It was three years ago that I went on my first date with a French girl. She was from Brittany and thus had one of those terribly sexy accents that American tourists are always trying to imitate (“Eet woood be a plezzure to join yoo for deener”). While an accent is a pretty superficial reason to go on a date, at the time, it seemed as legitimate of a reason as any. I was young, and, accent aside, it was exciting to be going on my first date in Paris.
Yet, even in the most beautiful city in the world during the most beautiful time of year, romance does not always come easily.
Conversation was running short. We were both ill at ease. When the waiter brought my fish, he informed us that it had been boiled alive. This was Paris I thought, not rural China. What was I doing making dinner reservations at a restaurant that cooks its fish alive? And why in God’s name would the waiter be telling us this? The New York Times restaurant review had let me down! And the lamb she ordered? Well, it was hardly cooked at all. Saignant (bleeding) would be an overstatement. My date decided to eat it anyway.
As we left the restaurant and made our way along the Seine, the icy air whipped us mercilessly. We threw our gelato away, too cold to eat on this Eskimo-style date. Checking the weather before leaving my apartment wouldn’t have been the worst idea either.
So we sat down on the stone quays with no conversation and an odd meal behind us. The intrinsic romance of the sparkling city now mocked us now as we sat in silence.
“Well how about we go home now?” I said. “I’m pretty tired.”
Then she confirmed that this had been my worst date ever: she vomited.
Indeed, the lamb should’ve been cooked longer.
Helping her into a taxicab, I figured I’d never see her again. Well, I thought to myself, your first French date may not have been terribly romantic, but put it behind you, perhaps the next one will be better. But just as I was finishing my internal pep talk she asked:
“Would you like to come to the theater with me tomorrow? It’s Le Misanthrope. I have an extra seat, and I would love to see you again.”
Excuse me? I thought.
This gorgeous girl from Brittany who was taken to a terrible restaurant that gave her food poisoning then had to walk through the cold making dull conversation wants to see me — the idiot who orchestrated it all — again?
“Ummm… I’ll text you.”
“Okay,” she smiled, before driving away. “Bonne nuit.”
I didn’t end up going. It would’ve been too cruelly awkward, but these kinds of surprises, in which I find myself on entirely different wavelengths with French women, aren’t actually that unusual. Often though, it’s the other way around, where I’m the one who thinks the evening went well when my date probably wished to never to see me again. Take, for instance, the time I went to Frenchie Bar à Vins with a girl from Paris. I had a pleasant time, but after two unanswered calls and a text, I never heard from her again. Or how about that time I went out to a girl’s cottage in Normandy only to find out that she wanted our relationship to be just “a weekend thing”? Now I’m not one to complain about hanging with a hottie in the French countryside, but how could I have misunderstood so many dates?
Now, I’m not going to chalk up this dating dilemma to mere linguistic or cultural differences or even the supposed “hook up culture” among 20-somethings. There is indeed a reason, which I will get to shortly, but, in order to make sense of it let’s first think about how transatlantic dating works in the other direction.
Think of any film that deals with an American living in Paris. Almost uniformly, there is a precocious young American girl, who finds both her womanhood and her independence in the City of Lights. This happens in An American in Paris, in Truffaut’s Breathless, in Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, in Funny Face, and in Charade, among others. You’ll notice in all of these, it’s not just womanhood being attained, but also, you guessed it, a French man. (Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard’s time-traveling Midnight in Paris romance might be our gender-flipping exception to prove the rule.)
Statistically, there are far more American women with French men than American men with French women. The question though is why?
After taking an informal poll from American women, the three characteristics that came up most to describe French men are: sexually mature, worldly, intelligent.
Add in the fact that they can cook, and American men might as well throw in the towel now.
Of course, it’s not just blind adoration and romanticization that makes the French man/American woman relationship the preferred dynamic. One could also make the argument that it’s predicated on simple practicality. “Typical” gender roles have the husband making the lion’s share of the income, and what with the headache of getting a work visa, a nonexistent professional network, and, at times, a language barrier, the newly arrived American woman isn’t immediately in a position to make a living for herself in France. Therefore it would follow that the male in the relationship would have to be a French native, thereby essentially barring an American man from winning a French woman. But after a year or two with some hard work, a smart, enterprising American woman can gain access to all sorts of professional and social networks in France, so I wouldn’t be comfortable saying practicalities alone explain why French man/American woman couples flourish while French woman/American man duos often sink.
I also don’t think it can be explained by French women simply not finding American men attractive. When my French begins to slip and my American accent shines through that’s the time I get the most bites from French women. I’ve also been on a fair share of dates with French girls, so it’s not as if they’re all denying American men outright. A brief chance is usually given, but as I’ve found both in my own experience and in speaking with friends, the odds of a genuine relationship blossoming are depressingly low.
Now think what you wish, but after conversations with other American men and upon reflecting on my own dates, I’ve found that the American man/French woman relationship doesn’t often work for a very simple reason: expectations.
One of the most obvious examples is when a French date told me this particularly harsh, semi-compliment:
“It’s so odd spending time with an American. I’ve never done it before, and I’d always imagined you all to be,” she paused, realizing she was about to paint broad strokes of offensiveness. “Well, crass, rude, and perhaps a bit lazy.”
Compare those three expectations to the ones American women have of French men, and it’s apparent that the deck is stacked against the boys back home.
I’ve had meaningful relationships while in Paris, but they’ve been exclusively with American women (and one Brit). It may just be me, but it seems that one date isn’t enough to get past these heavy cultural expectations. So, French ladies, I promise we’re not all the uncultured clowns you might think we are. Do please give us another chance. Yet, I suppose I’m not one to talk. After all, that Molière play could’ve been the best date of my life.
Perhaps we can both endeavor to give one another a second chance? I’ll prove that I can cook as well as any Frenchman, and the next time a girl throws up and asks me to see a play, I’ll say, Why the hell not, I love me some Molière. But, let’s skip the lamb though. We American men need all the help we can get.