Having just returned from a lovely week in Paris with my sixteen-year-old daughter I was intrigued to pick up my friend Jamie Cat Callan's new book French Women Don't Sleep Alone and find so much good and spunky wisdom in it. I've traveled to France a dozen times and lived there two years from 2001-2003 and she's nailed the differences between French and American women's approaches to romance right on the head, something it's easy to notice when one spends any time in that country, but something to which American women, especially independent American feminist women (whether they call themselves that or not) may be particularly resistant to.
As Callan so aptly puts it: "As American women we are ambitious and career oriented, and many of us will approach our search for love as if we were a recent MBA grad looking for a great job."
And therein lies the problem.
Looking for a mate isn't a job. It's an adventure (to paraphrase an ad for one of the branches of the military). And we should treat it as such.
While French women take love very seriously, they don't take its pursuit as seriously as we do. Their relaxed attitude makes the chase a little more fun for both the men and the women involved.
They key to a French woman's success with men is in knowing her own sexuality, her own sensuality and her own power. This is, I might add, not at odds with either independence or our own particular brand of feminism, let me assure you. I have been a very strong, even radical, feminist, for nearly forty years, and I still love to dress up and look attractive. I have never ever understood the need to declare that one must eschew looking good or caring about how one looks in order to wear the badge of feminism. After all, beauty is appreciated in art, literature and nature. Why not in our own selves?
And it does not mean we must necessarily even be pretty. We just have to think we are. Or that we must conform to the women's magazines ideals of beauty or that we must buy into the Hollywood nonsense of nip and tuck and Botox and airbrush--none of which I have done or will do. I am merely a "woman of a certain age" who, when living in Paris, became very conscious of how I was viewed by men and brought that knowledge back to the States. Clearly I had been wearing my clothes too large, my make-up too bright and my hair in an unflattering cut. That quickly changed. And even more clearly, although I have never been pretty, I am a sexy middle-aged woman who likes and respects myself and who draws people to her--especially men-- something I discovered quite by accident, sitting in café after café reading books and being approached by men who wished to speak to me. I was beginning to project something--that je ne sais quoi that I had always somewhat faked but was now real and that I have carried lovingly with me back here to America.
I also learned to highlight my best features and ignore the rest. And you know what? Everyone else does, too!
I loved living in Paris. Each day as I dressed to go out was like dressing for the theater: street theater. Because in Paris you are always on stage. More than any city in the U.S. one is always out. Most people don't drive; they walk or take the Metro. They stroll, they sit in cafes. They meander. And so, they are not hopping in and out of cars and they are not dressed in sweatpants or pajama bottoms and sloppy tee shirts and flip flops. They are dressed for the day.
I liked that idea and I quickly accommodated myself to it. I carried a larger than average bag and put in an extra pair of shoes (although if something happened to the pair I was wearing there was a shoe repair place on every corner and they could repair most everything while you waited), a scarf and umbrella and sweater for weather changes, a book, and made sure there was extra room for whatever shopping I needed to do before I headed back to the flat. The extra weight and the five to six miles I walked daily ferrying the children to and from the Metro and school plus anywhere I went assured I was the thinnest I had ever been in my life--despite eating all the croissants and baguettes I desired. And I even learned to do most of that street strolling in heels.
Adaptability after all, as Darwin said, is the key to our survival.
But, American women, as Callan points out, need to try all this at home, too. And they needn't be professionals! She has tons of ideas that women can do right here in America to help them feel more romantic, more self confident and more relaxed about romance and love and, ultimately, themselves as women -even women looking for men.
One of the most important is dressing decently every day. I have never understood how women can go out shopping for clothes while dressed in sweat pants with their hair a mess and wearing no make-up. What exactly are they buying those clothes for? Which "special occasion?" That is sort of like the living room couch your grandmother kept covered in plastic until the day she died. Wear your clothes! That is what you bought them for.
What else every French woman knows is that it is not how many clothes you buy but what kind, what quality and how you wear them. Buy a couple of good things, mix in the latest fashionable things from a knockoff shop like H& M, or Zara, add a couple of accessories, good shoes and a bag and Voila! There you have it. Shopping till you drop is not an option for most French women. It's a waste of time and money and we should take a lesson from that.
Callan also points out that what we wear underneath our clothes is also crucial, something I learned from my Spanish friend Giselle while living in Paris. Now, Giselle is a beautiful woman but she does not have a traditionally beautiful body. Tiny on top, she spreads way out on the bottom. Nonetheless, she talked me into going underwear shopping with her and forced me into buying beautiful matching bras and panties, modeling unashamedly her own choices. She looked gorgeous and so, I found, did I. How can you not feel beautiful if you wear beautiful underwear? I don't know but it works!
Flirting is another thing Callan recommends and nothing obvious. She has all sorts of tips and hints. I am a master flirt and both my husbands, past and present, recognized this, and actually rather liked it. It was and is part of who I am. If done well it can certainly add spice to a relationship as Callan writes.
And dating is something Callan categorically recommends against. I have to agree. Although I did it after my divorce I sure didn't like it and had I had other options (or been smart enough to use hers) I sure would have. He social networking and dinner party ideas borrowed from the French put a lot less pressure on both women and men, socially and sexually, and as she points out, here we have two options: the date or the anti-date: with one the struggle to decide where the relationship is going happens to fast, with the other, familiarity breeds contempt. It's no wonder that no one couples up happily any more and that single women complain and complain that dating is impossible.
Recently on National Public Radio I heard a story that the dating industry was not only recession-proof but that it was thriving and growing during our current economic decline: Match.com showed a 20% increase in the last month. The millionaire dating clubs couldn't even accommodate all the people who wanted to join. It seems that in an economic downturn people are doing two things: dumping current partners and looking for new ones, and trying to find someone with whom to share the bad times.
The article also said that some rich women are spending upwards of $250,000 on matchingmaking services and that others are willing to spend as much as $700 a month dating--drinks, clothes, dinners, cabs, they all add up. I would tell both groups that there is a better way to spend that money. Take a girlfriend to Paris for a few days and just walk and walk and watch the women. There's a reason French women have a reputation for being sexy and desirable. A lot can be learned from them and it would be a whole lots less stressful than dealing with matchmaking with millionaire jerks or trying to navigate the dating scene.
And for those of us who can't afford a trip to Paris? Don't go to a bar. Go to Target or TJ Maxx, buy a set of matching underwear, a crisp white tee shirt and an inexpensive scarf, pick up a copy of Jamie Cat Callan's French Women Don't Sleep Alone, and spend an hour or two sipping something at your favorite coffee shop. That kind of education is worth a million bucks. Promise.