• Sarah Heath

France: La Grande dame can't fight her sensuality

I love it that France, in French, is female. Linguistically she is “la France”. But surely her gender derives not only by way of a definite article. A country with such a voluptuous geography, complex history and innate sensuality could only be female! What images are conjured up when thinking of France? Food, high fashion, history, culture, love? All of these? All laced with a dose of je ne sais quoi. What is the je ne sais quoi? Of course, sophistication and life’s finer details do not limit themselves to women in France. While French masculinity, sometimes verging too close to chauvinism, is alive and kicking here, French men are as in touch with their senses as women. Forget garlic – this country reeks of sensuality! But also the importance of taking pleasure in (what outsiders might perceive as) day-to-day details. 

One of my best friends is an emergency nurse so she quite literally stares death in the face on a daily basis. Her motto is Carpe Diem or ‘seize the day’ but she doesn’t mean it in a let’s-go-sky-diving kind of way. Her favourite thing is to sit down in the evening with friends (or just her husband), get out an assortment of delicious cheeses, open a good bottle of red, and talk about life, have a laugh and just connect with loved ones. I recently watched the film “Eat, Pray, Love” about an American woman on a journey of self-discovery. This included a trip to Italy where she came across the Italian words far niente or ‘sweet idleness’ – basically enjoying doing nothing! In one scene of the film, this meant taking time eating huge quantities of spaghetti, relishing each glass of red wine, of making time and effort preparing a meal-for-one, enjoying making the effort and afterwards, appreciating every bite. The word in French is almost the same – farniente, meaning idleness. The implication often being that enjoying doing nothing makes us some kind of social pariah, to be frowned upon or felt sorry for. That being permanently and overly busy is the only legitimate way to live. But not in France! For me, they have their priorities exactly where they should be, priorities which appear inbred in the average French national. Priority number one is looking after your health. This in no way means denying yourself of pleasures though. It isn’t an accident that life expectancy in France rates at number five on the global stage according to World Health Organisation research. While there are frequent whispers of hypochondria bandied around about the French, they are a race who are very in-tune with their bodies. 

Good food is the greatest medicine in France and this means lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.  Locally-grown and organic generally mean better quality and I know people who travel several kilometres out of their way just to find the best tomatoes. Prevention is better than cure and fresh is better than processed. Watching market-goers smell melons for ripeness, gently squeeze tomatoes for firmness and ask stallholders for good recipes are such sensuous habits. It makes me hungry just thinking about it.

Staying with the subject of eating, I would classify personal restraint as a French health tip. Again, this restraint is not to deny oneself of the pleasures of delicious food but rather to sample a small bit of everything and really, really savour it. 

Why just have whopping American-sized main course and no pudding when you can enjoy four small courses and try such a variety of different flavours? The complementing of fresh prawns with a very dry, crisp white wine or a strong camembert with a body-temperature red – it’s all about adding to the sensual enjoyment through gastronomic alchemy!

Food is never to be rushed and people familiar with French life will know that the country practically shuts down between midday and two o’clock. Again – this is so right! A proper break from work (or school lessons) and a proper lunch. This even means packing table, chairs, tablecloth and glasses for a simple roadside picnic. I love seeing that! French women apparently look, on average, seven years younger than their British counterparts. Why? No great surprise – because they look after their appearance more! This is not vanity. It’s pride and self-care. If you think you look lovely, you are more likely to feel lovely. The French get this concept without being overly-concerned with self-indulgence and self-consciousness. And who doesn’t enjoy a sensual, relaxing facial? Actually, I do know someone but she’s weird and doesn’t like massages either! To compare the number of dermatological or cosmetic products produced in France to elsewhere, in 2018, France exported $9.6 billion worth of beauty and skincare products (16.3% of exports in this category). This is nearly $4 billion more than the United States in second place. The UK exported just $2.2 billion worth. Clearly their products are well-respected globally but the standards are set at home in France.

Another gesture I adore in France is getting purchases gift-wrapped in shops! To have your present beautifully folded in vibrant-coloured tissue and silky cellophane and finished off with curly ribbon is such a pleasure! I love watching them do it and manoeuvre myself into the best possible viewing position while it’s being done. Sometimes it takes ages but I don’t mind at all! Flirting. Not being an eyelash-flutterer myself, I’m not overly qualified to give this much expert knowledge. But I am a big people-watcher and often see couples smooching at cafés or restaurants, women sliding their foot up and down her man’s calf. Sometimes I feel like vomiting into my coffee at these public displays of affection but I can fully see it for what it is: courting rituals and a lack of shyness in demonstrating your love for your partner. (It’s better to wear sunglasses while undertaking these covert observations!) Maybe the ability to throw off inhibitions should be a new criteria in French nationality tests? I could go on and on but am about to indulge in a slightly-melted chocolate fest after writing this (people who eat chocolate straight from the fridge are psychopaths). I would enjoy hearing other examples or stories of the sensuality of the French and their love of the good things in life. Vive la France!


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