French Impressions: Bénédicte Mahé living as a French woman in Paris
28 Thursday Jun 2012
Au Bonheur des Dames, Breton, Bridget Jones' Diary, Brittany, Claudie Pierlot, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Erasmus, fashion, France, glamour, H&M, Jonak, Kookai, Le Bon Marché, Les Petites, living abroad, Maje, Naf-Naf, Pablo by Gerard Darel, Paris, Rennes, Sessun, study abroad, Uniglo, Why French Women Don't Get Fat, Zara
Bénédicte Mahé was born in Rennes, in the French region of Brittany. After she completed high school in France and received her baccalauréat in 2005, she spent a year in Wisconsin as a senior in high school. This year was decisive for the course of her college studies as she decided to get a licence (3 years) with two majors in English/American studies and German studies. During her licence she studied in Paris for two years and for one year abroad in Berlin, Germany. German is one of Europe’s three official languages, along with French and English. Keeping that in mind, Bénédicte decided to pursue her studies with a French-German master (2 years) in Crossborder Communication and Cooperation, for which she completed three internships: two in art galleries and one in a museum. The French government supports cultural institutions and projects with a steady budget, but these professional experiences opened Bénédicte’s eyes to the need for private arts funding as well.
Aware that she was not specialized in philanthropy and sponsoring, Bénédicte decided to finish her studies with a French-Italian mastère-spécializé (1 year, in business schools) in Management of Cultural Goods and Activities. This program brought her to Venice, where she stayed for 4 months and began to learn Italian. Back in Paris, Bénédicte is now finishing this program with an internship at a French bank’s private foundation and will write her thesis on philanthropy in French banks. Bénédicte launched her blog in April of 2010—sharing anything and everything on her mind. Who needs a shrink when you can have a blog? She likes shopping, (clothes, shoes, bags, and home goods) watching TV shows and old American movies, (among her favorite actors are Doris Day and Cary Grant) as well as tap-dancing and reading. A real European, she loves to travel and speaks four languages but does not intend to stop there!Visit Bénédicte’s blog: Tribulations Bretonnes.
AWP: What is it about France and women?
BM: It is difficult for me to answer this question. Being a French woman living in France, I do not know if I am detached enough to reflect on this. Sometimes I think the view foreigners have on us is a bit overrated, beginning with books like Why French Women Don’t Get Fat. I do not feel particularly chic; I am not always very well put together all the time; I do not smoke; and I really do not feel skinny. However, when I travel abroad I feel like I have standards to uphold toward foreigners, as if it were my duty to be a French (and Breton) ambassador: I pay more attention to how I dress, to what I say, etc. And I certainly prefer shopping in France than anywhere else in the world, (although shoe shopping in Italy has been great) so I guess it is true that there is something special in France for women.
Women also have a more comprehensive place in France—a lot has been done with abortion rights, social security, child care—giving more liberty to women to have the life they truly choose. But the abolition of the law on sexual harassment in April 2012 shows how delicate the balance still is for French women, as opposed to the image people may have abroad, and that even the Department of Women’s Rights has a lot of work left to do.
AWP: Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French and reactionary pragmatist regarding women said in a letter written in 1795: A woman, in order to know what is due her and what her power is, must live in Paris for six months. How do we understand this statement today?
BM: When Paris was really at the center of the world’s attention in term of fashion, politics, and art, Napoleon’s statement may have been true. However, today it does not make that much sense. Living in Paris is an experience in itself, but on a more cultural level. I personally think that Paris is overrated and survives on clichés and images of another time. Living in Paris has only made me more intolerant and irascible. But, it has definitely changed my fashion style and the way I look at people (how they dress, what bag they carry)—something I notice when I am back in Brittany or when I travel.
I was reflecting with a friend on this quote and we decided that, for us, the statement is true if you replace “Paris” with “abroad.” It is very important for a woman to live abroad for some time in order to discover herself, how she places herself in society. But nowadays, with globalization, Paris is not that decisive anymore.
AWP: Some expatriates are predisposed, each in their own way, toward other countries; through fantasy, family or a cultural context at that time. Some may have already held a piece of their narrative. How was that the same for you?
BM: I think it was my fantasy that predisposed me to go to the USA—although, if I remember correctly, after World War I, my great-grandfather began to correspond with an American soldier he had met during the war. But after 20 years, afraid of traveling, he never went to see him in America! I think what was decisive were the numerous American TV shows I watched as a little girl. These TV shows had built up in my imagination a picture of America that had been based on clichés. In order to have a real picture of the USA, and at a time when America was a bit ill-considered with the presidency of George W. Bush, I wanted to make up my own mind. Since then, my appetite for living abroad has never ceased!
