Paris, France - September 27, 2015. A quintessential French moment on Alexandre III bridge.
Paris, France - September 27, 2015. A quintessential French moment on Alexandre III bridge.
Image: iStock

I was sitting on a park bench last week shooting the breeze with a dear friend who has taken up residence in Paris. She has been there for over three years so she knows a thing or two about the French condition.

“I  think everyone has swallowed a tapeworm,” I mooted, confident in my theory after observing the thousandth gamine of indiscriminate age sauntering past.

“No,” she said, “I have asked about that and my colleagues have all said it was genes.”  She said this very firmly.

“What, like the perfect pair, or something you are just born with?” I quipped. “How damn unfair is that?”

I mean, the French meal system is seriously rigged in their genetic favour. Not only can these French indulge in daily three course prix fixe menus (because, why eat one course when you can eat three, and pay less?), but also, they never seem to lose their teenage bodies after years of this sort of skewed eating thing – and reproducing multiple well behaved, brilliantly dressed children.

I just have to look at a bread basket and my hips blow up like sourdough. I walk past the boulangerie, or the patisserie or the fromagerie or the whateverie – and gain 4kg in pure sympathy, the baked goods and little cheeses malingering inside on perfect shelves painted in just the right shade of mossy green. Which was everywhere this season, by the way.

French style icon Charlotte Gainsbourg.
French style icon Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Image: Getty Images / Stephane Cardinale
French style icon, Marion Cotillard.
French style icon, Marion Cotillard.
Image: Getty Images / Pascal Le Segretain

“Perhaps they exercise it all off?” I ventured. Perhaps not. The only people I caught inelegantly huffing away in the parks on my morning run (an effort to hid the evidence of the carbs and multiple courses enjoyed), were twice the size of the regular French folk wandering elegantly by, toting a warm baguette or four in their summer straw baskets. We runners were probably all of the striding tourist variety. No really. Everyone else just sits at the corner café and works up an appetite by having a knowing conversation or simply staring down the sweaty foreigners.

My friend said French people know if they are getting fat by stepping into the shower, as these are notoriously small  in Paris. This part, I understood perfectly ... having read about an apartment which I could just barely afford if I went on a starvation diet (which would be necessary on two fronts) – R2m for eight square meters.

Yes, you read that right. A princely 8m² –described as possessed of an open plan kitchen, a shower and a toilet (luxury). A perfect pied a terre (that is, foot on the ground), wrote the estate agent. I would add “perfect for one pied”. Perhaps your left pied? You could alternate pieds every week. Each pied taking its turn in the apartment and the shower.  

French icon Françoise Hardy in all her chicness.
French icon Françoise Hardy in all her chicness.
Image: Getty Images / David Cairns

Giving up on this effort of trying to extract the secret of the French diet, I wondered where the French shop? Is this not the perennial question – they can’t all be born with the perfect jeans as well? That would be gruesome.

“The French don’t really shop!” my friend said impenetrably. “What?” I cried. “C’est impossible” (please read this with the accent on the last 'e' for the full effect.) 

Non!” she replied emphatically. Apparently, like exercise, shopping is for the tourists. The French seem to osmose their achingly stylish outfits from the ether. Everyone just so, in their ancient baskets (sneakers – not straw – in this case), Breton tops, little black blazers and super-fine accessories.

They threw it all on this morning, miraculously, as it manifested from thin air (there is no space for a cupboard in the 8m² apartment) and stepped out with the pied that was currently in residence, ate a ton of bread, several courses, and wandered by in a most-superior fashion.

It seems (and I am only speculating here) that once you have lived there for over three years, the French induct you into their secret French style club, but membership is contingent on not telling your friends anything. Not even where to get the tapeworm.

• This article was originally published by Times Select.

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