In the U.S., I never had much dating success. It wasn’t Bridget Jones syndrome, where my social ineptitude or hand-eye coordination mishaps could be blamed. I simply never went on dates.
When I moved to France, that changed. I didn’t become markedly more attractive, cooler, or funnier—in fact, with the language barrier, my personality points most likely decreased. The main factor that increased my feminine mystique while in France was a certain je ne sais quoi: I was American.
It’s true that dating culture varies from the United States to France. My dating history in the States (or lack thereof) comes predominately from time spent on campus at a liberal university, and in New York City. In both places, my friends and I railed at how the dating norms fell far short of our “traditional” expectations. Guys in NYC rarely saunter up to women, start a conversation, and then ask for a date. They’re more likely to bop around awkwardly, making creepy and intermittent eye contact from the corner of a bar. Or they find you on the internet–and the less said about that the better.
Perhaps a similar mentality also exists in France, between local men and women. I don’t know, because I was not a local, but a rare and exotic foreigner. Regardless, I found myself in conversations and situations—dating situations—that were totally foreign to me.
In France, I was distinctly recognizable as une étrangère the moment I opened my mouth. Even after I fixed my mangled conjugations and verb tenses, my accent betrayed my origins. An activity as simple as my ordering a drink piqued people’s interests because it was a natural ice breaker: Oh, are you American?!
Before long, I had the dating life every 20-something dreams about. My proverbial pocketbook was full of outings for coffee, at the movies, and over drinks. All dark memories of New York–sipping overpriced drinks at clubs while men pointedly ignored me–dissolved in a wash of flirtation.
But despite the quantity of my interactions, the quality left something to be desired. For one, many dates were eerily similar. Our conversations, which kicked-off with cultural differences and anecdotes about America, never seemed to progress. One guy I dated for a few months, categorically responded to most of my utterances and notions with “oh, you American”. To him, my identity was minimized to that one factor. To him, my personality, my values and my views were nothing more than “Americanisms”, even when that connection didn’t exist or matter.
This focus on my “American-ness” extended to guys I wasn’t even dating. One dude I met for a language exchange—not a date—bashfully propositioned me while staring into his miniscule espresso cup: “I’ve always wanted to date an American. I think it would be really cool.” Why? I wondered. Surely limiting your search for love to nationality was as arbitrary and reductive as wanting to date a brunette, say, or someone who wears a lot of green.
My delight at being so popular turned to exhaustion when I started to feel less like a sparkling personality, and more like a box on a checklist. To make matters worse, my job as an English teaching background was fueling this American fetishization. Guys interested in “tutoring” would succeed in getting my number, until I learned that ESL practice was the secondary goal. Dating an American, however, was priority #1.
It’s an age-old tradition to use lies or euphemisms instead of direct statements when it comes to dating. “We should ‘study’ sometime”, “do you want to ‘practice’ for our concert?”, or “would you like a native tour guide” are all delightful, non-threatening ways to initiate interest. But what I found weird was not the harmless duplicity, but the fact that guys wanted to date simply because I was an English-speaking foreigner. My desirability as a date stemmed from something entirely outside of my control–my maternal language.
Although I didn’t snag a French boyfriend during my time abroad, I did get to play the field the way I never had back in New York. I’m back to tearing it up on the dance floor surrounded by girlfriends with no male interaction, and I’m mostly okay with.
And–after everything–there is always the internet. At least there, we can filter in the privacy of our own phones.