I've been a little down on my experience in France in these last couple of posts, so I think switching gears to something more positive is in order.
Recently I've come to a conclusion: all young women in their prime should live, even if briefly, in the south of France. The French attitude toward women is a blend of benevolent sexism and objectification, with a smattering of misogyny. So...why am I then recommending an experience here? Have I lost my feminist bearings?
Let's think about it. If you are a cute girl, you can skip the line at the post office. You can talk your way out of your bar tab. You are more likely to get the last piece of cheesecake at the restaurant not because you ordered it first, but because the waiter likes you better...and then you're also more likely to get the waiter's card or telephone number at the end of your meal, but you shouldn't feel obligated to call unless you think he's cute, too...
The plain and harsh truth, ladies, is that after you hit the peak of your attractiveness (for most around age 25) you have only a few years before you start to look your age--if not older--and, as your grandmother warned you, things can go downhill really fast. Now that I'm 26, I guess the prospect has become more real to me, having transcended that "magical" chronological number.
The take-away message is, get in that flirting while you can. Bask in a couple of compliments, even if mislaid, because there will come a time when you will not get compliments anymore no matter how hard you try. Unless you are someone like Demi Moore or Nicole Kidman and can afford expensive anti-aging treatments, botox, a personal trainer, etc., you probably won't get wolf-whistled at by construction workers when you're 45.
If you live in Wisconsin, it is even less likely you will be complimented on your shapely legs by a man old enough to be your grandfather who sips his espresso at the table of an outdoor cafe, walking cane propped up against an adjacent chair, no matter your own age or personal attractiveness. A puritanical sense of decorum, lack of outdoor cafes, and a general disregard for the sex lives of people over 70 sees to it that such a situation just wouldn't arise, and if it did, you'd call the police.
In the south of France, however, you do not call the police. You have two options: 1) ignore Grandpa or sleazy construction worker, or 2) say "thank you" for the compliment and move on. Option #2 may get you more attention next time, so you're going to have to decide if it's worth it to you. Personally, like with the waiter, I would gauge the other party's attitude (and personal attractiveness). Flirting is supposed to be fun--something the French seem to have mastered--and if it's not, be brief without being rude. You don't want to have an angry stalker on your hands.
Another point: although the French are getting better about issues that affect women, such as rape and sexual harassment in the workplace, and are (as far as I can tell) better about such things than their neighbors in Italy, they are by no means as cognizant of such issues as people are in the United States. There is not much recourse for women who feel they have been harassed or discriminated against at work--and a woman earns 60 cents to every Euro a man makes.
That's called the plafond de verre, people, and it is one of the (many) reasons I do not recommend packing up and moving permanently to the south of France. For most, I'm sure a visit will suffice.