Fidelity à la Française

I first went to Paris when I was 14 years old. I was travelling with my father who introduced me to a “friend” of his, a dancer at the Lido called Sophie. Something she told me has remained with me ever since. “All you need to be a French woman,” she said, “is two lipsticks and a lover.”
Having lived there for several years I would say the truth is closer to one lipstick and two lovers.
The French are famous for sex. Now we have it from an official source that they excel at it. And, rather predictably, they’re much better at it than us. An Ifop (Institut Français d’opinion publique) survey published this week entitled ‘Paris, City of Light, City of Debauchery’ concludes that Parisians have on average 19 lovers, whereas we Brits have a measly nine. It also found that 44 per cent of Parisians have slept with someone whose name they don’t know, 29 per cent have taken part in threesomes (or ménage à trois as they are known in France) and 22 per cent have been involved in an orgy.
In 2014 Ifop carried out a survey that found that 55 per cent of French men and 32 per cent of French women cheat on their spouses. I would guess the real figure is even higher. Do the French have time for anything else but sex? No wonder their economy is in such a state. And the fact that they’re always on strike, is that just a ploy to spend more time in the sack?
We Brits have always been slightly jealous of the French je ne sais quoi. If your husband announces he has a French mistress, you know the game’s up. Similarly when women dream of a tall, dark and handsome man, he probably has just a hint of a French accent.
But are their sex lives really fuelled by romance? Is it all candlelit dinners and longing gazes under the Eiffel Tower? Holding hands as you stroll along the banks of the Seine and drinking champagne under the shade of a Plane tree?
I would argue that no, it’s not. OK so they have more lovers, but that doesn’t make them more loving. The truth is that French sex is more about promiscuity than romance. If you are serially unfaithful your tally will increase, won’t it?images-1
While we Brits get married and settle down, the French get married and, er, carry on as if they’re not. A few years ago while discussing the difference between vous and tu with a married French couple, the man told me he always vous his mistress. “It’s much sexier,” he said. His wife didn’t blink. I half expected her to chip in with a ‘oh yes I always vous my lovers too, makes it seem so much more exotic, not to mention erotic.’
A friend of mine called Bernadette is 37 years old and has been having an affair with the husband of a friend of hers for a year and a half. “We knew each other, of course, and then one day we bumped into each other in town. We had coffee and he asked me if I was interested in becoming his mistress,” she says. “I was surprised at how direct he was, it was almost like a business proposal, he suggested we meet once or twice a week, he would book a hotel, and we would have sex.” They do just that; she goes to the hotel after leaving work and before she gets home to her husband and two small children. She is not in it for the romance, but views it more like a treat. “Some women go to the spa or the hairdresser’s to unwind, I go to a small hotel room where there is a man waiting for me.”
Jean-Claude is in his mid-forties. He’s a successful Paris-based businessman who has been married to Chantal for 15 years. They have three children. He freely admits that there is not one year out of the 15 when he has been faithful to her. He doesn’t have one regular mistress, like a lot of French men do, but a series of lovers, none of whom he sees more than a handful of times because he doesn’t want to risk getting too attached to them. His motivation is purely sexual. He finds sex with his wife boring, and he enjoys the chase and thrill of seducing other women. But he has no desire to break up his family, hence the need to keep the affairs brief and to the point. But is there really any point?
“It never even occurred to me to remain faithful,” he says. “It’s just our way of life. Added to which among my friends a mistress is a bit of a status symbol, you’re seen as a bit of a loser if you don’t have one.”
The fact that infidelity is culturally acceptable makes it so much more acceptable than it is here. Another friend of mine called Gilbert says that one of his most enduring memories from childhood is of his grandmother consoling his grandfather when one of his girlfriends had finished with him. There is no stigma or even surprise attached to having an affair, in fact it’s often seen as something to be proud of. No one would dream of asking you where you were between cinq and sept. In England, if you are an unfaithful person, you are also a bad person. Not so in France. For example, you can be a philanderer and still be a good President as we have seen with a succession of French heads of state. As far back as 1899 a French President called Félix Faure died during an oral sex session at the Elysée Palace. What a way to go. Makes Clinton seem like a lightweight. Before they had presidents, French kings were at it. Madame de Pompadour was Louis XV’s official mistress, and that title must mean he had several unofficial ones as well.
There are even those who argue that infidelity in France is a basic human right. As Michael Worton former (now retired) Professor of French Literature at University College London sums up: “The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche. Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.”
The Paris-based American author Edith Kunz put it like this: “Wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers function together on a relatively peaceful basis in France when the players adhere to the non-verbal code of manners.”
Infidelity is a French specialist subject. But maybe because it is so entrenched it’s in danger of becoming as much of a burden as marriages sometimes appear to be? Jean-Claude admits there are times when he tires of the affairs. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” he laughs. “But there are days when I wonder if I can be bothered. And then I think about a certain pair of lips or the way someone laughs and I’m off again.”
Antoine, 36, who lives in Lyon, has been married for five years but has been having an affair with an older divorced woman for almost two years. They meet at her place two or three times a week. “I think it is nearing the end of its natural life,” he says of the affair. “There comes a time when it starts to turn into the same mundanity you have at home, and then you have to move on.” Antoine says he will probably always have a mistress on and off. “I can’t imagine being with the same woman forever. Never kissing another woman, or caressing another body. It would feel like a prison sentence. I think being sexually liberated is essential for your well-being.”
And the women? Well here again is a crucial difference between the French and us Brits. “French women are born to seduce,” a male French friend once told me. “And what are English women born to do?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “Cuddle their dogs.”
But does all this sex and seduction actually get them anywhere? Are they any happier than us semi-frigid Brits cuddling our dogs and counting our sexual conquests on one hand?
While it all seems terribly exciting running around chasing women or being seduced by men who one would assume after so much practice must be getting rather good at it, most French people concede that actually having your cake and eating it is just not possible. The statistic from the survey that 44 per cent of people have slept with someone whose name they don’t know is just plain depressing. For sex to be truly exciting and interesting surely there has to be an element of romance? There may be times when a nameless encounter is just the ticket, but I’m not sure it’s a sustainable path to fulfilment and happiness.
None of the case studies I spoke to seemed overly excited by their affairs. Funnily enough, if anything the women were happier than the men. With the men I got the impression they almost felt obliged to be unfaithful, as if it was somehow a reflection on their manhood (or lack of it) if they only slept with their wives. As Jean-Claude says: “I sometimes wonder if I’m doing this for me or if it’s only because it’s expected of me.” Another friend of mine who lives in Provence travels to Paris once a month to get his hair cut. Obviously being French he is not getting his hair cut at all, but seeing his mistress. But he admits that he sometimes enjoys the journey more than the actual mistress. “It’s so relaxing,” he says. “I think I’d still go even if it weren’t for her.”
The French might have more notches on the bedpost, but as with so many things, happiness through lovers is more about quality than quantity.
So while the French may have won the battle, we are winning the war. Plus ça change.

