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1/17/14

French women are different - Telegraph

French women are different


As a new guide offers advice on Gallic etiquette to British newcomers, Alice Wright recalls her own brusque welcome to La France profonde

'No Frenchwoman is ever going to see me in my underwear, except perhaps the doctor, says Alice Wright, who lives in France with her husband Michael Photo: Paul Cooper

By Alice Wright
8:28PM GMT 29 Nov 2012

I didnt expect living in France to be easy when I moved to an isolated smallholding in the Limousin from London via Baltimore, six years ago. I didnt speak a word of French. My cultural experience of the country amounted to just one weeks skiing and a day-trip to Dieppe. I was a city girl adrift in the countryside, without so much as a pair of wellies to my name. That said, some of the difficulties I encountered took me by surprise, most of which could be summed up in just two words: French women. So yesterday, when the Telegraph unveiled yet another French woman full of well-meaning advice about how to do everything better in other words, more like the French my first response was to
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1/17/14

French women are different - Telegraph

roll my eyes. Weve already had French Women Dont Get Fat and French Children Dont Throw Food, both of which help support the myth of the daunting woman who remains as slim as a sylph and as sexy as Jessica Rabbit, even after producing numerous perfect children who never, ever throw a wobbly in the supermarket. And now theres Comme une Franaise (Like a Frenchwoman), a glossy online compendium in which a daunting young businesswoman, Graldine Lepre, 27, seeks to help foreign women feel happy and bonded and fluffy in France, by blowing the lid off the secrets of the sisterhood Franaise. Dont overdress for soires, she advises; do turn up late for dinner (by 15-20 minutes) and do brush up on politics; and dont be so foolish as to mistake everyday flirtation for a come-on. In lots of ways, Lepres approach is refreshing. She does her best to demystify her subject, announcing that French women are nowhere near as perfect or sophisticated as you might think. She tells us to throw ourselves into speaking French without worrying about our appalling accents, because to the French theyre actually super-cute. But the sheer volume of material on her site merely emphasises the terrifying complexity of the subject. French women really are different. I met my friend Nolie among the other mums at the school gates. Nolie stood out from everyone else because she smiled. She was chatty. She had a self-effacing sense of humour. But if I thought she and I were really both the same under the skin, that illusion was completely dashed on the day she suggested that I might like to come lingerie shopping with her. I dont think I had ever been lingerie shopping before. Not on purpose, anyway, and certainly not with a girlfriend. But off we went, to the local factory shop, where they were having a sale. What do you think of these? she asked, holding up a beady, lacy, intricately embroidered bra-andknickers set for my inspection. Unfortunately, I said the first thing that came into my head. How on earth would you wash them? I could see at once that this was the wrong thing to say. So I changed tack, and asked her how much they were. 120 euros. Ah. For 120 euros, I could upgrade my entire knicker drawer, or Fifty Shades of Grey, as my husband Michael calls it. Yes, but whats the sale price? That is the sale price. For the knickers. The bra is extra. She nodded to herself. I think Ill take both. I made a note to myself: no French woman is ever going to see me in my underwear, except perhaps the doctor. And even then, I must always wear my best. You English are shy, arent you, said the lady gynaecologist who examined me during my first
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1/17/14

French women are different - Telegraph

pregnancy, as I stood naked in front of her, with no gown or towel to hide behind. French women are much more at ease. Again and again, with even the kindest French women, it is hard to avoid the sense that one is being judged and found wanting, because we are different. What is it with you English? said the midwife crossly, when I arrived at the maternity unit. Why dont any of you want an epidural? Would you have your appendix out without an anaesthetic? In France, everyone has an epidural. Later, she asked me if I was going to breast-feed my baby. It wasnt a trick question. Most French women bottle-feed; there is no breast-is-best Gestapo here. As a result, I often found myself having to hide away in a restaurant lavatory, for example to feed my baby. The French relationship with privacy is complex, and not something I am even beginning to understand. What doesnt help is that regional differences play a part. So Lepre tells us that we Brits are too punctual for dinner parties and drinks. Yet here in the Limousin, where I live, no one will have a drink until the last guest has arrived, so its rude to be even 15 minutes late. And although she would have us believe that Bonjour, une baguette sil vous plait is enough to open a meaningful conversation, she doesnt tell us how to make the French woman on the other end of such a conversation step out of character enough to be friendly and chatty and warm. All this said, I wish I had discovered commeunefranaise.com when I first arrived in France. I like Lepres approach, even if she is exactly the kind of intimidatingly perfect Frenchwoman whom she is trying to tell us not to fear. As it is, Im lucky to have my own very close French friend, Emilie, to answer my questions about French women, so that my petty insecurities (Why do they never smile? Why are they so rude? Why do they look at me as if I am completely thick?) never quite have the chance to fester into a full-grown complex. But still, I wonder Do they ignore me simply because Im English or is it more personal than that? . . . BUT WE'RE VERY FOND OF YOU ECCENTRIC ANGLAISES French woman Anne-Elisabeth Moutet says: French men arent too sure what they think of les Anglaises (this includes the Welsh and the Scots in the national perception) but, pace the shrewd Ms Graldine Lepre, who advises unrestrained use of the word petit to mark your approval, they are very, very fond of les petites Anglaises.
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French women are different - Telegraph

They know exactly whom they mean by that: Jane Birkin, la petite Anglaise par excellence, reigns at the pinnacle of this pantheon, flanked by the young Charlotte Rampling and Kristin Scott Thomas. There was even a hugely successful 1976 rom-com, Nous Les Petites Anglaises, that features a trio of hapless young Frenchmen sent to Brighton to learn English, who fall in love with the exotic, alluring, incomprehensible geishas of East Sussex. Naturally, French women were all set to take umbrage until we realised that very few Anglaises are, in fact, petites Anglaises. The rest are still largely incomprehensible to us, but in a far less threatening way. They are whats the word? Bizarre. They laugh all the time. They often stay in gaggles of women, rather than flirt with the men. (Yes, we are relieved, of course, but this still seems unnatural.) Rather than cleaning their homes, they garden. English women think beer is a major food group and that Pimms contains all the vitamins you need. They prefer their dogs or their horses to their boyfriends (or husbands). They dont seem to take anything seriously, especially those things we consider with due respect: work hierarchies, their French husbands friends (when theyre married), the proper way to give a formal Parisian dinnerparty, French politics, fashion. Especially fashion. The things an English woman wears would never pass the threshold of a French womans closet: Ugg boots; thick opaque black tights; lots of Bedouin-like scarves; unmatching underwear of dubious provenance; baggy jumpers and gumboots worn in the country, even in Provence (which, as we know, is Pariss extended formal garden, not shudder farmland); or, suddenly, a far too grand taffeta balldress, never entirely ironed, with old-fashioned jewellery in need of cleaning. But I will admit to playing both sides against the middle in this as a martyred French child shipped off to a Shropshire boarding school when I was 11, I actually grew up to understand, and like, English women in fact (shhhh!), often more than my compatriots. English women make far better friends than French women. The high tolerance for eccentricity that pervades English society makes them fun, sisterly, unconventional. They dont care if they lose face something that turns your proper French Mademoiselle into a taut-skinned bore by the time she is 35. But I do sometimes wish theyd lose the Ugg boots.
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