How Lean and Mean French Ladies Stay That Way

That French women are stylish, slim and simply beautiful is painfully obvious when you walk around the streets of Paris. They make looking good look easy but, believe me, it’s not. In the 25 years I’ve lived in Paris I have met many French women and indulged myself in countless conversations with them about how they stay so thin.

Just saying no - a simple and efficient gesture.
Just saying no – a simple and efficient gesture.

The overwhelming response is that they “Just say No” over and over again. And they actually mean it.

Let me give you an example. One of my work colleagues, Catherine, was complaining about the three kilos she had recently put on. (Of course, I couldn’t see those kilos; she was as svelte as ever. But, she knew they were there and she was not happy.) Catherine went to the doctor’s for a series of tests and, when she was convinced there was no medical reason for those extra kilos, she went to work on getting rid of them. Lunch was a daily litany of vegetables only–no cheese, no bread (!), no soda, no dessert. Snack at break time might be hot water for a change but no chocolate, no nuts, no nothing. It worked–the pounds quickly melted off her; her self-denial got her where she wanted to go.

I know some people think that French women eat balanced meals and that’s how they stay so fit.  They probably do – about two-thirds of the time.  However, during holiday season and vacations, they eat just like the rest of us – too much.  But then they use negativity to handle the situation.  They have a strong self-denial mindset.  We Americans, however, are trained to be positive.  We don’t go on diets; we don’t deny ourselves.  We don’t say no to second helpings.  We try to eat balanced meals for a while and then slip back into old, fatty habits.  We also encourage each other; we publicly acknowledge that it’s OK to be a “little” overweight – let’s say 5 to 10 kilos over our ideal weight.  For a French woman’s standards, one kilo over the line is akin to going out in public with a cold sore – totally unacceptable!

These lean ladies are also mean ladies.  They will make remarks when you’re getting fat (or fatter).  They will tell you that you “should do something” about it.  They will giggle sarcastically when you drink a Coke since you are enforcing the stereotype of the fat American.  They will make comments about your fat kids too and go into warning mode about it’s your responsibility to make sure they don’t turn out like you.  They are ruthless in their fight for skinniness.

French Health Minister
The ever-so-skinny French Health Minister, Marisol Touraine

French women also get weight-watching help from the government, even without asking.  A law was passed last week which bans free unlimited soda refills in public restaurants.  The fast food chain “Quick”, the first hamburger restaurant brand of European origin had installed a soda fountain in their establishments and will now have to dismantle them.  Marisol Touraine, the French Health Minister (herself a very skinny lady), said the law was created to fight against commercial measures which “entice customers and encourage them to consume unhealthy products excessively”.  In France, water is the only essential drink and the only one allowed in school cafeterias (soda vending machines were banned in French schools way back in 2004).
You might remember when, in 2012, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to ban soda servings larger than half a liter.  It was ruled unconstitutional; a hindrance to our freedom to choose.  France is taking away that choice altogether in their country and no skinny French citizen is even blinking an eye. That’s because it actually helps mothers keep their children away from sugar, sugar and more sugar.  Just one more statistic – the average Frenchman drinks 45 liters (quarts) of soda a year; whereas the average American gulps down 170 quarts per year.  Given the new law in France, that statistic will most certainly decrease – but the American one will most certainly keep rising.  We just can’t say no.

And that's all there is to it.
And that’s all there is to it.

So, if you’re looking for a French lesson in losing weight, look no further.  Just do as the French ladies do – start saying no and keep repeating it until you’re at your ideal weight.  Take a lesson from Coco Chanel who coined the phrase, “Elegance is refusal.”

How One Frenchman Mixed and Matched NOT – Internet Dating at Its Worst

I had to go in for minor knee surgery in January and I knew I would be out of romantic circulation for a while. And I also knew I would have time and a computer on my hands (with free wifi in the Parisian clinic). So, I decided to sign up with an internet dating service and have a go at dating Frenchmen. I had been married to a Frenchman before but I nixed that nationality out of my dating pool once the divorce was final. Paris is full of foreigners so it was not a problem finding other sources for amorous activity. But, I told myself, maybe it was time to turn the (digital) page. I chose “match.com”, one of the older sites; I just couldn’t see myself tindering, happning or adopting a French guy. I felt safe going with the old, traditional one.