Can a frog turn into a prince?

Not even Scarlett Johanssen could do it. Hang on to a French husband that is. Two and a half years after she married Romain Dauriac the father of her daughter Rose, the actress is filing for divorce. She doesn’t give a reason, but in an interview a few months ago talked about how impossible monogamy is. Especially for Frenchmen, she could have added.

downloadJohanssen joins a long list of illustrious women who have loved and lost a la française.

In January this year pop princess Cheryl Cole split from her French husband Jean-Bernard citing unreasonable behaviour. The actress Gemma Arterton has broken up with her boyfriend Franklin Ohanessian.

When the sexy French actor Olivier Martinez leapt onto the world scene in the film The Horseman on the Roof and announced that “Madame a déjà un escort” we all wanted to be that Madame. Halle Berry and Kylie Minouge both were, for a while, but neither lasted the course. Perhaps though the most shocking of all news of the split between Kristen Scott Thomas (who is as close to being a French woman as you can possibly be without being actually being French) and her gynaecologist husband in 2005 after 18 years of marriage. The rumour at the time was that she was having an affair with the actor Tobias Menzies, but there were bound to be some Gallic issue underlying the split.

The list goes on. The evidence is blindingly obvious. If you’re not French, don’t marry a Frenchman.

Frenchmen make appallingly bad husbands. Along with their inability to keep their trousers on is a myriad of traits that make them so, well, impossibly French. Ego, the impenetrable language, misogynism and a loathing of anywhere outside their own arrondissement to name a few.

