Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Mating Rituals of Exotic Birds

The place to be on this particular night is Glaz’Art, a hop, skip, and a jump away from the rather desolate metro zone of Paris's Porte de la Villette. It’s 2 A.M. and people continue to stream into the club. Music’s thumping, the lights are dashing about, and most of Paris’ young and hip are taking part in the Saturday-night ritual that will mark much of their 20-something existence: the mating call.

Emanating the perfect combination of cigarette smoke and detachment, the boys move their bodies in time with the music, scanning the groups of girls clustered about the floor. Despite the fast beat of the music, everyone is careful to avoid dancing too vigorously. Why? 1) Wild arm movements and head banging obscures your face from the site of others. 2) Nine times out of ten, a wild body shaker simply looks like an imitator of the Chicken Dance.

But after a half hour of careful observation, I realize that no progress is being made. As intricate and universal as the Dancefloor Seduction may be, it doesn’t seem to be working for any of these guys tonight. In fact, despite the expat’s romantic vision of fleur-bearing French men, it would appear that these Parisian guys aren’t any better at courtship than their American counterparts.

I turn my gaze away from the dance floor and towards my friends. To my left are Greg and Mark, two Americans constantly engaged in a one-upsmanship game over Bands No One Has Heard Of. To my right are the Irish Joyceans, busily arguing about (surprise) Joyce.

“Finnegan’s Wake is a mess, I tell you, a mess!” screams Joycean I to Joycean II. Joycean II inhales deeply—you do not insult The Master in his presence. He turns away from his friend and looks off into the void.

Just then, two pouty French girls approach and sit down at the empty chairs next to our table. They scan the dance floor, widen their pouts, and then turn their gaze to my friends. Seeing the scowling, bespectacled Joycean, one of them has an epiphany. She pulls out a book and begins to read, acting as though this were a completely normal thing to do in a crowded club on a Saturday night. Is she crazy? Does she have a test on the book the next day? No, no, no, dear reader, this is no ordinary book! This is yet another version of the mating call! This is: Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal!

The two girls pore over the prose with wide eyes, lips trembling at the power of the poet’s opium-laced lines. What tragic, romantic girls! I roll my eyes, looking back at the boys to see if they’re witnessing this ridiculous book club. And so they are, although not with the same reaction:

“May I take a look at that book? There’s a passage I’d like to verify,” says Joycean I, leaning over to stare into the deep, soulful eyes of one of the pouty girls.

She nods her head slowly, solemnly handing him the book as though it were their newborn child. The Joycean reads the passage, nods his head, sneaks a look at the girl. Reads it again, nods more vigorously, and then hands it back to her, pointing to his favorite poem. Two hours later and the two of them are--

“Wait, wait, wait. That actually worked?” interrupts my French friend Sébastien, as I tell him this story the next day. “Does he really leave the club with her? It must be because he’s a foreigner. I mean, French girls are so difficult to hit on. You can’t pull any of those ridiculous American come-on lines with them.”

“So what do you do then?” I ask, thinking I’m about to hit on a key difference between American and French courtship strategies.

“Well, I ask for a cigarette…though they usually tell you they don’t have any. Or sometimes I stare until the girl looks back, though that doesn’t really work, either.”

“But a book—I wonder if that could work for me?” he muses, stroking his goatee. “Though you might need something less moody than Baudelaire, and even then a book will only attract certain types of girls. And I guess my question is: do I really care whether or not the girl can read?”

Ah, well at least one thing is comforting: the mating call may rest forever inexplicable, but the priorities of the average 25-year old man appear clear and universal.

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