25 May 2012

The 16th Arrondissement: The Beverly Hills of Paris

I hate the 16th Arrondissement - and given how much I love this city and everything about it, it's pretty amazing that I could find anything to hate.

But I hate the 16th.

The reason, interestingly enough, takes me back to my childhood - which is something I don't spend a whole lot of time talking about.  But, in this case, it's worth the explanation.

I grew up in Beverly Hills.  Yes, I know.  Oohs and aahs.  "90210," "The Beverly Hillbillies" and all the rest.

Not really.  Being of a certain age, my version of growing up in Beverly Hills was quite different from the reality of the place now.  Because now I can't stand it.  (You'll see the connection to the 16th in moments.  I promise.)

It's the whole Rodeo Drive thing.  You remember that wonderful scene in "Pretty Woman" when Julia Roberts goes back to the boutique salesperson who had treated her so badly the previous day and, hefting all her shopping bags and looking like all the money Richard Gere had invested in her, says, "You remember me?  Big mistake.  BIG mistake!"...leaving the saleswoman with the knowledge that, through her supercilious snobbery, had lost out on big sales and BIG commission?

That Beverly Hills.

My version of Beverly Hills pre-dated that version of Rodeo Drive.  When I was a kid, Rodeo Drive's two largest stores were Hunter's Books (which I still miss) and the hardware store.  The latter wasn't even part of a chain.  It was just a hardware store.

Sure, there were "stars" living in Beverly Hills, but they were the folks you saw in the grocery store or standing and talking on the streets.  They were residents of a small city that started as a bean field  and became an enclave for the Hollywood set because Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford created Pickfair and everybody wanted in.

But they were just residents.  No entourages and, definitely, no body guards.  No makeup or toupees, either, for that matter.

Now, it's a place that's more a caricature of itself than anything else.  Everything looks manufactured.  Perfect and manufactured - and new.  Cars.  Buildings.  People.

And the attitude goes right along with the rest.  It's not just a superciliousness.  It's that they behave as if they're better than everybody else...at the exact same time that they're looking over their shoulders trying to convince themselves that they're as rich/talented/famous/beautiful/well-dressed/thin/taut-skinned as anyone and/or everyone else.  (Which actually makes them bullies and cowards - but that's another discussion altogether.)

They're mean.  And they're rude.  And they're self-centered to the exclusion of all else.

Welcome to the 16th Arrondissement - Paris's version of Rodeo Drive...only more architecturally beautiful.

I've been there exactly three times during my years here.  The first was to go to a cafe that an American friend wanted to visit that she assured me had the "best" macarons in town.  (It's the Cafe Carette and, if you really want to go, go to the one in the 3rd at the Place des Vosges.)  The second time I was doing some research on an update to a shopping guide to Paris and had to spend WAY too much time there.

It was after those visits - where the people were rude, the food in the cafes was marginal and the servers - whether cafe or shops - were only interested in seeing 'who else' might be walking in the door so that they could be more obsequious than words -  that I told my friends that if ever I talk about going back to the 16th, shoot me.

Well, today I did.  I had some business that necessitated my visiting, so I went.  It was just as bad as I remembered.  Worse, in some ways, because I knew what to expect - and it not only lived up to but exceeded my expectations.

It also taught me why, no matter how hard I might want to try, I'll never be a Parisian.  I'm not rude (I can't figure out any reason to be) and I smile (which really throws Parisians for a loop).  In fact, you put those two together and you get the expression a lovely French woman once told me is at the foundation of the way the French think:  "Too nice. Too stupid."  (In French, very insulting, vernacular: Trop bonne. Trop conne.)

Yes, the fact that I choose to be polite (and happy, for that matter) works against me.  Or at least it does in the 16th.

So, seriously.  This time I mean it.  If EVER you hear me talking about going back to the 16th:  Please.  Just shoot me.  Put me out of that misery before it begins again.