I had a French boyfriend. Once. It was a very long time ago, back in the days when the only men who used moisturiser were definitely “batting for the other side” as my grandfather used to put it.

Except Didier that is. Didier had a bathroom filled with more products than I had ever seen in one place. And remember this was when brands didn’t even have men’s skincare ranges. One look at those shelves was enough to send me running for the hills.

I’m grateful now to Didier and his skincare obsession. Because had it not been for him I might have been tempted, as so many women are, to actually marry a Frenchman.

“I’ve kissed a lot of frogs,” says Catherine, an English friend of mine who has lived in Paris for 15 years. “But none that have turned into princes.”

Catherine has seen too many of her compatriots fail to even contemplate marrying a French man. “They’re good for a love affair, but nothing more. Talk about a crowded marriage. If you marry a Frenchman you have to live not only with his pernickety mother watching your every move, but with his ego as well. I’m not sure which is worse.”

Catherine says that when looking for a husband someone from an Anglo-Saxon culture should look for a man from a country where there is more equality between the sexes than there is in France.

“The French are sexist pigs,” she says. “They’re very charming with it, but that’s the bottom line.”

Claire, another English friend living in Paris agrees. “I think we tend to put up with less shit than French women. For example, we expect a man to stay faithful and do the washing up now and again. Added to which, you always have to be perfect. There is no way a French man will put up with you mooching around at home in your pyjamas or gym kit.”

So apart from being habitually well groomed and turning a blind eye to infidelity, how do French women keep their men in line, and why do they want to?

“Oh they don’t keep them in line, unless she’s much richer or younger than him, or the man in question has some values, which is unlikely in France,” says Julia, an American mother of three who has lived in France for 17 years with her American husband. “But they prefer to stay married, as do the men. It gives them both security, albeit different types of security.”

Julia describes French society as an odd combination of more conservative and at the same time more licentious than ours. So while French men are allowed to behave as they want to, being unfaithful and refusing to do anything around the house, French women tend to put up with their behaviour due to a mixture of cultural norms and economic necessity.

“French women get peanuts in divorce settlements here, the law is as sexist as the men, so usually it’s in their interests to stay married.”

St Trinians for grown-ups?

Has anyone else found that the more choice we have on TV the less there is to watch?
Last night I scrolled through the channels. At the last episode it really was too late for me to get into The Great British Bake Off. I love The Simpsons but just wasn’t in the mood. Channel 4 news annoyed me, again. And England are out of the Rugby World Cup, so no point in watching that.
I wished then that I had done something about an idea I had a couple of years ago for what I think would be a brilliant reality TV show. Something to rival The Great British Bake Off, only less fattening. The plan is this: you pick a suitably snooty girls’ boarding school, Benenden for example, or maybe even Heathfield Ascot. You take say three or four of the girls, possibly from Lower Sixth or maybe from various age groups, and you replace them, for a period of two weeks, with their mothers.bfi-00m-mjh
Obviously you need to pick the mothers wisely. You need women who will create good TV. It’s no good having someone who doesn’t say anything intelligent, stupid or outrageous. But my experience of these boarding school mothers is that they have plenty of chatter. The mothers would live at school, wear the uniform, attend lessons, play lacrosse and eat the ghastly boarding school food. In short they would live their daughters’ lives for a couple of weeks.trinians_682x400_405423a
We viewers would monitor their progress. How they were doing conjugating their French verbs for example, or being told by matron when to get up, sharing a bathroom with ten other girls who are all trying to steal their La Prairie face cream, attending chapel on a compulsory basis. It might be a good idea if one of them was an ‘old girl’ so she could compare life then and now. “Well, in my day we didn’t have heating, we had a hot water bottle, but only in Upper Sixth.” You can imagine the sort of thing.
There would obviously have to be some kind of competitive element in order to make it more interesting. Maybe the mother who wins the most votes from the viewing public gets a term’s free schooling for her daughter?
At around £11,000 this would definitely be worth embarrassing yourself on national TV for. I think it would make great viewing, and if someone wants to make the show they can count me in as one of the mothers. Bea will be grateful for the time off and I would even be willing to subject myself to chapel for two weeks. It can’t be more boring than television.

