair is much more specific. Jean-Claude, or Pierre, or François, fair enough, he’s the one she fell in love with, on her year as an assistante in a French school, or as an Erasmus student, oreven just on holiday. Very susceptible to the Gallic charm, these young ladies on the Paris leg of their round-the-world trips. However, as for the French in general . . . it’s not quite so easy.

All these brave women, uprooting themselves from home and family to join their French bloke, are predisposed to loving French culture. After all, wasn’t it part of said French bloke’s charm? A man who knew his way around a wine list, who knew how to carry off a compliment, who knew, I’m sure, other things she may have been too polite to discuss with me, all in that inimitable French way: wasn’t his Frenchness a positive trait? Indeed it was. French culture, food, history, literature, art: these may well be her passions. Indeed, it is quite likely that she has a degree in one of them, and that that is what brought her here in the first place. French people, though: many aren’t so sure. One of the most striking things about experiencing French culture as an outsider is how different it is for a man than for a woman. The man who comes here tends to get on reasonably well in the mine field of unwritten rules, red tape, and Byzantine codes of behaviour. He is excused much; after all, he’s a foreigner, isn’t he? The woman though, especially if she now has a French family to contend with (the French mother-in-law is a formidable figure indeed), has a rather harder time. The etiquette of how to dress, how to eat, to entertain, even how to walk down the street: it all seems a lot more complicated if you’re a woman. The problem isn’t French men either, when you get to the bottom of it. It’s French women.The horror stories one hears from foreign women living here, of social gaffes, horrific blunders, or just plain loneliness, often have at their root that inscrutable and unapproachable creature: the French woman.

It’s not that they don’t like them. Well. In many cases it actually is. But though our expat chick may have some French female friends, it always seems to have taken ages to batter down the walls of froideur surrounding them. If anyone has ever made her feel awkward or inappropriate in a French social setting, ten to one it was a woman. Men may embarrass her by gallantly trying tocover her faux pas, but it’s the women who really have the knives out. It may never have occurred to her in her life to feel under dressed, especially just when going out to the boulangerie on the corner for bread, but I guarantee it was the wrinkled nose and slow head-to-toe look of a woman that made her feel it.

They tell me it’s something to do with the fact that French women lack a certain complicity shared by those in anglophone countries, for example. Even with each other, they’re not starting from a feeling of sisterhood, or sitting around with each other bitching about how useless men are. Oh no. Other women are the competition, the enemy. And if they’re foreign on top of that?Forget it. Who do they think they are, coming over here trying to steal our men, with their loud voices, awful French, appalling clothes?

It may sound exaggerated. Perhaps. But it depends who you ask. Among younger people, one would assume that things are a little more relaxed. They’re not so worried about which course goes before which, and what informal attire really means for a dinner party. But while there are always exceptions, there is definitely a fraught and complicated relationship between French women and their English-speaking counterparts. Even among young women, there is a definite sense of being made to feel you don’t fit in. In an anglophone bookshop in Paris, one encounters several books, a whole section even, devoted to explaining French culture to foreigners. By foreigners, we’re talking about anglophones, and more specifically Americans. And, while there are books devoted to how to work with French people, how the bureaucracy works, cuisine, history, and so on, most of them are about French people. The general attitude seems to be: “Funny buggers, the French, but aren’t they fascinating?”. Many of these books are written by women, and, dare I say it, mostly for women. This is the complicated part. No matter how much they complain about French women, there is undeniably something about them that these authors, and these readers, aspire to. Their je ne sais quoi.

A couple of the the books available are devoted entirely to trying to explain, and teach, the discreet charm of les françaises. If French men have a reputation for being sexy, French women seem to have a whole mythology around them. The titles of the books speak for themselves: Fatale: How French Women Do It, by Edith Kunz, promises to reveal “the mysterious ways Frenchwomen manage to appear sexy, smart, and recklessly chic”. Even more unashamedly an instruction manual is Entre Nous: A Guide to Finding Your Inner French Girl, by Debra Ollivier. And they walk off the shelves. An American girl I met — let’s call her Heather — complained stridently about the looks she received when she was dressed nicely (“Ok, today, I’m like, totally dressed down? But when I like, put on a dress, and get all done up nice and shit? They just give me these looks, like, totally jealous or something. They’re such bitches.”). Now Heather, obviously, had a long way to go before acquiring much of a je ne sais quoi, but her attitude was a strange mix of dislike and competitiveness. She wanted to beat them at their own game, despite trying to pretend she wasn’t one for playing.

