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France: Valuing Madame

by Jane Shortall

Here in France, at least in the Southern part of France where I live, I can report that there is a definite lack of the youth culture that dominates other parts of the world and possibly other parts of this country. I too have sat at those Riviera cafes over at Nice and Cannes and observed the visitors on the yachts. Over tanned, leather skinned women, crazily dressed in low waisted gold trousers, skimpy tops and daft white shoes, every item showing a designer label. Their faces lifted out of all recognition. Every one of them an expensive mess.

Certainly there is nothing in this area to compare with the total youth mania, the obsession with being young and staying young that I happily left behind in Ireland. With a massive percentage of the Irish population under 25, people of a certain age were almost being thrown on the scrap heap. And when I say ‘of a certain age‘, I do not mean in their 70’s. I have heard young high fliers talking of interviewing women of forty and making comments such as, ‘Well, I don’t know. I think she might be a bit past it?’

This lack of obsession with youth is a wonderful aspect of life where I live now, in this rather remote and wild area, close to the high Pyrenees, where the people have lived fiercely independent lives for centuries. And because of the history - including of course the two world wars, the women here absolutely outnumber the men. Life has been tough at times, and still is for some, but the women here are the most resilient, robust and happiest I have ever met.

There is no thought here that being young is the only state in which to exist happily. Woman of ‘a certain age’ — usually meaning over 45 or 50, are revered in a way I thought only existed in movies made about France. But it‘s true. They are deemed to have experienced something of life and are therefore seen as interesting, relaxed and charming people. And of course we have reached an age of some real confidence. This is so often missing in younger people, whose behaviour is frequently exaggerated and artificial compared to that of older women. Men report being enormously comfortable in the company of older women, and here, older does not mean raddled old hag. Most definitely not. This is La France.

Well known for their expertise in the world of beauty treatments, the French carry the maintaining of the body, face and hair to a degree I have never witnessed, despite having shopped in major stores in major cities, including New York and Toronto. The biggest beauty department of any store in the world is in Paris and in that store they have assistants who speak 11 languages, including Japanese, to cope with the customers. The tourists. So what do the French themselves do?

Why, the Institute de Beaute, of course. The Beauty Parlour. Everybody goes. Care of the body is huge news here. The prices are not exorbitant. It is affordable every few weeks and it is wonderful for the morale apart from the general good it is doing to the skin. In our local tiny town there are five Institutes de Beaute. The beauticians are always busy, as are the numerous hairdressers. Having your hair in peak condition is not considered an extravagance here. Like the care of the body, it is just one of those essential things.

The chemist shops do not sell cosmetics. As a result they tend not to be full of young girls trying on lipsticks and shrieking. As well as filling out prescriptions for medicines, a lot of the chemists here specialise in homeopathy, and shelves are packed with the most wonderful products for the care of the body and face. Usually one member of the staff will specialise in skin care. This, along with products for cleansing the system, is very important here. All the well-known beauty houses have at least one cellulite product in their range. And they assure us they work. I can hardly believe that any woman in France has any cellulite, given the vast amount of products available.

Old Spa towns still exist all over this part of the country, and they are thriving. Are they a throw back to when the Romans, the experts in water treatments, came here? My dear friend Madame Menvielle, aged 82, regularly goes for treatments. She tells me water treatments are wonderfully beneficial for the health and I should try it very soon. Having come from a country where a lot of people stop looking after themselves when they reach a certain age, I adore meeting women with this tremendous interest in maintaining their good health. And are they helping to me to settle in to this different French lifestyle!

There really seems to be room for every generation. Women of all ages are valued. From tiny babies up, each age group has their own special place in society, with no particular group dominating. Babies and young children are welcomed everywhere. Young people are championed from an early age. Restaurants, even rather grand ones, go to no end of trouble for children, who are used to eating out, incidentally.

The extended family still exists to a very large degree here in this far-flung part of the country. Grandmothers have a special place, and it is quite usual for a grandmother to interfere and correct grandchildren in front of their parents. The children all seem to adore Mami, as grandmothers are known here, and her word is law.

We were invited to an Aperitif where there were three generations present. Tiny, pixie faced, six year old Marie reached in to take a nibble from a bowl, just as her grandmother was about to propose a toast to all. Three words were uttered. On commence pas! (We have not begun yet!) No one got upset, Marie squirreled down beside her grandmother, was wished a special good health in the toast, and then we all clinked glasses, including the children, who were given a thimble full of a light fruit aperitif with water.

I have noticed in my own family that the children and grandparents have a tremendous relationship. As some very witty person said, ‘Grandparents and children have that wonderful thing — a common enemy — and they are the middle generation’.

I have rarely witnessed such affection, so much kissing and cuddling as I have here. To observe a group of people, a big family lunch on Sunday being an excellent example, really gives one hope for the continuity of civilisation, in spite of all the horrors, which of course are here too, just as they are everywhere else.

Because I am interested in music I knew that French popular music on the whole tends not to make it into the worldwide best sellers. My impression is that the French love the dramatic big tune, sung by one of their own, rather than the mundane three guitars and a set of drums. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by their utter adoration of Johnny Hallyday, who was sixty last year and took over a massive sports stadium in Paris for a spectacular concert. He has been called the biggest singer you’ve never heard of. His concerts in France are national events, attended by senior politicians, European glitterati, Princes and commoners alike. It is a matter of record that he has performed in front of the equivalent of one quarter of the French population. That’s about 15 million people. I can vouch for the fact that he gives 150 per cent in a concert, and absolutely deserves to be at the top.

Like Johnny Hallyday, some of the singers are now in or around sixty years old. Dear, romantic Charles Aznavour is now eighty and is still singing. Every so often a programme will appear on TV dedicated to the amazing legend, Edith Piaf, the ‘little sparrow’ who died in the nineteen sixties, and is still revered here. Today‘s singers are proud to continue the French tradition of the cafe singer, and regularly appear singing their versions of Piaf’s famous songs. Mirelle Mathieu appears to have become Edith. The hairs on the back of the neck stand up when she begins to sing.

Of course there are lots of younger singers doing their thing, and the talent is astonishing. But they are not held in the same esteem as they are in other countries, with their every silly move recorded, photographed and discussed, and children encouraged to dress and behave like them, almost down to the inevitable plastic surgery to ‘improve‘ on nature. They can wait their turn for the big adoration, it seems, if they last the pace and come up to scratch. Very, very few become the stuff of legends here.

There were three funerals in our area in a recent week, and the youngest Madame who died was 86 years old. The oldest Madame had lived to be 101. The bell in our ancient, 12th century cathedral has to wait a very long time to toll for these tough ladies.

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