06 March 2012

Paris and the Police

I'm a city kid.  I've got city behaviors - American city behaviors - which give me a particular sensitivity for protecting my purse, not walking alone at night, watching to see who else is in the convenience store...you know the drill.

Then there's Paris.

One of the strangest shifts I needed to make was being in a city and not living that always-slightly-anxious-always-on-the-lookout city sort of way.  And I no longer do.

A typical residential street in Paris
Because Paris is surprisingly safe.

Now, when I said this to my hairdresser, the incomparable Alexandre (who doesn't speak English, so my haircuts do double-duty as lessons in French social conversation), and he was talking about the upcoming Presidential elections here (they're in June and far more interesting to the French than what's going on in the States), he disagreed with me.  And he was correct - at least in part.  Because, as with everyplace else, it all depends upon where you hang out.

That being said (and I told Alexandre this), Parisians don't necessarily realize that the extent of visible police presence in this city is far, far greater than you find in most American cities.  (He loves Chicago...even though he's never been there.)

When you walk the streets of Paris, there is rarely a time that you don't see some form of police passing by.  They're on foot (usually in pairs), on bikes (usually in threes), in cars, vans and buses.  Depending upon the time of year and what's going on in demonstrations and political visitors (this is the nation's capitol, after all), there is also a military presence walking the streets.  (The French are very proud of their military.)

Women walk with their purses open.  Men count money on the sidewalk, well away from the ATMs, before putting it in their wallets.  And, yes, the sirens really are the pam-pom from the movies.

Sure, you've got your street scammers, but they're mostly looking for tourists.  (My advice: Just ignore anyone who comes up to you and says, "Speak English?" or suddenly bends down as you're walking toward them and holds out a piece of jewelry asking if it's yours and you'll be fine.)

And, yes, there are areas that are ripe for pickpockets...like the Eiffel Tower, near the Saint Michel fountain, over by the Louvre in the crowds.  You see the trend.  Crowded places where tourists go and are looking in a concentrated way at something other than the not-so-honest people by which they're surrounded.

But, other than that, Paris is safe.  Especially when there are demonstrations - of which there are many.

The other day, I was having lunch with a friend at the Brasserie Le Bourbon, just behind the Assemblée Nationale building.  As we were walking toward the restaurant, we noticed that there were a lot of police just sort of hanging around.  There were vans and a bus and a lot of young, well-tailored, good looking men standing there smoking.

Our take on it was that the Assemblée (the French equivalent of our House of Representatives) was in session.

We were right and wrong.  They were - but the reason that the police were there was that they were waiting for the demonstration that was to come.  And it did...about 45 minutes or so later.

There were two indicators that a demonstration was on its way - both of which occurred simultaneously.  Even as we heard, quietly in the distance, the cheers and cadences of the demonstrating crowd, we saw the police move, in formation, to block access to the Square immediately behind the Assemblée building.

(They also made sure the demonstrators were out of the eye-line of the diners - which, this being Paris, also made a lot of sense.  You never interrupt a good meal.)

By now, though, the police were in their riot gear.  No longer just the shirts and light jackets from earlier.

Only - and once again, unlike in the States - the police weren't wearing helmets with visors.  In fact, other than their protective body gear (which, given that this is Paris, is less bulky and more flatteringly tailored than in the States - sort of like the classic Dior of riot gear), they weren't protected at all.

It's almost as if, unless it's a particularly violent outbreak (which happens, but rarely), it's more important that the police face the demonstrators - which makes it far more personal somehow and, I believe, is part of why demonstrations here, political and otherwise, are more tuneful than violent.  (I'm serious.  In most of the demonstrations I've seen, they sing.)

Parisians - in fact, the French, in general - have a lot of respect for political and social action.  It's a living part of their history.

The fact that their police, even while enforcing the law, somehow add to the support of that action by not assuming violence from the first, sets a different tone - a more civilized tone - to that particular right.

And that's so very, very Paris.