Interview with Nawal El Saadawi

Nawal El Saadawi has returned to Cairo where intends to stay until she dies. Not that she feels particularly at home there.
“Home is not about where I am. I would not call Cairo home. I feel at home wherever I meet people I feel at home with,” she tells me sitting at her desk in her Cairo apartment. “I feel at home now while we are talking, do you feel the same? I feel like I’ve known you for 100 years. We are talking about very intimate things, we enjoy ourselves. We have lost the feeling of the external world. And we got rid of the photographer,” she throws her head back and laughs, referring to the young lady who was with us to take her picture for this feature. imgres
Nawal El Sadaawi laughs easily. When she does so her thick curly silver hair bounces around her still youthful face giving the impression of a woman half her age. She takes my hand. “We can talk and talk and you can stay until tomorrow morning and we will never stop talking, that’s home, that’s home to me.”
After three years of exile in the United States Sadaawi has returned to her small apartment in one of Cairo’s less salubrious areas. The entrance looks like it hasn’t been painted since it was built. One rickety lift serves all the floors in the building. Sadaawi is on the 26th floor, away from the dust and noise below in the “cement city” as she calls Cairo. But the upside is that on a good day she can see the Citadel and the Pyramids from her kitchen window.
In her early 80s, she was born on October 27th 1931, Sadaawi is a woman who polarises opinion in her homeland. Universally adored abroad as a critic of female oppression, in Egypt there are those who wish she would be quiet. Even my driver shakes his head when I mention her and says; “not everyone agrees with her”.
She started questioning patriarchal society when she was a little girl and she hasn’t stopped since. Her outspoken views have led to exile, imprisonment and countless court cases against her and her closest relations.
Just last week three clerics accused her of blasphemy for stating that Islam should be confined to the bedroom rather like sex while discussing her latest campaign, the Global Solidarity for Secular Society. She launched the Egyptian chapter just over a week ago. She calls it a movement aimed at promoting secularism and fighting religious fanaticism.
“We have to separate religion from the state,” she says. “Why should children be forced to study Christianity or Islam? And also the Egyptian constitution is full of contradictions because of the religious influences. In the eyes of the law as a woman I am inferior to a man.”
“Recently they tried to make my husband divorce me,” she says. “They said as a good Muslim he couldn’t be married to an Infidel. I won my case, I am a winner. You must never retreat, when you retreat they hit you, but when you push head on you win. For me no way back head on until death!” she laughs again. Sadaawi has an easy, warm and generous manner. She is still startlingly attractive, despite her advanced years. Her skin is clear and her brown eyes sparkle with wit, mischief and intelligence. She is tall and slim and holds herself like a woman of 20. You get the impression she is extremely strong; both physically and mentally. A little like the illiterate peasant grandmother she talks of often and calls one of her greatest role models. “A rebel with very good genes,” she calls her.
As the star pupil of her school in the village of Kafr Tahla on the banks of the Nile, medical school was a natural choice for the young Nadaawi. “It was also what my parents wanted, “ she says. “It is a respectable profession and also brings in money.” She did extremely well at medical school, going on to become a chest surgeon, a health educator and latterly a psychiatrist.
But it is writing that has always been her main passion.
“I am a medical doctor and a fighter for human rights. But if I had to choose one thing it would be writing,” she explains.
Sadaawi has written 47 books. Over 20 have been translated into English and many other languages. One of her books, Memoirs from the Women’s Prison published in 1984, was written in secret on rolls of loo paper with an eyebrow pencil borrowed from a fellow inmate, a prostitute.
Saadawi was imprisoned for three months for allegedly plotting a coup to overthrow the government with the help of the Bulgarians.
“It was one of my best books because it was written in the agony of a real situation,” she says. “The charges were ridiculous, I don’t even know where Bulgaria is!” She was released a month after Sadat’s assassination.
Her bestselling book, Woman at Point Zero is based on conversations with a prostitute condemned to death for murdering her pimp, has been translated into 30 languages and is studied in schools and universities around the world. But not in Egypt. Why not?
Saadawi laughs. “Never, never will it be studied here,” she exclaims. “It was never even published here, I gave it to a feminist editor here and she asked me how I could defend a prostitute. The critics called me a man-hater.”
It is true that after reading five books by Nawal El Sadawi I can hardly bear to look at Egyptian men. I imagine them at best as cruel bordering on sadistic wife beaters with several child slaves hidden in their damp cellars. Her portrayals of men are relentlessly negative. So is she a man hater? Is it possible to hate men and be married three times?
“Of course I don’t hate men. Women in my books are also very contradictory. I am not a hater of men or women, but I am critical. The fact is that the patriarchal society produces men like this; they too are the victims. People really hate a woman who exposes patriarchy in a very deep way, it’s like you uncover them and make them naked. Men are scared of me because I uncover them in my books. I am a fierce writer, aggressive and precise. The pen is like my scalpel and I pierce them with it.”images
