Sometimes the sky itself is full of desire.
But sometimes, lust is a little less lofty. This post is in response to day four of Momalom.com's series, Five for Ten. I want to give massive thanks to the women behind Five for Ten, as I've found the thematic inspiration and conversation inspiring. But they didn't make it easy. While the first three 5-for-10 topics were Courage, Happiness and Memory, for the fourth, they've suggested that participants write about Lust.
I wrote this one, I put it up, then I took it back down. Now it's back. (But really, Mom, this racy post is here only because all the other kids are doing it. I swear.)
France is great, don't get me wrong. We love the food, we love the scenery. We love the time we have had together as a family, and boy do we love all the new meats (read all the way to the end for a full list of the ones we have tried. Just FYI: we have only eight days to go, and still nobody has consumed any horses.)
But even a place as terrific as this one has its downsides.
One particularly enormous drawback of this year away is that I'm getting hardly any flirt love here. Aside from one guy, who seems to flirt with everyone, I'm getting nothing. Nada. I know I'm 40, sure, but I don't think that means that I'm dead. Back in NYC, 40 is like the new 25 or something, which means I'm only a few years out of college, even without the aid of Botox. I have it on very good authority that a head or two still turns my way when I'm on my game. Just not, apparently, here in France.
Bill, however, is on fire. He gets flirted with at dinner parties, while walking Abigail to school, or even at the grocery store when the clerk gives him his change. The woman standing at the cash register tends to hold his hand in her two, just for an extra moment or so, and say, "Merci, Monsieur" in her most suggestive tones. (I know this because he likes telling this story. When I'm standing in line next to him, she is perfectly discreet.)
His favorite vineyard is the one with the beautiful and attentive caveiste, a snazzy dresser who apparently was put on this planet to stand in a damp underground space and pour glass after glass for her male patrons. She gazes lovingly into each man's eyes and compliments his excellent taste in reds and rosé. (I know this because he's taken all of our male visitors there, and they invariably come back with a half-dozen bottles of wine and a dreamy expression on their faces, a look that can't entirely be attributed to the effects of their degustations.)
I can joke about this (and I'm quite sure I'm joking, really I am) because Bill is just not the flirty type. Back in Brooklyn, a borough chock full of male hotties from all over the world – at least some of them heterosexual— he barely earns a glance or two a day. He certainly doesn't invite female attention particularly aggressively, but here in France he has to fight them off with a stick.
As for me, I might as well be wearing a fanny pack, a brown paper bag, or a nun's habit. It doesn't matter whether I wear the jeans and high heeled boots, or sport a little extra lipgloss. Now and then some old guy with his sweater tucked into his pants might smile my way in an avuncular way, but the rest of the time it's as though I don't exist. Not at 25, not at 40.
Apparently, I'm not even qualified to be a cougar.
One (large) part of me would like to have some sort of horrible freak out about the sharp waning in my formerly powerful charisma where men are concerned. It's not like I'm going to use it for anything in particular; it's just that I'd like it not to be gone.
So instead, I've attributed this sharp decline in the strength of my man-magnetism to cultural differences. I've chosen to deal with this by theorizing that the mechanisms of attraction work differently here from what we're used to back home.
I've decided to believe that lust -- just like everything else -- is culturally determined.
So how are things different here? To make one massive overgeneralization, the women are drastically more attractive than are the men.
This is of course a matter of taste, and you are free to disagree with me as strenuously as you'd like. See Big Little Wolf on French Men for a terrific counterpoint. But when we first got here, Bill and I would often see a French couple walking together, and then quietly sing to one another a few lines of the Joe Jackson classic, "Is She Really Going Out with Him?" Now, we're just used to it. No offense, French guys: from where I sit, you're just not all that in the way the ladies tend to be. I have felt my jaw drop upon seeing a French guy precisely three times all year long. Probably only one of them was straight, and two of them were in Paris.
You would think that this disparity between French and American men would mean that I would get more attention, rather than less. That the not-so-hot men would be grateful to encounter a friendly blonde like myself. But mostly it means that the attractiveness ratio between Bill and me has been redrawn. Bill is just a whole lot more attractive, relatively, than he was back home in the States, which throws things off between the two of us.