04 March 2012

The Cafes of Montparnasse: La Rotonde, La Coupole and Le Select

Just at the junction of the Sixth and Fourteenth Arrondissements in Paris, at the crossroads of the Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse, you are confronted by a group of cafés and restaurants that show up in most all the guidebooks. The problem is, how are you supposed to know which to pick?

I'm here to tell you - because there is both an art and a science to selecting your café of choice.

For this post, we'll start with the three closest to the intersection that aren't fish joints.  (We'll save those for a later post.)

So, there you are, looking up Montparnasse. The Observatoire is to your back and the Eiffel Tower is hiding just ahead and around a curve. (We'll deal with how the Eiffel Tower plays peekaboo in a later post, too.)

On your right, just at the corner is La Rotonde.  Beyond it - a block away, just past the movie theatre and steak joint (stick with me - we'll be talking about that place, too) is Le Select.  On the other side of the street is La Coupole.

One could argue that La Rotonde and La Coupole are sort of the same thing. Big, a bit more formal. Fancier, more expensive menus.  Le Select, on the other hand, is a classic Paris cafe - very much in the Left Bank style of the Sixth Arrondissement, where we specialize in wearing black and being highly literate.

Existential, when we're at our best.

But all these places are known for their literary forebears and have the street cred of every imaginable French and American writer who has made Paris his or her home over the decades.  So that can't be your decision-making criterion.

On the menu front, La Rotonde goes more classic French with La Coupole providing a combination of classic and nouvelleLa Coupole is also part of the Brasserie Flo organization which owns multiple cafés and brasseries around town - all of them big and, to a certain extent, operating like the chain that they are.  Different food in each, but it's the feel of the place.  You know what I mean.

Le Select offers café fare - including the ubiquitous Croque Monsieur (basically, a grilled open-faced ham and cheese sandwich) and a really excellent Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinée (the French onion soup that we all love over in the States).  They've got cheap and cheerful sandwiches, too - on baguette, of course.

So, there are your menu choices - which still isn't the decision-making criterion you want to use.

How do you choose?  I'll give you my decision-making criteria - which, depending on how I'm feeling makes choosing easy each time.

La Rotonde, for me, is comforting.  That's because, when I first took the apartment here and things didn't happen (like having no heat and a stove that couldn't be hooked up - all of this in the winter), La Rotonde was the place I took myself to recover from everything that was going wrong in a foreign language.

The staff and the food were exactly what I needed to get me through. 

Yes, it's more formal, but the food is always good, well-prepared and the menu gives choices that range from fresh oysters to (also delicious) onion soup to great steaks and truly excellent duck (magret de canard).  Truly excellent.  (Duck, in France, is not fatty at all. Just delicious.)

Beyond the food, the service is simultaneously discreet yet engaging.  The waiters all seem to want to discuss what you're thinking about having, the options available, answer questions - never intrusively and not at all pushy.  Just there.

They also have menus in English as well as French and the waiters are all bi-lingual.  It's a comfort.

Le Select is where I go when I want the 'café experience.'  The service is fast and impatient and the waiters range from being arrogant and uncompromising (I once wanted to change an order and the waiter scolded me as he said no) to being helpful and charming.  It's rather the luck of the draw.

So, when I don't much care about my cholesterol and want that Croque Monsieur, I'll go over to Le Select and hope that I get one of the waiters who kibbitz.  They're fun.


And that leaves us with La Coupole.  Frankly, I don't eat meals there - at least not beyond breakfast (which is both delicious and a seriously great deal) and that rarely.  But I do go to La Coupole for two other reasons - one food and the other experiential.

On the food front, La Coupole serves hot chocolate made from Valrhona chocolate.  Even better, they serve it in a pitcher with some creme on the side.  Sugar, too.  So when I want a hot chocolate (a mainstay in Paris) and I don't want to leave the 'hood, I'm at La Coupole.

The other thing that endears La Coupole to me is that they are one of the few places left that pass the "two pitcher test" when I order a Grande Crème.  A Crème is kind of like a capuccino - but French.  The problem is, when I first came here, pretty much everyplace gave you two pitchers - one of coffee and one of steamed, slightly foamy milk - when you ordered a Crème (small or large). 

