"Is it true that the Americans hate the French?"

It is not the kind of question that one expects to be asked when they're having their cuticles cut, but maybe it shouldn't have been so surprising since the manicurist was French-and the American woman receiving the manicure was in France.

The quotation, "Every man has two countries, his own and France" is generally attributed to the French poet and dramatist Henri de Bornier.

But the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, is alleged to have said that if "the traveled inhabitant of any nation had a choice in which country they would reside, they would choose their own-where all of their friends, family and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of their life were located-and France would be their second choice."

Fortunately, the recent political differences of opinion and spats between France and the United States cannot diminish the fundamental nature of either country. Joie de vivre still flows through the veins of France, and the country's heart is fueled with passion, sophistication and elegance.

Recently, I was graciously invited by Litchfield residents, former fashion designer-turned-antiques-expert Judy Hornby, and her husband, Jerry, to spend two weeks with them at their home in Avignon, located in the south of France.

While our formal mission was to mine for antiques, toward the end of the visit I stole away for a brief but another enchanting and interesting expedition. The city of Avignon is wonderful for shopping.

The main shopping street is Rue de la Republique, which is where the famous French department store Monoprix and other moderately-priced clothing, shoe and beauty shops are located.

Rue Joseph-Vernet runs east off Rue de la Republique, and it reminds me of a scaled-down version of Paris's famous Champs-Elysées.

The stores and boutiques on Rue Joseph-Vernet were more "Parisian," chic and upscale than those found on Rue de la Republique.

However, a common denominator that I found in all of the stores was that the clothing and accessories are extremely feminine without being fussy. It's an American woman's dream.

In France, a woman can dress sexily without fear of having her neighbors call the vice squad.

What "makes" many of the French fashions currently in the stores this season is the attention to detail found at all price points.

Techniques such as runching, where the fabric is gathered and sort of puckered, has been around for years and is currently popular in this country. But with the French fashions, it is very prominent. I saw the technique (which can hide a multitude of figure flaws) used not only in garments such as dresses and blouses, but on scarves and purses, as well. I even saw a bit of "runched" velvet on some shoes.

In American stores, runching is especially popular in clothing for teens. However, in France it's in garments worn by women of all ages and sizes.

Dresses, blouses and pants are created from elegant fabrics, such as velvets and brocades, and three very popular colors in the French stores this season are blue-red, burgundy and a deep chocolate brown. These colors are everywhere, and the contrast with what I saw in New York stores is interesting. While shopping on Fifth Avenue the week before I left for France, I noticed a bounty of pastels, such as cool pinks and ice blue, as well as lots of gold.

It is tempting to predict that we will eventually find in American stores what I noticed in French stores last week. We may, but many of our fashion trends-which used to come almost exclusively from Europe-now come from Asia.

The thing that I like most about the current fashions in the French stores is that the clothing is ladylike and luxurious, but wearable. It reminded me of clothes worn by women in the 1930s and 1940s, but the fabrics now have "give" and "stretch," making them more comfortable.

Another popular look that I wanted to pack up in my suitcase and bring back to the states was the beautiful, classic-looking pumps with narrow yet low heels. At all price points one could easily find elegant pumps with pretty bows and ribbons that you could actually walk quite a few city blocks in. For the most part, many of the pumps that I see in the American stores at the moment are very high-heeled. Or if they are low-heeled, the heels are square and clunky, giving them a serviceable, not sexy, appearance.

Although this is nothing new for the French, when you walk into a lingerie department in France, forget the seamless look. Everything has lace, making for the ooh-la-la look.

But what is relatively new where French intimate apparel is concerned is caffeine- and grapefruit-infused pantyhose. The hose are impregnated with a chemical that is actually a derivative of caffeine, and according to the claims on the package, the hose will reduce cellulite by roughly 30 percent and leg diameter by one and a half centimeters if you wear them regularly.

It's interesting to note that many cellulite-fighting creams on the market today contain some form of caffeine, which supposedly helps burn fat.

I saw these special pantyhose everywhere from moderately-priced department stores to upscale lingerie boutiques. Also, the tights in the French stores almost all have some texture or pattern to them and they were being worn by women of all ages.

While most of my shopping was window shopping with very little buying (the dollar is terrible in Europe right now), I still felt like a kid in a candy store as I traveled the shopping districts of Avignon, walking into every store I came upon.

The manicurist, who was awaiting an answer from her American client, was poised with her fingernail file in mid-air. I could tell that she wasn't going to resume the manicure until I answered her question.

"I can only speak for myself," I told her. "But I am one American who still loves the French." I explained that my feeling is that it is possible to disagree with the politics, but still love the French people and their special "way."

The manicurist seemed satisfied with my answer, and in turn decided to share a beauty secret for whitening the tips of my nails. "Put some 'oxygen' on a cotton swab and run it under the tip of your fingernails," she advised. I asked to see the "oxygen." It was a bottle of hydrogen peroxide discreetly hidden underneath her manicure table. "It turns the nail tips white," she whispered, and she cautioned not to do the procedure too often or risk drying out my nails. "Then you can put clear polish on and have a French manicure that you can do yourself back in America."


Melanie McMillan is Style Editor of The Litchfield County Times