Monday, August 17, 2009

Sex in Provence

Not sure if I've talked about sex yet but now's a good time as I was tinkering around on the net earlier and read some coverage of the BNF's (Bibliotheque Nationale de France) exhibition of porn and erotica last year. On display in Paris was an historical trip through the human mind's endless preoccupation with sex. The writings and images which had all previously been squirrelled carefully away from public scrutiny covered every practice imaginable, demonstrating that whatever your fantasy or fantasies may be, someone's already had 99% of those thoughts in a similar degree of garish detail. What struck me was a comment by a UK commentator who said it was surprising that the BNF would show such material to its visitors. But maybe he forgot he was talking about France and the French. Having lived here for some years, what surprises me is that the collection wasn't on show long before. Sex is hi-gh on the Gallic agenda and perhaps even higher on the agenda here in Provence. The midi throbs with sensuality and sexuality and relations between the sexes are red-blooded and, thankfully, not Politically-Correct. Sex is discussed very openly and usually not in the silly, smutty way that you often get elsewhere (just my opinion.) Just like food and eating, it's totally integrated into the way of life and seen as necessary to a good quality of life. I get the impression there's a lo-t of casual sex going on, at practically all ages. There are also plenty of sexual dramas in the vicinity - jealousies, infidelities, ill-concealed mistresses, estranged husbands and wives, uncertain sexual preferences and sexual diseases. I've heard of several people in the immediate area who have AIDS or HIV. Another with syphilis. Several others with lesser infections. Use of Meetic for casual encounters seems to be rife. And all this stuff is going on among people of my age group (early 50s) just as it does among people in their twenties. When my relationship of 19 years broke down a while ago (rather spectacularly but that's another matter) I was a bit surprised to find I was suddenly viewed more or less like a likely sexual partner by quite a few local men. One called round and suggested, suggestively, that I give him English lessons. Another came up to me in the supermarket and told me he was looking for a partner, not just a woman to have sex with. A guy in town tried to chat to me for a few minutes and then tried to kiss me. Another guy simply asked, after a meal with others, if he could sleep with me. Another just put his hand on my thigh after dinner with friends and asked to walk me home.
All a bit of a shock as I was not yet in anything like New Guy mode.
However, I quickly found out that if you go out with no rings on your fingers it's a bit like having a profile on Meetic. You get approached. I also found out that as soon as you live alone people assume you must want a sexual partner and start trying to fix you up with one. I also discovered how openly and frankly sex is viewed and discussed and enjoyed or refused round here. Young guys chat about their adventures with girls. Not necessarily in a disrespectful way, just factual. Older women talk about the nuisance of their husbands still wanting sex. Friends recount anecdotes about a woman who left her husband because his penis was so large she couldn't bear it any more. A neighbour complains that his wife kicked him out because she couldn't accept he has a mistress. Another friend introduced a colleague and his mistress - as his mistress. (When I said later 'Should you have done that?' he dismissed me saying 'Oh she's been his mistress for years; everyone knows that. His wife knows.') Recently a friend of mine complained that her husband was growing old very quickly. He won't go out as often as he used to, travel or go to theatre or exhibitions. Casually she added 'If he's not careful, he soon won't be interested in anything except his sudoko and his internet porn.'
Sex gets into transactions here as much as money and human courtesy. You spot, and experience, flirting everywhere - in shops, at petrol stations, in the markets, bars, cafes - little glances exchanged, loaded gestures, the hug and the bises that take just a bit too long. And men really notice, and appreciate, and comment on women's behaviour, style, gestures, appearance. There's no neutral pals act between Provencal men and women. The undercurrents are strongly sexual. Vive la difference is a genuine attitude. Men really take notice of women. They notice physical detail. They accept imperfections and ageing. They appreciate women sexually and socially (again just my opinion and observation.) And they're comfortable around women. Women in turn seem to see men pretty much the same way. I think all that ties in with the lusty, healthy, frank French interest in sex. And I'm pretty glad it works that way.

For details of the BNF's pornography and erotica collection in Paris go to: http://www.bnf.fr/



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