Now, not so much. You more often just get a cup of coffee with foamy milk on top.  It's not the same thing at all.

At La Coupole, they still give you two pitchers - and that means, for the same price you're paying for a coffee at either of the other two restaurants (or even Starbucks which is further along on Montparnasse) - you get about 3 cups of coffee. That's a serious deal in a country that doesn't refill your coffee cup.

All of which leads us to the experience.  It turns out that La Coupole is a pick-up joint for men and women of a certain age.

I didn't know this when I first started going there.  I would meet a friend (she loves their hot chocolate) and would sometimes find myself sitting and waiting for her to arrive.  (Like most Parisians, 15 minutes late is considered on time, if not a bit early.  I operate on what they call "Swiss Time" - which is close to an insult.)

So there I was, sitting and watching men walk by, then walk back, then walk by again. I also noticed that the women of a certain age in the café were all sitting alone, seriously duded (every one of which had too-dark colored hair and lipstick) and were actively avoiding looking out the window...until they did.

Then I noticed that some of the men would come in and sit down at the tables with these women.  I - naive soul that I am - thought they knew each other.  My friend disabused me of that notion very quickly.  She explained that the reason the men were walking back and forth was to see what was on offer among the women - and the women were there for the same reason.

Evidently, there is some kind of ocular code that occurs when the men are walking by and the women don't look...then look...but do so in a very specific way that remains a mystery to me - but is clearly the key to when the men join them.  It's very discreet.

So there you have it.  The decision-making criteria you, too, can use as you choose your Paris cafe at the crossroads of Montparnasse.

Just be discreet. This is Paris, after all.

26 February 2012

Lessons Learned from the Paris Fashion Runway

I'm short.  At least I'm short in physical height (5'3" at a stretch) but VERY tall in spirit ("six foot twenty" as I have told clients and audiences over the years).

I'm also not skinny.  At all.  In fact, the one time I made it down to a Size 8 I looked like I was an anorexic (I wasn't) trying to lose even more weight and, to this day, when I see photos of myself at that time, I cringe.

Why I state all of this from the first is because, for women, the fashion industry presents itself based on what you are not - or at least never enough of.  Specifically:
  • You are not tall (enough).
  • You are not skinny (enough).
  • You do not have (absolutely) perfect skin.
  • Your body shape isn't long and lean (enough).
You're simply not.

Marcel Marongiu - a serious cutie.
That is, until you are lucky enough to meet a wonderful and talented designer, like I did, in the form of Marcel Marongiu.  Because what I learned from my very first attendance at one of his live Paris Fashion Shows - Marcel is the Creative Designer for Guy Laroche - is that fashion, at its best, isn't aspirational.  It's all about achievement - by your definition.

The designers are only there to help you decide what you want to be.

Here's how I know.

I was invited to my first Show by a mutual friend of Marcel's.  I didn't know Marcel and, frankly, it never occurred to me that I'd be part of the Paris Fashion Set in even a small way.

Come on.  I saw "The Devil Wears Prada."  Even better, I watched the documentary, "The September Issue" about Vogue Magazine and the incomparable Anna Wintour.  The rules were very clear.  You either look a certain way to get access into that world or the door is closed.

I was figuring on a closed door - until it opened through an alternate route.  (That's the story of my life's opportunities, by the way, so I'm always on the lookout for obtuse angles.)  I got the invitation and I was there like a shot.

Paris fashion shows, I learned, are nowhere near as exciting or luxurious as they seem on screen.  In fact, the seating is uncomfortable (at best), it's too hot, they start REALLY late, there's no ventilation and the music is WAY too loud.  (The buildings actually tremble outside from the pounding bass within.)

Then come the models - and it was at that point that I started to worry, because I was worried about them.

They're WAY too skinny (keep in mind that the camera puts on weight - so these women are really, really skinny) and the way they walk made me wonder if older models end up suffering from hip dysplasia like German Shepherd dogs.  (Seriously.  That's what I was wondering.)

