I've never been a Francophile. As a student I spent a long, painfully boring year at the Sorbonne, spoke French well enough to fool the natives (you are from Belgium, non?), and smoked Gauloises in countless cafes, pondering the dismal continental weather with great heaps of fashionable young ennui. But when I moved back to California craving sunshine, I was ready to put away my Gallic existence and get on with real life. Real life happened in France, anyhow. Back in Los Angeles, I met a French man and (begrudgingly at first) followed him back to Paris. I got married, had two kids and settled once again into life with the irascible and inscrutable French. In the blink of an eye, 10 years passed.
Perhaps Charles de Gaulle summed it up best. "How can one be expected to govern a country with 246 cheeses?" he lamented. Indeed, despite the prevailing stereotype of the French woman (you know her: the svelte Euro goddess in high heels, equal parts Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot and Madame de Pompadour), the reality is that French women are as diverse as Bries and Camemberts. They come in different sizes, shapes and tastes. They're complex, elusive, a composite of delicious paradoxes. Who they are has little to do with their shoes, their lipstick or their lingerie. Which is why nothing irked me more than articles trumpeting the virtues of the mythical stereotype of the French woman and how to become her. So you wanna be a French girl? Wear haute couture! Eat haute cuisine! Strike a pose! The material was always thick on clichés, thin on essential insight. Lots of Ooo-la-la. Very little Aha!
In writing Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl, I wanted not only a place where the diversity of French women could emerge (a place, for example, where my friend Nadine, a plump yet ravishing seductress with a modest home in the countryside, could co-exist beside Frederique, a wiry career woman who lives in the heart of Paris). I wanted, more specifically, to describe the collective values and mindset that unite them that way-of-being or essence that defines not the stereotypical French woman, but the archetypal one: Her incredible sense of self-possession. The sensual satisfaction and tactile pleasure she experiences in the seemingly mundane. Her discretion. Her languorous relationship to time. Her focus on quality, not quantity. Her preference for authenticity, not imitation. Her ability to have a life, not just make a living.
I wrote Entre Nous only months after returning to the States. I've been back for two years now. In France, I felt American. Back in America, I feel French. "That's called expatriatis," an American friend once told me. (She'd been living overseas for decades.) That said, I'm happy to be at least back in California and I relish the friendships I have with American women. Many of these friendships bloomed in an almost instantaneous and inspired burst of sisterhood. My French friendships, on the other hand, took years to develop. You'll find the words "maternity" and "fraternity" in the French vocabulary, but not the word "sisterhood." It actually doesn't exist. It takes time (lots of it) to know a French woman. If Entre Nous can help speed up the process (an American imperative, to be sure), so be it. But if it suggests what we, with our particular Anglo-Saxon baggage, might cull from more intangible but far more real aspects of the archetypal French woman, all the better. A lofty ambition perhaps, but pourquoi pas?
A veteran writer and contributor to such publications as Harper's, Salon and Le Monde, Debra Ollivier recently moved back to Los Angeles with her French husband and Franco-American children after living in Paris for 10 years.