Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Just Like a French Lady

"Stop doing that, Adele!" my son screeches at his younger sister. I enter their room cautiously, prepared for the worst: poster paint on the rug, her body covered in magic marker, pools of water on the parquet...

"What's happening in here?" I dare to ask.

"Adele's trying to act like a French lady," Cole says. "I want her to stop it!"

Hmm. "What does it mean to act like a French lady?" I ask, fascinated by this bit of pint-sized sociology.

I look over at Adele who is preening in front of the mirror, tilting her head and smiling coquettishly. She demonstrates by walking across the room swinging her non-existent hips and slinking down a would-be catwalk. She holds her head high and gently tosses her hair.

She is four and has lived in Paris all of six months.

"Wow, Adele," I say carefully. "So that's how a French lady walks? Why don't you show me how Mommy walks? Does Mommy walk like a French lady?"

"No!" Adele shrieks with delight. "You're not like a French lady, Mommy! You walk like this!" She spreads her pudgy legs about shoulder distance apart, looking more like she's about to tackle someone than saunter gracefully across the room. She takes one step, then another, her little feet landing heavily upon the carpet. I can't help but notice the distinctly different gait, the "Mommy walk" resembling a gorilla rather than a French gazelle.

They proceed to share some other French lady-isms that strike me both as accurate and somewhat troubling. French ladies wear skirts all the time, they tell me. And very high shoes! Sometimes they smoke stinky cigarettes and wear lots of scarves! Adele gets excited about this one and proceeds to show me how to wear the perfect French foulard. I watch in awe as she artfully twists and wraps a length of fabric around her little neck, resulting in a chic look I'm not sure I could pull off.

A friend recently told me that a "sexy" walk -- characterized by swaying hips -- is actually a cultural phenomenon. Apparently in some countries -- like her native Norway -- women walk without swaying their hips at all. She said she's actually physically incapable of swaying her hips. Unlike in France, women there just don't do it.

But here in Paris, all the world's a runway. Every sidewalk is a catwalk, everyday a fashion show. It's not about a special occasion or having somewhere in particular "to go." Leaving the house is occasion enough to don a skirt and heels, a scarf and a chic bag.

I actually admire the Parisian strut: Head held high, posture worthy of a Prima Ballerina. They carry themselves with a combination of confidence and grace that's seems quite natural -- much like that innate scarf-tying ability, I guess. Of course, if you're heading toward a strutting Parisian on a narrow sidewalk, you best be ready for a game of chicken. She is not -- I repeat not -- going to get out of your way. My advice? Chin up and hold your ground or you'll find yourself knocked into the street by a direct shot from a wayward Vuitton bag.

At this point, I'm beyond trying to be like anyone else, except I hope, the best version of myself, much less a preternaturally chic and swanky "French lady." I'm too tall, too blond, my smile much too toothy.  I'm not coquettish, like my daughter seems destined to be, and can't for the life of me conjure much mystery. I am after all, a Californian, perhaps the cultural opposite of la petite Parisienne.

Don't get me wrong -- I do love fashion and always feel better when I get dressed up for the day. Sure it's frivolous and kinda shallow. But when I dress well, I feel stronger, more confident -- just overall better. And maybe even the tiniest bit like a French lady.


At October 5, 2011 at 6:15 PM , Blogger Lynn said...

I can sympathize with you because my French boyfriend has told me I "walk like a soldier", and his imitation probably looks much like your daughter's. Only he's old enough to know better! I attribute it to years of living in NYC -- I tend to be pretty focused when I walk, striding rather than strolling. And being blonde and American like you, I get enough attention in Paris without adding any more elements (like hip-swings) to the equation...


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