Harriet Welty Rochefort's column on life in Paris...  Quick Takes From Paris : La Parisienne, The Ubiquitous Turkish Toilet with more to come.....

 La Parisienne....    The Turkish Toilet (aargh!!)

 In my last Letter From Paris, I talked about the raving success of "Amélie", the French film that has so delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic and is a leading candidate for best foreign film at the Oscars March 24. It's obvious to anyone who's seen the movie, which just triumphed as best picture at the Cesars, the French equivalent of the Oscars, that no one but a French woman could have so luminously played the role of the puckish, whimsical, touching, tender, clever,and absolutely charming Amelie.

Thinking about " Amelie " got me to thinking about just what makes French women so special. But first, I should qualify " French woman ", by stating that I'm referring to a very special breed - la Parisienne. She's the one we think about when we say "how do those French women eat so much and stay so slim?" and "how can they have so few clothes and look like they have a thousand different outfits ? " and "how can they look so incredibly chic when they wear hardly any make-up and their hair is all tousled and tangled?"

For the answers to these and other questions about the intriguing French woman, read on!!

Why so special ?

For most people, the Parisienne represents the quintessential French woman. She is slender, feminine, self-confident and, especially, has a certain je ne sais quoi that leaves everyone wondering what it is she has that other women can't seem to get no matter how hard they try.

It is, in fact, this mystery which makes her so special and why it is so aggravating not to be able to capture what it is about her that makes her the way she is. Even if you try to deconstruct the Parisienne, analyze her make-up or her hairdo or her outfit, you still won't get to the heart of it. You won't be able to take all the various elements, apply them to yourself, and become a Parisienne. For the Parisienne is a combination of everything she puts together ­ in her own personal way.

She is, of course, part myth. You only have to ride the metro or take the bus in Paris to conclude that this mythical Parisienne is not to be found everywhere. You can find Parisiennes in the metro but the metro is definitely not filled with Parisiennes.

Still, all in all, the aura projected by the Parisienne, the air of self-confidence, the way she has on everything right even if " everything " is mussed hair and blue jeans (the " right " mussed hair and the " right " blue jeans) is a source of endless fascination. Why does one woman spend a fortune on a new dress and expensive jewelry and look ordinary when the Parisienne looks terrific ­ and interesting - in a simple (but oh so well cut) black dress with a shawl thrown negligently over her shoulders ?

We foreigners would love to find out ­ and this isn't recent. In the mid-nineteenth century English writer and people-observer Fanny Trollope wrote in Paris and the Parisians : " That manner, gait, and carriage ­ that expression of movement, and, if I may say so of limbat once so remarkable and so impossible to imitate, is very singularIt is in vain that all the women of the earth come crowding to this mart of elegance. "

So what are her secrets ?

She's got plenty of them. In no particular order, she's got the seven s's :

Slender : Every foreigner who travels to Paris asks the same question : how do the Parisians get and stay so slim ? (Remember : large sizes here begin at 14 and even a size 12 is definitely not petite). There's a quick answer to this one. They smoke a LOT and eat next to NOTHING. Simple, n'est-ce pas ? If you think I'm kidding, check out two Parisiennes lunching together. There are approximately two lettuce leaves on their respective plate and they are sipping tea while puffing away like fiends. They refuse dessert and opt for a small strong expresso (no sugar). They also RUN a lot, and I don' t mean " jogging ". Parisiennes either take the metro to rush to work (miles of walking the corridors of the metro does WONDERS for the figure ­ you don't even need to jog on week-ends) or they drive- like maniacs. All that adrenalin burns calories.

Sensuality and sexuality : celebrate the body ! it's all great : perfume, bubble bath, oils, fine-smelling soaps, facials, massages, pretty lingerie, sexy shoes. No matter whether the Parisienne's budget is Monoprix or the rue Faubourg St. Honoré, all Parisiennes are vitally attentive to every item that makes them look good and smell good.

High-heeled shoes ? The higher the better.

Would a Parisienne not buy something which is pretty because it's uncomfortable (for example, the high heels) ? Of course not.

Why ? " Il faut souffrir pour être belle. " (" You have to suffer to be beautiful ", as the mother of a Southern girlfriend of mine often told her as she was growing up. Just an aside, but I find that Southern women and Frenchwomen have many things in common including and especially their steel magnolia approach to life.)

Garter belts ? Alluring bras and lingerie ? You bet, and, I found to my surprise, they are not reserved to pretty young things. More years ago than I'd like to tell, I had an operation at a French hospital. I was the young thing then and in a room with two women who are the age I am now (let's not be coy ­ I was in my twenties and they were in the fifties). And who looked better than whom ? My French roommates had on lovely chiffon sleeveless nightgowns which contrasted jarringly with my long-sleeved warm flannel pyjamas. I was horrified and astounded. Astounded because it never occurred to me that one didn't dress for comfort, especially in a hospital. Horrified because I looked sooooo bad.

