Words cannot describe the joy of finding a box of books, my books, waiting for me in the lobby of my apartment building when I came home last week. All that work, all those years of writing writing writing, collaborating with my two excellent editors (thank you again, Ardella and Marianne) and arguing with book cover and page layout designers (I prefer to forget that part). As I lugged the Amazon box up to my flat, I thought to myself – you are carrying the fruit of your labors.
At the office, colleagues came to me, cash in hand, wanting to buy my book. I was surprised because, even though they speak and read English, they’re not Anglophones. (I say that because I never read books in French.)
The other day, while lunching in the staff cafeteria with two colleagues, one who hadn’t read the book yet asked the other who was halfway through, “What’s it about?”
“It’s about Juliet’s adventures in Paris,” was the answer.
“It’s about my adventures and misadventures in Paris, but it’s more than that,” I interjected. “It’s essentially about a flourishing family and its consequent breakdown.” Parts One and Two are the sunny years, Part Three recounts what happens in many families when the parents (authority figures) die: dysfunction, chaos, even anarchy. In a small way, I told my colleagues, I was inspired by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.
Parts One and Two are entertaining and engaging. I’ve decided to occasionally post a short, random excerpt on this blog. Here’s one that highlights my suspicion that France is/was a sexist, patriarchal society. I was working in the marketing department of Reuters at the time –
Finding myself in the Paris equivalent of London’s ‘The City’ or New York’s ‘Wall Street’ was a stark departure from the creative atmosphere of the advertising agency. I quickly learned that the office culture of financial institutions was notoriously patriarchal, hierarchal and shockingly sexist. Innuendos, insinuations and invitations were rife, and an all-pervasive suggestion of conquest and coupling floated in the air. Fueled by caffeine, libido and the rise and fall of stock prices, the cult of seduction was evidence of the blatant machismo that prevailed in that industry and in the country. It was a male-centric world, and it was eye-opening.
Growing up in Canada, I took it for granted that Europe would be as enlightened as my home country with regard to gender parity and feminist activism. I was wrong. From the outside, France appeared to be an avant-garde society, but upon closer inspection I found it to be terribly traditional and conservative. The book that I had read when I was sixteen – Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking opus in modern feminist theory, The Second Sex, written in 1949 – had done nothing to modify the archaic vision of society there. Madame de Beauvoir was decades ahead of her time.
In and out of the workplace, I found the women to be strangely docile and compliant, the men chauvinistic and entitled. It was around this time that I began to look more closely at my women colleagues and their status in the society I found myself living in. What was the female experience in France in the 1990s? How did they deal with this testosterone-charged culture? And, more specifically, how did they relate to other women? This last interrogation interested me because despite my best efforts, and with the exception of Roxanne, I found it near impossible to become friendly with them.
“There’s a lack of camaraderie between women here,” I’d say to my mother over the phone. “They all look at me with suspicion, like I want to steal their jobs or their boyfriends. It’s like I’m walking around with the word ‘rival’ branded with a burning stick onto my forehead.”
Glaringly absent from the urban landscape was the sight of just women out laughing, dining and partying amongst themselves in bars and restaurants like we did back home. I never saw it, ever. Men and women socialized only as couples. There was a stigma attached to being single.
France was late, very late, in coming to the women’s table, which is surprising for a country whose national motto is ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ and whose intellectual elites illuminated Europe with their progressive, rationalist thinking during the Age of Enlightenment. But deeply entrenched misogyny, the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Napoleonic Civil Code of 1804 – enacted by Napoleon Bonaparte himself and, with revisions, is still in force today – severely curtailed the roles and legal rights of women in every sphere of French life. Powerless and decreed as inferior, they were subject to the authority of the father and husband, and made totally dependent on them, economically and otherwise.
In a strange way, women endorsed the macho system. Men were the power, and they were in thrall to them; it was a survival tactic. Viewing themselves through the prism of the male gaze, French women were accustomed to gaining men’s approval, making themselves desirable, obtaining favors and defining themselves through men.