How Does A French Woman Lean In?

Paris stroll.

Paris stroll.

Isn’t it time we gave French women more credit than tying scarves? For those cheeky accents that could make a grocery list sound sexy? The way they can prance down the rue de Rivoli in skinny heels and tight skirts until they’re eighty? How they can come home after working all day at the Galeries Lafayette and cook blanquette de veau for ten without breaking a sweat?

More germane to the subject at hand, The Sultanette credits them for planting the first seeds of The Male Harem, when I moved to Paris as a young bride with first and only husband, the Good Ex.

We were cohabiting in New York City when he was hired by a cosmetics company to work there, invited me to marry him and come along. Three weeks and a November wedding at city hall later, we had sublet our Gramercy Park loft, tossed cat in carrier, and were hurtling across the Atlantic with no address but Paris, France.

After solo moves from Wisconsin to Chicago and New York, I was no stranger to making my way in a new town. But this time I was going from bachelorette to housewife and leaving a New York ad agency job behind with a slim chance of landing a job writing in English.

There’s a reason no one’s written a song called November in Paris. Little rhymes with bone-chilling, rain-drenched, and godforsaken. The Good Ex was working twelve-hour days and after so many museums, open markets, double espressos, and churlish Parisians, I’d come home every night to our cat, Turkey, who was besotted with the pigeons perched like courtiers on the wrought iron balustrade overlooking the rue d’Artois.

No job, no prospects, no friends in this foreign land. Even my cat ignored me. I was lost and lonely. And then I began to notice her –  the French woman. That certainty behind the Hermés scarf, couture T-shirt, and perfect manicure. While I boasted and stewed about being a work-in-progress, she accessorized.

She had a different attitude about men, too. Instead of obsessing over what they were up to on Mars she was clearly content on Venus. If an extraterrestrial dropped by she’d slip into her new lingerie purchase (more sold in France than anywhere on this planet) and just say oui. If her heart was broken, it didn’t shatter. If a lover betrayed, she didn’t need a year of therapy to get over it. Why waste time and money on a shrink when there was a parfumerie around the corner?

Paris perfume.

Paris perfume.

How had this happened? Weren’t American women supposed to have the corner on liberation? If we did, it didn’t seem to be making us any happier. I decided it was up to me to stop feeling miserable and inadequate and reinvent my expectations. And then like a clever courtesan, Paris seduced me. I began to hear the comforting swish of the street cleaner’s broom outside my window every morning, to take in the intoxicating smell of the cheeses at the local fromagerie, and taste the micro-thin layer of sweet butter on a sandwiche jambon. I filled the apartment with exotic blossoms from the flower market, signed up for a jazz dance class taught by a hard-bodied Antiguan, started hanging out at parfumeries and cooking blanquette de veau. I could go into details of the ménage à trois but what happens in Paris, stays in Paris.

Two years later when Good Ex and I moved back to New York, I was as much femme as feminist. I got a job writing for a French cosmetics brand and hunkered down to the sweet life with Good Ex – perfect until it wasn’t. (More on divorce and decimated dreams in future blogs.) Again I was single and now I was forty. What next?

Eloise at the Plaza.

Eloise at the Plaza.

I found a sublet in a gracefully aging neo-gothic fortress near Lincoln Center that had been a refuge to Isadora Duncan, Noel Coward, and Norman Rockwell. My advertising salary afforded me a back apartment with half-refrigerator suitable for freezing ice cubes and a place at the legendary Café des Artistes bar downstairs where the building’s tenants gathered every night for gravlax and gossip. I was Eloise at the Plaza taking in the café society of New York politicos, media titans, Swiss bankers, and Wall Street swindlers with their décolletaged trophy wives. Paris had taught me the pleasures of not belonging.

I dated: an OCD lawyer with a terrace overlooking Riverside Park who liked the blues and my toes; a sweet-hearted man who couldn’t stop drinking; some dedicated flings. I hung out with a circle of friends and launched a million mascaras. I met One and Only and thought I’d found forever for real.

That’s when I stumbled onto a review of Pamela Druckerman’s Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee in the Financial Times. A newlywed when she wrote it, Druckerman wasn’t buying into the Hallmark Card marriage. Faithful to her husband (she dedicated the book to him) she was curious about what made the rest of the world’s heart beat faster. Assuming “that people everywhere have roughly the same mix of biological urges” she explained in the introduction, she wanted to know “how people in different cultures channel those urges.”

I made a beeline for the chapter on France. New Yorker writer and French ex-pat, Adam Gopnick, talked about the American obsession for truth in marriage. Diane Johnson, author of L’Affaire, La Mariage, and Le Divorce, weighed in on gender warfare. But what did the French woman have to say?

Cat nap or cat nip?

Cat nap or cat nip?

Aurélie: Divorced and in her thirties, a writer and consultant on gender issues, she tells Druckerman that one of the pleasures of going to a dinner party “is knowing that you had an afternoon tryst with the man across the table, who’s now passing the cheese plate to his wife.” But isn’t that adultery? Apparently not in the French dictionary. “The only space where you could call it adultery,” Aurélie explains, “is where you deal with your husband’s feelings … If you only look at the relationship between me and my lover, there’s no adultery. There’s just us.”

Could it all be so stunningly semantic? Was there not one embittered wife in the whole of France, weeping on her pillow or rifling through her husband’s suit pockets?

Bernadette: After the multiple infidelities of her husband, Jacque Chirac, were exposed (yes that Jacques Chirac, the former president and prime minister of France) she says in an interview that she’d considered leaving him. Yet most striking about the tone of this woman who has been personally and publicly humiliated, is that she does not speak the rhetoric of the victim.

Bernadette describes her husband as “very seductive, very lively. So the girls, they go wild for that … But yes, of course I was jealous … Very! He was a handsome boy. And he also had the magic of words. Women are very sensitive to that … One finds this in all the professions. A great surgeon, a great doctor, a minister. It’s human. But one still must resist.”

Marquise de Pompadour, 1759.

Marquise de Pompadour, 1759.

Véronique, the school teacher: At last someone intelligent enough to believe in monogamy. But what about her girlfriend’s husband who has just left her for another woman? Surely this unfaithful weasel deserves to rot in hell. “To stay with her would have been unfaithful,” Veronique replies, “because his heart would be with someone else.” But isn’t it the job of marriage to suck it up and wring everything out in couples counseling? “The first infidelity,” says Véronique, “is this infidelity: Can you be faithful to what you are?”

I was in love with One and Only when I read Lust in Translation and had chosen monogamy with no regrets. So Druckerman’s anecdotes were interesting but academic, like studying the sexual habits of wildebeests in Africa. But sixteen years later and on my own again, I was drawn back to those French women with their sexy defiance and mercenary ways. And after years of playing by the rules du jour, I’m following my own for a time, Male Harem version.

Yes, I pay attention to dispatches from the feminist media elite, like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. But I wonder if Aurélie, Bernadette, and Véronique could add a few chapters about flaunting feminine wiles, being a vixon instead of a victim, and the merits of infidelity. Will I ever find a way to be faithful to myself within the sweet pull of exclusivity? Do I even want to? For now The Sultanette’s going to tie herself some scarves.

This is the first in a series of The Male Harem Chronicles narrating The Sultanette’s path to The Male Harem.