A love computer - ready to ride.
A love computer – ready to ride.

I started navigating through tons of profiles – some completely ridiculous (like a scary looking guy in front of his webcam saying he liked “round” women) – and some less ridiculous. I liked leafing through the photos and seeing guys in their “Speedo” bathing suits since you really don’t see many of those on US beaches. I corresponded a lot in both French and English but I preferred to write in English so I naturally favored those who did the same.

Then I started meeting guys for a drink. The rendezvous’s were close to my apartment but not too close. I met a few who were “OK” – nice but not romantic material. I met a couple of guys who were so full of themselves their ankles were swelling (as the French would say).  And then I met one who I was actually interested in and I thought the interest was mutual. I’ll call him “Jean” – but, you should know, that’s his real name and I really hope he’s reading this blog right now.

I liked Jean because he smiled a lot. He had travelled quite a bit and had an apartment in Paris and a vacation house on some island in Brittany. He was retired, energetic and he was one of those “Speedo” guys. I also thought he was a generous character since he offered to cook a meal at my place for English-speaking friends. I should have been a bit suspicious right then but I know many French people who like to practice their English socially and I assumed he was one of them.

The white wine sealed the deal.
The white wine sealed the deal.

And then he said he would bring the food and the wine and that closed the deal for me. We picked the date for the dinner and I invited some American friends and family. Jean and I both agreed that 6 was a good number for people at the dinner table.

Jean brought the fresh sea bass and wine to my apartment on Friday for the Saturday dinner. I was taking care of the “aperitif” and dessert. What a team. On Saturday evening, one of my American friends cancelled on the dinner, so I told Jean there would be only five of us. I asked him if he had another friend who spoke English who would like to join us and he said yes. I got a phone call at the same time he was on his phone with the mystery guest so I don’t know what he said to her to explain the last minute invitation. But it worked. She was supposedly in her pajamas but she was dressed to the nines when she showed up at my place an hour later. Oh, and Jean told us her name was “Helene”.

Helene’s name was really Marie-Helene (I am not using her real name) but Jean somehow didn’t know that. Anyway, she was an interesting person with a medical background who also had travelled a lot. But, as the evening progressed, it became obvious that they did not know each other very well. Finally, when I was in the kitchen getting the fish ready with

Look what he brought to dinner.
Look what he brought to dinner.

Jean, my friend asked Marie-Helene when she had met Jean. And the wonderful answer was, “This morning – we had coffee together. We met on match.com”.

As the evening progressed, it was obvious that they were getting all hot and bothered for each other – and I was sitting right in the middle of this heat, smoldering, but holding my tongue. She thought I was an old friend or colleague of Jean’s and I had thought the same of her. Only he knew what was going on since he had set it up. I had nothing against this lady so I just let the evening flow by and kept drinking the wine he brought (which was wonderful – at least the evening wasn’t a total waste). My friends left before the newly-formed couple did but not without whispering to me what a shameless jerk they thought this guy was.

Jean and Marie-Helene left in their uber together, both smiling and thanking me profusely. She gave me her email address to keep in touch but I threw it away as soon as they left. I let twenty minutes go by before I texted Jean in a drunken (but legitimate) haze. I think I wrote something like “Don’t contact me again. Your behavior tonight was rude, improper and unacceptable.” About ten minutes later, he texted back with “I thought it was a good night”.   No doubt about that – from his point of view.  He got two matches for the price of one. And all I got was angry.

The next day, I deleted my profile and ended my tryst with match.com. I can find enough shameless people in real life – don’t need to go looking for any on the internet.

 

How, Where and When to Kiss Hello in France

A simple thing like saying hello and goodbye can be a daunting experience when you are a stranger in a strange land. In France, greeting rituals are complicated since they are both verbal and non-verbal and might include kissing (if you’re lucky). It’s interesting that the French have an expression “simple comme bonjour”, meaning that something is easy, obvious, clear. But when it comes to kissing hello, nothing is clear or obvious. Let’s look at some kissing guidelines so you know what you have to do the next time you come to France.