AWP: How has the idea of study abroad changed since you went? Do you think the new technologies make a true study abroad experience obsolete?
BM: In Europe, studying abroad is now very common. Since 1987, millions of European students have studied abroad for one or two semesters through the Erasmus program, which creates partnerships between European universities. Partnership agreements exist also between every single business or engineering school. I am the perfect example of studying abroad: I went to the USA for a year through a private agency, I studied a year in Berlin through the Erasmus program during my licence, I studied again a year in Germany through a European master, and I studied four months in Venice thanks to a partnership between a French business school and an Italian university.
Nothing, nothing, will replace a long stay abroad. TV documentaries or blogs may be a way of discovering some aspects of a way of life in other countries, but nothing beats living abroad yourself. I do not understand people not wanting to seize the opportunity of studying abroad. There is so much to explore! You benefit from it immensely, in every way possible.
AWP: What do you think today’s women, and men, living abroad as students bring to the French?
BM: People coming to France to study definitely bring richness to the people they are in contact with. They open minds about their country and refute clichés (because us French also think in terms of clichés).
AWP: Several of our contributors have lived abroad as students or have taught school in France or Francophone countries. Many followers are preparing to study or live abroad. What would you say to them?
BM: Do not think twice about leaving to study abroad: if you have the opportunity, seize it! You will never regret it. It may be hard at first because you will feel like an outsider with no landmark (far from family and friends) in an environment whose language you do not fully understand. But try to put things into perspective: a bad moment will make a funny story later. In any case, this will be a unique experience that will make you grow emotionally and intellectually. Go and enjoy!
AWP: In your youth, what did you imagine your adult life would hold? What influenced this vision?
BM: I do not remember having a very definite image of my adult life, mainly because I changed my mind all the time. When I was little, I wanted to be a teacher (because I love to write on chalkboards) and a florist (because flowers smell good). Then, like a lot of middle-school kids, I wanted to be an Egyptologist, then a veterinarian, a pediatritian, and a journalist. Since I watched a lot of TV shows, in high school I wanted to be a medical examiner, then a CSI. But, upon returning from the USA, I decided to study languages! I would never have imagined living in Paris or living abroad that much. I try not to dream too big so as not to be disappointed, therefore I generally only envision my life about one year out.
AWP: Name the single book and movie, works of art and music, fashion or cuisine that has inspired you.
BM: I wish I could have a title of something very profound and insightful to give. And I really tried to find one item that inspired me, but I did not find one. I mean, the French movie La Cité de la Peur inspired me to be funny (note to the readers: it is a classic for my generation). The book Bridget Jones’ Diary taught me not to take myself seriously, while Au Bonheur des Dames (by Émile Zola) made me enjoy shopping by returning to its first roots. I think I find a little bit of inspiration in anything I read, hear or watch.
However, I could say without hesitation that Le Bon Marché is a place that inspires me. It has been open for more than a century now. It has everything and is so fancy that it makes me want to succeed in my career in order to be able to shop there whenever I want (I know it is superficial but I would say it again without hesitation).
AWP: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it?
BM: I generally try to alternate a book in French, with a book in English or German or Italian to keep up with my vocabulary. The last book I finished was Last Night in Twisted River, by John Irving (in French). It was alright, but did not make me want to read instead of watching a TV show (the main criteria for me to like a book). It was a bit dark and the writing kept going back and forth in the past and in the present without warning.
Right now, for the subway ride, I am reading a book of Italian novels in Italian (Gli amori difficili by Italo Calvino). It is actually a bit hard but in fact, short stories are perfect for subway rides! Before going to bed, I prefer reading something easier. At the moment it is Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert (in French). It is nice, but not a lot happens. I would not say it is boring, but the story is a bit flat and the main character not very entertaining.
AWP: Was being stylish important to you growing up? Is it now?
BM: Like I always say, because I do not want people thinking I take myself too seriously (one of my biggest fears while having a blog), I am not a very fashionable person. If I see something in a magazine, I will not immediately go buy it (even the knock-off version). For some things, I need a year before liking them (skinny jeans, mint-colored nail polish, etc).
But I always wanted to dress nicely and have expensive things (Material Girls by Madonna should be my anthem). My mum taught me to behave well and have good grades in order to merit and get what I wanted—something that I really try to do even though I am 24 now. And let me tell you, I am a spoiled, rotten, only-child!
Also, I have been reading Cosmopolitan and Glamour since middle school (now I also buy ELLE from time to time, but I have been on “team Glamour” for a few years and do not buy Cosmo anymore) and this has definitely helped me in shaping my fashion tastes.
