My unromantic Paris

“So when will I next see you?” I ask, rolling over onto my front, my left hand gently caressing her wiry, raven hair.

“I don’t know”, she replies, her lips pursing, her naked body recoiling as she moves to get up. “This is getting too serious. I don’t want to hurt you…”

In posing what seemed like a perfectly legitimate post-coital question, I had inadvertently sealed my own fate. I would now spend the saddest, most awkward night of my life trying to fall asleep next to this girl — this devil in black lace — knowing that I would never see her again. I had coped with such knock-backs before, yet this somehow seemed different. This was more than just another rejection. This was life in the Paris dating scene.

For an English expatriate, Paris has everything to offer but the one intangible thing for which it became famous: l’amour. While romantic rendezvous — from fleeting cafe conversations to trading flirty glances in the metro — are far more commonplace than in London, the inevitable heartbreak that follows the capture of your Parisian belle will make you wonder if any of it was worthwhile.

At first it seems like everything is in your favour. For one, you are English. This opens so many (bedroom) doors for you that were this to be taught in British schools, national fluency levels in French would skyrocket overnight. Secondly, while actually being able to speak French will win you brownie points, it’s nothing when you compare it to the effect that the “exotic” English accent has on your Amelie-lookalike — watch her swoon over you like you’re Hugh Grant. French girls dig English guys; the manners, the awkwardness and even, dare I say it, the sense of humour. They dig English fashion too — never have I had so many compliments on my dress sense then when I’ve been out wearing a simple jacket acquired at Topman or River Island.

However, all of this adds up to a rather depressing prospect. Far from being a person, with all your faults and idiosyncrasies, you are a commodity. Personality comes second best to the idea of being on the arm of a well-to-do English gentleman. While any red-blooded male would rightly milk this to its full potential, one must not fail to understand how vacuous this situation really is.

Style vs substance

Still, nobody’s questioning the desirability of the Parisian ladies themselves. Asking what they lack in relation to their English counterparts is like comparing a vintage Citroën 2CV to a Rover 800. Of course the French model is easier on the eye. But how many miles (sorry, kilometres) will the Citroën do before it breaks down? Citroëns require regular greasing of their doors and hinges or they will rust, and long-distance motorway travel is to be avoided. Rovers, on the other hand, with their sturdy British Leylands 2-litre engines, are an altogether more reliable package. In short, they can put up with more, for longer. See where I’m going with this?

In England, it is perfectly acceptable to imagine the following situation. A bloke heads off to the pub with his mates to watch the second half of Stoke vs Sunderland. Neither of these clubs are his team, but it’s important for him to go and assess his club’s nearest league rivals. An English girlfriend would understand this, and either tag along for the sake of a pint and a sarcastic “what’s offside again?” or would hop into town with her own girl friends and agree to meet up later on.

In Paris however, there is no such tolerance for mundane pursuits like football and pubs. Instead, everything revolves around le regard, the flirtatious exchange that manifests at a trip to an art gallery, a saunter down a flea market, a visit to the cinema. But what begins as a spark of “romance”, ends in a drawn-out tit-for-tat contest involving who can suggest the most imaginative date, who can play at being the most aloof, or who can drop a previous sex friend’s name into conversation without getting slapped. Such games create the desired mish-mash of jealousy and sexual tension; vital ingredients of the Parisian dating experience. Take your eye of the ball for just a second and you’re finished.

Sex matters

Quite recently at a party I heard an English friend expressing her opinions on the French attitudes to sex. She said that in England, girls wait until they get to know you before they have sex with you. In France, they have sex with you to get to know you. It was a perfectly reasonable assertion.

Thanks to the corroboration of a male expat friend, there are other consistencies that ring true in regard to French bedroom politics. Firstly English girls — how can I put this delicately? — tend to avoid intercourse on a first date. It’s just the way they are. Call it a throwback to 1950s prudishness. They just don’t want you to think they’re easy — despite the fact that it’s often them who asked you to go back to their place. There is also the necessary notion of trust and feeling comfortable with a person, all of which, is perfectly understandable. English men are used to this and have a tendency to respect the rules.

In France it’s the opposite. Here, sex is the staple of the bedroom, as readily available as a hearty steak frites. That is not to say that French girls are easy. Rather, they are liberated. They understand that they can, in the 21st century, have their cake and eat it or – to give an audio-visual analogy – have their sex On Demand. They don’t have to wait several weeks discovering you have an aunty Rita in Edinburgh, and a cat, and that you like to rearrange your sock drawer on Sunday afternoons. They just want to fuck you. Right here, right now.

Strangely – and ironically for a country famed for the succulence of its saucisson – fellatio is quite often struck off the menu. What might be found at the bottom of an English bargain bin, is actually a rare delicacy in France; an After Eight to be passed round on birthdays and special occasions. Is this a power thing, I hear you wonder, or some deep-lying pyschosexual rejection of the phallus? Recently, I had a French friend test the theory in the Parisian cupcake shop in which she works. The resounding response was simple: “We don’t mind going down on you. We just feel self-conscious at the moment when we have to shuffle our bodies into position.” So therein lies your answer.

Same old merde

I often joke that my natural neuroticism makes me an inappropriate representative to fly the British flag abroad on this subject. Thankfully there are others who have been brave enough to tackle the theme in print.

Writer Stephen Clarke, whose novel A Year in the Merde made him an overnight celebrity in France, has turned the inadequate Englishman abroad syndrome into an art form. His Merde novels deal predominantly with his character Paul West, 27 (my age!) and his catastrophic sexploits with everyone from left-wing feminists to African immigrants and even his boss’s daughter. It is said that Clarke based his novel on autobiographical experiences. Since for the last four years I’ve occupied the same position in a Paris magazine that he did, am I therefore doomed to follow in his unromantic footsteps?

The short answer is no. I’m leaving Paris and returning to England, at least for the time being. It’s back to a country where the dating code is as sure as eggs is eggs and where girls put milk in their tea instead of ice cubes. I figured this way when I get dumped, at least it’ll be in my native language.

And I remain convinced that there’ll be more tears before bedtime.

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