Sadaawi’s first husband was a young freedom fighter who “lost his life because he believed he should liberate Egypt from British rule.” Her second husband was a respected judge whom she married in part because all her friends were telling her she should marry. “There was no real love,” she says, “and he was scared of my writing.” She is now married to Sherif Hetata who was a political prisoner for 13 years. Together they have one son, a film director, and Mona, Sadaawi’s daughter from her first marriage. Her daughter is a poet and a writer and never married.
Sadaawi has championed many causes, the most high profile of which was a campaign against female circumcision. There is a heart-breaking passage in her book The Hidden Face of Eve where she describes her own circumcision at the age of six. She talks not only of the agony of the act but the shock of seeing her mother holding her down on the bathroom floor and realising that she was part of what she assumed was a gang of pirates who had stolen into her bedroom in the middle of the night to kidnap and kill her. Did she ever forgive her mother?
“Of course,” says Sadawi, her voice full of affection. “I loved my mother. She was also a victim. She thought what she was doing was good and that it was best for me.”
In part as a result of Sadaawi’s writing a law was passed last year to ban the practice, but she says that 97 per cent of women are still circumcised in Egypt. “You cannot eradicate such habits by law,” she says. “We need education.”
She feels strongly that her home country is going through a dark period in its history. “When I was growing up there was a Renaissance in Egypt. We wanted to get rid of the British and the king, to make all men and women equal. Now we are living in a dark period. There is no creativity, no culture, no agriculture and no industry. We are colonised by the United States, forced to import products to feed our people. At least British colonialism was clear and honest.”
Sadaawi is also working on a book called My Life Across the Ocean which is about her life in exile, on and off since 1993, where she spent most of her time teaching a university course entitled Creativity and Dissonance. “Many people think that when you go to America this is the dream; there is democracy, secularism, civilisation. They think the women there are free, liberated. They are not. Of course they may have more personal freedom than women in the Arab states have, but that doesn’t mean they are liberated.”
Sadaawi has more energy than most people I have met of half her age. Throughout the interview she gesticulates and moves around, she is expressive and dynamic. It is no surprise to me that she really wanted to be a dancer. “I wanted to move my body to the music in my head,” she laughs. “But of course as a little girl I wasn’t allowed to do what I wanted.”
She remembers her indignation at her brother being given privileges like freedom to go out, to ride a bicycle and even given better food than she was. “And he was lazy,” she exclaims. “He didn’t work at home or in school!”
She is inspired by stories like her own, by the world she sees around her. “Some people say ‘oh Shakespeare inspired me’, of course I enjoyed Shakespeare but I am inspired by LIFE, by the streets of Cairo, by the view from here of houses below like boxes where people are slaves. When I smell the sweat and the sewage, then I want to write. And I am also motivated by the pleasure I get from writing. I want to be happy and writing makes me happy. It makes me happier than love or sex or food. I can forget all that when I am writing.”
She suffers from a bad back, which is aggravated by sitting at her desk. “But when I am writing even if I am in physical pain I am happy. My body is collapsing but my mind is floating. That is the paradox of creativity.”
She has a very different attitude to ageing to her colleagues at US Universities she worked at. “’Nawal, why don’t you get a face lift?’ they ask me. ‘We are intellectuals but we can still use science to look young’, they say,” she laughs uproariously. “They all did plastic surgery. I want to be healthy, I want to be happy but I will never make an operation to hide my wrinkles! Also they go to parties with their shirts down too low, and they call this liberated. I tell them nakedness and veiling are two sides of the same coin. Both mean that women are just a body, either to be covered or to be naked.”
For a woman who has sold millions of books she lives in very humble surroundings. I ask her why. I had assumed her home would be in a villa somewhere along the Nile or maybe in the rich district of Heliopolis.
She smiles. “I am not a rich woman, despite all the books. I live among the poor people. I clean my own house. You see all these books?” she gestures to the bookshelves that line her sitting room come office. “I do not make any money from them. I have been robbed by the publishers. But my reward is when someone approaches me in India or in Norway or in the US and tells me that I changed their life with something I wrote. That is all I need.”
One of Sadaawi’s memoirs is called Walking through Fire. It is a phrase her mother used when describing how strong her daughter is. Does she feel her life has been difficult?
“Yes, I feel it has been very difficult,” she says. “But I am happy like a child, naïve like a child. I feel like I have an apparatus inside me that digests pain. This is a human capacity, but some people lose it, just like they lose their creativity. We are all born creative, but we lose it through education and fear. I haven’t lost it because I am fearless.”
So despite her many enemies, she feels safe in Cairo? She leans back in her chair and sighs. “I don’t feel safe anywhere. Life is not safe. Death and life are one to me, but I have no fear of death. Can you imagine life without death? It would be impossible. But I would prefer to be shot on the streets of Cairo because of my ideas than die of cancer in the US or Norway. Because we are all going to die and if I die here then at least my death will mean something.”

