Of Lipstick and Tennis Shoes

“That is awesome!”  I am looking in the direction of an older gentleman (like octogenarian old) and his two similarly aged female companions.

“What about them,” asks MB, taking a bit of his andouillette; we are in Lyon for a day trip.

“Are you kidding,” I ask back.  “Look at his outfit.”

MB turns to look back at the man walking down the street in a Kelly green blazer and light green pants with a pink tie.

“He looks great,” I continue.  “I mean, don’t you just love how old folks always dress up?  Look at the women, both in heels, both in hose, hair done and it is just a weekday lunch!  I mean, if I had my way I would wear workout clothes all the time and just forget about make-up and I have way more energy than them.”  (I have no idea if I have more energy than them, they are looking pretty spritely)

“I like you like that,” MB says smiling at me, “natural.”

I mentally give another high-five to the universe for putting this man in my life then smile before continuing on my tangent.  “They just put in so much effort – I respect it, ya know?  Like these ladies got up this morning and said to themselves: “yep, we are stepping out” and really took time to put themselves together.  And the dude, I mean, honey, how can you not give props to a man pulling off a jacket that color.”

MB smiles at me indulgently, “ouais, they look good.”

BABE,” He is clearly not getting this.  “Her blouse is even sheer with a black bra underneath.  That sweet little octogenarian over there is both sexier and trendier than me.”

MB laughs and then changes the subject and we continue our lunch.  I know MB would be happy to spend the rest of his life in jeans, t-shirts, and flip-flops, never donning a suit again.  We are just not a particularly “formal” generation.  We are Generation X of greasy hair and plaid shirt fame – the generation that went into an Urban Outfitters craze, snatching up $100 pairs of ripped up jeans (this was in the 90’s – $100 was a huge amount to spend on jeans), something that my Mother never understood.

“I am NOT paying that amount of money to buy you something that is going to make you look trashy.”

“MOM,” insert appropriate 14 year old screech.  “They are not trashy, GAWD, they are everywhere, everyone wears these now!!!!!”

“Not everyone.  I’m not wearing them; your Father isn’t wearing them.”

I give her a flat, emotionless expression.  I mean, she is kidding with this, right?

She gets my drift and continues.  “Look honey, it just isn’t going to happen.  If you want to pay an exorbitant amount of money for a half-way destroyed product, be my guest, but I’m not doing it.”

So, I did.  I saved my money and bought an on-sale pair of Urban Outfitters ripped up jeans for $76.  They were so hot, in fact, if I still had them I would happily wear them now…unfortunately they fell apart after about 3 months and became completely un-wearable.  I’m sure there is a lesson in there somewhere.

The point is, my Mother couldn’t understand why we would want to buy new products that were designed to look like old, thrown away products; which is crazy because it makes perfect sense (wait, what?).  She had been raised by a generation of people who put themselves together and made an effort when they left the house…heck, even when they stayed in the house.  A people who 60 years later, while surrounded by jean-wearing messy-haired young people still proudly sport their Kelly green blazer to a weekday lunch.

My Grandmother was a perfect example of this generation – even when she was in the nursing home she would remove her oxygen mask for photographs.  HER OXYGEN.

Several years back when I was home for a visit, she and I made plans to go to the movies together (pre-nursing home days).  The night before I went out and tied one on with some friends and was therefore pretty tired the next day.  I got up and put on some yoga pants and tennis shoes with a t-shirt and just threw my greasy hair into a pony-tail; I mean, come on, it’s just a midday movie with my Grandmother!  I went to pick her up and we went to the movies and everything went fine…or so I thought.  About a week later I called her to see if she wanted to have lunch.

“Well okay, sweetie, that would be wonderful but maybe you could make a little effort this time,” she croons into the phone.

“Huh,” I say back to her.

“Well, last time we went out you didn’t look very good and it was a little embarrassing; I’m glad I didn’t run into anyone I knew.”


At this point, I just burst out laughing, “Well okay, I’ll make sure to tart it up for you next week!”

“Well, don’t go too far,” was her only response.

My Grandmother wasn’t raised with “exceptions” on how you presented yourself.  It wasn’t okay to “dress down” just because you were going to be sitting in a movie theater; she was raised (and therefore my Mother as well) that you didn’t so much as buy a gallon of milk without putting on lipstick.

Somewhere along the line we have lost this sense of pride in appearance, maybe in longer work hours and busier schedules, in homes with two working parents and children to take care of…maybe by the time you have finished a 14-hour day you just can’t be arsed to put yourself together for a casual dinner out or a drink with a friend.  I don’t know what the reasons but it kind of makes me sad.  We’ve lost some of the glamour and maybe a little bit of magic – that thing that made you want to dress up in your Grandmother’s old clothes and wear her costume jewelry or try sporting an old fedora that is still in the attic.

