Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to email@example.com.)
The first married Frenchman to ask me on a date was my bank manager. We had nearly finished the weeks-long process of establishing my FATCA-compliant banking account, and as he printed the last of the forms for my signature, he suggested we celebrate the completion of my paperwork with a drink.
“So,” he said. “We take some Champagne tonight?”
I hedged, fearful that if I rejected him outright, the establishment of my bank account, a necessary element of my residency permit application, would be delayed. “Maybe we should wait until I speak French fluently,” I said.
“That,” he said, actually twisting his wedding band, “will take much too long.”
The second married Frenchman to ask me on a date was the owner of the chicken rotisserie stand across the street from my apartment. We went on a couple of dates to neighborhood bars; one night, I asked him back to my apartment, at that point still unaware of his marital status. “Why don’t you have a boyfriend?” he asked a little later, during that hazy state of partial undress.
I offered a detailed summarization of the six months with my last boyfriend. “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” I said.
“Oh, I have a wife!” he said.
I remember being more surprised by the timing than anything else: It was 9:30 on a Saturday night. Where was she?
“At home, I guess,” he said.
The third married Frenchman to ask me on a date was my language instructor, whose immediately prior act had been to ask me to write an essay on love and my ideal partner. In the end, I did not complete that essay, and I found another French tutor, a communist Ph.D. candidate whose lessons consisted chiefly of telling stories I half-comprehended about her unsatisfying lovers from anglophone countries.
From that point on, I avoided French men — not exactly an easy feat when you’re living on their turf. I dated a French-Canadian boat captain, a Dutchman working in La Défense, a Norwegian dad who stayed in Paris to be near his daughter.
Still, though, I was curious. I had friends, American and otherwise, with French partners, and those partners seemed, true to form, attentive, chivalrous, gallant — as well intellectually inquisitive and kind. They held open doors and cooked galettes only on specially made pans. What would it be like?
Then I met David.
He was French, but he pronounced his name David, the American way, with a long A in the first syllable. He had studied filmmaking at NYU and claimed he had investigated our American dating rituals. He, like many French people I discussed the matter with, was fascinated and repulsed by the American idea of the what-are-we conversation as the true commencement of a relationship. “Of course,” he said, “it begins at the beginning.”
And so we began at the beginning. He was exactly what I hoped he might be, the prototypical Parisian boyfriend of my American imagination. On weekends, he went to his family’s house in the countryside two hours outside of Paris, where he participated in stag hunts on horseback, led onward into the hunt by buglers. He sent me pictures from dinner with his longtime friends, three men his age smiling in front of a camera over plates of raclette. He was very good at sex, an act that was nearly always precipitated by the presentation of a small box of pastries, usually eclairs.
This was exactly what I had wanted, except that I felt terribly alone.
We often ate dinner at restaurants populated chiefly by elderly French couples, immaculately dressed octogenarians who seemed to observe each other with the same cool but admiring gaze I associated with much shorter relationships. I doubted that these women, over many decades of marriage, had ever appeared before their husbands in yoga pants and hoodies. Could they never be comfortable? Ridiculous, David said. They found comfort in their elegance — and central to elegance was that sense of remove.
In my four years in France, I had observed many relationships between French people and foreigners, as well as French relationships themselves. At their best, they transcended cultural differences to be only themselves: loving and enviable. When they went wrong, though, they seem to go wrong in a fundamentally different way from the American relationships I knew best. During my time with David, I realized that the cliché of infidelity was only one superficial manifestation of a subtler, deeper cultural difference when it came to dating and to love.
Over time, I came to believe that the cultural dating chasm was too vast for me to cross — that no matter how long I stayed in France, I would remain an American, through and through, with American ideas not just about dating but about the marrow of relationships: that emotional intimacy — closeness — is the necessary element in a lasting accord. I don’t think my French friends would agree with that. I think they would say that romance — distance, and mystery — is the necessary element.
The more time I spent in a relationship with a Frenchman, the more I found myself missing the emotional togetherness that I, as an American girlfriend, believed to be my right. I found that David seemed to be happiest during unexpected, perfect but short-lived moments of romantic shimmer, while I seemed to seek out their opposite. I thought, with nostalgia, of an American boyfriend who had once thrown up in front me while walking down the street. I wanted to see David at his worst, since that had always been how I’d come to know my boyfriends best.
I did not get to know him more intimately. He liked me better the less he knew me.
In the end, my French boyfriend broke up with me before I could break up with him. “On a passé un bon moment,” he said, by way of consolation: We’d had a good time. Translated more literally, he said that we’d passed a bon moment, a “good moment,” well-worn phrasing that signals a cultural appreciation for the ephemeral, the glancing. As in so many of instances of the French-American dichotomy, what I really want is the happy medium: intimate romance, spontaneous dependability. If I have to choose one side, though, I can give you my answer now: I want a man who will join me in chasing raccoons out of the garage. In the true American athletic tradition, I want a teammate I also have sex with. Sirs et messieurs, I await you. Let me just slip into some yoga pants, and I’m yours.