First of all, spoken greetings are important in France. You will notice that when you walk into a bakery or a café or any kind of store. Everyone says the proverbial “bonjour” before anything else happens. Even bus drivers say hello and goodbye to their passengers. They don’t kiss them, though. That’s reserved for family and friends.

"Simple comme Bonjour" may not always be that simple in France.
“Simple comme Bonjour” may not always be that simple.

The family part is easy to figure out. I have a French family and when I met them all more than twenty years ago, I just followed their lead. Their kissing system is cheek-to-cheek; right side first and stop at two. You kiss when you say hello and you kiss when you say goodbye and you should be very careful not to forget anyone since that can be seen as a real “faux pas”. Sometimes, at a big family dinner, saying goodbye to all the guests can take a while, so give yourself some extra kissing time if you have a train to catch.

Now, in the workplace, things are clear in the beginning, but they start to get a bit more complicated when your co-worker becomes your friend. First off, it’s a handshake and then a verbal “bonjour” and “au revoir” every working day. Some colleagues “make the rounds” greeting everyone on their floor before they settle down to work. There is something very endearing about the way the French see greetings as a duty, a sign of respect. They need to acknowledge your presence in a polite way.   That part is very clear.

The gray area is the passage from handshake to kiss, and how many kisses to give when you get to that stage. Tradition varies, depending on where you come from in France. The people I have met from the Normandy area and northern France tend to plant four kisses on the cheek.   The ones I have met from Brittany stop at three. That’s fine if you know it ahead of time. But it can be pretty awkward if you are going for two kisses and move your head away while the kisser keeps going.   It is also awkward if you start on the left and they start on the right. To avoid head-bumping and lip brushing, I suggest starting on the right. It’s easy to remember since it’s the same side you would use for a handshake and it works, nine times out of ten.

But when, exactly when, do you kiss? That’s a hard one to answer. The younger generation tends to kiss a new acquaintance right off the bat. That is not true for everyone. You might be invited to someone’s house and shake hands when you say hello but kiss when you say goodbye since you have gotten to know the person over the course of a meal and a couple of bottles of wine. Your best bet would be to do what they do.

To kiss or not to kiss -- now that's a good question.
To kiss or not to kiss — now that’s a good question.

The only excuse for not kissing hello to a friend is related to health. You can excuse yourself from that social gesture if you have a cold or feel one coming on. A few years ago, when the swine flu broke out, I did notice some air kissing in France – where people would pretend to kiss by smacking their lips but there is no bodily contact that could spread germs. That did not last too long (thank goodness).

In France, men kiss men, women kiss women, men kiss women, the young kiss the old and vice versa but everyone who uses kissing in their greeting does so on the cheek. A kiss on the lips, even a brief one, is a sign of romantic love, intimacy.

People who witness a kissing greeting on the lips of a couple can immediately see that they are a couple. Greeting hugs are rare in France – I have actually only seen them at funerals and weddings. The traditional social gesture is a kissing, with facial contact only.

France was one of the first countries to allow public displays of affection. That is a surprise to no one. Paris, the capital city of romance, is full of park benches with people showing off their French kissing skills. No one yells at them to “Get a room!” – lovers are just part of the scenery here along with the Arc of Triumph and the Eiffel Tower.

Eh voila! There you have the basic guidelines for meeting and greeting the French. So, what’s the next step? Come on over and enjoy the wonderful social ritual of kissing hello and goodbye. We all know the French love to demonstrate.

The French Animalistic Side to International Women’s Day

It’s International Women’s Day today, March 8th, and Paris is hosting many activities ranging from races to exhibits; films to flash mobs. The theme this year is “Make it Happen” and the Parisians seem to be doing just that. At least, that’s what I thought when I looked up the ambitious program on paris.fr. But soon after, I also picked up a copy of the women’s magazine “Marie Claire” and was a bit surprised to see an article about International Women’s Day with the photo of a prominent young French politician holding a hen (that’s right, a live hen, the rooster’s female counterpart) and posing very seriously for the camera. Huh, what’s that all about?

I knew the French had a difficult time understanding Obama’s Presidential pardon of a turkey on Thanksgiving Day. I remember trying to explain that tradition to my colleagues, only to have the discussion finish with yet another, “You Americans are crazy” comment. So, what was this? Some kind of statement connected to the cock being the symbol of France? Was the politician rooting for replacing the rooster, a male symbol, with the hen, a female symbol? Was it time to make this happen? Were the French the crazy ones now?