Plus, in contrast, French women are generally relatively pretty. They don’t tend to go all droopy and soft in the middle, or turn all skeletally work-out-obsessed, but instead hold onto their tidy little shapes.
Then, they really extend whatever they've got by tarting it up. They don't wear exercise pants in public. They don't slouch around in sweatshirts or wear anything functional like backpacks, hiking boots, or warm wool hats. I’m quite certain that French women are issued a set of beautiful flimsy silk scarves by the national government, and never leave the house without one knotted smartly around their necks. (The scarf phenomenon is also true for Parisian men, but not of the men out here in the countryside.)
French women work the makeup and tight pants pretty hard, and they have really terrific hair. Beauty products are serious business here, sold in medicinal-looking packages by fully-qualified pharmacists, rather than stacked offhand in bins in a grocery aisle. Women either have either a bold cascade of hair in a messy-sexy “I just copulated” sort of updo, or a super-chic short crop that says, "I am the gamine of your Breathless dreams." They often wear a leather jacket and boots, plus a long, tight sweater, (a "butt-hugger" as Bill calls it.) Very infrequently they will choose an unfortunate oversized blouse and some strange I-dream-of-genie pants with an oddly distended crotch. But usually it's tarty-sexy all the way.
There is simply no way that I could ever keep up.
So there’s the shift in the attractiveness ratio. But also, if our limited frame of reference is any sign, the women tend to do the flirting, rather than the men, or rather than the mutual way we're used to back home. French women appear to initiate most of the bisous, their eyes do the lingering, and they stoke the little fires that lead to minor social dramas.
The men seem to hang back -- cool and detached and barely breathing. Perhaps they are just used to being wooed, or desired, or getting to date women drastically more attractive than themselves. 'Cause if my eyes don't deceive me, there's something going wrong around here.
Of course, the more likely interpretation is not so much that this world is weird, but that we – the newcomers and outsiders – just have no idea how to read the cultural signals. Perhaps here in France, female coquettishness is simply required. Perhaps it means much less than it does back home. Perhaps, like bisous, all these women apparently flirting with my husband mean nothing more than, “Hey, nice to see ya!” Perhaps that caveiste is just getting a really hefty commission on all the wine she sells. Perhaps I'm getting so little interest because I'm just not feeling the lust, myself (except for that terrific American man who lives in my house.)
Because it’s almost too disturbing to interpret French flirting (or lack thereof) at face value. That would mean that things here operated by a particularly louche and unfamiliar set of rules. That this world was not just weird, but actually threatening in some way. That maybe I should leave not just in eight days, but now, on the next plane out once the volcanic ash clears.
To understand what's really going on, in my real life and in France, I often turn to books. Edith Wharton is one of the American women I have used as a guide to France, despite the fact that she's been dead for decades. Wharton had a whole series of fascinating things to say about France (including the caution that one should not write off-the-cuff massively generalizing armchair anthropology, as I am doing in this post.) But it seems she traveled to Paris mostly to have the first sexually satisfying relationship of her entire life. Her hot stuff was with an American businessman, not with a French guy, but they seemed to use perceived French morality as a convenient excuse.
In her book, French Ways and Their Meaning,” she tells her American readership that French marriages are made for stabilizing families, rather than for love. According to Edith, French husbands and wives simply assume that they will find their life-sustaining passions in affairs, rather than in one another. When I first read this, I assumed that she was looking to explain away her own shady behavior. But then, all those cute scarves and longing looks and messy up-dos got me wondering whether she was more right than I first wanted to admit.
Some aspects of France we’ve taken in as fully as we can: the visual beauty, the remarkable smells, sights and sounds. And certainly the food. As of today, we’ve eaten a veritable ABC's of animal products: andouiette, beef, canard, donkey, eggs, frogs, goat, huitres, lamb, oeufs, pork, quail eggs, rabbit, snails, tête de veau, veal, wild boar, and at least forty different kinds of cheese. If this post were about gluttony rather than lust, I’d have tales to tell that would make you blush.
But other parts of the French experience might just have to go unexplored, certain lines clearly drawn. Bill can soak up the attention he's getting, and I'll just assume that in some other country, I'm still all that. But, like steaks made of horse meat, lust à la français is one mystery I think we’re both pretty happy not to plumb any deeper than the very surface.