Excerpted from French Lessons: The Art of Living and Loving Well, by E. J. Gore
French Lessons is the story of an American woman’s transformation while visiting Paris, when she is befriended by a wise, witty and chic French godmother.
On a Sunday afternoon Gabrielle and I go to see Sweet Bird of Youth at one of Paris’ charming art house theatres that show American classics.
Paul Newman is Chance, an aging pretty boy and Geraldine Paige plays Alexandra del Lago, a movie star past her prime.
Afterwards as we walk down the street, Gabrielle grows eloquent about the film and Paul Newman’s blue eyes. “Suzanne,” she announces, “he is not only a master at his craft, but a most beautiful man!” “But ma cherie,” she says thoughtfully as we continue on, “Alexandra had the most brilliant speech in the film. In only three words!”
“Toward the end of the film, Chance tries to frighten Alexandra. He grabs her and forces her to look at herself in the mirror, in all her disarray. He demands, ‘Tell me! What do you see there? What?’”
We stop on the sidewalk “Now I remember . . .”
“And Alexandra, triumphant, looks into the mirror, and says, ‘I. See. Me.’”
Gabrielle links her arm through mine as we walk on.
“In three words, she perfectly expresses ‘l’amour-propre.’”
She looks into the mirror and sees herself for herself. Oui, she knows she can be un vrai monstre. She knows she is older, a terrible thing for a film star. And that she relies too much on the gigolos and the cocktails. She knows herself to be imperfect mais magnifique. But as a woman who accepts and triumphs in herself, nothing, no-one can shake her faith in herself. Ça, ç’est l’amour-propre. Très simple.
Gabrielle’s quick lesson in amour-propre comes to mind the next morning as I step from the bath and catch a glimpse of my body, something I usually avoid. Then I think of Alexandra Del Lago looking into her mirror, so fearlessly. And I stop myself from turning away. I see the stomach that’s never been truly flat, the extra pounds I’ve gained and lost dozens of times.
I take a breath. Slowly I run my gaze over the flesh, muscles and yes, the fat that have gotten me through almost forty summers and winters, through heartbreak and exhaustion, through a brush with cancer. I admire the strong legs that keep me standing, the arms that reach out to embrace a friend, the torso that still stretches sensually in most directions. This is the real, not airbrushed body of a woman, not a girl. And my life is a real, not airbrushed, life.
I smile at me in the mirror.
Here I am in Paris with the accumulated wisdom of my years and the body that got me here. I think I will take this body out for a walk and buy it a silly hat or a flower or a croissant. I. See. Me.
And I like who I see.