I read something that still puzzles me. Here it is: “Compared with the women of France, the average American woman is still in the kindergarten.” It was written by the hugely talented Edith Wharton. I wonder what she meant. Personally, I think that it says more about her than about us French women; after all, she loved it so much in France that she ended up living there. She understood the culture and the social rules, and after a while adopted them wholeheartedly. That said, it made me wonder whether we French women really have our own ways. Seriously, what’s so special about us? I scratched my head, and came up with a few traits that might (only might) explain such a statement. That said, feel free to add to the list. Simply put, I don’t fully understand what is so special about us. After all, I am still learning (aren’t we all?).
Sometimes, the simplest things are the best ones. It’s good to live a little anyway. I must admit that I have always been a fan of Crème Brûlée. I like it best in my husband’s plate for some reason -he usually moans but always let me have some. Don’t ask me why…Ah, the joy of being married!-.
Crème brûlée, as I am sure you know, is a French term for a rich baked custard made with cream, rather than with milk. The custard is topped with a layer of sugar (usually brown) which is then caramelised (with a blowtorch or under a grill). Suffice to say, it is delicious. Who needs complicated food anyway? Sometimes I just need a treat, and I like real food. Crème brûlée just does the job. What’s not to like about it?
If you are French, there is a proper etiquette to enjoy Crème brûlée. You see, it is all about the top layer. You need to take your spoon and gently tap the caramelised sugar before eating it. The top layer must break. This looks anodyne but it is an important test for us French. If the top layer doesn’t break, then the Crème Brûlée isn’t how it should be. It’s too hard. But it the top layer breaks as soon as the spoon touches it, it isn’t good either. You want something perfect. Now you are in the know. The devil is in the details.
As most good desserts, some argue it is French dessert, others say it is English. Of course they do. Yeah right. Whoever invented it, let me confirm that it is definitively a French name. Just saying. Because for some reason everything sounds better in French. I will never understand why, but I have learned to go with the flow.
Sometimes you have to act fast. As in, when you are about to go on a date. Or a job interview. You want to look French instantly. There is no time to waste. That’s the challenge I was set today. Let me explain: I bumped into a mum at the school gates, and she told me that she had no time to read my posts: she was going to catch up with an ex-colleague whom she fancied (she is divorced). She wanted to look French there and then. She is deliciously British, and I really didn’t understand why she so desperately wanted to look French but hey, who was I to judge? I know that we live in a fast-paced world, and I love a challenge. So I decided to give it a go. Don’t get me wrong, looking French is a slow process. You need to be familiar with French social rules, which can take a lifetime (sometimes even generations). And I still remember all the dictations at school (Ah, les dictees…). I have to break it to you: being French isn’t as easy as it seems. But if you don’t have it, you can try to fake it, right? It might work, at least to an extent. So here we go:
There is something about first times. I suppose that it’s all about fear and excitement. I must admit that I didn’t know what to expect. I discovered opera a few years ago (I blogged about it here). Fast forward a few years, and going to the opera has become a much longed-for treat. I am trying to see as many as I can. Cosi Fan Tutte, La Traviata, Carmen , Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Don Juan, Le Dialogue des Carmelites…Watching a performance is therapeutic. During an opera, you feel for the characters, you live with them for a short while, you just forget about yourself. It is a journey, you have to let go of your own emotions and listen. And yes, it can give you goosebumps.
I had been told that it might be time to go to a Wagner opera. I wasn’t sure. You see, I was put off by the duration, and I was scared to see something too loud or too intense. I was hesitating. I thought that Wagner was only for hardcore opera fans, and I didn’t think I was one. A friend of mine spotted that there was a performance of Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg at the ENO. He told me we should go. I booked some tickets, and off we went.
There is never a dull moment in my life. I suppose it’s a good thing. This morning for instance, I was about to drive my children to their early swimming practice (don’t ask, I don’t know why they are doing it, or why we signed up for it. I think we will stop soon). It was 7 o’clock, and I saw a black cab waiting on the other side of the street.
I didn’t think much of it. Why would I?
Then, suddenly, a guy opened the opposite house’s front door. He was in his PJs and rushed to the bottom of the stairs, still in his slippers, holding on to a hanger with a business suit on it on one hand, and shoes on the other hand. Somehow he managed to open the car door, sat down, and immediately started changing inside the black cab. The cab driver didn’t bat an eyelid and started driving. Another perfect example of British phlegm. My daughter was all about: “Look, Mum, he is changing in the black cab! Why didn’t he do it inside?”
