Live chat with Helena Frith Powell Part two
Helena: Oohhh! My husband is very English! Though he has made a French female friend I’m not sure I trust!
It would take many years for him to become a proper Frenchman – not knowing the rules of Cricket and sleeping around. I hope so!
Zoe: I’ve recently become the “other woman” and I feel quite comfortable with it. Do you think the English will start to accept affairs any time soon?
Helena: I think that as we move into a more integrated Europe… continental habits will undoubtably permeate the shores of England. Perhaps we’ll be less uptight about issues like fidelity.
As far as being the “other woman”, this might not be cultural. Some women are happy as mistresses, that’s their role and they love it. I know one women who has been a mistress for 15 years and is still having a fantastic time.
uk_girl: Is this why French women are so insecure? Are their husbands and their nasty ways the reason why they’re so uptight about how they look?
Helena: I think certainly one of the reasons they make such effort is the constant competition, and they have to use their feminine wiles to get what they want – be it a bank loan, plumber to visit…
I think insecurity might also come from France being quite a macho society, I think women are yet to assert themselves and be equals.
Sabrina: I know of a man who regularly cheats on his wife and even though she knows, she isn’t concerned about looking immaculate like the French seem to be. Why else are the French so well dressed?
Helena: I think for the French woman looking good is inherited. They grew up with Coco Chanel and Catherine Deneuve – it’s in their genetic make-up to dress well. They have a kind of style gene!
The downside is they are not very imaginative and the big design houses often employ Brits. For a French woman to dress eccentrically, or like an English woman might, is just taboo.
Andy: Why do you think French men think affairs are acceptable?
Helena: It’s a cultural thing. If all the important men around you have always had affairs then it is acceptable. Lots of French politicians have notorious affairs, if the people running the country are having affairs…
A mistress is seen as a status symbol and an important man seems to be taken more seriously if he has a mistress.
The French don’t believe in denying themselves pleasures. This isn’t just eating well, drinking well, enjoying the sunshine. It also means infidelity, lust and love. It’s seen as something one shouldn’t deny oneself, just as one shouldn’t deny oneself a nice piece of foie gras.
Simon: Cheeky I know, but does your husband trust you?
Helena: Ha ha ha. There is a famous quote by someone saying “attractive wives, like languages, are seldom true”. He did read this out to me the other day…! Fundamentally, he realises I haven’t gone quite that French!
Ohlala: Hi Helena. What’s the best chat-up line a French man has used on you?
Helena: Hmm. It was very corny, I was slightly between throwing-up and fainting. He said he thought my scent was intoxicating. It should make you throw up but when a very attractive man says it to you, you find yourself falling for it!
Simon: Apart from the unfaithfulness issue, what is the biggest difference between French women and English women?
Helena: The biggest, to be brutally honest, is about 10 kilos. There is not doubt they are thinner than us by a long way.
They don’t do this through dieting or exercise, they simply have the attitude that they watch what they eat and eat with moderation and deprivation.
When I went to see a supermodel, she was scoffing a Crunchy bar, not the normal behaviour of a super-thin model. A little bit of what they want, but not all the time.
They will drink a glass of wine… We’ll drink a bottle! They stop before it becomes a calorific disaster.
Sabrina: I read somewhere that french women eat a lot of chocolate and fattening foods. Like you said, the French don’t deny themselves – how can they be thinner than us?
Helena: They do eat chocolate but they will tend to eat dark chocolate. I’ve made that change, I love chocolate but when I embarked on the adventure to become French, I started eating dark chocolate with nuts.
They do eat cheese, obviously, but only a little bit. They won’t gorge on anything.
You see how they pick out the healthy things to fill-up on and then around that they’ll have their little treats.
Simon: Is it true all French women are great cooks?
Helena: Um…. That’s a tough one. I don’t have experience of them all!
The ones I know are great cooks, they have the fundamentals like vinegarettes and great sauces. They use a lot of fresh foods we don’t use.
Especially in summer, you have access to lots of fresh vegetables.
They don’t buy ahead and buy processed food, they shop every day for the meals of that day, so they’re fresh. So of course they will taste better than something that’s been in a packet for three weeks.
Dave: Take the best two qualities of your average English woman and the worst qualities of your average French woman and what would you be left with?
Helena: A funny, friendly and snooty person. The French can make you feel so small and be so pig-headed about the right bit of paper or trying to change something.
They don’t have the seat of the pants instinct that we do. Things can be tough if you go against what they want and do something you haven’t planned ahead for!
