In the last few months I have rather enjoyed discovering how Parisian life differs from the postcards and sycophantic films. Cycling along the sunlight boulevards also involves dodging cavalier traffic with a moral aversion to lanes; outdoor cafes with heaters are balanced by glass boxes in clubs where smokers huddle together, eyes streaming; a flat in Paris tends to be the size of a closet in London; my favourite boulangerie is run by a family of squabbling Armenians.
All in all, it is a far more vibrant and surprising city than the French tourist board gives it credit. However, the codes of Parisian dating have proved to be above and beyond even my affection for the absurd.
Paris's reputation as the international capital of l'amour means you can barely turn a corner (in Paris or on Facebook) without being confronted by a couple kissing in view of the Eiffel Tower. However, among Parisians themselves, if traditional romance isn't dead, it is at least in a coma on life support.
The French are a proud nation, which translates into an interesting balance of power between the genders. Any self respecting Parisian man sees himself as a little Napoleon, marching around with a bulletproof ego and great shoes in search of some female territories to invade and conquer. And as any good commander knows, there is no room for shyness on a military campaign.
I have been asked to dinner by a middle aged policeman and his brother, for coffee by a 14-year-old and to 'share languages' with a hyperactive student. Invitations are offered at any or every given occasion with a metaphorical French shrug of 'pourquoi pas?' (as a female under 40 there are certain streets in Paris which you cannot walk down without a man launching himself from the shadows to enquire whether you are thirsty.) I am not going to pretend, of course, that this isn't sometimes flattering, but it is indiscriminate, rather than romantic.
It seems to me that the problems really start when you accept one of the little Emperors' invitations. For better or worse, in England a couple of dates (or drunken encounters) more often than not leads to that murky 'seeing each other' area, where all is still to be decided. In the inflexible code of Parisian dating, however, limited time spent together can constitute a relationship.
I did accept the hyperactive student's invitation to 'share languages' (for I am of course a diligent language student) and found him introducing me to his friends as his girlfriend. After one evening spent together. When he didn't know my surname. When the most physical contact we'd had was a kiss on the cheek in greeting. I thought he was joking. But he wasn't. A friend similarly had a boy she did once lock lips with turn up unannounced at her work weeks later to see his 'girl.' Another couple of Erasmus girls have had 'where is this relationship going' conversations sprung on them on the second date (which is a far more effective test of your language ability than discussing French immigration in Oral classes.) To me, this attitude not romantic; it is a bit creepy.
I had always assumed that those lofty creatures the young Parisiennes needed the security of these instant relationships. Just as they don't like wearing colour, or dancing as if they're enjoying themselves. The more time I spend in Paris and the more French girls I meet, however, the more they seem to use relationships as social smokescreens, behind which all sorts of other naughtiness can occur. The Napoleons' eagerness to claim and commit often seems to let the girls have their cake and eat it (or do whatever else they want with it) without the promiscuous connotations reserved for blonde English girls. Who knows if these generalisations are fair, but in my experience they are.
One thing, however, that proves endlessly entertaining is French flirt translated to English. As far as I'm concerned, being told "you make an earthquake in my heart" by a Parisian who describes himself as "the smooth and flex guy you've heard about!" makes up for all of Paris's other dating oddities.