The man in the photo is Jean-Vincent Placé, a the president of the Ecologist Party in the Senate. It seems this photo was staged as his personal statement against sexism and, specifically, against sexism in politics.

The Ecologist protecting his hen.
The Ecologist protecting his hen.

It directly relates to a recent incident where an extremely impolite UMP (French center-right political party) politician “clucked” at a woman speaker, a colleague of Mr. Placé.  She was insulted and retorted with, “I am not a hen!” And that’s how this French version of Animal Farm started.

Mr. Placé also states in the article that the French political world is primarily old and macho – a bunch of unenlightened sexagenarians (think Dominique Strauss-Kahn). Is he right about that? Oh definitely. Will holding a hen change any of the old geezers’ way of treating women? I doubt it.  Even though there are quite a few women in the French government, they are not respected by their peers. A few months ago, a female minister was actually whistled at when she addressed the Senate because she was wearing a dress – that’s right – an unprovocative flowery dress. Mr. Placé does have some work to do.

However, getting dressed up in a nice suit and holding up a hen in a protective gesture is just as ridiculous as clucking in the French Senate. This Senator is actually part of the legislative system. He can propose laws; lobby laws; change laws. He can introduce sanctions for politicians who disrupt their colleagues and the business-at-hand. (There is nothing like a hefty fine or a suspension to make anyone think twice before he opens his beak.) Mr. Placé can find a legislative solution and, in doing so, demand respect for everyone – men and women alike. He can leave the hen in the farmyard and show us a law that deals with this problem. That’s part of the job.

Let’s hope that this hen party is the last one for the French government. Let’s hope that in 2016, on International Women’s Day, we can see a photo of Mr. Placé holding up legislation that sanctions disrespectful and unproductive public behavior on the part of  politicians. We can all cluck to that.

French Catholics Launch an Unholy War on Internet Infidelity

Angry French Catholics in the chic upmarket city of Versailles have launched a crusade against a dating website that specializes in promoting marital infidelity. The Association of Catholic Families (AFC) is suing Black Divine, the publisher of Gleeden, an online platform that puts an extramarital spin on its matchmaking. Gleeden was supposedly designed by women for women, but it is run by two French brothers, who, for whatever reason, have incorporated their business in the USA, where both of them reside. Gleeden (a tongue in cheek reference to temptation in the Garden of Eden symbolized by a half-bitten apple), began in 2009 and is thriving. There are 2.3 million members in Europe – about half of them in France.

gleeden3
“Being faithful to two men is being twice as faithful.”

The AFC has obtained over 20,000 signatures demanding that Gleeden’s posters be removed from public buses and metro stations. So far, they have succeeded in a few towns west of Paris such as Versailles, Poissy and Rambouillet. The Parisian metro, however, will not take down the Gleeden ads. The official charge that the Catholics are using against Black Divine is that promoting marital affairs violates Article 212 of the Napoleonic civil code which states that “married couples owe each other respect, fidelity, help and assistance.” Mentioning Napoleon and fidelity in the same sentence is a bit of an oxymoron. He and Josephine were openly cheating on each other long before the internet was even thought of – they didn’t need any “platform”. Adultery was business as usual in their empiric circle. And, since 1804 when the civil code was passed, French presidents have also done their devilish part in practicing infidelity in their marriages – I could name names but it’s all proud public knowledge. Let’s talk about what Gleeden does specifically.

First of all, Gleeden’s slogans are cute and sassy. Here are just a few examples: “As a matter of principle, we do not offer a loyalty card.” “Being faithful to two lovers is being twice as faithful.” “Having a lover costs less than anti-depressants.”        Gleeden claims to be an adultery specialist; it sells itself, not as a matrimonial agency, but as a “high-end social platform where married and engaged adults may interact.”

"How about this year you cheat on your lover with your husband?"
“How about this year you cheat on your lover with your husband?”

