The secret garden

For a brief time, my daughters were adopted by a French grandmother. Mamie is a kind,  beautiful, incredibly elegant lady with a large flock of her own grandchildren, as well as a part time job raising funds and awareness for kidney disease, but she somehow found time for my girls and me, too. Mamie’s hair is always in a perfectly impeccable chignon, she wears stockings and once apologised for being under-dressed because she had on a pair of slacks. In the rare moments that she is not working or taking care of the grandchildren, Mamie goes to the theater and book lectures.

When Mamie would take the girls for the weekend she would give them intellectual exercises, teach them card games and cook traditional French dishes like baked endives. My kids didn’t love everything, but that knew instinctively that you don’t mess with Mamie. You finish what is on your plate, forget that computers or cellphones exist, say please, thank you and non, merci madame. Against all logic, they absolutely adored hanging out with her, and somehow managed to choke down those endives.

One evening after the girls’ father left, Mamie showed up at my door, telling me I needed a break and that I should get out of the flat. NOW. This very moment. She handed me a coat and sent me on my way with strict orders to eat something.

Later that evening, back at home with the girls safely asleep, Mamie and I had a chat.

“It is really shocking that he left. He was so in love with you, but you know, its kind of your fault a bit, too.” she informed me.

I continued to listen as she explained the concept of le jardin secret, the French woman’s secret garden. At around the age of 40, women are well advised to take a lover. You never share this with your friends, your family, or anyone has have ever breathed. Not even those who are now 6 feet under. It is your garden. Your secret garden.

Since that chat, I have had a few years to talk about it with my parisiennes and read about it in ELLE and eavesdrop on the subject in cafés. The theory is that having a secret gives you confidence, which draws people to you (people like your husband, for example). The French also believe that falling in love is the ultimate diet, so having a lover is great for the figure. And it is safe to assume that when one has a lover, she pays more attention to her looks and her wardrobe. To be brief, a woman in love looks hot.

I don’t know about your average Frenchman, but I am confident that Mr French would much rather send me to a fat farm, offer me a day at a spa and invite me on a shopping spree. This strikes me as a ridiculously complicated way to re-attract your man and perhaps there is something seriously wrong with my sense of adventure, but personally, I’d rather bring out the mink-lined handcuffs to spicy up my marriage.

The husbands, Mamie assured me, remain totally oblivious, but are unconsciously drawn closer to their wives at an age when their eyes tend to stray, looking for some young blood to make themselves feel younger. Does this ensure his fidelity? No way. If the women have a secret garden, surely they are hoeing in somebody else’s yard. The idea is that, while he may stray, he won’t stray far. And if he does leave, well, at least you will have had an adventure of your own. I am going to have to take her word on this. It is not something I can imagine for myself, but I get a girlish pleasure knowing that the very traditional, deceptively up-tight ladies I see strolling my quartier are, like Mamie, very likely to have had a secret garden adventure of their own.

Dating Mr French

There is a scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta is in the car with Samuel Lee Jackson and he is discussing his recent stay in Amsterdam:
Vincent Vega: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules Winnfield: What?
Vincent Vega: It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same sh** over there that they got here, but it’s just, just there it’s a little different.

Vincent then goes on to explain how the cheeseburger exists in the French McDonald’s, but it is called Le Royale. That is what made the movie great. Odd from the perspective of an incompetent gangster, but so true. Everything here is the same. We all eat, drink and sleep the same, but the French just do it with a certain je ne sais quoi.

I didn’t date very many Frenchmen before Mr French had earned my complete and undivided attention. There were more dinners and eventually, I let him pick me up at my front door.

This meant we arrived at the restaurant together, signaling my greatest “Le Royale” moment. Considering that the seven year old kid upstairs already insists on opening doors for me, and that my daughters’ boy friends make it a point of honor to be the last one through the door, its a safe bet that any Frenchman an adult woman would date expects to be the one opening the doors. This does not necessarily come as a reflex for independent girl from San Francisco, where men tended to be too busy flirting with her husband to even notice she was coming through the door. SLAM!

There is an entire choreography to entering a restaurant with a French man in Paris. You arrive together, then mademoiselle takes a half-step back as he opens the door, inviting you to enter. She steps in, the number of steps necessary to let him in the door, but then she must immediately step back to let him pass and be the first one to greet the maitre d’. Kind of like a back step, forward, forward, back, cha cha cha. It has taken me years to get the choreography down.

Once you’re in the door, you’re on your own, ladies. I’ve heard that French men say “je t’aime” immediately and then continue to shower you with the phrase, Mr French prefers to shower me with flowers. I’ve heard reports of men who grab you by the wrist and rush you home to meet Maman, while other men wait until after you’ve said yes to his proposal. I can’t generalize. I only know my own happily ever after, and I hope you find yours…

A First Date

Meetic Sign















I was in something in a tizzy over my first, going beyond the café, date. This wasn’t my first date with a Frenchman, in fact I’ve still never dated an American. But, this was my first date in 20 years!!! Was it really like riding a bicycle? Would I fall off? I had no idea, but I felt ready to find out.

Before heading out, I turned to My Parisiennes for advice. I was a bit wary of les filles around this time, because they had set me up on coffee dates with some of the wildest guys, occasionally knowing that the men were married! “Well, its not like he is in love with his wife, besides you never said you wouldn’t date a married man.” I learned to be very clear with my friends about what I was looking for AND what I was avoiding like a case of rickettsia (been there, done that… Africa 1993).

