But How’s Your Underwear?

After moving to Paris the first time, I quickly realized I had a problem.

My underwear had to go.

The cotton panties, the athletic bras, the no longer new, yet rarely-worn lacy thongs that matched poorly with my sad selection of everyday bras. The stuff was so bad that Greg had a nickname for the shriveled, over washed underthings that emerged from my dryer: the insects (thanks to their resemblance to those crusty dead little creatures you find on window sills…)

Not exactly sexy.

Moving to Paris was the perfect chance for a fresh start. Because, as everyone knows, the French are crazy about lingerie. In fact, I used to joke that unless I overhauled my underwear drawer, the Frenchies simply wouldn’t let me stay.

The Parisian obsession with small stretchy pieces of lace — embroidered, embellished and often painfully uncomfortable — is apparent everywhere you go. From the ubiquitous soft lit advertisements featuring headless, amply-endowed torsos, to the city’s hundreds of boutiques devoted exclusively to under garments, you realize quickly that lingerie here is serious business.

I remember shopping for some new lingerie and being offered “help” by a Parisian saleswoman. I held up the scrunched bundle of panties I had selected and said I was ready to pay. But where were the matching bras? she asked, clearly horrified that I might buy the underwear alone. Wearing a bra and panties that aren’t part of a set? Mais, ce n’est pas possible.

The love of lingerie extends to sleepwear as well. No Parisian woman worth her Repetto ballet flats would reserve the good stuff only for special occasions (like anniversaries) and sport men’s t-shirts to bed the rest of the year. Sacre bleu! They don their lacy best every day (and night) of the year and coordinate it with the same care they devote to the rest of their artfully-crafted looks. Nice lingerie is un plaisir, after all, and isn’t pleasure what life is all about?

Le Flirting

This leads me to another topic about Paris life that I find endlessly fascinating: the game of seduction between men and women. I’m not talking about dating or love and certainly not marriage. Just the pervasive flirtatious rapport that men and women expect from one another. Sure it’s a cliche but honestly, it’s as much a part of life here as fresh baguettes. It’s part of what makes Paris the world’s most romantic city; that thing that draws lovers and aspiring romantics and lingers in our imaginations long after we depart.

French men are taught to appreciate feminine beauty (and not just in women under 30) and women believe it’s their job to provide it. They expect to be openly regarded by men and take no offense at being complimented on their appearance. Au contraire! Le flirting is a game that underlies most exchanges between men and women. And most of the time, it’s entirely harmless. Men liberally deliver appraising looks or gentle compliments. Women work hard to garner them and appreciate being admired. No one takes offense or feels demeaned. And strangely, it almost never feels gross or worse, dangerous. Despite its size and dark cobbled streets aplenty, I can honestly say I’ve never felt unsafe in Paris.

So, the flirting. Confusing sometimes, but also, fun! Having entered adulthood in the post-Anita Hill era, I expected (and sought) male attention only in certain settings. In the States, open leering or construction-worker style cat calling is a big no-no. And in the workplace? Hello, lawsuit.

Single American men and women flirt at parties or bars (and now, online and via text, so I’ve heard…) Married people do not flirt at all unless they’re scumbags who routinely cheat (or want to cheat) on their spouses, right?

Not in Paris. I once had a French friend flirt openly with my husband. We were at a dinner party with a large group and all enjoying multiple verres du vin. I watched (glared?) across the table as she laughed at his jokes, stroked his arm, even talked about how “beau” he is. Hmm. Being the loyal gentleman he is, he was flattered by her attention but claimed not to really notice. “Flirting with me?” he said later. “No waaaay….”

It was only later, after coming to understand Paris, that I realized her gestures were entirely harmless. Just an expected part of the male/female rapport. And as time goes on, I figure, why not? From within the happy realm of a committed relationship, why not enjoy some harmless attention and appreciation from someone else? Whose ego couldn’t use a little boost? A reminder of what it felt like before wedding bells, midnight feedings and preschool play dates?

As long as it doesn’t go too far, of course, vive le flirting. As my French friend explained it, “It’s just for ‘le fun!'”