Monday, February 4, 2008


Jules was here the week before last. I stepped out of the kitchen door to pull a few more weeds out of the rosemary bed, and he was striding down the terraces. I walked up to meet him.

We went through our standard embrace--a kiss on each cheek--and then he remarked that although he had not seen me in a month, I was as beautiful as ever.

I was wearing my red rubber boots from Ikea, dirty jeans, and a 10 euro pullover. My hair was pulled back in a ponytail and I'm fairly certain it had a few small weeds in it.

Jules wants to learn Spanish, because that is his grandsons' first language, and he always has updates for me on his struggles with the language. He had a new theory--he usually does--and it was one he had tried out, he told me, on Caroline, his wife. What he wanted to do, Jules said, was go and live in Spain for six months with--he beamed down at me--une jolie fille comme toi, a pretty girl like you. Then his Spanish would be perfect, n'est pas? And why should Caroline worry about that? Hein? I should go and tell Caroline that she would have nothing at all to worry about, rien du tout. He elbowed me and waggled his eyebrows.

Just as I was trying to stop blushing and put together a pithy response, Jules checked his watch. Mon dieu, Caroline is going to be very angry with me. She is making lunch and it will be hot and if I'm not there in time that will be the end of it for me! Jules beat a hasty retreat back up the terraces, but not before a farewell embrace. After all, it might be as long as an afternoon before we saw each other again.

The flirtatious impulse must be instilled from birth in French men. That same morning I had been in line at the hardware store--not some charming quaint old-world place with shelves going up to the ceiling and a sliding ladder, but a box store in something very like suburban sprawl. A small elderly Frenchman, dapper in a hat and tweed jacket, was in front of me, and when he turned away with his purchases he dropped his receipt. I picked it up and called to him; he turned back, and, as he took the receipt from me, smiled, held my hand for a moment, looked up into my eyes, and said, Merci, mademoiselle.

On the downslope from 70 and reflexively making eyes at a woman young enough to be his daughter: it's admirable, really.

I've talked to other women, French, American, and English, and it's the same for all of us. We can hardly step out our kitchen doors without a man--the electrician, the man in line at the store, the butcher, the baker, no doubt the candlestick-maker, too--flirting with us. It's charming; it's fun; it's flattering; it's also, for me, a little unsettling. I teethed on Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, and spent the first two decades of adulthood correcting people when they referred to women as girls. Now suddenly my native feminism is hors sujet, as French schoolteachers say. It's off topic. Irrelevant.

It is another kind of cultural dislocation, like shops closing for two hours in the middle of the day and being able to buy rabbit in the supermarket. In America, at least in the life we led there, femininity was a costume my friends and I could put on and take off. We could decide: today I'm going to be noticeable and flirtatious; today I'm not. Here it is not a decision, not a choice but a constant. Red rubber boots and a sloppy ponytail are nothing to hide behind, and a pretty girl, of whatever age, is always worth the detour.

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