But these women were my friends and they provided some really fantastic advice about what to wear. Hands down, the best suggestion was to wear my favorite, most comfortable clothing that made me feel the most self-assured and at ease, ensuring I’d feel the most like myself. I chose a pair jeans with a low cut brown wool Burberry blazer that I’d had in my closet for ages.They reminded me that shoes are crucial in France. Even busy CEOs take a moment to bend down and shine their shoes before heading out the door each morning, while placement firms have been known to take potential candidates on shopping excursions for new shoes before an interview. It would have to be heels. Sexy ones that had been shined recently.

Love, by YSL

Then for that extra bit of confidence, they told me, go out and buy yourself some really, hot, sexy lingerie that you love. It will give you a secret that adds some mystery to the evening. If you’d like a second date, keep those panties to yourself and wait for another night before unveiling your new look. Of course, if one date is enough, remember to play safe.

Since I was dating men I had met online, they were not coming to pick me up at my front door. I was in no hurry to give out my home address. I headed out the door alone. Nervous, but confident with my new best friend, Chantal Thomass at my side.

Chantal Thomass

Finding Mr French*

I get this question a lot; how do you find a French man in Paris? Uhh…. well, hmmm…. Seems obvious, but, the women who ask make a very good point. Its like being lost at sea; water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink. The city may be teeming with local men but they are a shy crowd and a decent French man is very unlikely to randomly come up to you at a café and start a conversation. Don’t get me wrong, men coming up to unattached women in cafés is as common as a cold, but often monsieur has a madame, which goes beyond my definition of decent. Its caveat emptor, ladies.

Ask a Parisienne and the answer is clear. You’re introduced. At some point or another, during your lifetime you are bound to find your man through connections. That gets a bit tricky when you didn’t go to school here and even trickier when your connections are primarily expats. Married expats with married friends.

So what’s a modern, non-local girl to do? Go high tech! Online dating sites are a fantastic way to meet someone in France. There is a French J-Date, if you’re looking for someone with a Jewish mother, and AttractiveWorld for the gorgeous who don’t want to pollute the gene pool. But the practical, one-size fits all site that I used is Meetic. I highly recommend Meetic. In my tiny little social circle, with limited access to the expat world, I know of no fewer than 6 Franco-Anglo live-in relationships that began on Meetic.

This site fascinates me – I don’t understand how it works but who ever came up with the name is a genius. Gleeden. The first infidelity site developed for women.


How does it work? Just like the sites at home. Why does it work? Of course, this is only a theory, but as an Anglo, you stand out in the crowd, so you get lots of interest fairly quickly… my divorced 50 something friends had an easy time finding a date, or eight, as opposed to my friends in the US, who could go weeks without a reply. Who would you be dating? Like any place you meet men, there are weirdos out there, and married men, so you have to filter, carefully. I was surprised by the number of very young men out there who like older women because we are less likely to hassle them for silly little trinkets like marriage and children. But there are also a decent number of intelligent, well traveled, educated men (or women) who prefer to be with someone who has experienced the world. Its really not a bad pond to fish in and it is quite easy to unhook the undesirables, throwing them back into the lake. Just don’t use barbed hooks, that would be cruel.

How do you manage it? After the online chats and the obligatory phone call to the land line, its time for coffee. Cafés are a safe, neutral place to meet and I learned from experience that you can order, drink and pay for an espresso in seven minutes flat if you know things are not going to work out. My first weekend back in the dating pool (after 20 years on dry land) I organized a series of coffee dates. One for each meal, Friday to Sunday, making for nine dates in three days. That weekend I met a scientist from the Pasteur Institute, a National Assemblyman and a dis-honest to goodness Russian mafioso. It was fun, reminded me that I was attractive and eventually life-changing… Mr French was Sunday, lunch.

* for those with mostly attached friends and a serious lack of singles in the social circle.

Weekend away?

our room awaits....

Last week, a friend emailed asking if I’d like to stay in a 5 star hotel near the Champs Elysées for free. No joke, and no strings attached. Hmmm…. Didn’t really have to think about this one. It was a resounding, hopefully not too whiny, “Yes, please, I beg of you….”

Mr French was just as thrilled as I had been, lets face it, moving is exhausting and we’d just moved two households into one. We needed a break. But with so much still to do and energy levels running low, it hadn’t actually occurred to us to plan one.

Friday night, 21h. My Valentine’s Day gift from Eres (blue, silk) is packed, the champagne is cold and my feet are imprisoned in a lovely pair of very high heels. I am ready to go. No word from Mr French. No response to my calls and not a single text. Génial. Since he usually calls as he leaves the office, which is generally around 20h, and this was supposed to be a special night, I was getting a bit miffed. Then worried. Then miffed again. My inner-Jewish mother having it out on the wrestling match with my inner femme.

Five minutes later Mr French walks in the door; clearly exhausted and not a little stressed. But still smelling delicious. It can be hard to stay angry with a man who smells so good. Before I even have a chance to express my irritation, he sighs, announcing,

“The strike is over, we signed 30 minutes before I left the office.”

Plaza Champs Elysées bathroom

did someone say bubble bath?

My eyes pop out of my head, as I stand there looking like a Hanna Barbara character, the gears tumbling around up there. The implications of those first four words starts to unfold. Our get away had been in jeopardy and I hadn’t even realized it. If the strike had continued Mr French would have had to work all weekend trying to find a solution. Not sure how I’d dropped the ball on the game. I had just been on strike myself, yet it hadn’t even occurred to me!

Cultural lesson #168 – In France, if your company goes on strike, you don’t go on holiday.

Lesson learned, we were off on holidays, now with even more to celebrate!

Hotel Plaza Champs Elysées

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...