Welcome to the first installment of “What They Know That We Don’t.”
This is how it works, I pose the following question to non-French women — all in our age range — who live in France (many for decades): “What have you learned, from your friendships with or simply observing that special species of womanhood, La Femme Française?
All the interviewees arrived here in their 20’s and 30’s ergo, they’ve been studying the subject for many years. In this, the first chapter, the women are from England, the United States and Germany. (We are on message: Everyone is talking about “women of a certain age,” but you’ll see most if not all of their responses apply to Frenchwomen of every age.)
This is what they told me. . .
Jean: Always under dress. That’s one reason why Frenchwomen are so chic.
Forget about trying to copy, compete or figure out what she knows instinctively about dressing that we don’t. It’s impossible. I’m convinced there’s a secret tom-tom signal that goes out only they can hear and then like magic they show up at a party in the one perfect new thing from the season that sets them apart. I’ve learned it’s best to do what they do in the abstract: Figure out one’s own style; refine it; choose from the new seasons the pieces and/or accessories that compliment your personality and that’s the best we can do.
Never go through a door first. It’s a strange ritual, but I observe it every time I go to a restaurant or a party where one encounters several Frenchwomen in front of a door. They practically flatten themselves against the wall so they don’t have to lead the way through. The last one in always wins. And believe me it’s not easy fighting for last place.
Ann: Be late, be late, be late — 20 to 30 minutes minimum. If you arrive at the appointed hour to a grand event you’ll spend at least the first half-hour standing around with a drink talking to your husband and the waiters. Even a dinner with friends; it’s the same thing. When you’re told 8p.m., the hostess means 8:30.
When I saw how much better Frenchwomen look with their practically year ’round tans I started doing auto-bronzage immediately. It makes me look much healthier and I don’t need to worry about makeup every morning.
Seigrid: I find they’re extremely proud of their bodies and are more than obsessed with being thin, but then again they always look so elegant. I suppose one goes with the other.
They have a clever way of controlling the men in their lives. The men seem not to be aware at all that they’re being manipulated. Ultimately that’s how women get what they want.
Seduction is paramount for them. No matter where they are or with whom, they are always flirting. I do think it’s a game and they love playing it.
Donna: No Frenchwoman would wear white tennis shoes unless she is in a gym or jogging; nor would I.
It was when I came to France that I learned how important accessories are. I never realized how creative one can be with the same clothes and lots of personal touches.
Even when it’s freezing out you will never see them in a big, goose down coat. They’d rather be fashionable than comfortable.
My hands are always manicured, my toenails always painted — summer and winter. It’s all part of the ever-important grooming that makes up their personal culture.
This is not specific to women, but I have learned you always say “bonjour” when you enter a shop of any kind and “au revoir” when you leave.
Kim: They’re individualists. They do not want to look like anyone but themselves. They love the latest styles, but each woman makes it her own.
I find they are refreshingly comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality. They are not bothered in the least by what we might consider sexual harassment. For them it’s an element of seduction and seduction is fun. They know it’s part of the nature of things between men and women. (Nor are they offended by innuendo.)
From what I’ve seen, they do seem to eat three real meals a day, every day.