By Philippa Campsie

Parisienne, by Barbara Redmond

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.

A Frenchwoman: An 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.

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.

Philippa Campsie

Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.

She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French women do get wrinkles, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the super French myth of the coquettish French nymph—her “je ne sais quoi”—in her ballerina shoes, hair effortlessly tied in a messy chignon blowing in the wind, large sunglasses over her naked, no make-up, nevertheless beautiful eyes, and she then continues to define how we are all measured by it.

l’Américaine, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the myth of the unsophisticated and pathetically naïve American where book after book and article after article there is the lament of the hopeless quest of the American woman to resemble her French counterpart.

Imperfect Perfection: The new French woman, by writer Kristin Wood who reminds us of the words attributed to Henry David Thoreau, the famous American author and philosopher who eschewed material excess and extravagance… “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Kristin writes about the predicted trends of the “undone” makeup look, and the “de-blinging” of luxury items. What better place to introduce these two trends on a grand scale than in Paris?

Beauty Confessions from a Globe-trotting Parisienne. Parisienne Bénédicte Mahé shares a French woman’s approach to beauty and makeup; and how the relationship Americans have with beauty is very different from that of the French. Including her list of Beauty Resources in Paris and a vocabulary of French to English translations. (French)

Paris Makeover: coming home blond, by Barbara Redmond who declares, “Never question a Frenchwoman,” and succumbed to the transformation of coming home blond. Barbara describes it all: the haute-coiffure, the pharamacie, and her new “French look!” Including Barbara’s favorite book on spas, salons and beauty boutiques in Paris, and her personal directory of hair and makeup salons in Paris. Not to miss is her vocabulary of French to English words so “nothing” gets lost in translation!

Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.