Sticks and stones…

This is not usually a forum for serious topics, but I want to highlight Vicki’s story. She is a friend of a friend, who is in the process of escaping from her husband and emotional abuser. They have three small children, twins aged four and a toddler boy, all born in Dubai. The children are wards of court while their future is decided. Vicki will have to return from the UK to Dubai for a hearing. She may well lose custody of them.

What follows are Vicki’s words. She describes what effect emotional abuse had on her. As a child I lived through physical abuse, and always thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to you or someone you love. It seems that emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and even worse in some ways. Although of course the two are very often used in tandem to devastating effect.

“Emotional Abuse is as bad if not worse than physical abuse. Wanna know why? Because no one sees your bruises or scars and no one else really knows what is going on ‘behind closed doors’.imgres

Emotional Abusers are clever. No doubt about it. They prey on someone’s weakness until a small crack becomes a large crevasse. Imagine someone using the one or two or more things you have an insecurity about and building on it daily. Building is the wrong term, chipping away at you is what they do, they build nothing.

I’ll admit mine, mine was definitely confidence. Whilst I come across as a funny and bubbly person, I am actually incredibly shy and have had to learn confidence over the years. When my EA (Emotional Abuser) met me I was a sitting duck. Instead of being happy with my chirpy personality, he saw it as a threat. His insecurities rose up and in an effort to feel like the ‘big man’, he decided to make me smaller instead of grow himself. Its not done over night, its done chip by chip, day by day. A thought, a comment, a mood, a reaction, even just a facial expression, usually of disgust. The moods are bad, where you just so want them to snap out of it you almost apologise for something you haven’t done, especially when there are kids involved. You so want the norm to resume, whatever a norm is, that you are willing to turn into that door mat just to appease a situation. You start to become someone you don’t even like, but you can’t take the reactions anymore. So bit by bit you start to conform to what is expected of you and try ANYTHING not to ‘rock the boat’. It doesn’t matter if you know you are in the right and they are in the wrong, in my case with children, I was so trying to create a happy home environment like I had had that I was willing to do anything to keep the peace. They make you feel like you are going crazy with this up and down personality. One minute loving, next psychotic, next flowers as if nothing had happened that you do actual begin to think did you made it up, made something out of nothing? That’s when I decided to keep a diary. To log these episodes and see the pattern, and make sure I wasn’t going mad?!
It’s so easy when you are living in it to feel like the issue must be with you, that you must be doing something wrong. When, if you are lucky enough to escape, you look back you are embarrassed at the treatment you put up with for so long, but at the time you know you had to do it.

My EA was/is very clever. He would write the most amazing messages during the day, so that anyone who read them would think wow, what a husband, but the man who wrote those messages in the day, was not the man who walked through the door at night. I wish it had been! The man who walked in at night would have the ability to make me walk on eggshells until I went to sleep. Scared to get onto the wrong conversation or say something that he would misconstrue. I felt emotionally exhausted every night at having to think before I spoke about anything. I can’t begin to explain what that feels like.