The funny thing is, according to French guys, it is precisely their un-Frenchness that they find charming about foreign girls. A good way to make friends with French men for me has proved to be to go out with a large group of pretty Irish and English girls. Of course, you may not have one to hand, but on the happy occasion that you do find yourself insuch pleasant company, it is fascinating to see the effect they have out on the town in Paris. They’re obvious from a mile off. They laugh louder, drink more, wear less, and dance in groups shouting along to the music. And the French guys flock to them like moths to a flame. This can be a problem. The guys in question are persistent, insistent, and not always particularly subtle. I was often summoned urgently from across the dancefloor, to have one of my female friends put her arms around me and say triumphantly to Sleazy Pierre: “See? I told you I had a boyfriend!” Sometimes, Pierre was not deterred by this, and would begin quizzing us on how long we’d been together and whether it was serious, but mostly it proved sufficient, and said friend would wait until he was out of sight before shoving me away, saying: “And you get your hands off me too! I’m getting another drink.”

Occasionally though, a couple of charming and good-looking young men would come over and just start chatting to us, often eager to try out their English, very interested in where we were from, what we were doing here, what were we drinking, and, incidentally, that one there, is she single? This more subtle approach, in which they enlisted me as an ally rather than saw me as a minor obstacle to be overcome, was more fun for all concerned, and often ended with me and the French blokes being best pals, buying each other drinks and complaining about women together. From them I learned the important fact that I wasn’t the only one who found French women unapproachable.They did too. That was why the foreign girls, much more outgoing and easy to talk to, were such a hit. French girls tended, they agreed with me, to be much more intimidating, not to be very receptive to getting into a conversation with a stranger in a bar, and also, always, to have boyfriends. Their natural state seems to be as part of a couple, and it must be a rare skill indeed to identify the ten minutes when a girl is single, and then know what to do about it. I’ve heard it from French female friends too; too many French women define themselves in terms of the man they’re with, or the men they attract, and dress, talk and act accordingly. This is not to say that that’s what they’re like. It just seems that, much more so than at home, that is the role defined for them in French society.

Though I wouldn’t put any of my friends here in this category, I think even they would admit that it exists: that of women who haven’t much to say for themselves, and men who think that’s the way it should be. It’s not that they’re expected to be dumb, far from it; they’re just expected to be subtle, discreet, and mysterious rather than opinionated. There is an idea of femininity here that seems antiquated to us. The emphasis on clothes, grooming, and, especially, being thin, is even more pronounced than at home, if you can believe it. And here it’s just assumed: a woman takes care of her appearance, almost like a duty. Women dress in a womanly way. Women are on diets. All the time. But they don’t really talk about it openly, unless you count magazine covers, every single one of which, every month, features a new weight loss solution. It shows too. Parisian woman aren’t just thin; they’re tiny. My foreign female friends remark on this, half appalled, half admiring. John, from Coleraine, has a simple explanation: “The only reason Parisian women are so thin is that they cheat. All they put into their bodies is black coffee and cigarettes.” It’s not quite as extreme as that, but you do notice that though the French diet is full of rich, fatty (delicious) foods, the portions they eat are very small, especially the women. No one ever seems to eat between meals either. This restraint carries over into drinking too, again, especially for women. You hardly ever see anyone drunk here. It’s not unusual to sit for an evening in a bar over two demis (half pints), whereas at home, the night has barely begun before people are swigging back their third pint. Apparently it’s particularly frowned on for women to be seen to drink a lot. Indeed, at a dinner party, it’s a massive no-no for a woman to refill her own glass of wine. She must wait for an attentive man sitting near her to do so. And he almost always will.

Despite all this, here we are, having fallen hopelessly for Paris, or Jean-Claude, or foie gras, or whatever it happens to be. These quirks of the French character have their upsides too. While it may take a long time to get past their initial reserve and make friends with them, once you have, it’s a friend for good. They seem to take friendship more seriously, have fewer close friends, but really mean it when they do. It’s quite flattering to feel you have passed the test, as it were, and you know that you can then rely on them and trust them. Their way of socialising, strange to us initially, certainly has its advantages. Taking time over food, they really enjoy it, and you learn to appreciate it better too. Sitting in a café over one drink for an hour, you see that they don’t so much go out to drink or dance, or meet new people and snog them, fight them, or throw up on them (you know, all the things we call “having a good time”) but rather to socialise. The art of conversation isn’t dead here. Looking around the café, everyone seems to be deep in interesting discussion. They may not be roaring with laughter, but that doesn’t mean they’re not having fun. It’s just a different kind. There’s something terribly civilized about it all. You get the impression that whatever it is they’re all talking about, whatever things are going on in all these lives, enigmatic but right in front of you, it’s all terribly complicated and fascinating. So you just join in, and sit smoking a cigarette and sipping a coffee, looking mysterious and full of ennui, and exchange smouldering glances with the gorgeous girl or guy at the next table. Feels like everything is in black-and-white, with subtitles. Then the accordionist on the corner strikes up, and you couldn’t be anywhere else. Neither would you want to be.

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Irish writer living in Paris. Has been a bookseller, university lecturer, aid-worker, Hollywood writer’s assistant, and a professional clown.

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Mark Fitzpatrick

Mark Fitzpatrick

Irish writer living in Paris. Has been a bookseller, university lecturer, aid-worker, Hollywood writer’s assistant, and a professional clown.

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