Northern Ireland can learn a little on lifestyle, food and fashion from the French
Gallic women are famed for their class and style — but are they really more stylish than their counterparts here? Lorraine Wylie investigates
First there was Mireille Guiliano's book telling us French Women Don't Get Fat. Then, as if that wasn't hard enough to swallow, Pamela Druckerman almost choked us with envy when she ladled on the praise in her tome French Children Don't Throw Food.
But Guiliano and Druckerman aren't the only ones in awe of our continental sisters. Many in the media, especially American lifestyle magazines, have fostered the notion that French women are all slender nymphs with perfectly behaved youngsters and super happy lives. But are they really so 'parfait'? Surely, when it comes to looks, parenting and even romance, we in Northern Ireland are at least on a par with 'les femmes francaises'. Who knows, maybe we could even teach them a thing or two!
In an attempt to separate fact from fiction, I took advantage of a trip to France to compare notes with my friend, Veronique Maquin Chillou, mum to nine-year-old Charles and owner of a busy grocery shop, in the La Vienne region of south-west France.
With her slim figure, sleek dark hair and glossy red lipstick, 44-year-old Veronique could be the poster girl for French chic. In a country where no meal is complete without bread, wine and cheese, I can't help but wonder where she stores the calories.
However, as I made my way up the steep, cobbled streets leading to the medieval city where we'd agreed to meet at a local café, I got my first clue. Having stopped, ostensibly to admire the view but really to catch my breath, I realised that, if going for a drink involves an uphill marathon, calories won't be a problem. Veronique was waiting for me when I arrived so, over a glass of Merlot, we settled down to chew the fat.
"I have never read her book, but I think Guiliano is wrong," she tells me in her beautiful singsong accent. "Of course, French women struggle with their weight. At some time in their lives, all women feel unhappy with how they look.
"Still, it is true that obesity is not as common in France as it is in other parts of the world but, as a nation, we certainly don't have a 'slim' gene! It would be silly to suggest that lifestyle doesn't play a role.
"As a nation, we enjoy a lot of outdoor activities and children as well as adults are encouraged to play sport. Walking clubs are particularly popular, as is dancing. In many towns and villages, 'thé dansant' is a regular weekend pastime."
What about diet? Is it really possible to enjoy a glass of wine, not to mention chocolate mousse and a wedge of Camembert, without piling on the kilos? Apart from anything, with such a busy lifestyle, where does Veronique find time to cook?
"Of course, it is possible to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. In fact in France it is practically obligatory!" she laughs. "Seriously, I think food is more than just nutrition for the body. For me, sitting down with family and friends, to eat a lovely meal and drink a glass of wine, is about making beautiful memories.
"When the family get together, I will make something rich and garlicky with lots of bread to mop up the sauce! We'll also have a cheese course, I adore all cheese and we are lucky to have so many products in the La Vienne region. Dinner without a dessert is not a proper meal!
"However, these long, leisurely reunions are restricted to weekends or holidays. At home, during the week, cooking is much simpler.
"I like to cook from scratch and don't like processed food so I'll make something that doesn't take a lot of preparation, like meat with salad or pasta and some vegetable. Fruit is always on the menu.
"As a rule, we don't snack and, whether it's a simple dinner at home or a big meal with family, I always stick to small portions. A little bit of everything is ok. My guilty pleasure is Cognac or an extra glass of white wine - heaven! I have to admit, I do occasionally indulge a little but mostly I manage to resist temptation."
As suspected, a slender silhouette has nothing to do with national heritage. It doesn't matter which side of the channel our bread is buttered, staying in shape is simply about portion control.
Although, judging by the amount of cheese, chocolate and patisseries on offer, I'm beginning to wonder whether French women have extra strong willpower.
Veronique confirms my suspicion when she reveals that, to look good, you also have to get up early. It takes a determined woman to sacrifice an extra hour in bed.
What happened to the effortless beauty I'd read about in magazines?
"You do have to make an effort," she tells me. "Every morning, I get up early, around 5am, so that I can be ready for work at 6am. After I've showered, I apply moisturiser. I use a light cream, like Caudalie, on my face and a lovely, scented foam on my body. Even as children, we are taught to take care of our skin.