But what surprised me the most was that the designs that Marcel presented included pieces that I could see myself wearing - right off the runway.  Not just purses and shoes (the latter of which would never happen as he likes REALLY high heels on women - which, granted, are flattering to the leg, but jeesh), but tops, dresses and jackets.

I was so taken aback by the thought that I could wear runway clothes that when I was mistaken for a fashion insider by a Japanese television crew that was interviewing guests coming out of the Show (I was wearing my all black St. John so I evidently looked the part), I was able to do a pitch for Marcel's designs to the Asian market (where he is VERY big) that included commenting on the fact that non-model types, like me, could easily see ourselves in his designs.

(The Japanese commentator was very impressed by this comment.)

Then, months later, I met Marcel.  And it was after meeting him and discussing his design philosophy that I understood what fashion is supposed to be - which is not the way it's presented in the larger world.  Or at least it doesn't have to be what we're taught to believe.

In Marcel's world, women are beautiful.  All women.  It doesn't matter their size nor that they're not 'picture perfect.'  They're women - and that makes them beautiful.

Contrast that with the sorts of quotes about the unacceptability of and intolerance toward 'fat women' from designers like Calvin Klein and Karl Lagerfeld and you understand why so many women are socialized to feel 'less than.'  Those men should be ashamed.

Instead, what I realized from our discussions over time is that when Marcel designs, it's with an intent to help women see themselves as beautiful - by their definition using his designs and vision for beauty in all forms to help them achieve their goal.  Not to aspire toward an out-of-reach social 'convention' - but a reality that allows women to feel good about themselves all the time.

With his help, of course.

Tomorrow begins Paris Fashion Week - and Marcel's show for Guy Laroche is on Wednesday.  I'm so looking forward to it - not only because Marcel is now a friend, but also because, through his eyes, I and all other women get to envision ourselves beyond what we currently see.  Better yet, we get to achieve those goals for ourselves - by our own definition.

24 February 2012

Paris and Les Fonctionnaires

We're coming up on Paris Fashion Week - about which we're all very excited, of course.  But for those who aren't used to French behavior sets, one of the challenges the visitors will meet is dealing with the way that Parisian workers seem to ignore pretty much everything you want.

My invitation to this season's GL Show!
This is where the Parisian reputation for 'bad service' comes from - which, to be fair, isn't deserved.  It's not that they give bad service.  It's that they don't understand service the way we do.

That's because they're fonctionnaires.  Bureaucrats.  Just like the front line workers you encounter at your City Hall, DMV and every other government office you ever visit.  They have their rules and you have to follow them.

And that's what makes the Parisian system work...at least, once you understand it.

You see, in Paris, workers - from employees checking you in at your hotel to La Poste to the waiter at your local café - aren't there to serve you.  They're there to do their jobs to their own satisfaction based on the way they were trained.  And when they were trained, the training didn't include a customer orientation.  It focused on the specifics of the job and what, internally, defines a "job well done" - once again, not for the customer (like you) but to their definition and satisfaction.

This causes a lot of anger and misunderstanding among the Americans, in particular, who come to visit as well as those who live here.

For example, I have a dear friend - by far one of the most elegant and civilized men I've ever met in my life - I meet periodically for coffee.  (He's also a serious sweetie.)  He lived in Paris off and on for over 30 years because of his work before deciding to live here permanently - so you'd think that he'd be completely au fait with the ropes.

Yes and no.  He knows how the system works but, because he's American, it doesn't always make sense to him.  Even after all these years.

In any case, we go to various cafés around town - often chosen based upon what we're doing before we meet up or simply because it's in an area we've not visited for a while.

One day we decided to meet at a café near the Louvre.  There are a load of choices in the immediate vicinity and we chose a nice location on the square outside the Jardins des Palais Royale where, because it was a beautiful day, we sat outside in the sunshine.

It took a while for the waiter to come to us - which is normal.  It wasn't that he didn't see us.  He was just busy with other customers.