I’ve had a few moments in my life that could be termed the straw that broke the camels back, but somehow he always managed to talk his way out of it and make me believe that there was hope and we could be a happy family unit. Alas, it’s never the truth. The last night that I was laying in my daughters bed after he had accused me of something utterly ridiculous, I had texted a dear friend asking her to keep her phone on because I was scared. I didn’t really know what she could do at the time, but it was just nice to know that someone was there. I was lying in my daughter’s bed, willing him to come upstairs and hit me. Just hit me so I would have a physical bruise instead of all these internal ones. Just hit me so I can prove to others what you do to me mentally every day of our lives. Just hit me so I don’t have to hide it anymore. But that’s when it really hit me, that our marriage really was over if I was laying there hoping that a 6ft 5” rugby player would hit me. I thought then that I didn’t have to wait for someone to hit me to be believed. I had to leave.

When I spoke to my supportive Doctor, she also took it to another level. When it was just about me I could cope but when she said, Do you really want Izzy growing up believing it is acceptable to be treated like this? And I thought, do I really want my adorable boys growing up thinking its ‘cool to treat a woman like this. The minute its about loved ones and not you, that’s when the moment comes.

So this is a very brief synopsis of Emotional Abuse. Unfortunately very difficult to prove but I wont give up and I’m glad to be free of the marriage, even if at the moment I can’t be free of the EA himself.”

I don’t know you, but I hate you

OK I promise I won’t go on about the AMAZING Champions League victory on Saturday, I realise most of my readers are not obsessive Chelsea fans. But today is George Best’s birthday, so it would be rude not to mention football at all.
Even those of you who don’t follow football will have heard of George. He was the first celebrity footballer, a two-footed genius whose flamboyant lifestyle eventually got the better of him. This quote from the man himself sums him up: “I spent 90% of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted.”
No one minded that he was a playboy, because he had charm. It is incredible how much one can get away with if one has it. And how many people are sadly lacking in it. As Oscar Wilde said: “People are either charming or tedious.” Just before the magazine closed down, we ran a feature by Anna Blundy, one of my favourite writers, called ‘I don’t know you, but I hate you.’ It was all about first impressions, and how we inexplicably hate some people on sight. Funnily enough I had the opposite happen the other day, I really liked someone on sight, quite an unusual experience. Especially as our sons were on opposing football teams.
Now that I am a stay at home mum I see a lot more of the school run and the school mums. I do think the ‘hate at first sight’ thing is most prevalent at the school gates. Why is this? Is it because we would all rather be having their nails done or lunching with a lover? Is it because we are all linked by the common denominator of children in the same school and somehow this common factor creates rivalry? Or maybe it’s just because, in the main, women don’t much like other women, or at least ones they don’t know? After all, they might be after their husbands. Or even worse, their lovers.
I would like to assure all the mothers at school that I am not a threat. I have yet to see anyone’s husband (apart from my own) that I want to end up in bed with.
Maybe I will try a charm offensive and smile at some of the grumpier ones today. In my post Champions League euphoria I am Miss Magnanimous. Or I could just send the driver to get the children and sit at home watching old youtube clips of George….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

All in a day’s work

I have always wondered what it would be like not to work. I have literally not stopped since university. I never had maternity leave (I was making calls from my hospital bed) and although I worked from home for a long time in France, I had at least three jobs at any given time.

The first thing I have noticed is how quickly the days go now. I thought I would have so much time and instead I seem to have almost less. Never again will I look askance at mothers who don’t work and secretly think they should get on with something useful rather than grumbling about their husbands. When you don’t work, there is a world of stuff to keep you busy. I was “let go” over three weeks ago, that’s almost my entire annual holiday, and I haven’t even noticed it go.
Lunch, for example, keeps me busy. This week I have truly been a lady who lunches, with lunches every day. Tomorrow I have one that is work related (more on that if it comes to anything), but thus far I have been lunching with other ladies who lunch. It’s been a bit of a learning curve. First of all I had no idea lunch has to start early so that said ladies can get to school on time to pick up their children. So far since my release I have managed the school run a total of four times. I kid you not. I have been too busy doing other things to do the one thing a non-working mother should do. Happily Stanley has been on hand to collect them from school.
Of course once the kids are home there is no possibility of achieving anything much. The girls are revising for exams, then there are activities, piano practice and before you know it, it’s apero time.
And I haven’t even started on looking after the husband. This of course is now my main aim. No admin chore is too large, no trip downstairs to get a cup of tea too onerous. Seriously though, there has been an imperceptible shift. Basically anything to do with the kids or the household is my responsibility. At first I was slightly irritated, but it’s fair enough really. If one person earns all the money, the other one should look after things at home. One thing I used to loathe about non-working mothers was how they would make their working/commuting/stressed-out husbands take on as much at home as they did.