"At night-time, before I go to sleep, no matter how tired I feel, I always cleanse and tone my face. Looking after your skin is part of staying healthy. For example, if you were thirsty, you would drink something to avoid dehydration. It's the same with skin, it also needs moisture."
I'm ashamed to admit that, apart from an occasional dab of Nivea, my skincare regime is practically non-existent. Like Veronique, I like to get an early start around six but, while my friend reaches for her moisturiser, the only thing on my mind is coffee.
When it comes to make-up, the cosmetic industry is booming both sides of the Channel, but fashions do differ. In Northern Ireland, eyebrows are big at the moment, while in France it's all about the lips.
"Oh yes, I do love a nice lipstick!" Veronique laughs. "A bold colour can be very attractive. I think make-up makes a woman feel good. It is part of getting dressed - the face you present to the world is as important as the clothes you wear.
"Like many of my friends, I wouldn't leave the house without the basics. I always use a light, tinted moisturiser, mascara and, of course, my lipstick. I think even a little make-up helps you feel more confident. If you look good, you feel better."
Veronique also applies this 'less is more' approach to her wardrobe with the result that, whether she's at work, stocking shelves with Merlot or out dancing the night away, my friend always looks cool.
Maybe French women are born with a flair for fashion after all. "Well, I don't know about that!" she laughs out loud.
"But yes, in general I do think French women are extremely interested in clothes. Personally, I like to feel womanly, so I prefer dresses and skirts that I think are more feminine.
"When I shop for lingerie, I like to buy different styles. I choose comfortable underwear for work and a sporty type for exercising - but I also like to have something more sexy for going out. Whatever I wear, I adore jewellery! Earrings are my favourite!" I find it interesting, but not surprising, that Veronique considers lingerie a fashion item. Many of my French friends take great pleasure in shopping for underwear, spending ages discussing the merits of frills over lace and, with a shop practically on every corner, there's certainly a lot of choice.
In fact, one of the events on offer in town the weekend I'm staying is an exhibition entitled The History of Lingerie. In contrast, my Northern Ireland chums tend to view their smalls as basic necessities, often buying in bulk and sticking to practical colours like black and white.
As for me, well let's just say my drawers tend to be less 'French Fancy' and more '50 shades of grey'.
Meeting up with an old friend is fun, especially when the photos come out and we ooh and aah over the latest arrival.
I take the opportunity to ask Veronique whether she agrees with Druckerman's claim that French children are better behaved.
"No that's definitely not true!" she chuckles. "In fact, I find teenagers are becoming lazy as well as rude. They never stop looking at their phones. But as a parent, I do try to set boundaries. I expect my son Charles to do as I tell him and his father and I both teach him to be polite."
Unlike working mothers in Northern Ireland, who can struggle to find childcare, the Frenchwoman is more than happy with the support provided by government.
"I think France helps to support all parents," she says. "Childcare in France is excellent. There is a huge variety of both private and public day centres, with nurseries opening for up to 11 hours per day. Some parents hire a 'nounou' (nanny) but staff in the creche facilities here are so highly qualified we prefer them. My son started at daycare when he was two. I think our French system makes it easier for parents, not only to work and provide for their families, but to feel fulfilled in the career of their choice."
There is one area where Veronique seems surprisingly disappointed. Considering their reputation for romance, it appears that 'l'amour' in France isn't all it's cracked up to be.
"Very few French men are romantic," Veronique says with a wry smile. "I consider romance very important in a relationship.
"It isn't about buying dinner or flowers, it's a tender thought or a little caress. If he wrote a little note and pinned it on my pillow, that would make me happy. But maybe my expectations are too high!"
By the end of the evening, the conversation draws to a close and, after saying our goodbyes, I'm left to reflect on lessons learned.
It's true that French women have a lot going for them. But apart from sunshine, good skin, decent childcare and nicer undies, they're not so different to women in Northern Ireland.
Granted, an al fresco lifestyle would be nice but then, isn't that what holidays are for?
As for romance, well, a fish supper and a tub of Haagen-Dazs ice cream may lack the literary merit that Veronique dreams about. But as my husband knows, it's the kind of pillow talk that speaks my language!