Mavis Gallant

Mavis Gallant

A weeklong electronic journal.
Aug. 15 1997 3:30 AM

Mavis Gallant

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       A friend from London tells me he has never been in any city where so many clear, unambiguous, straightforward invitations to men are conveyed by so many attractive women, in the street. A great many true Parisiennes are away, now, in August. Can he tell the difference on sight between a tourist from Milan or Barcelona, say, and a native of the Left Bank of Paris? And does he know if the message given is amateur or professional? Both questions annoy him mightily. He knows Paris, has been coming here for years. Do the women actually stop and speak? No, he says. The eyes do the talking.
       I tell him that mute invitation used to be known as, "Suivez-moi, jeune homme." ("Follow me, young man.") It was the prerogative of married women. The unmarried were chaperoned, or didn't dare, or were semi-professional--which means to say, just now and then, hoping just for a good dinner in a decent restaurant, a cab home, a bit of cash. A new hat was a lot to hope for. He seems puzzled. It turns out I am talking about the century before this one, now slipping behind as two centuries ago. I am talking about veiled hats, bunches of violets, layers of skirts, a barrage of underclothes, and stays so tight they created a slow, particular walk. Only the look, the bid, the risk seem timeless. (The thing is, he says, there is more of it now.)
       He must be right. A poll published this morning in the weekly magazine Marianne, announces that French men are losing interest in sex. The media at once have dropped heat-and-pollution in order to worry about this. An Italian tourist, interviewed on TV, says he hasn't lost interest and that Paris is the place. "Every day," he adds, though nobody had asked him. Women questioned in a discothèque say that yes, it is true about French men. The reason for this new disaffection is le stress. Le stress accounts for everything now, from toothache to love. One man, French, is willing to tell the world he is still interested, but certainly not every day. "When one can," he says, an answer he might have made to, "How often do you fly to Tahiti just for a swim?"

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       Tomorrow is the Feast of the Assumption and the whole of Catholic Europe will shut down its cities and make for mountains and beaches. Any tourist caught in Madrid, Vienna, Rome, or Paris on a 15th of August can vouch for what "empty city" means. After the 15th, summer declines. It is the last long weekend until the 1st of November, the end of the best of the year that began with May Day. I shall try not to mope steadily between the 16th of August, 1997, and the 1st of May, 1998, but it won't be easy.

Mavis Gallant is a writer who lives in Paris. Her most recent book is Collected Stories.