Girl Talk with Debra Ollivier


An LA girl who has spent more than 10 years in France, where she married and had her children, Debra Ollivier is the author of Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl and What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind. Who better to give us a little sample of Parisian pleasures?
What drove you to write two books on the cultural differences between French and American women?
My first book, Entre Nous, was a commission, so the book remained somewhat general. My most recent book, What French Women Know, however, was not a commission. Curiously enough, it was written partly out of frustration. Having lived so long in France, I got annoyed at the recycled stereotypes about French women. We Americans are drawn to the French for their food, their fashion and what they seem to know about love/sex. I wanted to focus on the latter, but go deeper: If French women seem so sexy, it’s not because of their surface glam (the clothes, scarves, high heels, perfume) or because they don’t get fat (of course they do). It’s because they grow up with a different cultural mindset that’s hardwired practically at birth. I wanted to dig deep into this mindset, debunk a few myths and have fun in an ironic, comparative way. I wanted to write the quintessential book that would put the stereotypes to rest—or at least explain them in a brainy but witty way, and provide a lot of good (French) food for thought.
What French precepts do you hope your own daughter will always remember?
I hope my daughter will grow up knowing the fine art of not giving a damn, and learning how to cultivate her inner beauty as an asset.
One French precept my mother taught me is “souci de soi” (care for oneself). Where in Paris do you go for yours?
In Paris I go to any number of places, whether it’s the Yves Rocher boutique/salon down the street or a more high-end salon on the other side of the Seine. I don’t have an allegiance to any one specific place.
It’s generally accepted that Americans should take pages from a French girl’s book—but what do you think French girls could stand to learn from their American counterparts?
I think French girls could benefit from learning about American-style sisterhood—not in the feminist sense of the word, but in the social sense. French women are generally far more distant than American women and harder to get to know. What they perceive as superficial bonding is often a genuine sense of connection that many American women feel among one another.
We all agree that the specific look of French girls is very personal. Which Parisian boutiques do you yourself visit?
I’ve lived in the 19th Arrondissement for over 10 years, so I go to local boutiques or to places in the Marais, like Bensimon, and other shops on/around the rue des Francs-Bourgeois. I rarely shop in the left bank; in Paris you discover the best boutiques in the most unlikely places—even in open markets.
Each of us has at least one French foodie weakness (foie gras and tartelette aux framboises in my case). What’s your petit péché mignon (guilty pleasure), and where do you find it?
My foodie weakness is definitely bread. (Though I’m with you on the foie gras—second on my list!) Our apartment is a stone’s throw from Boulangerie au 140, which won the Best Baguette award many years ago. Well earned—trust me!
What does your favorite day in Paris consist of?
My favorite day in Paris usually involves a walk through the Marais or the Place des Vosges, a visit to an offbeat museum (like the curious Musée de la Serrure* or some other unusual place) and a stop at either a flea market or a farmer’s market. Of course, part of a “favorite day” in Paris also involves the unexpected: stumbling on a little gallery or shop I’ve never known about, or having a chance encounter with a shopkeeper.
Describe what you love about Paris and what it means to you.
Paris is culture—both high culture and bohemian culture. For me, it is where the intellectual and the aesthetic come together and are truly exalted. It’s also a nexus of sophistication and authenticity. I love this about Paris, but I also love the way the modern lies on top of the ancient, how despite progress there is still the patina of age and history to all things.
What’s your favorite French saying?
“Pourquoi pas?”
If there were one thing in Paris you’d tell your best girlfriend not to miss, what would it be?
Any farmer’s market. Any flea market. Any museum.
*Sadly, we’ve heard that the Musée de la Serrure is closed, and we haven’t been able to find out if it will reopen in the future. If you have news on this subject, please contact us!