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Words really flattering are not those which we propose but those which escape us unthinkably.

Ninon de L’Enclos

Sitting at a dinner party in the South of France many years ago, I was captivated by the conversation.  All the topics that I was taught were off limits at any social function — sex, religion  an politics – were openly discussed with fervor. The conversation morphed throughout the night.  Discussions about who was a better artist, Van Gogh or the creator of the Ferrari (yes, there were Italians there too), the state of the European economy, the age of Enlightenment and the value of extramarital relations had my mind whirling.

At the moment I was about to sink my teeth into the Tiramisu, a young Frenchman turned to me and asked, “Tonya, what do you do?”

“I’m a nurse.”

Yawn.

“I don’t mean what you do for a living, but what do you do in your life that brings you passion,” he said.

Uh….hhhmm…well…I like to workout.

Oh God.  Did I really just say that?

This was proof that I had worked hard on keeping up myself physically, but I had let myself go intellectually.

Next. Moving on.  Skipped right over.

Okay, so I felt a bit lost (scratch that, I was a lot lost).  Though, more than lost, I felt dull, a word most people wouldn’t use to describe me back home.  The truth is that I had never given myself permission to have intellectual pursuits.  I was too busy with the everyday stuff of life.  I was a woman of duty, not desires.

Suddenly, I realized that the people sitting around that table possessed something that I didn’t: a passion for life coupled with an arsenal of intellectual and conversational skills that had somehow escaped me during my over three decades on this earth.

As I watched the playful and at times tense (think Italians flailing their arms around in the air and the French shrugging their shoulders and rolling their eyes) exchange of ideas and opinions, I made another observation.  The most captivating woman in the room was not necessarily the most beautiful one or the one carrying the Birkin (now don’t get me wrong, I love a Birkin). She was the one who knew how to use her passion paired with words to charm the audience.

I walked away from that experience determined to learn the art of intellectual foreplay.

The first thing I did was begin to learn a new language (for which, I’m still struggling).  I did this for two reasons.  First, being able to speak another language makes you more cosmopolitan, a lady who can cross cultures with ease.

Second, in France, words are used as play.  It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. It didn’t take me long to realize that my direct American-style way of speaking was often viewed as rude (or dull) in a French conversation.  The French have a way of adding humor, wit and charm to very serious topics, making it easier to digest.  Looking back, had I said, “I put my mouth on those who are on the brink of death and breath life back into them,” instead of “I’m a nurse,” I would have gained instant conversational credibility.

Upon returning home, I also threw out all the diet books I owned realizing that nothing would have bored that group more than to hear me talk about how many calories were in our meal, especially that Tiramisu.  I also began to pursue my own intellectual passions,  enrolling in sommelier school, getting a liberal arts degree, writing daily, watching foreign films, reading Proust and Hemingway, learning the art of French cooking and traveling to places that would inspire me.

Fast forward to many years later.  I was sitting at table in Monaco with many of the same people.  The once quiet, “I’m a nurse” girl (yes, that would be moi) when asked what she did, said, “I French Kiss Life,” followed by my favorite quote by Hafiz, “Oh World, One regret that I am determined not to have when lying upon my death bed is that I did not kiss thee enough.”

Fancy, right?

The conversation exploded into the impact of Sufism on the modern world to the painful existence of regret.  I sat back and smirked at the spark I had ignited from a few years of pursuing my passions.

Still, I was mesmerized.  How did these people know so much about everything? In studying the French culture, I’ve come to realize what sets them apart from us.  Americans tend to be one-dimensional, specializing and focusing on one thing.  Sure, this makes them experts in their field, but it can also make them appear like I did at that dinner table: boring.  The French on the other hand are schooled on philosophy, art and culture from very young ages, giving them a one up in a conversation.

French women, especially, are able to converse about a wide range of topics without being pretentious or crude.  They stay current on world events, sports, politics, art, film, fashion and science.  She’s not afraid to combine her intellect with a dose of her sexuality, making her an irresistible conversationlist.  It’s not enough to just be a pretty face in France; you must also have an interesting mind.

While it’s difficult to make up all those lost years of cultural abandon, it’s not too late to become a lady who knows how to engage in tantalizing intellectual foreplay.