I’m standing on the tram on my way back from French class as I notice an elderly gentleman step into my car (I am always keeping an eagle eye out for the oldies to make sure they get a seat if they want one).  I smile to myself as I notice that he is wearing a full 3-piece suit, complete with hat but is also sporting his grocery bags with wheels.  This man suited up for the grocery store…the grocery store.  I look down at my tennis shoes and blue jeans feeling like the ultimate slacker.  Maybe I’ll put in more effort tomorrow; maybe I’ll actually fix my hair and put on proper make-up…wear shoes that don’t have rubber soles.  The tram lurches off, rattling down the line and I watch the old man straighten his tie and vest, flattening them down as he prepares to descend at the next stop.  I feel an unexpected, maybe even bizarre, twinge of affection for him.  “Thanks for keeping it classy,” I want to say to him.

Then the tram stops and he is gone, disappearing down the road as I strain to follow his form as long as possible.  I grab the rail as the tram jostles me forward unceremoniously and I sigh; I’ll probably wear tennis shoes again tomorrow…but maybe I’ll manage a bit of lipstick.

P.S. I realize this isn’t a strictly French post – I like to deviate every now and again.  I hope you don’t mind indulging me!


Cultured Insolence

“Wit is Cultured Insolence” – Aristotle

So last night while watching “The Walking Dead” there was a moment when our heroes drive by a frantic and lone hiker on the highway without picking him up.  It is heart-wrenching as the hiker runs after them screaming in stark desperation and eventually falls on his face as they silently drive on unwilling to stop and help.  Even now, just thinking about this scene makes me want to start crying.  Now, of course, I realize that this is a fictional television show about a zombie apocalypse (yes, even writing that out makes me roll my eyes at myself) but I’m telling you – it was a compelling moment, a moment that made my core of humanity shiver at the possibility of ever being so completely turned off.  Even in such a wildly fictional world it was painful to watch a cold and cruel moment.

MB, however, smirked.

“Oh my god,” I shriek.  “That is so depressing, what is wrong with you?  How can you find that funny?!

He’s laughing a bit when he turns to me, “mais non, I don’t think it’s funny, it is horrible.  I mean, it’s crazy!”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“Because it is not funny otherwise.”


He shrugs; this makes perfect sense to a Frenchman.

The French have a little bit of a “mean girl” sense of humor.  It is something I noticed when I first started dating MB and he showed me some classic French films.  I watched in horror while he and his friend (also French) held their stomachs laughing during “Dîner de Cons”, a film about a group of people who have a dinner party in which they are each required to bring a moron for the rest of them to make fun of.  I sat there in shock, confused as to how anyone could find such a cruel premise funny; and even though our leading “mean boy” finally receives his comeuppance I couldn’t reconcile the meanness of the jokes with the slap on the wrist at the end.  It is a type of humor that just doesn’t work for this happy-ending-loving American; where were my birds and squirrels sewing ball gowns, where were my “Bad News Bears?”  Probably being kicked in the head by “La Chevre” (another “make fun of well-meaning morons” French film) before being sent to 18th Century Versailles pour le “Ridicule” (this French film leaves out the moron for the more heavy hitting insults).

And it isn’t just in the films that this humor exists but in day to day life as well.  This week in my French class our teacher reviewed the vocabulary for qualities and faults.  In order to work on class participation, she opened a group discussion in which we all listed a few qualities about ourselves.  After I listed my qualities she turned to the class and said, “okay, now, what do you think that her faults are?  Who would like to take a guess at some of her faults?”


I looked at the other foreign students in the class who all sat silently, looking at each other questioningly as if to say, “oh my god, do we actually say something?!”  I started laughing.  It was so absurd; none of us are from a culture where we could conceive of listing out a stranger’s supposed faults publicly and to their face (that last bit is put in for those of us who have no problem listing faults behind someone’s back…what?  I wrote “us?”  Well, I don’t mean me, obviously!).  The teacher shrugged and continued the lesson without forcing us to affront our new classmates…but I suspect she would have liked us all a lot more if we had made a go of it. 

This is not to say that the French are mean; they aren’t…but they do enjoy a well-played witticism (read: not-too-mean-insult).  Now that being said, they may dish it out but they can take it as well.  I have often sat bemused at dinner parties watching the hardcore “ribbing” that goes on at the table; they all think it is hilarious and are just as quick to laugh at themselves as at someone else.  It is like a formal fencing match – you don’t throw a fit when you opponent makes a hit but instead you respect and congratulate them.  It is a delight in wickedness rather than mean-spiritedness.

Here is a perfect example from the film “Ridicule” – I like to call this “aggressive word play”.

So prepare your thick skin before entering the French sphere and make sure that you have a sense of humor about yourself, for as they say in the film “Ridicule”, “wit opens any door” and you wouldn’t want to end up in a French zombie apocalypse with nothing clever to say.