Now, in the non-Parisian world, the server usually acknowledges you and says that he or she will be there in just a moment.  Not in Paris.  It doesn't happen - nor is it expected.

Your responsibility is to sit and enjoy yourself (or at least keep yourself occupied) until the waiter appears - at which point it's going to be a very quick and focused discussion where you have to get your order in fast before he walks away.

The lead-up to last season's GL Show.
After all, he's got lots of stuff to do - none of which has anything to do with you.

(Two items of note:  First, most of the servers in Paris seem to be male, so I'm going to keep referring to them as waiters - even though the same thing happens with waitresses.  Second, the quick behavior I'm describing here isn't always the case - but I'll write more about that when I take on Les Cafés de Montparnasse in a future post.)

After another little while, our waiter brought us our coffee and left us to our own devices - which was fine.  Until it wasn't.  Because, eventually, my friend needed to leave so that he could take care of some errands before it got too late.

That's when the tone changed.  At least for us.  But not for our waiter.

Because although we made clear that we wanted the check ("L'addition, s'il vous plait!") and were assured by the waiter that he would bring it, he didn't.  Then, when my friend was able to catch his attention a few minutes later and asked, again, we were, once again, assured that it would be brought right away.

This went on a few times until my friend - who speaks much better, more fluent French than I - said in a far less tolerant (although still utterly civilized and quiet) voice that we were in a hurry ("Nous sommes pressés!").

It was at that point that I finally understood exactly why Americans don't understand Parisians.  It was all explained in the look on the waiter's face and his repetition of my friend's statement - only in the form of the nearly shocked question: "Vous êtes pressés?"

How, he seemed to be asking, could you want to leave?  Here you are, in the café, sitting in the sun, enjoying the ambience and the conversation and you want to leave?  To leave?  But why?  What could lead you to that desire?

Seriously.  It was all in his face and voice.  And, for all that it was nonverbal, it was probably one of the most Gallic commentaries I've experienced.

And that was when I understood that it's not about you.  It's about them.  In their world - which, happily in the case of cafés, includes unlimited time at your little table even if all you buy is one cup of coffee - your raison d'être is to simply be there, in that place, at that time.

For them, once they've served you, you don't exist any longer.  (I'm convinced that this is one of the reasons that existentialism was adopted so thoroughly and comfortably in this country.)  You don't have to exist - unless and until they're about to leave, in which case, they're right back at you wanting to be paid. Now.  This moment.  Tout de suite.

So, whether it's for Paris Fashion Week or just to take in the sights of this beautiful City, make sure you make the time not to rush any service personnel you might encounter.

After all, it's not about you and your vacation.  It's all about them and the rules of les fonctionnaires!

17 February 2012

Marks & Spencer Paris and "The Swarm"

Going to Marks & Spencer on the Champs-Elysées is a dangerous thing to do. Very, very dangerous.

One would think that the reason that it's dangerous is because of all the wonderful items one would want to purchase there. In that way, the danger would be to one's wallet.

Mais non, mes amis.  It's not your wallet that's in danger. The danger is to your health and safety.

You see, when the French go to M&S, they swarm. Like killer bees on a rampage. And they're all swarming in the Food Hall.

French people, in general, aren't particularly polite. By American standards, they're rude. It's really that simple.

The Seine and Grand Palais
They push ahead of each other in lines. They don't care if they're walking directly into you on the sidewalk. They simply don't see you. They're so trained to be self-centered that if it's not about them or their immediate interest, it doesn't exist. Especially other people.

If you subscribe to the "language defines culture" argument that so many socio-linguistic and social science theorists purport (which I do) then this makes perfect sense.  After all, there is no word for "rude" in the French language.  The closest you can get is "impolite" - which is really not the same thing.

So, for the French, since the word doesn't exist, neither does its manifestation.  French people, then, aren't rude.  They're simply French.

Until they become British - and that takes me back to M&S and the dangers of shopping in their Food Hall. And here's how I know.