At the end of the night, what really makes one stand out from the crowd is her passion, beautifully presented through word and gestures.  Had I spoken about my career as a nurse from a place of intense conviction, I would have captivated those in the room.  Had I asked questions, expressed my opinion and been authentically me, instead of worrying what everyone thought, I would have been instantly charming.  Had I thrown in the few French words I did know at the time, I would have appeared to be a woman on an intellectual quest.  Also, knowing when to be quiet and truly listen is a gift.  And, had I thrown my hands up in the air when I tasted the Tiramisu and shouted, “Dear God, this is Divine,” I would have been seen as a woman capable of culinary orgasms.

Conversation is like a dance.  Sometimes, you must let others take the lead but always keep up, unless of course, you don’t like the dance.

So, here’s my challenge for you.  Begin to weed out all those things you’ve been taught you should know and begin to indulge yourself in what truly inspires you.  To break it down even further, here are some specific tips that I’ve used to cultivate my mind:

Film: Venture out from Hollywood and explore foreign and independent films.  I make a point to watch at least one per month.

Reading:  It’s common for a French person to ask you what you’re reading before they ask you where you live.  So, read often and indulge in a diversity of genres from fiction to nonfiction.  Yes, you may love your 50 Shades of Grey and that might create an interesting conversation, but it will behoove you to have some other tools in your reading belt.  I read one book per week.  Right now, I’m reading The Greater Journey:  Americans in Paris by David McCullough.

Current Affairs:  Choose one or two newspapers that are your go-to source for what’s happening in the world.  While you can always get your news online, there’s something said for the printed paper that you hold in your hands.  Plus, it’s so easy to get sidetracked in the virtual world.  Before you know it, you’re on TMZ.com.

Language:  Keep up skills in your own native tongue by learning new words.  I subscribe to a word of the day.  Today’s word was mellifluous, meaning “like honey, sweet and smooth.”  Also, if you’re interested in a culture, there’s no better way to dive deeply into it than by learning its language.  Plus, being bilingual offers you an intellectual advantage.

Magazines:  Beyond People and US Weekly is a slew of magazines that will expand your world.  Some of my favorites are The New Yorker, Vogue, Town and Country, Rolling Stone, Food and Wine, Entrepreneur and O Mag (yes, I’m an Oprah darling!).  Reading magazines such as these will expand your cultural perspective and usually offer you a hot topic to discuss at your next dinner party.

Arts:  Go to museums.  Attend concerts.  Attend local exhibitions.  Listen to an array of music.  Read about your favorite artist.  Get involved in a cause that supports the art of your choice.  Creativity is your outlet to expressing who you are in the world, so don’t neglect your artistic mind.

TV: Our family does not have cable.  In fact, the only thing we watch on the television are movies.  This has afforded us time to listen to music, read books and spend time with each other in conversation.  Of course, I have my favorite shows (one of them being Sex in the City).  However, when I get the chance to watch TV, it’s now a luxury, not an everyday addiction of mindless entertainment.

Get Back to the Classroom:  I am a school junkie. I love attending lectures, taking classes, watching TED talks.  When it comes to knowledge, I am a hedonist.  I want to learn any and everything.  Curiosity is our childlike nature.  Talk to your inner child and see what she is dying to learn more about.  Then, go do it!

Indulge your mind, and you’ll master the art of intellectual foreplay.

Add your favorite lipstick, and, who knows what will happen?

One last suggestion:  have a general toast that will charm for that awkward moment when you’re called upon unexpectedly.  (Yes, I speak from experience on this one!)

Now, it’s your turn to practice.  In the comments below, share your passion.  Talk about what you do with the sole purpose of entertaining us, discuss something that is of interest to you right now, share your toast, tell us about the magazines that you love or your favorite foreign film, and don’t be afraid to express your opinion (with a dose of charm, bien sur.)

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Do you want to practice the art of intellectual foreplay in the country that birthed modern philosophy and is home to some of the world’s most famous intellectuals (Voltaire, Descartes, Rousseau, Sartre and, our lady, Simone de Beauvoir)?

If so, Le Voyage Paris: The Art of Being a Woman Immersion is for you! Our evening salons will be devoted to beautiful, thought-provoking and inspiring conversation and their will be plenty of opportunities to indulge yourself intellectually.

Click here to get all the details and apply.

And, don’t forget to pack your passions, passport and lipstick!

 

 

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