The opening pages on the website encourage the user to take reasonable precaution when communicating with other members, reminding them they are using Gleeden “at their own risk.” This site, this world community, can help one arrange for a fun evening, a flirtation, a soul-mate, or a true friendship anywhere in the world. It was created to give a sense of belonging to the married community; to help people who need to evolve in a discreet environment. The site even includes a panic button which you can use if you are interrupted by your boss, wife or husband – the button will not leave any trace of your misbehaving. Gleeden thought of everything.

Gleeden can be satirical too. An example of this can be found on the registration page where it says , “You must be honest in your marital status – Integrity is the foundation of our work.” I couldn’t believe it. And then I could.

Adultery is no longer a reason for divorce in France (the law was changed in 1975) so this actually makes sense. It certainly wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a market for it. In France, Gleeden is most popular with finance executives and doctors. There are also huge increases in French women visiting the site during the World Soccer Cup, World Rugby Cup and the Tour de France. No surprises there.

Assuming that the French are the forerunners in the adultery department, I naturally thought that Gleeden was the first of such web dating services. I did a little research and discovered the existence of Ashley Madison, a married couples dating service which began in 2001 and is based in Toronto. So, for once, the Canadians upped the French.

"Thanks for your loyalty", another sassy slogan from Gleeden - recently removed from Versailles buses.
“Thanks for your loyalty”, another sassy slogan from Gleeden – recently removed from Versailles buses due to the French Catholics’ petition.

I also found out that the public transportation system in Toronto would not allow Ashley Madison to advertise on their streetcars. Canadian public officials thought encouraging adultery was morally offensive, comparing it to inciting students to cheat on their school exams – just plain wrong. Speaking of immoral sanctions, in 2009, there was a French website called “domyhomework.com”, which would supply students with finished school assignments for a fee. It was forced to close almost as soon as it opened due to protests from National Education officials and angry parents and teachers.

I guess, in France, cheating on exams is different from cheating in a marriage. In France, they strongly believe that children should not be encouraged to cheat – cheating should be left to the adults.   So, if you’re an adult in France looking for where to go to cheat, just take the Parisian metro and follow the apple – the Gleeden ads are still there – at least for now.

Blood, Sweat and Sneers in the Parisian Metro

Summer in This City

A mini-heat wave slapped Paris this week and one would think that would make the Parisians happy.  The sun had been hiding for at least four weeks and it was reassuring to see it finally make an appearance.  However, the transition was “quick and dirty” and the citizens of this beautiful city were just not psychologically ready for it.  How do I know?  I take the “Metro”.  There, in the underbelly of this beautiful capital, you see the real Paris.  And this week, with 90 degree temperatures and high humidity, the real Paris was not a pretty place.

As soon as I walked into the passenger car on Line 1 of the Metro and smelled the overwhelming scent of summer sweat, I knew this would not be a pleasant ride.  The train was packed – people were impolitely pushing to get on and to get off – it was chaotic to say the least, but that’s not new.  The new thing I noticed is that the fellow passengers, who usually have indifference written on their faces, now looked nasty.  They wore snarls instead of smiles – as if they were angry at everyone present because it was hot and they were uncomfortable.  I had a premonition that something bad was going to happen.  And I was right.

Mistaken Phone Identity

The train stopped at Concorde, a particularly busy station, and in the hustle and bustle of entrances and exits, someone dropped their iphone without even realizing it.  A happy, helpful tourist who was coming on the train picked it up and gave it to a man who was leaving the train.  The tourist innocently thought it belonged to that guy.  It didn’t.  The real owner of the iphone, who was standing near the door, finally woke up and acknowledged that it was his.  He snapped it back with a quick flick of his wrist and looked at the tourist with that snarly, nasty look I had mentioned earlier.  He did manage to whisper an unconvincing “merci” to the tourist who saved his phone; then plugged himself into it and turned on his indifference.

Here is the scene of the Blood, Sweat And Sneers in the Parisian Metro.

Showtime

Then, the real show started.  The tourist was from southern France (I could tell by the accent) and he was with four other friends.  One of them started a monologue about how the man who recovered his phone was practically yelling at the tourist when he should have been showing a little more gratitude.

“You do someone a favor and they treat you like scum”, the man said.  “He should be happy he got his phone back, the ungrateful jerk.”

At that point, the “jerk” unplugged himself.

