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« Froggytime | Main | Salingaros on Tschumi -- The Response »

May 12, 2004

Froggytime 2 -- Frenchwomen

Dear Friedrich --

One of the great Western cultural creations, IMHO, is The Frenchwoman. What an archetype: poised, funky, individual, stylish. Whether whipping up classic food or conducting a despairing/rhapsodic affair, she's self-possessed, alert to the moment, at ease with her body, and alive in her senses -- never frazzled, never shocked, famously content to be female, proficient at the office yet a wizard at the game of love, and always, always getting a great deal of juicy enjoyment out of Being a Frenchwoman.

Perhaps the Frenchwoman has less fun than the American woman does. How confounding then, especially given our religion of "fun," that the Frenchwoman seems to get such a lot of voluptuous pleasure out of life. I know American women who are obsessed with "the Frenchwoman," even enraged by them. I'm not entirely sure why, and would appreciate enlightenment here.

My guess is that it's because Frenchwomen seem to quarrel so little with their fates as women, and because their success seems to put the lie to one of our most cherished myths -- namely, that what stands between us and unending happiness is lack of freedom. In America, we tend to equate formality with uptightness, and we like to imagine that if only some barrier or other would be removed we'd finally be able to experience bliss. We're always on the verge of bliss, yet never quite there. We use our dissatisfaction to trigger off another round of inevitably-frustrated striving. And then the fun and the dissatisfaction get to seeming like two sides of the same inescapable coin. (Cut to quick montage of channel surfing, empty bags of fast food, New Age religions, and SUVs idling outside big-box discount stores.)

But behold the Frenchwoman. Her life is a strict one, and a strictly codified one -- immensely uptight, at least by our standards. Control is not a quality that's in short supply in her life. Yet she relishes her daily existence, and she enjoys far larger portions of erotic transport and sensuality -- of satisfaction -- than we generally do.

(Hey, does it seem to anyone else that we Americans are forever mixing up sex with dynamism? We seem to confound sex with, I dunno, aerobics. It's a chore, if a healthy one; it's proof that we're competent as well as proof we're having bustin'-out-style fun. Another thing I admire about the French is their ability to find what's erotic in the moment, whatever that moment happens to be. The eroticism of ... a lazy moment. The eroticism of an ... exhausted moment. The eroticism of a ... sad moment. And why not? Good lord: why make "feeling sexy" depend on "feeling good," let alone "feeling dynamic"? Talk about limiting your opportunities.)

My mind's on these matters because I've been enjoying Debra Ollivier's book Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl. (It's buyable here.)

Have you run across Ollivier's writing? I first became aware of her a few years back when I was still following Salon. She wrote terrific pieces on a variety of topics; I vividly recall one startling essay about her decision not to have her son circumcised. (20,000 nerve endings go bye-bye when that ring of flesh is removed.) But mostly she wrote about the French.

She turns out to be a Jewish-American woman from California who married a Frenchman and spent ten years raising the family in Paris. Reading her book, I'm pleased to find that she's as struck as I am by the way The Frenchwoman combines propriety with both the libidinous and the spiritual. Here's a sampler of passages from "Entre Nous" that I found especially helpful:

[The Frenchwoman] is focused on living her own full life, following her own agenda and cultivating her actual self, rather than reinventing herself or pining away to be someone she's not. Throughout her life, she invests herself in learning and experiencing, not to change who she is, but to become more fundamaentally and more fully who she truly is ...

There is a lovely, dreamy paradox about the French girl, and it's this: in having a strong sense of self, she's able to let go of herself; that in being self-contained, she's able to be vulnerable -- all without unraveling at the seams. It's that melange of sensitivity and sang froid that so delicately lingers around her ...

She does not confuse commerce with culture and the narrative in her life does not come from what she buys or sees on TV; rather, it comes from getting sensual satisfaction in the moment, from feeling an almost tactile pleasure and evocative power in the seemingly mundane ... She so fully and unequivocally inhabits her own space, and with such individualistic flair, that it seems as if even from the earliest age she has always been sure of who she is and where she's going ...

The French girl's discretion is often most apparent in what she chooses not to say. Like her culture she's private and nonconfessional ... The French girl does gossip (she's human, after all) but her culture respects privacy in ways that stupefy Americans and she, too, takes on this guard. Her tendency is to mind her own business. To be discreet. To think before she speaks. And because she doesn't need vicarious pleasures or the approval of others to exist, she often appears as if she could not care less what you think of her. And in fact, she doesn't ...

