2014-09-18 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

France at 24 vs. France at 34

The last time I lived in France — and I mean really lived here, with an apartment and everything — was a decade ago. And let me tell you: France at 34 is nothing like France at 24.

For one thing, I’ve lost that look of wide-eyed innocence that propelled me through the streets of Paris in my early 20s. Men were always stopping me and laying it on thick — not because I was beautiful (my God, I wasn’t even plucking my eyebrows then) or because I was stylish (I had an unfortunate fondness for turtlenecks), but because I looked malleable. My face said I was the kind of girl who would swallow any line you fed her.

Of course, looks can be deceiving.

My expression has changed over the last 10 years. It’s hardened, and now it better reflects the skepticism I’ve always carried. There’s a wariness to me these days, a set to the mouth and eyes that warns off purveyors of bull. I like to think it suits me. But it must not suit the men of France. Because they have disappeared, those one-time lechers. Or, I should say, they have disappeared for me. Certainly, they’re still out there; they’re just tossing it at younger, softer women.

On a recent stay in the southern city of Carcassonne, I found this lack of attention perplexing. Where were all the sleazy French men with their ridiculous come-ons, the ones I both despised and enjoyed? The only people who stopped me on the street wanted directions.

After a time, however, once the initial disappointment had worn off, I realized that another feeling had surfaced: relief. I discovered how nice it was to explore the medieval city without having to dodge inappropriate advances. What a joy, I saw, to be free of the weight of someone else’s desire.

Just as I was settling into this new, more mature life role, a man stepped out of a corner store along the city’s main drag and fell into step beside me.

“Bonjour,” he said.

I started to respond, but then I remembered my months of training in Paris all those years ago, where I taught myself to stop smiling at every stranger on the street. Instead, I looked straight ahead and kept walking, making a concentrated effort not to acknowledge the man beside me.

“You know,” he said. He held a lit cigarette between his thumb and forefinger as he talked. “You’re really not bad. But you need to get laid.”

Despite myself, I turned to stare at him, a combination of shock and disbelief all over my face.

The man nodded and took a puff on his cigarette. “It’s true. Anyone can see it.”

I assumed that he would make a pass then, that this would be the moment when he’d say something lecherous and I’d glower, and he’d ask for my number and I’d shake my head.

But he didn’t.

He just threw his cigarette butt in the street, turned up the collar on his coat and walked off, leaving me standing there with my mouth open, wondering whoever thought aging would be grand. ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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