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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

France Paris woman handbag fine art painting impressionist

Woman with handbag, Paris by Barbara Redmond

The other night at dinner, we were talking to our friend Dorothy about A Woman’s Paris™ and our idea of discovering Paris through its women. “Interesting,” she said. “What is a Frenchwoman?” Good question. We have a vague undefined notion of Frenchness, which at the very least is emphatically not English or North American, but beyond that, generalizations break down.

After all, Frenchwoman come in all varieties. In fact, the woman that Barbara sketched, who was holding her Metro ticket in her teeth as she rummaged in her bag, might not, in fact, have been French.

As we sit at a café or in the Metro, we have a tendency to amuse ourselves trying to guess the nationality of the people around us. That elegant woman over there with the indefinable air of sophistication, perhaps? Actually, she is talking on her cellphone in German. Surely that stout woman there in jeans and T-shirt must be American. She turns to her companion and speaks in impeccable French. As for the young woman with orange dreadlocks and facial piercings…she is from the alien land of the impossibly young and could be anything.

The eternal mystery

So it is not about appearances. Skin colour, body shape, clothing…much as we may like to imagine that Frenchwomen look a certain way, and that they make the care of their looks a certain priority, that is just a stereotype. A fun stereotype to talk about, to be sure, but a stereotype nonetheless.

Frenchwomen are different from us

And yet, and yet…Frenchwomen are still different from us.

First, of course, there is the language. The French are very serious about their language, and they take a serious approach to teaching it. It has complexities that English does not and we are sure that this complexity represents in itself a kind of mental sophistication. There’s something about overhearing a young girl speaking to her mother in the correct form of the subjunctive that has us in awe.

Of course, there is French slang and Franglais and presumably French teenagers have shortcuts for text messaging, but the language provides an invisible structure to French life that accounts for some of the differences.

Second, French life is in many ways as complex as the French language. At one point, we were trying to come up with a French translation of the idea of “foolproof” and we failed. French life is not for fools, despite translations of the Dummies® series with titles like “Le vin pour le nuls.” As if.

Most things that are worthwhile in French take time and effort, from learning the language to planning a menu to cultivating a garden on a tiny balcony. In Paris, simply navigating the city is a challenge that requires you to keep your eyes open and your wits about you.

Third, we think, is the fact that French have not completely abandoned all sense of formality and social conventions. This was brought home to one of us when she approached a museum guard to ask directions for the toilettes. She began to ask the question when the guard interrupted with a curt “Bonjour.” Of course. How gauche. One does not enter the middle of a conversation, one begins at the beginning with a greeting, even in a brief and impersonal exchange.

Since then, we have been assiduous about greeting people correctly when we enter a boutique or café, and taking our leave with the requisite “au revoir.” French teenagers may ignore the formalities, but for Frenchwomen, these customs are hard wired.

And despite what you may hear about Parisians being brusque and rude, we still see evidence of la politesse around us. In particular, the elderly seem to be treated with more respect than we tend to see at home. At the boulangerie, a gray-haired woman takes some time to choose her purchase, and then pays slowly and carefully with copper coins that she removes one by one from a change purse. The line-up is growing, but there are no rolled eyes, or pointed glances at watches, or indications of impatience.

For non-French women who live in a world in which the English language is dulled by cliches and jargon, where the element of skill has been removed from every task (just add water and stir), and the sense of social conventions has been eroded by 24/7 communications (social conventions require some distance and restricted access to work properly), these elements of Frenchness are intensely appealing.

For their part, the French no doubt appreciate English slang, ease of access, and casual informality, but isn’t the grass always greener…?

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Au revoir: Adieu. A farewell remark.
Bonjour: Hello in English. It is the modern greeting in French.
Franglaise: Creative form of borrowing from the English language to form new French words.
Gauche: Lacking social polish.
Savoir-vivre: To know (how) to live. Ability to live life well and with intelligent enjoyment, meeting every situation with poise, good manners, and elegance.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.