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The allure of a French connection

Times Staff Writer

I’d be lying if I said I moved to France a year ago with no romantic illusions. I take them with me wherever I go, maybe because I read too many bodice-ripper novels as a girl.

The possibility of falling in love isn’t my prime motivation for traveling, but it always hangs in the air, like perfume, when I step off a plane. Especially in Paris, arguably the most romantic city in the world.

In her most recent novel, “L’Affaire,” Diane Johnson, a longtime chronicler of French-American relations, wrote of “personal dissatisfactions and specifically Paris-based projections of hopes for a new life that ... [bring] ... a certain number of Americans to Paris each year to reinvent themselves.”

American women -- whether lonely, unlucky in love or just looking for a good time -- seem particularly prone to the blandishments of this city, including its cultivated, well-groomed men.

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French men, Johnson said in an e-mail interview, “do seem to like women better than Anglo-Saxon men do and are not raised in such a climate of implied combativeness. Maybe that makes them attractive.”

To say the very least, French men are subtle, devastatingly accomplished flirts.

California artist Gianne Reynolds Reiss succumbed to Count Patrick Monden de Genevraye after he slipped her his business card at a party. Carol Sourget, nee Patten, of Torrance, was working in a scent shop in the town of St. Nazaire, where her husband-to-be, Raphael, often came in to smell perfume before finally asking her out.

Ooh-la-la. Now De Genevraye is a countess who divides her time between a houseboat on the Seine River in Paris and a chateau in the Loire Valley and the Sourgets have two boys.

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But both have had to make certain adjustments.

Sourget cannot serve her husband anything as simple as a sandwich for lunch. Fortunately she loves to cook. But when preparing boudin noir, a pork blood sausage that is one of his favorite dishes, she has to “try not to vomit,” she said.

De Genevraye, an accomplished hostess, was snubbed for years by members of her husband’s family, though eventually all of them came around, hoping for invitations to her lavish house parties.

Food and family are just two of the factors that make it hard for American women to sustain long-term relationships with French men after the first bloom of romance wanes.

“I’ve seen lots of divorces,” De Genevraye said.

There’s also the prevalent don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach to cheating in France. One recent survey put the infidelity rate among French men at 73%, and 38% among French women.

Writer and consultant Polly Platt, an expert on French-American interpersonal relations, has seen the same thing. “Marrying a foreigner should be illegal,” she says.

Platt’s list of stumbling blocks faced by American women who marry French men includes the nuanced, circuitous way French people talk, hostile French mothers-in-law, the cuttingly ironic French sense of humor, the cult of food, with meals lasting up to four hours, and the pressure on women to look terrific all the time.

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“There’s no slouching here,” Platt says. “Being toujours prete [always ready] becomes part of the skin. French men will look at what you have on and comment.”

I know the truth of that firsthand, from dating a French man who once matter-of-factly said that the color of my expensive new jacket didn’t suit me. He’s also repeatedly urged me to go on a diet. But I haven’t ripped his page out of my little black book because I know he doesn’t mean it maliciously, and he has other traits I like, such as courtliness, a surprising openness about his romantic life and the ability to make perfect martinis, an uncommon cocktail in France.

His criticisms appalled my girlfriends back home. Telling an American woman that she needs to lose weight is almost as deadly to romance as a man admitting on the first date that he has a sexually transmitted disease. Most would never put up with it, not to mention the expectation that we cook like Julia Child and dress like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

That gets to the heart of it. In the bicultural unions that work, the men seem to have had some experience with or affection for American ways, or both. Otherwise, they’d tend to re-create the traditional French marriage model, which has more than a little in common with those in the U.S. during the Eisenhower years.

French law supports this. Divorce here rarely benefits the woman who marries without a prenuptial agreement, and pay equality for working women is barely nodded at. Only last year, French legislators passed a law allowing mothers to give their surnames to their children. (Before that, parents were required to pass along the father’s last name to their offspring.)

We’re way beyond that in the United States, and, as a daughter of the feminist revolution, I’m grateful. But sometimes it seems to me that enforced gender equality has made relations between American men and women less sexy, which could be a big reason some American women are drawn to France for romance.

There must be a better way for men and women to get along.

Harriet Lerner, author of “The Dance of Intimacy,” put it well when she told me by e-mail: “The French have a saying, ‘All beginnings are lovely.’ In the early stages of relationships people find differences exciting and only later complain about them. All couples struggle with ‘cultural differences.’ Developing an appreciation (or at least tolerance) for them is a universal challenge.”

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Susan Spano also writes “Postcards From Paris,” which can be read at latimes.com /susanspano.


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