That long ago experience was, I believe, lesson number one in how to approach being a Frenchwoman.

Look chic, even when lying on a hospital bed.

Savoir-faire : it's one thing to buy pretty clothes, shoes, and accessories and another thing to put them together. The Parisienne has perfected the art of chic. Writes fashion editor/journalist Susan Sommers in her book French Chic, How to dress Like a Frenchwoman : "Frenchwomen have something special. They're feminine, sure of themselves, and seem to delight in breaking all the fashion rules, yet making it all work. "

At one afternoon tea party in Paris, I focused my attention on a lively Frenchwoman of an indeterminate age. She was dressed in a mixture of classic and highly-off-the-wall : high heeled black and white tennis shoes, short white socks with ruffled tops, classic black pants topped by a well-cut short cream colored vest with black-lined pockets trimmed with gold and pearl buttons. On it she wore a big gold brooch studded with what looked like black pearls. It was obviously a well-thought out outfit she had taken great care to assemble but she wore it as if it were a second skin. After my initial inspection, I forgot about her get-up and became interested in what she had to say. But first impressions count, and she'd certainly made hers!

Subtlety : Just as their dress bears a certain subtlety, so does their way of speaking and listening. Even if you get past stages one and two and look like a perfect Parisienne, you'll still have to learn Parisienne-speak. Good luck ! A Parisienne can insult you without your ever knowing it. Two weeks later you suddenly understand what the comment was all about and where the arrow was pointed ; three weeks later you figure out your response. Too late. You have to be on the ball to deal with a Parisienne. Here's an example of an exchange at my local boulangerie :

Very stylish lady talking to herself : "Now what was it I wanted ?"
Salesgirl ( a tad impudent) : " If you don't know, I can't tell you."
Very stylish lady in a condescending tone with a glacial stare : "You'd better believe you can't. "

The subtlety in that exchange came from the change of tone of voice. This is why Parisian-speak is hard to imitate.

Street sense : For the Parisianne, the street is theatre. Everyone's watching everyone. She knows that. Whether she's sitting at a café or boarding a bus, she's watching other people and wants to be watched as well. If someone catches her eye, she'll decide whether she wants to hold the gaze or not. If no one looks, it's a bad day indeed. Parisian plastic surgeon Dr. Fréderic Serfati, whose life is devoted to beauty, told me that he admires la Parisienne and her way of " showing what she has ". " It is ", he concedes, " a complicated game. The Parisian woman needs to look at others to see how they are, all the while hoping that they aren't seeing that she's looking but are looking at her ! "

Self-confidence : Even if she let you in on every single secret she has, from the scent she is wearing to the way she ties her scarf, you won't end up looking like her. Her " look " is a result of her self-confidence, the way she sees herself. She's put her personal stamp on herself. No admittance. Says one Parisienne admirer : " The Parisian woman is conformist but likes to have that little something that makes her stand out from everyone else. " In addition to that, she's in the habit of frank self-appraisal. What can I emphasize and what can I hide ? Many years ago a French woman I worked with asked me if I thought she looked better in pants or skirts. I really had given no thought to the matter ­ but she obviously had. I wasn't much help to her then but I certainly would be now ­ thirty years of exposure to this kind of frank self-appraisal has rubbed off !

 

 Every once in a while the new face of Paris forms a stunning contrast to the old. I was thinking about this as we strolled around the Bastille area on a cool May evening before meeting a friend for dinner at Bofinger, one of my favorite "Belle Epoque" restaurants. After gazing at the Opera House, a modern cement and glass affair which is definitely not one of my favorite buildings in Paris (unlike the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay, two of the late President Mitterrand's other "grands projets"), we crossed the street to have a drink at the Café Rey. The café had obviously been re-done with a new paint job and all the modern comforts - I thought - until I excused myself to go to the ladies room where I was amazed to see...a Turkish toilet. For those of you who have never seen or used one of these contraptions, let me explain. A Turkish toilet is very simply a hole in the floor with two raised platforms for your feet. Until 1970, Turkish toilets were what you got in almost all Parisian cafés. Fortunately, they have gradually been phased out and so your chances of stumbling upon one aren't all that great - of course it had to happen to me! A man using this can manage quite nicely, I would think - for a woman it is an incredibly complicated process. I couldn't believe that one could remodel a café and actually retain this equivalent of the outhouse. Quelle surprise!

