I am not a preternaturally attractive woman. I have good teeth and shiny hair and long legs -- but so do most horses, so who cares? I have, of course, noticed men noticing me, but usually I attribute such instances to my notion that straight guys will check out anything as long as there is even the faintest suggestion that it might have breasts. I do not mean this in a harsh or negative way; I believe that it is part of the male condition and should qualify for medical coverage and, when necessary, minor invasive surgery.
On those occasions when I have sensed an unusually high amount of interest coming from some especially unsubtle member of the opposite sex, I do not feel flattered or even threatened, I just try to figure out which grotesque suggestion that I am an unkempt troll unfit for living anywhere with indoor plumbing has revealed itself this time. The hot chocolate stain on my crotch? The coagulated strawberry jam on the side of my face? Oh God, the grape-juice mustache I still get every time I drink the cursed stuff? On any given day, the evidence abounds, and I do not truly feel at ease until I have locked myself in the privacy of some rank public restroom to inspect myself from head to toe. It is an affliction.
None of this applies, however, when I am in Paris. There, either I am the French ideal of irresistible charm personified, or it is a culture that prizes women who sport bits of that morning's breakfast on their face and clothing. Either way, it doesn't matter. And it has made me a Francophile for life.
I first experienced the peculiar phenomenon of my own trans-Atlantic deliciousness when I lived in Paris as a student 10 years ago. Granted, I arrived there having spent two years at a women's college where the only off-campus transportation was a fluorescent-lit bus that both its passengers and those whose sex lives (or, more accurately, fantasy lives) depended on them called the "Fuck Truck." After that, any change in my social routine was bound to yield positive results. I am certain that I was radiant with gratitude for not having to spend 45 minutes in a rickety vessel that stank of last weekend's vomit just to interact with the opposite sex, but that alone cannot explain the potency of my own powers of attraction when I landed in the Seventh Arrondissement in 1990.
None of this is to say, however, that there was any guarantee of quality. If anything, I was living the law of inverse proportions, and I do not mean "so many men, so little time." For every Gallic hottie with the nose and the hair and the shoes who treated me to an espresso or a movie or more, there were less promising prospects -- and I do not mean this in a harsh or negative way.
Actually, yes I do. There was the chubby Lebanese student who declared that I was the embodiment of "La Vierge" -- the Virgin, as in the mother of Jesus. This because I was bundled up on a particularly cold day and my eyes were tearing involuntarily. There was the much older dentist who executed an effortless one-handed bra unsnap over my sweater because he had apparently honed that skill and enjoyed doing it in public. And there was the Christian Dior model who, alas, was so dumb that when I took his picture just hours before breaking up with him (I wanted proof that I had dated someone so naturally airbrushed), he told me that he hoped we'd have it for our grandkids. Good lord. And let's not go into the men who succumbed to the overwhelming need to flap their penis at me in broad daylight on the Left Bank's crowded sidewalks. It happened more often than I care to recall, and it's not a pleasing memory no matter how ancient the tradition.
But the time I really understood that being the appealing foreigner in the strange land could have serious drawbacks was when I was propositioned on the Boulevard St. Germain. I was returning home in the early evening when a man hurried up to me just beyond a busy intersection and, speaking directly into my ear, said, "Cents francs pour faire l'amour." I was too stunned to realize that he was offering me 100 francs to have sex with him (so little?), too stunned to rebuff him with one of those wonderful French phrases that linger so much longer than "Fuck off!" and still manage to sound elegant. I was, in that terrifying blur of a moment, too stunned to do anything but reply that I didn't have any money. If I am ever a contestant on one of those game shows where the host, by way of breaking the ice, asks me to recount my most embarrassing moment, I will tell him this story. And someday, if I have a daughter who wants to spend her junior year in Paris, we will practice this interaction, if only so that she can get it right when it inevitably happens to her. Let's just hope the pervert has the decency to offer her more.
I have long been interested in the science of pheromones, and, for a while, I considered my own pheromonic releases and wondered if, perhaps, French men responded particularly well to mine. But since everyone in France seems to inhabit his own personal sphere of cheese vapors -- and I do not mean this in a harsh or negative way -- I have given up that theory. After all, how could delicate little pheromones, with their candy-heart messages of "love me" and "be mine," possibly penetrate an invisible force field of, say, an especially ripe Tomme de Savoie? Impossible, I decided. Em-pos-see-bluh.