“What’s your problem?” he asked the friend of the tourist, “I said thank you.”

“It was the way you said it, you thought that my friend was trying to steal your phone instead of giving it back to you.”  The steamy metro car just got steamier.

Fight to the Finish

They shot insults back and forth – the usual angry talk about going outside to finish this off, wherever, whenever.  People stepped back to give them room; there were a couple of passengers taking out their iphone to film the scene.  When the Metro reached the next stop, they were both sneering at each other with red faces – who was going to throw the first punch?

Fortunately, the iphone jerk was with a girlfriend.  She had been standing right behind him in stoic silence all this time.  Anyway, she touched his arm and told him it wasn’t worth it.  It seems they were already late for wherever they were going.  (I wonder if they were going to be late for an Anger Management class – at least that would be funny.)

So, the incident was over; there was a little less steam on the subway train and people went back to sneering.  I hope the heat wave ends soon.  I don’t know if I can handle the drama.

 

The French Bus Whisperer Gets Angry

I have changed myself into a bus commuter these days.  I realized that the French public RATP bus system is really quite good – a bit slower but much less stressful than the Parisian metro – and I get to see Paris unfold before me on my way to work.  I always take the same line at about the same time so I have started to run into the same faces.  Some of these familiar faces even share a polite nod of acknowledgement with me.  Some of them don’t.  The Bus Whisperer is one of them.

A Self-Appointed Chastiser
The Bus Whisperer is a 60-ish ordinary-looking, French lady who I suspect is retired and doesn’t want to admit it.  She rides the “92” bus around 8:30 AM Monday through Friday and has taken it upon herself to enforce cell phone etiquette (as if such a thing existed).  She chastises offenders with a sharp whisper like a parochial school nun would use on her students light years ago. I bowed to her self-imposed authority the first time she got me.
“Psstt, Madame,” she whispered.  “Vous n’etes pas toute seule ici!”  Basically, she was telling me that I wasn’t alone on the bus, which is French for “Shut the hell up!”  Her comment surprised me in the way it made me think of my third grade teacher Sister Mary Humilitas.  I hung up on my boss immediately and texted him an apology.  I also put my phone on “silent”.  The Bus Whisperer was satisfied, grinning smug, righteous satisfaction.  I had made her day.

Her Daily Yell
Since then, I have witnessed her whispering technique on several occasions.  She’s pretty good at what she does.  I have even come to enjoy it since it helps pass the time on the way to work (now that I don’t dare to talk on my cell phone).  She gets to yell at someone almost daily.  I watch her closely and can almost predict, to the second, when she will jump in.  Some people give her dirty mind-your-own-business looks but that doesn’t stop her at all. She continues to harass them, her whispers increasing in sound and intensity.  The Bus Whisperer ultimately wins.

When Whispers Come to Blows
The Bus Whisperer met her match one day in the form of an arrogant French teen-age girl who would not bow to her authority.  The girl was talking quite loudly that morning so this time I was on the Bus Whisperer’s side.  She ignored about four of the lady’s searing whispers and then interrupted her conversation (but not ending it) to tell the Whisperer to go do you-know-what to herself.

RATP bus 92
Here is Parisian RATP bus 92 - the Scene of the Crime

The Bus Whisperer got out of her seat. All the passengers (about 20 or so) turned their heads to watch how this conflict would play out.
And play out it did.  When she realized that the girl would not yield to her whispery warnings, the Bus Whisperer got louder.  She made a bee-line for the offender and pushed her towards the door.  She yelled about the teen-ager not respecting her fellow passengers.  The teen-ager yelled back – calling her a crazy old lady who should leave her alone; mind her own business.  The fiery exchange lasted about two minutes.  The driver kept driving; the passengers kept watching and the ladies kept yelling.

And the Whisperer Wins!
The Bus Whisperer pushed the girl harder and harder.  No one stepped in to stop her.  When we came to the next stop, the adolescent hopped off quicker than an Easter bunny.  I’m sure it wasn’t her stop, but, to her credit, she could not push the Bus Whisperer back.  She took the high road and left, cursing all the while.  The Bus Whisperer put a snarly grin on her face.  Someone’s cell phone rang.  No one answered.