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New book debunks romantic French myths

by Marianne Barriaux

AFP-JIJI

You think French women don’t get fat, their kids never throw food, couples have lots of good sex and families eat gourmet dinners every night? Think again.

A new book by British writer Piu Marie Eatwell seeks to debunk “myths” about a country that is sometimes idealized abroad, but leaves some visitors sorely disappointed when they realize it is actually… normal.

In “They Eat Horses, Don’t They?,” the author goes against a tide of popular books that depict France as the land that somehow gets it all so right.

“There’s almost a need to look at France, not objectively like another country, but as a sort of projection of one’s own ideals,” Eatwell, who has lived in France for nearly 10 years, said recently.

“But the only effect of it all is to make English and American people feel that they’re rubbish at everything. They’re fat, they’re ugly, they can’t bring up children. … What’s helpful about that?”

Based on extensive research, Eatwell, 39, divides her book into different chapters devoted to French food, women, sex, manners and other topics.

So, for instance, French cuisine may be hugely respected worldwide, but the country of food lovers is the second-largest market for McDonald’s after the United States.

And according to the respected Michelin Guide, Tokyo — not Paris — is and has been the culinary capital of the world for some years.

As for those slim silhouettes, 42 percent of French women — and 47 percent of the adult population as a whole — are overweight, the book says, citing a survey by Swiss pharmaceutical group Roche.

And they don’t have the great sex we think they do, with a 2010 survey by French polling group Ifop finding that more than three-quarters of French couples have bad sex lives, it adds.

But Eatwell insists her book is far from being negative, as she redresses other less-than-rosy perceptions of the French, such as the assumption that they are a smelly lot who listen to “irredeemably naff” pop music.

Indeed, while John Lennon reportedly said French rock music was like British wine, did you know that Frank Sinatra’s huge hit “My Way” was originally a French song?

And while it may not all be rosy in the bedroom, the general attitude toward sex is much more healthy in France than it is in Britain, the book finds.

In a prologue to the book, Eatwell jokingly describes her initial experience of life in Paris, where she moved to follow her British husband who worked there.

“A freshly baked croissant — how French! The rudeness of the waiter at the bistro — how French! The thin and glamorous women who tottered down the Parisian boulevards — how French! A glass of wine at lunchtime — how French!” she writes.

“Gradually, however, I began to notice cracks in this ‘French’ experience. Not all, or even most, of the women I saw were particularly beautiful or glamorous. Every so often, there was a polite waiter. The croissant in the cafe was tired and crusty. There were McDonald’s and fast-food joints jostling for space beside the cute bistros. …”

Eventually, she decided to try to put the record straight — going against the wave of books praising France as an Eldorado.

“We don’t do this for any other country. You don’t have books on how to discover your inner German,” she pointed out.

Unsurprisingly, France’s allure and reputation does wonders for tourism, and the country is the most visited in the world.

But for some tourists, the disappointment at finding rude residents, grimy streets and the odd stale croissant is just too much to take.

So much so that one Japanese psychiatrist practising in the French capital for three decades has coined a condition called the “Paris syndrome” for compatriots new to the city.

“They arrive with an image out of sync with reality,” the doctor, who asked not to be named, said last year in an interview. “They never expected a ‘welcome’ that is so aggressive and indifferent. They experience fear and symptoms of anxiety.”

Still, Eatwell insists she loves France and is not “French-bashing.”

“I choose to live here, my kids are growing up here, I’m one of France’s biggest fans, but I’m a fan because I feel I’m able to look at it as it is, not through rose-tinted spectacles,” she said.

And to prove her point, she dispels one widely-held myth once and for all. French women do shave their underarms.

  • Frank Schirmer

    Such a book isn’t needed in Europe, because we don’t buy into these myths in the first place. In Japan, on the other hand, some education about reality modern France would be helpful to fight the “Paris syndrome” of Japanese tourists.