Love In All Contexts: A French Valentine for My Heart’s Desire

The author in her Paris apartment, 1977.

On my first trip to Paris I saw Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn dance Swan Lake at the Palais Garnier.  No theater I had ever seen in the U.S. could match its sumptuous Belle Epoque grandeur. My first forays into French coffee, bread, and butter were epiphanies. Breakfast became my favorite meal. French cuisine alone was an education to an American girl raised on pot roast and tuna casserole, who had never even heard of some of the vegetables and herbs, like endive and leek, tarragon and sorrel.

In Strasbourg, where I spent that university semester, I learned about living through war from a survivor of both world wars, my Jewish landlady, Madame Bloch. She had grown up with German as her first language, although it should have been French. She told me how jarring it was, if nonetheless joyful, to see all the street signs revert to French again after the liberation in 1945. She disapproved of my short skirts and thought America was full of gangsters and cowboys. Flighty me, I didn’t mind. I was too busy imagining myself as Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face, floating down the steps of the Louvre, arms draped in silk and raised like the Winged Victory. I also modeled myself on Simone de Beauvoir, and sat in cafes smoking and reading Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson, thinking about America in capital letters. I was too young, privileged, and self-absorbed to fully appreciate the struggles of that kind lady.


The author on the Riviera in 1981, leading travel journalists on a press trip for the French tourism authority.

When I returned to the U.S., I wanted to continue working in the language I still struggled to master, and found employment as a public relations executive in the French tourism services based in New York. This allowed me to visit almost every corner of France, escorting travel journalists on press trips. Once on the Côte d’Azur I nipped into a bookstore for a Michelin Guide to aid in answering press queries. Much to my delight, the proprietor said that she regretted she only had one left, and it was in English.

Despite validations like this, I always felt challenged in France. Like an insecure lover, I felt that I was never quite measuring up, in style as well as in language. That effortless French chic is not a cliché, but real. Insoucient elegance seems inborn, even in a mundane pastry box tied with a charming ribbon. My husband, with a few twists of his fingers, could make a grocery store bouquet look like the creation of a high-end florist. He would scrutinize my haircuts from every angle to make sure they were “correct” and I had gotten my money’s worth. Where did he learn this stuff? Probably at his mother’s knee.

When overwhelmed by today’s crass Kanye-Kardashian culture, I miss the comme il faut of French manners. French men usually behave impeccably to women young and old. Past a certain age in America, women become invisible to men, who nonetheless see no irony in continuing to dress like six-year-olds well into their maturity. Rare the adult Frenchman who will be caught dead in a baseball cap and tee shirt. And whatever their private indiscretions—I’m not saying they’re saints—a Frenchman will rarely publicly embarrass a woman with ill-mannered conduct.

In fact, they have a delightful habit of open admiration. My husband’s friends were fascinated that a boy from their little town in Normandy had snagged an American girl, a New Yorker, no less. They called me “la belle américaine” after the Cadillac car in the 1961 movie of the same name. Frenchmen don’t catcall women on the street. Instead, they make admiring comments to each other, under their breath but just loud enough to hear, and it’s flattering rather than demeaning.

I miss it. I miss it all: the food, the coffee, the beauty, the romance, the fun. Until I can return, I keep it alive in my heart with French movies and French singers—the old-timers like Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, who sang that his girl was his America, and singers from the ‘70s like Joe Dassin. He had a hit song called L’Ete indien, or Indian summer, “a season that exists only in North America.” In the song he recalls walking on an autumn beach with his lover, and that she resembled a watercolor by Marie Laurencin. Who but a Frenchman would write such a lovely line? This esprit is what I think Thomas Jefferson intuitively understood about the French when he said that every man has two countries, his own and France. I, for one, can hardly wait to go back.

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  • Susan Lapinski February 16, 2017 at 9:24 am

    You can take the girl out of Paris but you can’t take Paris out of the girl!

  • l gibbons February 15, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Having lived in Paris my self for short time I really loved the story. Paris captivates you in every way.