An old boyfriend of mine, who made sport of hating the French just for my benefit, once accused me of speaking the language in a lower, huskier voice than the one I use for English. "No wonder they love you," I remember his saying to me. "You're practically inviting them into your knickers every time you say hello." Maybe so, but my French-speaking voice wouldn't explain anything. No one speaks French more sexily than the French do. Besides, if I didn't speak French just a little bit throatily, if I didn't deliberately linger down there in the lower octaves of speech, I'd never be able to gargle up enough of that juicy stuff that makes pronouncing my r's an exercise akin to horking a goober. When I speak French, I am not being manipulative; I am being a perfectionist.
One friend once suggested that the secret to my special brand of magnetism had to do with dental hygiene. I hate to think that my being raised by an obsessive flosser in a country with fluoridated water had anything to do with anything. I much prefer to believe that the root of all of this inexplicable allure when I am abroad lies in some intangible essence that is not even found in Chanel No. 5. Besides, if it's true that the French have bad teeth -- and I don't mean this in a harsh or negative way -- then it's also true that most French women are so beautiful they don't need to smile. The toothpaste argument is, therefore, moot.
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My junior year abroad played out like the perfect cliché -- a constant rotation of dates, some good, some great, some supporting my current writing habit -- free admission into nightclubs, and just enough actual study time to get by. But in the end, the hot pants and cognac were the only things I could really take back with me. A French boyfriend stayed behind, and eventually I fell madly in love with and married an Anglophile American who makes fart noises when he wants to pretend that he is speaking French. My once-annual return trips to Paris stopped, and I did my best to create my own little French world, dusting to the croonings of Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel, slogging my way through Proust and Colette and insisting on drinking milky coffee out of bowls.
I had nearly forgotten about this business of mystical allure until I returned to Paris recently to do research for a novel. I arrived in Paris in quite a different mindset than I had 10 years ago. Still, everywhere I went there was evidence that either I still had it or that French men hadn't changed their ways. There, at the tiny, charming hotel, where the manager gave me a room with a view of Notre Dame and my own spacious bathroom just because, he said, he had fallen in love with my voice on the telephone. There, in the little café where the waiter didn't leave my check but did drop a note asking me for a date later. And there again, in the couscous restaurant I had frequented a decade earlier where, by the end of my meal, I had a bouquet of roses from some anonymous diner who apparently thought that I should have them. I did not, thankfully, see any penises this time around.
I am not naïve enough to believe that I am a special case. In fact, I think that all American women should treat themselves to a spell in Paris if only to be able to return to the States armed with the fleeting memory of their extraordinary attractiveness. Actual results may vary, but I'd wager that most women will experience at least one full week of improved outlook on just about anything, from cellulite to credit card payments. I am certain that I could have floated around in my own happy little pink gauze bubble for at least 48 more hours, but my husband told me to knock it off.
Still, there is something about flowers from strangers and gratuitous compliments in a language much prettier than one's own that is a little bit like finding out how Stella got her groove back, minus the sex with a strapping younger lad. It's as if all those years of plaque buildup on your self-esteem come washing away in the spit cup. Like sex in a cab, every woman should try it.
Of course, sometimes the "Ma Vie En Rose" soundtrack skips. One morning on my recent visit, I sensed that the very cute security guard at the Musée Carnavalet was trying to flirt with me. Searching my bag at the entrance with one hand but without actually looking at its contents, he fixed his eyes on mine and in sing-songy French asked if I liked chocolate. "Yes," I replied, smiling but thinking, troublingly, of the age-old admonition against taking candy from strangers. Suddenly, "candy from strangers" struck me as a very good euphemism for anonymous sex, and in an instant my mind flashed to the image of a pair of grinding silhouettes in an alley. "I like it very much," I said, feeling my cheeks flush as the dirty girl who had commandeered my brain uttered a response that wasn't really to his question. "It shows," he said, bursting out laughing and pointing to my face. I was sure that he meant this in a harsh and negative way. Horrified out of my salacious reverie, I grabbed my bag, gave him my best look of death and hurried into the museum, wondering just how fat I could look for one loser security guard to feel entitled to guess at my chocolate dependency and then point at my giant face and laugh.
There was an interactive photography exhibit at the museum, and before I found a bathroom refuge I found a rotating pyramid of mirrors and reflected images. It might well have been a masterpiece of photographic innovation, but at that particular moment, it suited my more immediate need to see what that horrible man was laughing at. Stepping up to the display, I understood: There, suspended in the corners of my mouth, were flecks of chocolate -- hateful little remnants of the pain au chocolat I had enjoyed an hour earlier. I did look funny. I was a little foreign piggie in a land of tempting breakfast treats, and as long as the French offered warm chocolate and flaky pastry combinations for breakfast, I would never be safe from ridicule. Nothing about me was really so different at all, I realized. Plus ça change -- I wiped away the offending crumbs and, walking back through the exhibition, really missed my husband.