Sabrina: Is moving abroad really that idyllic? Most people seem to despise Britain at the moment, but do you think it is true that all cultures have their problems?
Certainly it’s true that all cultures have their problems. It’s idyllic at times, terrible at others.
It’s worked for us because we’ve been able to work in England and don’t try to work in the local French system which is badly paid and hard work!
Me and my husband both work for English newspapers and publishers. We can enjoy the idyllic lifestyle but don’t have to battle the bureaucracy.
Emmaclark: I’ve been thinking about moving to France for some time, would you recommend it and what are the bad bits?
Helena: I would recommend it, as long as you have a clear idea what you’ll do when you get here. Some people think they’ll just muddle along, but you have to plan.
It’s very difficult to get on their health service as it’s so good they try and discourage people! The plus sides outweigh the bad sides.
It was a great adventure and one of the best things we did as a family, and for me and my career. Think what you’ll do when the wine’s run dry and the sun’s gone in.
emmaclark: How did your children cope with the move to France and have you got any tips on making sure they settle quickly and happily?
Helena: My two step-children live here in the holidays and love coming here. Olivia was one when we moved and still has the idea everything English is better! The other two were born here and are completely integrated.
I think you should do it as soon as possible, it takes about three terms for an English schoolchild to get to grips with it. It is a very academic system. My step-sister is talking about moving here (she’s 11) and we’ve told her she should take lessons now.
She had some Belgian friends and she should ask them to talk French to her. I think the children not settling-in are one of the reasons people often pack up and go back.
Andy: How difficult is it for your husband to be living in a culture where all the men around him seem to think being unfaithful is the norm?
Helena: I don’t think that’s his most difficult adaptation. I think he finds it tougher not being able to talk about the Ashes win!
He goes cycling with a lot of French men from the village, he says! He comes home sweaty but you never know!
He loves their cultural differences and finds them interesting. I don’t think he finds it tough, he has a sense of humour over other people’s infidelities.
Marcus: Is the pace of life faster or slower out there? Do the locals think you’re a celebrity?
Helena: Pace of life is definitely slower, especially where we are in the South.
It can sometimes take 20 minutes to buy a piece of meat from the butcher because the woman in front is umming and ahhing, then the discussion between her and the butcher and the customers over how to cook the meat!
It’s definitely slower. It can be really frustrating but at the same time it’s quite relaxing.
The locals don’t think I’m a celebrity at all, because I’m not!
They probably wonder who this mad women who lives on a hill with all these children and apparently writes is. My children are not at all impressed when I’m in the paper – they’re very jaded about it! So what mummy? Again!
Marcus: Do you think you’ll ever come home?
Helena: I think I’ll come home to see people and to enjoy England and do the things I miss, but I can’t see us moving back full time.
There’s no way we could afford the house we have now in England and it would be impossible to downsize!
I’ve become slightly addicted to the sunshine and it would be hard to move back, but there are lots of things I miss about England.
Amelia: Is your life perfect? It seems like it could be…!
Helena: Aaah! No, I don’t think anyone’s life is perfect and it’s human nature to always be striving… but there are times I see the children playing in the garden in the sun and I’m sitting on the terrace with a glass of wine.
I do think it’s a good move and I’m glad we did it!
Sophie: Do the French deserve their reputation as the great romantics?
Helena: I think they do.
For the French romance is a big priority and they take it a lot more seriously than Brits do. Whether French men deserve this reputation as great lovers, I’ve not found out! Maybe I can delegate that bit of research to somebody and report back!
Simon: Are you writing another book and if so, what’s it about? and while I’ve got you – do the French think matching underwear is important?
Helena: There is nothing more important to a French woman than matching underwear!
It’s the one thing that’s come out of my research, I’m now obsessed with matching underwear and am often late for things because I can’t find the right knickers to go with my bra!
I am writing another book about another female culture and I’ll keep you posted on that!
Moderator: We have time for one last question everyone…
Zelda: If you HAD to have an affair with one famous French man, to integrate fully with your French friends, who would it be and why?
Helena: Very easy one! Dominique de Villepin, the French PM, gorgeously aristocratic, tall and very sexy! Sadly I don’t think my husband would agree!
Moderator: Would he suggest Thierry Henry?
Helena: Not a bad idea! I would probably go for a date with Thierry
Moderator: Thanks for joining us today, Helena. Did you enjoy the chat?
Helena: I thought it was great fun, great questions and impressed by how many men asked questions! It was great.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019