I’m not one of those American women who throws herself on the sidewalks of Paris, saying “please, please like me, mighty Parisians.”
But it is true that France has always inspired me in what I wish America could be more of — a country with a passion for living well in mind, body and with beauty. As a key executive with Victoria’s Secret for 10 years, lastly as the head of product development and then fashion director, I’ve long embraced France’s approach to living in touch with one’s senses.
Reading now that Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s wife Anne Sinclair was born in New York but so well received in France confirms that in spite of its reputation for haughtiness, France will take an American woman into her bosom — if she has the right stuff.
I don’t pretend to understand French men, but I love France and everything it stands for. Yes, there is an imperiousness to the culture — but one that is justifiable in my play book.
Ines de la Fressange, voted La Parisienne — the quintessential Parisian woman in a 2009 Internet poll — tells NY Times French bureau chief Elaine Sciolino, author of ‘La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life’:
“You can’t talk about seduction, fashion, politics, beauty without a French lover. Yes, yes! For the final touch!”
To get off to the right start, she said, I needed to invest in a new haircut, new clothes and a visit to a Turkish bath to “feel some pleasure.” Then she said, “You go to the terrace of a cafe. You say to yourself, ‘Voilà, something is going to happen.’ And you’ll see. Something will happen.”
Best of Both Worlds
My lover was an Italian living in Paris, giving me the best of both worlds for five wonderful years.
Before Dominique Strauss-Kahn set off for Washington in 2007, reports say Sarkozy warned him with a nudge and wink not to “get into a lift with an intern” as the Americans had a different view about “that sort of thing”.
Tracking the DSK story on Anne of Carversville, sandwiched between details of Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger’s complete and total betrayal of Maria Shriver, I couldn’t help reflecting on my own relations with a certain French man.
In over 250 trips to France, there are only two occasions when I truly wanted to strangle monsieur avec plaisir. I spent more time apologizing for the behavior of my colleagues than complaining about French attitudes.
Two female executives. both making over $750,000 a year. assumed the roach position on the dining room floor of Caviar Kaspia one night, demonstrating a Victoria’s Secret training exercise on thinking out of the box. Conversation stopped at every table. There were eight of us, and all I remember is paying the bill with a 25% tip and handing $300 to the Maître d’Hôtel on my way out of the restaurant, saying in earnest “I am so sorry.”
It is not my style to find fault with the French, who inspire me at every turn in life. But even I have a boiling point. My first incident with a French male ego was a minor scuffle for months, but it gives you insights into why the second incident left me speechless.
Explosion at the Bristol Hotel
The sore that festered until it exploded one fine spring day happened at the Bristol Hotel. Monsieur A was in charge of the front desk at the Bristol Hotel and Madame was a guest in the hotel every three weeks. You will understand that I am not 35, when I say that the Bristol kept a massive reservations book at the desk; and it served as the official record of visitors in and out of the hotel even in the 1990s.
There was an order to my affairs at the Bristol. (Note that I eventually left the hotel and moved to the Montalembert to escape the Americans, and then into a beautiful apartment hotel back on the Right Bank.) I had the same driver for 10 years in Paris, the same path into the city from CDC or Le Bourget. Arriving at The Bristol, the doormen greeted me by name and I spoke my inexcusably bad French in a bit of early morning chit chat. The concierge would smile in acknowledgment of my entrance, making me feel welcome and almost at home — until I arrived at check-in.
Battles of the Alphas
Here the drama would turn dark and irritating. Monsieur A looked up at me, not with a smile, but with an expression that suggested I was an alien just arriving from Miami or Bogota.
Hating drama, I assuaged his ego, using all the skills I’ve learned in my long and very positive working relationships with men. Tensing up after an all-night flight with no sleep, I waited for his inevitable question. “Oui, Madame, have you stayed in the hotel before?” he asked me every three weeks, as if he had never laid eyes on my remarkably blond hair and strong persona — not ever in his blessed French life.
I humbly answered “yes’ and in truth I can’t remember what he did next in his normal routine, because I only recall the big scene. “Get the book, monsieur,” I demanded, when he asked that same condescending question one time too many. Something snapped inside me.
Startled, he looked at me as if I was not only a low-life American but now a crazy and out of control woman brought up in the Ozarks.
“Get the book now!” I insisted, pointing to a book so heavy it surely held the secrets of half the sexual liaisons of Paris.
To his credit, he brought the book to the desk wide-eyed, where I opened it, going through the pages with a well-manicured finger. “Do you see this date, monsieur?” I said, pointing to my departure 17 days earlier. He said nothing, of course. I continued flipping through his master pages adeptly, stabbing at the pages that contained my signature endless times.
This went on for a good 10 minutes until I was done with my gigantic American woman catharsis in Paris. “Let me be clear, Monsieur,” I said in a summation of my furor over his attitude. “If you ever ask me again if I have stayed in your hotel, I will call for the general manager and insist you be reassigned. Do we have an understanding?”
5-Star French Man
Fast forward now 10 years and one long-term relationship finished. (I stupidly gave up the Italian who adored me for an American who did not. Long story.) I was dating again in New York and somehow convinced myself that I could live up to the expectations of a talented and oh-so-seductive French man, a senior partner of a global consulting firm. Monsieur J spent half his time in New York. The wheels were turning fast in my dream girl brain, as the perfect trans Atlantic life unfolded faster than I could write the fantasy. I was also a consultant in 2007, leading a life with considerable flexibility. Eureka! This could work.
