I’m at a dinner party in Sag Harbor.
The puckish, balding man with an electric grin-slightly wild, slightly wacky, a
comedian with a tragic sense-says to me: “Ah, French women. They are so
beautiful; they know how to keep themselves beautiful for men. They want to
attract us no matter how old they are. They keep themselves up. Do you know,”
he asks me, “what their mothers told them?” Being a dowdy American, I don’t.
“‘Shoes and hair,’” he replies. That’s what French women know and American
women don’t. I look puzzled. I have combed my hair and am wearing my favorite
pair of sandals, with daisies on the top and little heels that clop in a
follow-me sort of manner as I walk. He goes on: Of course, French women are
jealous of Italian women. French women are perfectly gorgeous, but Italian
women are really pretty (the French are not naturally pretty, that is). “Really?” I say. Then I dare it: “How about American women?”
He shrugs as if considering the last candy in a box. “After a certain age,
American women stop caring about themselves. They seem to think it’s not worth
it. They have no interest in us, in appealing to us.”
This man spent a good part of his adult life as an
expatriate in Paris. He longs to
return. Paris is perfect. America
is second-rate. Sag Harbor is limbo. He is an expert on
watching women pass by. He is also a writer. (It is far better to read writers
than to have dinner with them. I already know that.) “Ah,” he says again. “French women are so wonderful; they know all the
secrets. They take time over themselves.” The feminist in me rises to the bait.
The women of the world are placed on this earth to appeal to this fellow’s eye.
He sees us parade before him in grand, general categories and judges us not on
our personal virtues-aesthetic, spiritual or intellectual-but on how much
effort we make to appeal to him. The feminist in me considers dumping the soup
in his lap. The guest in me smiles politely.
I know this Europhilia. It is a part of my generation’s
snobbery, in which everything American once seemed flat, homogenized and
without patina while everything European-from the blue packets of Gauloises to
the baguettes-seemed heaven-sent, flavored with centuries of civilization,
reeking of Picasso and Goethe, Thomas Mann and Proust .
In our 20′s it seemed as if every cup of coffee sipped in a Paris
café added sophistication and wit to the body. Even if one hadn’t actually met
Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, one could imagine them passing by,
sitting near, doing the brilliant things that Sorbonne graduates did. Even if
Hemingway was long gone and Fitzgerald had cracked up and Gertrude Stein was
not intelligible no matter how hard you tried, being in Europe made one finer,
purer, less a creature of the philistine, boorish, McCarthy-plagued country of
one’s origin, and more mysterious. And, yes, sexier. When I was 21 and in Paris,
I could feel my soul turning colors like the rose window at Notre Dame.
But in the autumn of my life, dining in Sag
Harbor, I can’t restrain myself. I remind the gushing Europhile
that these wonderful French women are the daughters of women who passed by the
railroad stations in which Jewish children were held, waiting to be shipped to
the slaughterhouse. I remind him that the French, with all their fine perfume,
put up only a small resistance to the forces of darkness. He knows that. I know
he does. He waves his hand to brush away my comment. This has nothing to do
with pulchritude, flirtation, attraction. I suppose it doesn’t. But cultures in
which women know how to do their hair and what shoes make their legs most comely
are not necessarily safe houses for the rest of us.
he says, “the women have given up. They don’t know how to flirt.” “Is that so?”
I wonder. In northern Minnesota
winters, do the women-peering out from under the fake-fur trim on the hoods of
their parkas-not know how to invite a fellow to the nearest diner for a cup of
coffee? Does it make any sense that women drinking beer at a roadhouse in rural
Tennessee don’t know how to make
a guy want to put his hand on the back of their jeans? I am sure the Inuits,
who don’t have the opportunity to wear Eres bathing suits, manage to
communicate interest, love, passion, lust just as well
as any denizen of the Deux Magots.
This put-down of America
comes from people who haven’t seen the Grand Canyon or
the forests of Montana, or the
Sierras or the mesas or the red rocks of Sedona. It ignores the fact that
democracy was our creation. America,
for all its crassness, its big companies, its cruelties to timber, animals and
people, serves as an ideal for the rest of the world. In the years when Europe
remained frozen in caste systems, it provided opportunity for those at the
bottom of the social scale. America
is not fundamentally xenophobic. For all its racism, it fights against racism.
Our homegrown skinheads have never won a majority in the government of any
town, village or city. This can’t be said of Europe. Our
Catholics and Protestants don’t kill each other. We have religion without
religious wars. This dislike of things American (including our women) comes
from people who think that all the villagers in the Dordogne
are humming Mozart and reciting Dante as they walk their cypress-lined roads.
But they’re just as likely to have seen The
Terminator . The reason American television and movies are so popular in Europe
is because they are appealingly alive and win out over the local fare. They are not corrupting finer spirits
with their cultural triumphalism.
I would suggest that American women of all ages, whether in
jeans or the latest fashions from Barneys, reek of sex, beckon men, are interested in the scent of the other, in the chase.
Whether it’s on Madison Avenue or Main Street U.S.A., American women have their
own wiles, and only a lost soul whose roots have been cut would hang about
Paris drooling over their women, who are very likely not drooling back.
Today we shiver at this open talk of the male gaze-the way
those eyes turn us into a passing herd of objects. American women know that the
secret isn’t in the hair or the shoes but in the soul, the way it shines its
light, the integrity and beauty of its capacity to love and be loved. Real
American men know that, too. The advice I passed on to my daughters is “brains
and character.” Nevertheless they do, I admit, seem very interested in shoes
The next day, in Amagansett, there was a great bargain
designer-shoe sale at the American Legion Hall. Boxes and boxes of DKNY,
Priori, Stuart Weitzman, Charles David, etc. seemed to have fallen off a truck.
My daughters and I were there first thing in the morning. It never hurts to
have a new pair of sassy shoes to carry one’s brains about.