I have a confession, the first of many. I had never ventured into the feral world of online dating before I arrived in Paris. But Paris was new, Paris was exciting. I was a stranger in a strange world and ‘why not?’ had become my new motto.
Finding people to date has obviously never been easier. You no longer need to stand looking wistful beside your favourite painting in the Louvre or to pretend to be casually browsing the shelves of a book shop on the Rive-Gauche in the hope of catching someone’s eye. Now, dating everywhere in the world has been simplified: it’s all swipe and go.
I asked around for the beginner’s guide to Parisian online dating and was directed towards one dating website, a site that I was assured was filled with the very cream of the crop Paris has to offer. This would be a halcyon world where people actually resemble their photographs, where people were true and honest, where nobody was married and trying to meet someone on the sly.
Yes, dear readers, such a site does not exist. This proved to be just another dating site, like all the others, where you get a series of pictures with words attached and you have to judge based on some kind of gut instinct. Often the pictures have been taken decades before. Sometimes they are of somebody else. The words are usually meaningless. But, yes, occasionally the words are witty and the sentiments sincere. And so I took my first tentative online dating steps.
Vivacious polygamy culture
It is of course dangerous to generalise, but some characteristics and behaviours did emerge amongst my prospective French suitors. The most prevalent of these was that polygamy is alive and well and living in Paris.
Indeed, there was almost a refreshing honesty to the fact that the French men I encountered so quickly admitted they were already one half of a couple. This was even though my profile did stipulate I was only interested in a monogamous situation and clearly stated I did not want one-night stands.
There was the Frenchman who was comically cheeky. He wanted to meet me on Tuesday afternoons. Only Tuesday afternoons. This was the free time he had agreed with his partner for him to engage in extracurricular pleasures. I could visit his apartment. He would already be in bed.
There was another Parisian man who lived in the same quartier as me and explained in great detail that we could see each other on specific mornings during the week, and perhaps the occasional afternoon, but he would never be able to give advance notice and would regularly cancel. And, if I ever saw him in the neighbourhood doing the shopping with his missus, he would blatantly blank me. This was the deal he had arranged with his wife. Apparently, what she didn’t see couldn’t hurt her.
Obviously not everyone was already involved with someone else. But there was a general sense that French men liked to lay out the rules and it was up to you to comply with them.
'Come up to my garret...'
There was the raffish writer who looked like an ageing member of British 90s band The Stone Roses. He lived in what he liked to describe as a garret on the Left Bank, of course he did. He wanted me to come up to his tiny room whenever he felt was the right moment. It needed to be spontaneous for it to be real, our stolen moment.
I was expected to climb six flights of stairs to the home of a man I had never met before. He would open the door and we would apparently have wonderful intimate experiences. And then I would have to leave as he needed to write. It did not sound very spontaneous to me. You will be relieved to know that I never climbed any stairs for him.
Some male habits are universal. I would say a simple ‘hello’ to a man and suddenly receive a photo of his lower anatomy. I received video calling cards too. French men, just like English men and Australian men and Peruvian men and…. , are very proud of what hangs beneath.
French men do, however, get to the point more quickly. And the point is sex. There is a lack of inhibition that is quite impressive to a repressed Anglophone.
I went for an evening walk in a park on a date with an engineer. We met first for a glass of wine in a bar and he was engaging enough, but it was obviously going nowhere. We still went for our walk and, in the fading dusk light, he asked me the most explicit questions I have ever been asked in my life. We were walking parallel, not looking at each other, and I heard him asking questions that would make a Welshman blush. For him, it was all just matter of fact. I was so surprised that I even answered some of them, before remembering my innate inhibitions and coyly retreating.
Egotism is a charge levelled by many women at men of all nationalities, but the French are certainly impressive contenders for the crown of most self-absorbed.
'Let's talk more about me...'
There was the musician I seemed to meet directly after his psychiatrist appointments and he would spend every date, such as it was, talking about everything that had been brought up in his session. It was at most an interesting psychological immersion. He would obsessively talk about how he always seemed to meet self-centered women and how he loathed narcissism. He never asked me a single question. The irony of our conversation was entirely wasted on him.
As he droned on about the woes of his life, I was left to ponder his unusual seduction technique as I nibbled on the cheese plate and sipped the wine I had bought for us both. For Frenchmen are now more than happy to go Dutch, which is a good thing. If anything, it has almost gone the other way. I found myself footing the full bill on a surprising number of occasions.
Some cliches are, however, still true. French men can be impressively arrogant, particularly when it comes to choosing the wine - regardless of who is paying for it.
And nothing will come between certain Parisians and their cigarettes. I had one date who texted to say he was running very late. He arrived at the restaurant 20 minutes late. He then stood directly in front of it - and, unfortunately for him, in plain sight of my table - smoked three slow cigarettes as he texted people on his phone, possibly other dates, before ambling in 40 minutes late, without the slightest apology.
Jealousy and steel balls...
Jealousy is also another enduring truth. I was invited on a romantic outing by a bearded giant to play petanque, otherwise known as boules, by the Canal St Martin. I arrived with my bottle of rosé. I went home alone with a broken toe. My date met me with his steel balls and some nice cheese. It all started very civilly. I confessed I had only played petanque once before. He played at least twice a week. Beginner's luck is a devil, though, and I beat him on the third game.
The giant was not happy. To put it mildly. He decided to invite these two early-20s boys who were playing nearby to join us. We would play in teams. He gallantly said he didn't mind having the novice girl on his team. We drank more wine. At three in the morning, we were still at the canal, still playing petanque.
And then it all ended in an instant. The giant accidentally dropped a steel ball on my foot. I cried out. One of the young men gave me a sympathetic hug. My date exploded with jealous rage, stormed off and left me standing with strangers in the middle of the night. My most lasting memory of the night ended up being the broken toe I limped home with. The giant sent me an angry text the next morning accusing me of flirting with the teenage boys.
Reader, I did not marry him.