It is this time of the year, I suppose: I am starting my spring cleaning. It feels nice to have a spotless house, and it has the added benefit of clearing my mind. I was tidying up when I found them. They were covered in dust and lying in a corner of the attic, as if they had fallen off an old pile. How long had they been here? I had no idea. Everybody had probably forgotten about them -the previous tenants certainly didn’t mention anything. What am I talking about? Old newspapers. Five of them. I kid you not. The oldest was a London News Illustrated dated Saturday, October 9, 1869, and the most recent was dated Saturday, March 19, 1898. Right in front of me, I had five snippets of a time in London I knew nothing about. It was my very own time capsule.
Everybody is talking about it and the article can be found here (sorry, it’s in French). To cut a long story short, the Council of Europe has condemned my home country for not making the spanking and slapping of children illegal. This is a purely symbolic gesture obviously. France won’t have to pay any fines. But still, the Council of Europe has said it. I must admit that I have been thinking about this most of the day, and it brought back some mixed memories of my very French upbringing. You see, we keep reading about how we French bring up our kids with firm boundaries, and how this is good for their development. There are books about this. Some of them are even bestsellers. They glorify the fact that we French parents give our children stricter boundaries that our Anglo-Saxon counterparts, and say that this is something the rest of the world should learn from us. Let’s not sugar-coat it : such books are written by authors who clearly haven’t been brought up in France, and want to feed parents’ insecurities to make a quick buck. Somehow, they believe they know it all because they have spent a bit of time in France. They naively believed what they were told. Total and utter non-sense. I have said it. It is out there. The reality is, once again, far more complicated.
The truth is that we French women are not so blooming perfect. Yep, you read that right. And do you know what? It’s all right not to be perfect.
We all know someone prettier, younger, slimmer or fitter. So, frankly, why do we keep punishing ourselves all the time? Don’t you think that it might be time to take it easy and enjoy what we have? The fact that French women have the reputation of being glamorous in all circumstances this side of the Channel says more about the British than the French, in my opinion. Maybe, just maybe, this cliché has everything to do with British insecurities rather than this perceived French je-ne sais-quoi. Just a thought.
So, why are women that little bit more insecure this side of the Channel? I wonder. French women seem to ooze confidence because they know that they are unique, despite –or even thanks to- all their imperfections. In general, they know how to behave. They try to remain classy. For instance, binge drinking isn’t really their thing. Don’t get me wrong, we let our hair down from time to time, but not in the same way. And frankly, getting drunk on cheap wine is a terrible experience; there should be a law against it. I wonder why governments haven’t thought about this. I need to write to my MP about it…
Maybe this Anglo-Saxon insecurity stems from the fact that boys and girls are usually educated separately in the UK. In France, all schools are mixed (except some marginal exceptions), and boys and girls are more probably used to interacting on a regular basis. That said, I recently found out that going to a single-sex school doesn’t mean that boys and girls don’t interact. Quite the opposite, in fact. But still, it’s different, boys and girls are not used to being together.
So what is it that we French women do differently? I thought I didn’t know until I noticed small things that we French women tend not to do, whereas they seem to be common practice this side of the Channel. As you will see, we are not talking about big things here, but, added together, they might tip the scale in the right direction. Here are the main ones:
I have told you countless times that we French are different. We can do things that the rest of the world only dream of doing. In fact, we can even make people come back from the dead. For instance, yesterday, the leading news agency AFP (Agence France Presse) announced the death of French billionaire Martin Bouygues. This was big news, and the rumour spread fast on the Net -as you would expect. Martin Bouygues is one of France’s industrial leaders, and such a news would inevitably impact the French economy, the share price of his company, and so on, and so forth. In short, it was a big deal, and could have massive consequences.
Except that there was one tiny detail: Martin Bouygues was alive and well. At least that’s what he tweeted. And his company formally denied that he was dead. Apparently, the AFP got it completely wrong, and got confused because someone of the same age died in the village he was from. The AFP apologised profusely for their mistake, and promised that they would investigate what went wrong. That said, I have just had a look at Yahoo News and it still says that Martin Bouygues died on 28th of February 2015. It looks like things got out of hands. You don’t know who to believe these days, right? Is he dead, or is he alive and well? It really makes you wonder. I know that we will all die eventually, but let’s say it once and for all: this is a massive cockup.