I feel a little bit like a perfect wife in Mad Men, a sort of ideal woman from another era, calmly running my household and making sure everyone in it is happy, well fed and well rested. To be honest, it’s not a bad job. And I do at least get on well with my bosses. Although I can see how it could turn one into a Stepford wife after a few months.

But, my 1950s alter ego might argue, what’s wrong with that….?

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

French Feminism

This morning as I was battling on the exercise bike, I watched a brilliant programme on the French channel Arte about the feminst group ‘Ni Putes, Ni Soumises’ (not whores, nor submissives). Obviously as it was all in French I hardly understood any of it, but what did strike me was how elegant French feminists are. They wear lip gloss, nice clothes and have expensive hair cuts. In fact, they look just like most French women.

Maybe the days when feminists had obligatory hairy armpits and wore hideous sandals are over? Perhaps now that we (I use the term loosely) have made such great strides we can go back to looking like most women actually want to look, which is feminine and, well, beautiful?

In the book Persepolis that I blogged about a few weeks ago there is a brilliant cartoon where the author shows how ridiculous rules about how you look keep women from thinking about what is really important. So if you are worried abut being arrested because your scarf is not on the right way, or your abaya is too clingy, or your lip gloss too obvious, then you are unlikely to have the time to worry about your right to vote, or talk to a male or complain about the regime that is oppressing you.

So now that feminists can go back to high heels, waxed legs and mascara, will it give them less or more time to feminise? Is that even a word? Who knows, but at least I have time to think about it.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

A lesson in charm

When I was in Cairo, apart from the incredible Nawal El Saadawi, I met and interviewed one of the country’s most famous film stars; Mona Zaki.
She was lovely. We met at her mother’s house where she fed me Ramadan sweets and tea and we chatted to her young daughter Lily. She couldn’t have been nicer; welcoming, sweet, kind, interesting and very pretty. Whenever she laughs her nose wrinkles which is charming. She was like a smaller, younger version of Julia Roberts.
She reminded me of Ines de la Fressange, the former Chanel muse and model. When I interviewed her for my book about French women she went out of her way to help.
“My motto is to treat everyone like your best friend,” she told me.
They are both in stark contrast to another star, Glenn Close, who was in Abu Dhabi a few months ago. We saw her at the Emirates Palace Hotel. I was with the girls.
“Quick,” I told Olivia. “That’s the woman from 101 Dalmations, ask for her autograph.”

Olivia approached her, pen and paper at the ready.
“Excuse me please, are you the lady from 101 Dalmations?” she asked.
“No,” said Glenn Close, turning away.
Poor Olivia was gutted and of course thought I had got it wrong. Which I hadn’t, there was a big interview with her in our paper the following day.
She should pick up some charm tips from Mona and Ines.
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009

Girlie Stereotypes

We have an office assistant on the magazine called Fadwa. She is great. Lebanese but raised in Abu Dhabi. She always has an opinion or something to tell us all. This morning she arrived with a quote of the day which is as follows:

If you marry a monkey for his money, the money might disappear and you will be left with a monkey.

It got me thinking about an article I am writing about so-called Jumeirah Janes. These are basically ladies who lunch, have their nails done and complain about their maids. They often live in an area of Dubai called Jumeirah. Then I started thinking about other girlie stereotypes; Chavs, Sloane Rangers, Valley Girls, Essex Girls.


Can you think of any more? I would love to include several of them from all over the world in the article so send please them over. I was trying to think of a Swedish one but can only come up with a male stereotype: the ‘raggare‘ who drives an old American car and cruises chicks. Or maybe they don’t even exist in any more now that petrol is so expensive.

I end on another one of Fadwa’s bon mots:  A smart man is a man who makes money for his girl to spend. A smart girl is one who finds a man like that.

Nothing stereotypical about that…. Oh and by the way, if Annie Liebowitz is going bust what hope is there for the rest of us?
Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2009