Monsieur J knew about my Victoria’s Secret career and also details of my erotic self-photography project, a data bit that immediately transformed me from an “I’d rather eat chocolate than have sex” American woman into a girl that his mother might love — even if I don’t have Anne Sinclair’s fortune.
Our sensual plot thickened day by day, and I can only assume that for Monsieur J he thought he had found his ideal sexpot woman. Intense tutoring would surely solve the language problem.
My darling called me from an antique dealer one Sunday, arranging for delivery of a huge mirror so that my ‘art’ could continue in Paris. Monsieur J knew a woman photographer in Berlin. An old girl friend? Perhaps I would consent to letting her photograph us together.
My relationship with the camera is highly personal, and I’ve never shared the experience with anyone.Quiet at first, I responded ” … perhaps, J … that could be exciting.” Should I tell him I definitely know I’m not bisexual?
Three days before I left New York to fly to Paris on business and for extended time together where I would meet his children, Monsieur J informed me of a party in my honor the night of my arrival. Knowing that I am unsure of my French in a crowd, he said not to worry, plenty of Brits would be there.
No thrill went up my spine. I would be tired after an overnight flight and wanting to spend time alone with my new love, my response was quiet. ‘Don’t be negative, Anne’, I said.
Party Girl, No Prude
In truth, I was feeling very confident dressing for the occasion in my Parisian hotel room. French women love their lingerie and so do I. Feeling a little naughty I wore a Dolce & Gabbana animal print slip with garters, stockings and stilettos, a black skirt and simple cardigan. Understated sexy and no panties for the occasion.
The best moment of the evening was an approving glance in the mirror from me, turning out the room lights, and exchanging evening pleasantries as I crossed the lobby to Monsieur J’s waiting car.
The night was a disaster from inception. There were two Brits at the party and not at our dinner table. J refused to even whisper English in my ear, insisting that I speak only French. The hostess — a French woman who had lived in Texas for a few years — changed seats with her husband to be by my side, saving me.
Everyone was smiling at me as if I was a new toy and my radar was going “ding, ding, ding.”
I am not a sexual prude and have enjoyed a truly exquisite private life. The word ‘private’ applies, because I have no interest in random sexual encounters and never have. Sensual spontaneity is beautiful, and I’ve had my moments. But organized sex parties are not my thing. I make no judgments about them, but I prefer a bond with my bed mates.
When the French attorney’s wife bared her breast at the dinner table, I made my position clear in Monsieur J’s ear: “Count me out.” Between you and me, I was furious at his assumptions and his misrepresenting this lofty dinner party in my honor.
I’ll skip the next hour of coffee and dessert. My hostess and I were getting along quite well and we made arrangements for dinner the following evening at a club I knew about in Paris.
She assured me that it was dinner and watching, and I myself knew that was the reputation of the restaurant. My entire career is devoted to studying, marketing and talking with women about sensuality, so of course I was game to go. If I’m honest, I was also processing how to deal with Monsieur J’s preference for a dynamic sexual lifestyle when I prefer a more nuanced, private one. I liked this woman, who seemed to comprehend my dilemma.
The couples wandered off wherever they were going; and J and I ended up on the dance floor.
By 1 am I was exhausted, having flown all night. This was not my dream date in Paris, but I refused to bow to my strong reservations about this internationally-known, management consultant with a magnificent apartment in Paris and a love of antique mirrors.
An eternal optimist, I believed I could restore our magic in the morning.
The French Charmer Strikes
Preparing to leave, J went for my coat and was joined by the Manager. Things were winding down in the restaurant/club and the two men exchanged a long conversation. The Manager took my coat and approached me smiling. He held it open graciously, as I slipped my arms in sleeves, then spun me around to face him.
“Madame, I hope you have enjoyed yourself,’ he said holding the lapels of my coat with intimacy. ‘You are very beautiful, and I love your dancing. You must come back soon.”
Mustering up my best French manners, I smiled and said “Yes, of course I will.”
“I am quite serious, Madame. I expect you back in a day or two. You light up our little club.” And with that the seductively charming Manager put his fingers on my knee and slipped his hand up my leg into my bare private parts.
Pleasantly surprised to discover my sexy lingerie or lack or it, this strange man lingered in my erogenous zone a few moments longer — penetrating me with his gaze — until I disentangled myself, smiled and walked towards J.
In America, I might have slapped his face, after recovering my composure. In Paris I was loathe to make a scene, especially after a night gone dreadfully wrong from the onset.
It was quiet on the dark street, as we moved in silence towards the car. My dreams of a Parisian lover were dissolving before my eyes, and the mirror would surely return to the antiques dealer. J had only taken it on approval, in case I disliked it or …
Man to Man | Permission Granted
“Do you know what happened in there just now?” I finally said. “Your friend had his fingers in my pussy.”
“Seriously, Anne, you are so naive,” J answered. “Of course I know what he did; he asked my permission in a last ditch effort to get you to stay.”
The New York feminist who enjoys superb relations with men in and out of business was thunderstruck. “He asked your permission to touch my private parts, and you gave it to him without consulting me — a woman you are only beginning to know?” I pressed on, not quite believing my ears and remembering ‘Our Bodies, Our Selves’.
“Yes, Anne, that’s how we do it in France. On the subject of men and women, this is not America. You must become a better observer of life, darling, because I don’t appreciate your immature, silly woman attitudes for a moment. I thought I knew you better.”
On that note, Monsieur J dropped me faster than a hot potato from Idaho. I still say ‘Viva la France’. Anne