Shopping & Seduction
It is said of the French that they’re interested in only two things: food and sex. Every Thursday night in May Galeries Lafayette, Paris’s most famous department store, is combining these two obsessions in an evening of shopping and seduction.
I go along, armed with a red shopping basket which signifies my availability and a white mark where my wedding ring normally sits. I figure showing up at a singles night with a wedding ring is a little like arriving at a bull fight with Brigitte Bardot.
The idea behind the singles evenings is to encourage Parisians to shop for a mate along with their baguette and brie. “The concept of the dating baskets was born in New York in the 1980s,” says Sylvie Gaudu, Director of Lafayette Gourmet. “We are first store in France to do it.”
The food hall is crawling with hopefuls (mainly men) carrying (predominantly empty) red baskets, searching for romance among the fresh produce. Among them is Jean-Patrice, a civil servant aged 38 who has been single for a year and used to be in the music business. “A lot of people living in Paris are just here for their job,” says Jean-Patrice who claims he was once a great seducer. “I’m here to meet people; I like the idea of it. I certainly didn’t come for the food, it’s far too expensive.” Jean-Patrice, a tall, good-looking man, goes back to lurking around the cheese counter which seems more popular with the female shoppers than the single men stalking the shop floor.
I meet the suave-looking Laurent, a teacher aged 35, by a display selling PG Tips. With such impeccable taste in tea, how can this man be single? He tells me he is here because he is curious and has been single for four months. “I never normally go to things like this but as it’s on my way home I thought I would give it a try. This is an opportunity like any other to meet someone. But I have to admit I haven’t had any luck so far.”
When I first heard about the ‘paniers de rencontre’ as Sylvie calls them I was astounded. I always thought the French had the love thing well under control. They’re always calling us Brits repressed and hopeless. Whatever next; speed-dating at the Louvre?
I ask Cendrine, a 31-year-old Parisian secretary, if this is how she normally meets people. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for Parisians to meet people. We work, we go home, we move in small circles. This sort of thing is needed to bring us together. I am here to meet someone to go to the cinema with and then, who knows? Maybe infinity. I am willing to try anything,” she says before wandering off to the charcuterie counter.
According to Dorothée Werner, social affairs writer with Elle Magazine in Paris, there is a fundamental difference between the way the Brits and the French meet people. “We don’t do all that blind date type of thing,” she says. “You have more codes in England, there is a time to seduce and a time to work; it is very much separated. For a French girl anything could happen any time, we don’t need to make an appointment to seduce.”
French women may be seductive, but according to Jean, a 27-year-old taxi driver, they’re not all they’re cracked up to be in the love department. He is here hoping to meet a foreigner. “I can’t stand French women,” he says. “They’re colder than a glass of iced water. I find English and German women are much more affectionate.”
The only other woman I meet with a red basket is Diane, who picked it up by accident. I ask her if she’s single. “No, but I might hang onto the basket and use it as an opportunity to change my boyfriend,” she says.
David aged 31 Deborah aged 29 are one lucky couple who have hit it off. “We met whilst choosing apples,” says Deborah. “We’re both in PR so have lots in common.”
For those who want to take their new-found romance out of the food halls, Galeries Lafayette offers one free drink for every one bought at the Bar Rouge, a champagne bar next to the wine cellar. I go along with Stan, a 25-year old Parisian model who has nothing in his basket. He tells me he is only here to get a pint of milk but I persuade him to buy me a glass of champagne instead.
One in two marriages in Paris end in divorce and the number of people living alone has more than doubled during the last 30 years. Statistics like these should keep the food halls buzzing with singletons and married women looking for young models.
Stan and I enjoy a couple of glasses of champagne. He tells me that he finds English women speaking French very sexy. I make my excuses and leave. On the way out I bump into Jean-Patrice. I ask him if he’s had any luck. “No, there aren’t enough women around,” he says. “But I’ll try again next week.”
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. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
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