After the Turkish toilet experience, I was glad to find myself in Bofinger, an establishment which seems to have been around forever and which is as well-known for its choucroute as for its Belle Epoque decor-mirrors everywhere, flowered lamps jutting out of the walls, waiters in black and white hovering like hummingbirds over a room full of chatty, happy people at tables covered with immaculate starched white tablecloths. Our visiting American friend ordered lamb chops while my husband and son tucked into a marvelous choucroute, the Alsatian specialty of delicately cooked sauerkraut with all kinds of sausages surrounding it. To my friend's horror, I ordered a steak tartare, raw hamburger meat seasoned with an egg and various spices. "You've gone native!" he laughed.
Well, yes, I thought. I guess anyone who can get out of a Turkish toilet situation with a certain amount of aplomb and then go eat raw meat and consider it just one more ordinary day in Paris, has probably definitely gone native, indeed.
A bientôt.
June 1997

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Of course the French woman's got a little help from history here - in fact thousands of years of French history in which women were wives and mistresses and powers behind the throne. Frenchwomen trace their female forebears all the way back to the Merovingiens and beyond. Ever see Merovigian jewelry ? The woman were very coquettish, even then. Our present day Parisienne is just naturally following in their footsteps.

In addition to her history, the Parisienne, c'est logique, has something else : Paris. Here's how one Frenchwoman, Mady Serfati, who describes herself as an unconditional Parisienne, feels about the relationship between Paris, the feminine city, and the women who inhabit it : " I feel like a woman the minute I am in Paris. Being in a city with such beautiful architecture and surroundings makes one want to be beautiful, to shine, to radiate, to please at any age. Paris creates an osmosis between itself and us. " At 67 Mady is a wonderful example of the chic dynamic well-dressed Parisienne. The day we speak she's dressed in a leopard spotted jacket, perfect fitting gray pants, and stylish flats. Not an " outfit " but something she put together in her own way. Like the real Parisienne she is, she looks terrific.

An American woman who has lived in France for eight years and who is the very portrait of the independent liberated woman, told me how surprised she was by the influence of Paris on her vision of herself: " Living in Paris is like being in a room of wonderful furniture. You want to dress up and look good to fit in with the surroundings ! "

 Different Types of Parisiennes

They may all look the same to you, universally disgustingly slim and put together, but within the universal Parisian type are many sub-groups, easily recognizable when you get the hang of it. There's the

BCBG (bon chic bon genre)

This Parisian lives in the chic neighborhoods of the 16th and parts of the 7th and 15th. So many of them are found in the tony arrondissements of Neuilly, Auteuil and Passy that they have been dubbed " NAP's. Her clothes are well-cut, but not daring. The emphasis is on being proper, not showy. The most severe type of BCBG may sport padded headbands, kilts and deck shoes ; the more relaxed type will try to be a bit more à la mode but never flashy. All have a tendency toward dull, toned down colors such as bordeaux or bottle green (for this description and some of the following, I was inspired by Hélène and Irène Lurçat's handbook " Comment Devenir Une Parisienne ­Editions Parisgramme, unfortunately only in French). (read more about BCBG)

The Intellectuelle Rive Gauche

On the other side of the Seine, in St. Germain de Près, you'll find the left bank type, generally an intellectual working for a publisher, a university professor or journalist. She too is chic but her look is more casual. But don't be fooled : She may wear flats and look teacherish but check the details for the tailoring of her jacket. It's probably a ready to wear designer like Kenzo, Miyake, or Yoji Yamamoto, perhaps Rykiel or Strelli, something combining classic and slightly (but not too) eccentric.

" L'Artiste "

Her stomping grounds are the artsy east end of Paris around the Bastille or in a loft near the Canal St. Martin. Sports an original gypsy look. Wouldn't be caught dead in a BCBG suit ­ and wouldn't be caught dead in the 16th arrondissement !

Show-Bizz, Jet Set, Nouveau Riche

Lives in Neuilly or the 8th or 16th but unlike the proper BCBG adores flashy pricey clothing, and wearing handbags and T-shirts with the designer's name splashed all over them. Spends holidays in Deauville with all the other nouveau riche. Does her errands and trucks her kids around in one of those awful 4 ­ 4's ­ just what one needs for a safari en ville. Bawls YOU out if she's double parked and you can't get out. Hair is dyed blonde. (I wax eloquent on this type of Parisienne as I have many a time been boxed into a parking place by them). Fascinating, but definitely not endearing.

How to Dress, Talk and Look Like a Real Parisienne

Now here's a challenge : even if you pass the test on the dressing and speak like a Parisienne, assuming you have an impeccable French accent and know all the nuances, one very real problem in looking like a Parisienne is that you don't have a French face. This is very important because the French face goes with the French look. And the French face is closed, reserved, composed and cool. No clean-cut spontaneous California girl look here.