The French girl's notion of time is that of a flaneur -- a stroller, one who does not go places with a particular objective or precise schedule but allows the ambling course of general intentions to guide her into unplanned encounters and special unexpected pleasures. In her world, time is not money. Time is life ...

The French girl understands that sexy is a state of mind. Her relationship to food and her body is sensual, not tyrannical, and she takes pleasure in both. (This may explain why the French are often preoccupied with food and sex, and Anglo-Saxons with work and money.) ...

Attention: this a pop, even a self-helpy book. It's anything but serious lit; it's full of sidebars, movie recommendations, peppy language, and even girly line-drawings of poodles. It looks like something an editor or agent dreamed up.

But, y'know, it's a good pop book. It's terrific, really. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but I like Ollivier's pop book better than Adam Gopnik's more high-toned writing about France. Ollivier's every bit as intelligent as Gopnik, as well as more informal and more approachable; she also strikes me as more down to earth and more on the money. (A friend who lives in Paris tells me that she loves reading Gopnik on the French precisely because he gets them so wrong.) I'm tempted to pause here for a rant on the theme of "how wrong it is to diss a book just because it's a pop book," but will resist the temptation. In any case, "Entre Nous" is fluff with heft -- airplane reading, but spunky, observant, sensual, canny, and smart airplane reading.

Here's Debra Ollivier's own website. Here's a list of links to Ollivier's pieces for Salon. Here's a good Ollivier piece about how the French raise their children where sex is concerned. Here's a piece about the French and their relationship to food, and here's a piece about the differences between young French girls and young American girls.

And a 2Blowhards bonus link: here's a book by Will Clower about the famous "French paradox" -- how the French manage to eat the way they do yet stay slim.



posted by Michael at May 12, 2004


As a french person myself, i think your (and your co-bloggere's) seeming ability to ramble on a variety of seemingly disinteresting topics with conviction and authority, just for the sake of the pleasure they bring you, should make you, no matter how much you may dislike this, honorary frenchmen! Bienvenu au club!

Posted by: Nicolas on May 12, 2004 12:06 PM

That's a high compliment! I hope you don't think I've got this whole French thing all wrong. Thanks for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 12, 2004 1:27 PM

nope i think there's a great deal of truth to what you said. Though i believe french society is changing a great deal, increasing urbanization and the impact of cultural imports (mostly US) is beginning to change many attitudes as regards, fashion, literature, art etc. Yet you're right that a special gallic twist is often placed upon them (and all the better for it, nothing like fusion). For example in the area of music you might find the Hip-Hop stylings of MC Solaar pretty damn good (especially his second album prose combat).

Posted by: Nicolas on May 12, 2004 1:57 PM

Consider this a sidebar to the discussion about French women.

It took me a few visits to France to figure out what it was that made French women distinct from those in America, England, Germany and other countries I've visited.

Keep in mind that this is based simply on observing women on the street or in shops in Paris and other urban places. If you drive through villages and small towns along Routes Departementales, you get a different picture. I'm probably dealing with bourgeois femmes in this discussion.

Anyway, it finally struck me while on a guided tour of the chateau at Sarlat. It was our English-speaking guide. She had GREAT POSTURE.

So I kept my eyes open when I got back to Paris. Sure enough, the strikingly "French" looking women all had good posture.

And, sadly, lots of American, English, and other gals don't.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 12, 2004 8:54 PM

FWIW (which the Apple translator says is "pour ce qu'il vaut la peine"), "Mon Oncle" has been cleaned up and reissued on DVD. In retrospect, it's not about Modern architecture, which is what one always reads, but about Modern architecture AND urbanism. As in Traditional urbanism, the city is more important than the building.

Plus the family in the Modern house own the official New Urban breed of dog, a dachshund, who plays a prominent role in the movie.

Also try

Posted by: John Massengale on May 13, 2004 1:40 AM

Great post (as well as the part 1 on froggy).
As a frenchwoman living in the US, I definatly see a lot of differences between my friends and I.
I love to read about different opinions, as to understand it better.
You should read this free cyberbook on the differences between American and French:
It's in French, sorry.

Posted by: Magabe on May 17, 2004 11:13 AM

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