French people flirt. It’s in the genes. It's a game - there's no negative connotation, and it’s considered separate from sex. Well, maybe. A separate talent, perhaps.
But alone in the depths of the French countryside, I’m cautious with the French workmen. The local burly boys who are obviously not comfortable being told what to do by a woman – and a foreigner at that. So I tread lightly. I address them with the formal vous. I call them monsieur. I hover between geniality and anxious remove - one minute the stern benefactress, the next a chummy shop steward - in order to get the job done. (So far, no tears, but that will come.) Anything too overt, I’m afraid will look like I’m trading on my femininity. That I’m FLIRTING.
I’m flattering myself, perhaps, but the idea that a mature, relatively soigné woman in France is not necessarily invisible after fifty seems to be true. So I’m careful.
On the other hand, as La Rochefoucauld once remarked, "Making a point of not flirting is in itself a kind of come on..."
Take M. Gomes, the plasterer, for example. He has a habit when he sees me of adjusting his genitals – an in-motion, leg-raised tweak of the crotch with his forefinger to accompany the morning greeting. Then, when we discuss various plaster finishes, his eyes drift to my breasts. "A la campagne?" he asks. Rough or smooth, Ma-dame Loo-ees?
The tone is boisterous, suggestive. But when I ignore this completely, he reverts to his courteous self. Perhaps in France it’s complicity that counts. Flirting has to be a two-way street. And manners count.
Nothing so démodé here as a shrieking No, which really means Yes.
Then there’s M. Danton, the septic tank man. Out of the blue one morning, he sidled up to me as I was trudging across the front lawn. “I can’t believe one of the workmen hasn’t asked you out,” he said breezily, “or at least tried to hit on you!” Despite his anticipatory grin, I replied thoughtfully, “No, I don’t think any of them would dare.” Ils n’oseraient pas. He nodded. Nothing more was said and we went on to talk soberly about sump pumps and gravel.
But it’s hard work...
The art of dealing with men. Mystery coqueterie. The tools of seduction. Of course, French women know their stuff. History is on their side, and powerful women have left their mark. Madamde de Montespan, Madame Pompadour, Madame de Stael – famous writer and saloniste – who once remarked, “the desire of the man is for the woman, but the desire of the woman is for the desire of the man.” Too true. And that was in 1790.
It's always been a game, and a subtle one. Recently, however, I read a piece (written by an American woman, a so-called connoisseur of French men), who claimed that nowadays the expression coucher avec moi should be taken as an informal remark, as merely flirting. Really?