IT WAS two years ago that the four French teen-agers tried to kick down our door in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, yelling: "We are four boys. We want your sex."
We were three American women, who should have been blase about such direct approaches after two months in Mexico. But our room had the kind of door one would expect in a $15-a-night hotel, and it bowed ominously with each kick. The kicks and shouts at 2 a.m. brought no response from the family that ran the small inn, booked solid for Easter weekend. Even the parrots and the monkeys in the courtyard were curiously silent.
Luckily, we never had a chance to find out if the boys' fractured syntax was simply bad grammar or the result of learning English from a George Michael album. The bolt held, the door did not splinter, and the Gallic teen-agers crept away into the night, but not before trilingual Melinda translated what one had muttered to his friends during the height of the attack.
"Don't say that," he had admonished. "Tell them that you like their eyes."
If this is the foundation for Frenchmen's reputation as great lovers, we are in serious trouble.
I have been thinking about flattery, eyes and the language of love since seeing the new film version of Rostand's "Cyrano." Roxanne, so exacting of those who paid her verbal tribute, prized originality. "It displeases me as much as if you were ugly," she told Christian when, attempting to woo her without Cyrano's words, he murmured, "I love you. I love you. I love you so very much. I want to kiss your throat."
At least he didn't mention her eyes. With far too many men, the eyes have it. It has become the form letter of compliments: "Hey, (insert name here), you have pretty eyes! And you may have already won $10 million."
In my case, I happen to have dark hair and pale eyes, a combination which has inspired this original sentiment: "They sure are blue." Yep, I reply. And that pretty much ends the conversation. It makes me think of a novel in which a 10-year-old boy wonders, "Why do grown-ups always say that? Now if they were orange, I could understand making a fuss."
In the case of my friend Melinda, our translator during the Gallic wars, her eyes truly are beautiful. A phenomenal green, deep-set, with perfect lashes -- and she would be very happy if no one ever mentioned this fact again. "When people compliment me on my eyes, I assume it's because I'm overweight," said Melinda, who is not overweight in anyone's mind except her own. But that's a subject for another day.
This is not to denigrate compliments or flattery. It's a poorly kept secret that such ploys work, on both sexes. All I suggest is that men -- and women -- need to be original, to admire those qualities others have overlooked. Or better yet, to find virtue in that which has been considered a flaw. An overbite, a scar, a squeaky voice, a nose like Cyrano's. Forget the eyes and concentrate, as James M. Cain did in a memorable passage in "Mildred Pierce," on the shadows beneath them.
But what can you do with someone who professes to loathe compliments of any kind? Let Shakespeare -- who compared his beloved to a summer's day, the 10th Muse and a lamb -- show the way: "But when I tell him he hates flatterers/He says he does, being then most flattered."