AWP: How do you define style or fashion?
BM: My dream style: Effortless-chic-city-girl-yet-sometimes-casual-wannabe. I also wish I could be fashionable (hello contradiction) and be able to wear high heels all the time without painfully destroying my feet.
My reality style: I like expensive things so I do not buy tons of clothes (and preferably wait for the sales), I still have a not-chic-at-all “province” side: (“la province” is everything outside Paris for Parisians) sometimes I am lazy and do not even try. I keep all my favorite clothes in Paris. When I go back to Brittany for weekends or vacation I make a little effort in Rennes, but none in Saint-Quay-Portrieux (you would not recognize me).
My favorite season is winter because I love to wear dresses with black tights and brown suede flat boots — my signature style (if I even have one). Among my favorite shops are Claudie Pierlot, Maje, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Sessùn, Les Petites, Uniqlo, Kookai, Naf-Naf, Pablo by Gérard Darel—and many more. For shoes I really like Jonak (see, I am not too high-maintenance). However, I hate Zara and do not really go to H&M anymore.
AWP: Tell me about your cooking and eating habits and traditions.
BM: My eating and cooking habits have been pretty hectic since January. First, my apartment (but I am moving next week) only has a microwave and one functioning hot plate. I was at school during the day so I ate at the cafeteria. Now I am at work and we have chèques déjeuner (discounted lunch checks) so I buy something at the Chinese, the boulangerie, the traiteur… Sometimes I make my own meal (generally a salad with a fruit as dessert) in order to save up these checks and go to the restaurant (I go more often since I am back in Paris).
When I lived in Brittany, I used to eat crêpes and galettes almost once a week (now it is less). But I also love to cook: crumbles, pies, cookies (my specialties are oatmeal-raisins and poppy seed with preserves). I really enjoy trying new recipes and organizing dinners. I am really excited to get my own place again; I will be able to bring my mini-oven from Brittany. I also love Italian cooking (since my boyfriend is Italian, I am on cloud nine because he cooks really well) and I make a mean mousse au chocolat!
AWP: What was your most memorable meal to date?
BM: The most recent and memorable is the one made by my boyfriend’s family for New Year in Rome. I ate an endless series of delicious homemade Italian dishes (I still dream about it). But his family was also a very good, welcoming and generous company, which made the meal even more worth remembering.
AWP: What is in your refrigerator right now?
BM: I am really utterly ashamed because I have been meaning to go grocery shopping for two days now. Instead, this morning I went to the swimming pool, then it was raining and it was too late to go to the farmers’ market. Therefore I only have salted butter, 2 tomatoes, 2 peppers, tuna, black olives, milk and orange juice in my fridge.
ART OF LIVING
AWP: What natural gift would you most like to possess? What talent are you most thankful for?
BM: I found this question extremely American because we do not reflect that much on our natural gifts or talents in France. In the USA, you are highly encouraged to pursue and express your artistic side (music, art) while in France we are highly academic.
I would love to have more creativity and also the natural gift of not putting on weight if I eat pizza or ice-cream (a girl can only dream, right?). I do not know if I have any talents but I guess I am thankful for being able to laugh at myself and being (hopefully) a bit witty.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, How to find a (suitable) place in Paris, and other miscellaneous information, by Bénédicte Mahé, a Frenchwoman from Breton, who is in her mastère-spécialisé final trimester doing an internship in Paris and shares with students how to find a place in Paris. (French)
The challenge of business casual, by Frenchwoman Bénédicte Mahé who shares suggestions for business casual with those beginning their work careers in Paris. Included are fashion brands and stores that are favorites of Bénédicte and her friends.
Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs exhibit: A sensory explosion, by Jane Campbell stepping into the Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs exhibit in Paris—trunks, leather luggage and handbags, and Marc Jacobs’ impressionistic exploration and inspirations all in one place which only can be described as a “real-life tumblr page:” Crazy, eccentric, and fashion-forward.
Wherever you go, you always meet a Breton, by Bénédicte Mahé a Frenchwoman from Breton who asks us to get out our notebooks and pens and get ready for a lesson on Brittany. Recipe included.
Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation. Writer Kristin Wood finds Francophiles around the world divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satire, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Including comments from readers worldwide. (French)
A Woman’s Paris — Elegance, Culture and Joie de Vivre
We are captivated by women and men, like you, who use their discipline, wit and resourcefulness to make their own way and who excel at what the French call joie de vivre or “the art of living.” We stand in awe of what you fill into your lives. Free spirits who inspire both admiration and confidence.
Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening. — Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)
Text copyright ©2012 Bénédicte Mahé. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.