In terms of your " look " which the French pronounce " Louk ", here are a few things to pay attention to should you wish to pass for a Parisienne ­ or at least not look too much like the tourist you are.

Number One : Shoes. Yes, number one. You may be dressed in an everyday suit or skirt and blouse or slacks but if your shoes are wrong ­ ie if for example you've got on tennis shoes " to be comfortable " you're disqualified. Some Frenchwomen do wear tennis shoes but ­ is this a surprise ? ­ they are extremely stylish and just right with whatever else they have on. Whether tennis shoes or high heels, la Parisienne spends an inordinate amount of time finding exactly the right footwear. Shoes ­ and the handbag (but not matching) ­ are probably the two most essential elements in her wardrobe.

Number Two : When in the streets of Paris, leave your sweat pants, polyester pants suits and practical shoes at home. When the French say, " il faut souffrir pour être belle ", they mean that you can't look nice if you put comfort first. In fact, none of them have polyester pants suits in their closets. Actually many Parisiennes do search for comfort as well. They just manage never to look like comfort was the first concern.

Number Three : The little basic black dress can also be the little basic black pants suit. But very well-cut. Wear it, like the Parisienne does, with different scarves, shoes, and jewelry. You're on your way. But you can also totally ignore that advice and put on what you like in your own way. I think of my Parisienne friend all decked out in her platform-heeled tennis shoes, dressy well-cut vest, and big costume jewelry. She carried it off ­ and she's in her sixties. If you've got a sense of style and the guts to try this kind of look, you'll be très parisienne indeed. But only, of course, if you succeed.

Number Four : Forget the first three items. This one is capital. The Parisian dresses well all the time, not just when she goes out. In the States, we are much dressier when we get decked out for a formal occasion but when we're at home, we're casual ­ very casual. The Parisian woman might not get as dressed up for the dinner party (because she already looks great !) ; on the other hand, even if she's just going to the market to shop, she'll still put on a pair of pretty earrings or a special scarf. In all situations, she'll make an effort to look as good as she can (following the axiom : you never know who you'll meet).

All of the above is of course a discussion of the Parisienne as seen by foreigners. It goes without saying that there are Parisiennes who don't fit into any of the above categories (or don't think they do). We, though, are talking about our ideal Parsienne, the one we all refer to when talking about the French woman, the one we equate with style and chic.

It's a hard act to follow and some foreign women don' t want to be Parisienne. One gaspingly beautiful statuesque graceful American woman told me that it was " really painful " for her to try to fit into an environment where seduction is life or death. Her advice : " You can emulate being a Parisienne but I would suggest just remaining who you are. " (Hey, I'll agree on that ­ although I always make an effort to look decent and then some, I know I could never begin to compete with a real Parisienne ­ it would take centuries). Many foreign women live in Paris for years but never acquire that je ne sais quoi either because they don't have it and never will or they don't want to work at it or they find it futile.

Naturally, there is more to the French woman than style and chic. What makes her interesting is the combination of steely determination, femininity, self-confidence, and sheer manipulation. (I always thought it funny that the American women is very often perceived in France as a blatantly bossy creature when in fact Frenchwomen yield so much power in their homes. The proof ? Many, perhaps even most, Frenchwomen, hold the family pursestrings. As Sanche de Gramont wrote in The French, Portrait of A People the French woman needs no lessons when it comes to thriftshe is an ant disguised as a butterfly ". The French woman generally ends up getting what she wants. In the end, perhaps the only difference between French women and other women is in how they pursue their goals. In a nutshell, French women speak softly and carry a very big stick.

So take another look at our Parisienne, whether she be a BCBG, an " artiste ", an intellectual or just herself.

She's has style and chic ­ but she's also got grit. That chic, charming, subtle Parisienne is a real steel magnolia or in de Gramont's words, a woman of " iron and velvet ".

Can we emulate her ? Is there any hope for all of us non-Parisiennes out there ? Mais bien sûr ! Says one Parisian sophisticate : " No one is more Parisienne than a foreigner who's understood what it is to be a Parisienne. " "

Formidable !

Finding out just what it's all about and pulling it off, however, could take nothing short of a lifetime. (from Letter From Paris, March 2002)

   
To related pages : life in Paris, Harriet's Paris diary., etc... If you want to know more about the French, read Harriet's books French Toast, French Fried and Joie de Vivre ; for the flavor of life in Paris, check out her site

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For more on intercultural differences, order Harriet Welty Rochefort's books :

  • "Joie de Vivre", Secrets of Wining, Dining and Romancing like the French, St.Martin's Press, New York, 2012
  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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