Si j'étais français

9 серпня 2013
Helena Stern

A few of months ago a cute little book made it's way into my hands – Jennifer L. Scotts's “Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I've Learned While Living in Paris”. Discovered by complete accident this volume has changed my life. At it's core, the book is 20 practical tips on how to elevate your daily living. The author introduces the concept of a capsule or a 10-item wardrobe. Taking it further into decluttering your daily life and making room for enjoying it. Yet it is her fascination with Parisian living that hit home for me. I am not from Paris. I have never been there but when I moved to the United States four years ago from Ukraine I only had one suitcase with me. I could fit most of my spring and summer outfits (it was April), a couple of handbags and a maybe two pairs of shoes, and some other things of sentimental value. Would I be able to go back for a visit with just one suitcase now? No need to answer that question. Four years have gone by, and there I was with my closet filled to the brim. My home was full of things, I had things for everything. I often ask a person I've just met “What do for you do for a living?” (something that is rude where I come from). It was totally normal for me to run errands on Saturday in yoga pants, while looking like I just got out of bed (again something no one ever does, especially on a weekend). I was no different than any other American girl. Apart from the accent maybe.

However, while indulging in “Madame Chic” a lot resurfaced in my memory. From small closets, fewer outfits and washing my lingerie by hand to simple indulgences and the ever captivating air of feminine mystique. It got me to thinking – maybe erasing my European personality in order to make room for a new Americanized me was not the right way to go. Maybe what I brought with me in my single suitcase was not just a few shirts but a way of living. Let it be too conservative, or strict or even outdated if you will. But for someone captivating and mesmerizing. 

So, with a trash bag and this elegant volume in hand I was ready to start a war with clutter. I cleaned out my closet and most of my home already and surprisingly it helped to clear my brain a little bit too. Whats more important, I have embraced some of my old habits, that have been put in a box awaiting better days...or return to Europe. Its okay again to spend sometime taking care of myself, whether it would be reading my beloved Vanity Fair from cover to cover or going to a yoga class. I'm fine with doing grocery shopping in high heals. I don't leave my house without even a tad bit of make up. Try not to wear jeans to often. And yet again I love walking places!

It has been liberating. Mostly because it is easier to just be me. But also as a result, I don't feel such a need to go shopping anymore or look for deals. I'm okay with what I've got. 

Some time in this journey to the sources, if you will, I have became a hopeless Francophile. I went back to learning French language again, I do a lot of reading on history of France and also on contemporary issues, listen to radio and music. More and more I have been reaching for the books about French women. Many of them found their way to my shelf and are all lined up and ready to be read in my evening hours. Some I have already read. And as the pages are turned there is this image emerging in front of my eyes. The petite, elegant, cool and mysterious, proverbial femme is coming to life in each book. Sometimes she is holding a homemade raspberry tart. Sometimes the wind is playing with her silk scarf. She doesn't just speak, she whispers wonderful words in French. And yes, she makes me want to be her. Surely its just an image, but what is all this dreaming about?

In the july issue of Vanity Fair, there is an article by James Wolcott “ Liberté, Fraternité, Supériorité” about precisely this kind of literature and this kind of thinking. The author calls it the“French Women Know Best” genre. Distinguishing a few books that are on the market right now, including “The 20 lessons by Madame Chic”, the article goes on to simply put it as the self-help and makeover advise literature. And it's true, they create a romantic dream in which in all of the sudden chores are not so mundane. And cooking dinner is a form of artistic expression. And there is a new mysterious charming, head-turning you in it. And things are tres bien the way they are, although there is a pile of laundry in the closet. However, is all of it is just a hopeless dreamy ride-along that's supposed to make the reader feel better? 

In American society the emancipation took women towards the equal status with men and beyond. It is only normal to work until the last day of your pregnancy, return to work six weeks postpartum,and be an equal earner in the family while making sure your home functions in the orderly fashion. With so much weight on female shoulders it's hard to always remember how to be humble and feminine. 

American women seek more and more inspiration in their French counterparts not because we need a vacation from our life, but because some of us need a different kind of ideal to strive for. In her book “ What French Women Know About Sex, Love and Other Matters of Heart and Mind” Debra Ollivier shares her thoughts and experiences about living in France for over ten years. 

There is a part where she draws from an image of Marianne in the famous picture “Liberty leading people” by Delacroix. There a beautiful woman and a symbol of the French Republic is portrayed leading the army of men to storm the Bastille with a French flag in one hand and a spear in another. Her breasts on prominent display. Some suggest that its the mentality that made French choose a woman as a symbol of the Republic. But a very interesting fact is that by 1793 the more conservative image of Marianne was abandoned and she was portrayed bear breasted and fierce since then. 

Ollivier tried to come up with a parallel image in American history. “The Statue of Liberty was made in France, so the only other woman we have – is the one portrayed in American Gothic by Grant Wood.” Hm...Not overly feminine and fierce, if you ask me. 
She goes on to explain that there are more similar heroines in French history. So the girls get to grow up with a feminine virtues as an example. And when they become women it's easier for them to own up to their sexuality and they nurture it through out their life. 

In United States I think that once you've reached the “married with children” stage of life there is no expectation in society for a woman to be attractive in a sexual way. Pulled together – yes, fit – yes, even pretty. There is nothing more waiting for you beyond the threshold of your house. And yet... We all need a compliment, a glance from a stranger and occasional head to turn our way, unexpected invite for a lunch out with a colleague from work. We were created to be feminine and attractive, it's only life that gets in the way sometimes. 

It is easier to go out on a Saturday morning in khaki's and a tank, spend days in exercise cloths and pretend like a mess on your head is just the new trend. But is it really who we want to be? There is a woman out there that can be a professional, a mother, and yet still be feminine and attractive. She can easily be a business executive, a PhD, an MBA or a human rights activist but still make excellent homemade pies. She can be juggling a professional and a family life while being irresistible and elegant. And if it happens to be the proverbial French femme that helps us to become this woman, so be it.

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