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Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee Excerpt from Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee

by Pamela Druckerman

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Five
death of the "five to seven"

It's January 1996
. In the French village of Jarnac, where he was born seventy-nine years earlier, François Mitterrand lies in a closed oak casket. Looking on are his wife, Danielle, and their two sons. One step back is Anne Pingeot, the ex-president's longtime mistress. And standing alongside Danielle and her sons is Mazarine Pingeot, the twenty-one-year-old illegitimate daughter of Mitterrand and Anne.

Around the world this scene seemed to prove what everyone already knew about France: that l'adultère is a national pastime, that French wives tolerate their husbands' lovers (and may have a few of their own), and that having an affair is part of being a cultivated person in France, like eating foie gras. It was assumed that when the photo appeared in France's morning papers, not a single Parisian choked on his café crème.

When I moved from New York to Paris, many of my preconceptions about the French quickly proved true. Parisian women really are beautiful. I'm frequently humbled by waitresses who have such perfect skin they should be in L'Oréal advertisements. No one at the crowded public pools has cellulite, not even mothers with children. Pregnant women pop into little domes, then fit into their skinny jeans weeks after delivery. Parisians dress the part, too. No one goes grocery shopping in sweatpants, ever. People are realistic about the consequences for women who let themselves go. One forty-something mother of two sniffed to me that it's no wonder President Jacques Chirac is a bon vivant: His wife, Bernadette, always has a sour expression on her face.

Looking good makes it more fun to flirt. At dinner parties other women's husbands and boyfriends hold my gaze a bit longer than all but the most lecherous American men would dare. I never find out whether these approaches might lead to something more, but they don't have to. Flirting with someone else's partner isn't a betrayal of your spouse or a gateway to extramarital sex. It's a harmless way to have fun.

In France, fidelity seems like an idea you can play with, without sliding inexorably into sin. One of my French teachers suggests I polish my French in an école horizontale -- that is, shacking up with a Frenchman for long enough to get my verb tenses straight. My husband nearly agrees that we can both do this, until I let it slip that I've already picked out my new "teacher."

Riding the Paris métro, I notice that French advertisers regularly joke about infidelity. A chain of movie theaters advertises its" fidelity card" for frequent customers with a billboard that declares, Summer's Over, Be Faithful Again. An optician's ad for a second pair of glasses shows a groom with a bride on each arm. In the buildup to Christmas, a chocolate company even speculates on how Santa himself keeps warm when he's out delivering presents; a commercial shows him in his sleigh accompanied by a fetching young woman who obviously isn't Mrs. Claus.

Evidence of the French love affair with adultery seems to be everywhere. Practically every romantic comedy I see is about married people and their lovers. And often no one dies! In one typical film, a couple takes their kids to the family house in southern France. Before long the wife's lover shows up for assignations on the beach and the father runs into a boyhood friend and realizes he's gay. By the end of the film, the husband and wife tearfully confess, move their lovers into the house with them, and, along with their children, sing a cheerful farewell to the audience. It's the reverse semiotics of most American movies, where having an affair means you're the villain. In the parlance of French films, cheating merely signifies that you're the protagonist.

In short, France looks like it's going to be a slam dunk for the book. I have moved into the world capital of infidelity, and I just need a few interviews with actual adulterers to round things out.

To my irritation, however, some parts of the story aren't falling into place. After I'm in Paris for a few months, one of the leading newsweeklies runs a cover story declaring the end of the taboo on adultery. This doesn't make sense, given my assumption that there hadn't been an adultery taboo to begin with. Even more perplexing is that the French actress featured in the story says she worked up the nerve to go public about her partner's infidelity only after seeing the American actress Uma Thurman do the same. "It's very American, one never sees this here," she explains.

I also notice that women's magazines are anything but blasé about affairs. Just as in America, they run stories on how to rein in cheating boyfriends and husbands, what to do if you suspect that your mate has strayed, how to get rid of a partner's threatening "best friend" of the opposite sex, and whether online sex counts as cheating. French women are startled when I tell them about their international reputation for being laissez-faire on infidelity. "Would you want your husband to cheat on you?" one woman replies.

And one by one my interviews evaporate. Friends of friends cancel appointments. E-mails aren't answered. People who initially seem titillated by the topic back off as soon as I take out my notepad. In Paris of all places, they are reluctant even to have anonymous conversations about it. When I complain about this to a friend and his French girlfriend, the young woman takes pity on me and suggests I'm running up against pudeur, a French word meaning something between modesty, privacy, and restraint. She offers to help. Then she stops returning my calls. If I hadn't lived in France, I might have left the country with empty notebooks. Surely if everyone in town is having cinq à septs, the famous "five to seven" o'clock rendezvous when they meet their lovers before heading home for dinner, a few would tell me about it?

And then I discover some statistics that defy all the stereotypes I had about France. It turns out that, in comparable sex surveys, French and American adults report almost identical rates of monogamy. Most French adults are boringly, staggeringly faithful. They pair up in their late twenties or early thirties and then spend the rest of their lives having trusty marital sex with the same partner, over and over again.

Excerpted from Lust in Translation: Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee by Pamela Druckerman. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © March, 2008.