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When American novelist Edith Wharton traveled to France in 1919, she observed that the French were “puzzled by our queer fear of our own bodies.” So, I reasoned, my queer fear might be the cultural baggage of generations. But really, in these enlightened days? It was silly. Time to let it go. In the meantime, might as well try the new gym. Day 1. The instant I entered Espace Vit’Halles, a friendly monsieur at the front desk bid me a big, grinning welcome. Yoga, dance aerobics, weights – I was encouraged to profit from them all. “The ladies’ changing room is on the second floor, Madame,” he said, and shooed me in the approximate direction. I found the door, clearly marked “Femmes,” and entered a sanctuary of sensual splendor. Lovely lavender décor; chaise longues lined up for lounging; flowers blooming on the mirrored vanities: the room was a swoon of comfort and beauty. Showcased under spotlights, a hot tub as vast and artfully conceived as ancient Roman baths bid welcome. Such luxury. Such pampering! The gym-women who showered or soaked or otherwise performed their toilettes in various stages of undress flaunted their inner French girls exactly as Ollivier claimed. Women sinewy and women plump, women with goddesses’ bodies and women with pocks and spots and skin that looked anything but good to be in: All got in and out of underwear that wasn’t underwear at all, but rather, lingerie. There it all was, France’s finest: lacy, racy and for sure, sensational. These confections, no doubt expensive, were also, let’s face it: frightening. How would I ever undress in the presence of women so adept in the provocative art of underwear? Some of the self-satisfied purring cats of the changing room paraded…no, swaggered around naked. And down to their brazenly exposed French toes they seemed shame-free. If I were to strip to my big dowdy whities before their eyes, what then? So quaint! I feared they’d exclaim. An American prude. Doesn’t like to be nude. I was in luck. There was a toilet stall that could serve as a personal changing cabine. My strictly utilitarian bra sans lace, plunge, pads, push-up, or the least suggestion of seduction could be kept secret. I scuttled in, did my business and emerged dressed in workout-wear. Ta dum! Embarrassment deflected. I headed for the exit and dance aerobic class, but stopped dead when I heard a bit of catnip call. “Oh, Madame! Madame!” I turned to see a raven-haired, hipless thing holding aloft my favorite faded cut-offs – the shorts that for a good 30 years now, I have found charming on me. “You dropped your…your….” She did not have words for what they were. But her sweet, sad smile and pitying tone told me all that Inès de la Fressange already had: “No Parisienne would dress mutton as lamb.” The ex-runway model and French fashion guru put this rule in her Parisian Chic: A Style Guide to let me know in advance of coming to France that shorts, like miniskirts, have no business on any woman older than…young. “Merci beaucoup, Madame,” I said, sheepish. I waited until she pranced off, pert ponytail swinging, and tossed my past into the trash. Mutton?! Day 2. “Bonjour, Madame,” said the grinning monsieur when I returned to try the gym’s yoga. “The ladies’ changing room is on the first floor. Enjoy your class.” That’s odd, I thought. Wasn’t the ladies’ changing room just yesterday on Floor 2? Yet on the first floor, as promised, there it was, the door marked “Femmes".
I entered and saw at once all was odd. Where was the lavender? Where was the lovely? Loaded with lockers, lacking a hot tub, the room was dim, dank, and functional. Testosterone chose the décor so sweat stains didn’t show, and from the télé turned to sports to the vanities equipped with manly-looking man-things used by grooming men, this changing room clearly was meant for well, men. And yet, there they were: Women. The Parsiennes flaunted their inner French girls like they had the day before; they paraded around queer-fear-free in brassieres like pasties and thongs if not sheer then small. Awfully. “Entrez, Madame,” said one, as I lingered at the door. The French girl had just contorted herself into a contraption of an electric-blue bustier, a towel on her head. “Oui, oui, Madame, come in. You’ve found the right place.” I wasn’t so sure. No toilet stall announced itself after my first look around, so I would have to strip and change into yoga clothes in full view of a man-cave full of catnip. My priggish panties! My not-hot bra! Never mind. This wasn’t anything some serious French lingerie acquisition couldn’t fix. Plus, it was no lace off their merry widows if, in front of the Frenchwomen, I got naked like the place had caught fire and I had better move fast or die. Which is how I did. But in the process? It was astonishing. There I was, whipping off my clothes and slipping into Spandex, and nary a glance went to my uncomely undies. I was a blur, sure. But snug in their absolute disinterest, smug in their elusive distance, the Frenchwomen paid my flash of breast and briefly bared behind no mind. Whatsoever. Wow, self-satisfaction must be catching. In the presence of such total nonchalance, I felt for one wild, nude moment…well, nude! It was awesome. I wanted more of it. Day 3. I arrived at Espace Vit’Halles, today to try the weight room. “Bonjour,” bid the big-grinned monsieur, as expected. He then directed me to the ladies’ changing room…on the second floor. The second floor? Seriously? Yes. The door marked “Femmes” had moved from the man-cave back upstairs; it opened again on the lovely lavender space filled with Frenchwomen changing. Encouraged by my undressing success of the previous day, I was shy but excited to unveil my treasures. I had gone shopping. At the lingerie shop on boulevard Haussmann, I could find nothing frumpy whatsoever in a French granny panty; neither was there a single serviceable bra that would just do the job – as if such things in Paris existed. So standing before the display of wares both naughty and nice, a woman I didn’t know spoke up. “I’ll take the panties in slinky pink with their matching bra of ruffles and bows – yes, those,” she told the shop’s assistant. I was stunned to discover it was I, myself, not just speaking but also pointing to items so cute that even Mademoiselle had to approve – endowed as she was with come-hither hips and considerable cleavage. This choice was so surprising that it meant only one thing. There was a French girl in me – in me! – and she had been roused by ruffles. Back at the gym I beheld this bold foreigner with cool suspicion and moved to the farthest corner of the changing room. There, I could undress apart from the purring cats and expose my newly-purchased pizzazz in relative privacy. I claimed a locker and settled-in on a bench. My American fears still lingered, but my new French bra of unabashed vavavoom? It almost busted out of my blouse to shout Here I am! And how my slinky pink French panties were pleased to sashay free of my jeans with a little wiggle of joy. Just then, the door. A man announced himself.
Bonjour! Welcome to the winter issu
contents Features 8 A tale of two c
P 88 88 give aways Win a row of gor
The Medieval City of Carcassonne Th
The inside track The Medieval city
Left: Le Parc Franck Putelat restau
astide saint-louis Back in the midd
The weekly market (Tuesday, Thursda
information Getting to Carcassone:
When Louis XIV visited Orange, he s
The theatre at Orange continues to
The inside track The centre of Oran
Stay at: Au Vin Chambré is a lovel