On one of my early trips to London when I wanted to see what it might be like to live there, rather than taking a hotel room, I stayed in an apartment hotel - including a full kitchen.  Part of the experience I wanted was to go beyond the Harrods or Fortnum and Mason Food Halls to see what supermarket shopping was like.

It was a nightmare.

The apartment I was in was near Westminster - a very convenient and popular facility, I later found out, for the Members of Parliament (MPs) from outside of London who stayed there when Parliament was in session.

Now it turns out that the MPs didn't do a lot of cooking. Evidently, they either ordered in or ate out - or picked up the small necessities (like tea and milk for their tea) in the shop on site...which charged usurious prices I wasn't willing to pay.

As a result, once the staff got past their confusion of why I wanted to find a supermarket, they gave me directions to the nearest Sainsbury's...which was across the river in a (then) not-so-nice part of town.  Intrepid adventurer that I am, I took a walk across the Thames into that not-so-nice neighborhood and found the market.

Getting there was no problem - and everyone, while outside, was very nice and polite in that oh-so-British way.  But that all changed as soon as we got inside the doors. From that moment, it became a frightening, nearly death-defying experience of people crashing into each others' shopping carts, leaving their carts in the middle of aisles as they shopped that and other aisles and brought their booty back and, worst of all, the swarming.

This occurred whenever any staff brought the multi-shelved rolling carts out from the back of the store.  It didn't seem to matter what was on the carts. As soon as anyone saw the vertical green panels leading to the backroom start to move, they started swarming - and the employees got out of the way. 

Seriously.  They'd roll the cart into the shopping area then push it forward and away from themselves as they stepped back while the shoppers swarmed.

By the time the shoppers were finished, the shelves were empty.  It took moments.

I watched this a few times (I was treating it like a cultural event) but never went near those shelves.  Frankly, I didn't care what was on them - from meat to bakery items to cleaning supplies.  It was WAY too dangerous for me - and no grocery is worth fighting over.

Unfortunately, the French seem to have decided to take on the British behaviors when visiting M&S.  They swarm - and the poor employees, who can't keep up with the demand, are being bombarded.  In fact, at this point no matter how much fresh product M&S is sending over from the UK every day, they're not coming close to what the shoppers want.

As a result, the lovely French people who work there (who are refreshingly friendly and helpful - which is not Parisian at all) are having to simultaneously unload the fresh-shipped product even as they are being swarmed by the frighteningly aggressive, British-supermarket behaving customers.

The big difference being that, in London, as soon as these kamikaze shoppers were finished, they went back to being the oh-so-polite British people that they were before they had their carts in hand.  With the French, not so much.  Like not at all.

Sadly, all I'm trying to do at M&S is buy bagels.  Bagels.  It really shouldn't be this much of an event - but there you have it.  One goes where the quality is...even when it's never in stock and one has to put one's life on the line trying to buy a comfort food. 

I am ever the optimist, though, because M&S will be opening other stores in Paris - so hopefully the swarms will abate and I'll be able to buy my bagels without risking my life.

14 February 2012

Parisian Women and "La Regarde"

I have a friend from England who comes over to Paris to visit periodically.  The last time she visited, she brought her daughter for a "girlie" weekend.  It was great fun.

But one of the most interesting parts of the weekend was my friend bemoaning the 'looks' she kept getting from the Frenchwomen on the street.  They really, really bothered her - and as the weekend progressed, they colored her view of the trip.  Which was sad - until I explained that she was being paid a compliment.

She was, in fact, correct. Women in Paris as good as glare at each other when walking on the streets, shopping in the stores or, in fact, just about anywhere.  They start at your feet and look slowly up (quickly if there's only a bit of time permitting) with this funny turned-down mouth and their noses slightly scrunched as if they smell something bad.

Why I rarely wear high heels in Paris.
By the time they get to your face, no matter how well dressed you are or how beautiful you look, you're convinced there must be something wrong...

Like your hem is coming down.  Or you're wearing the wrong shoes.  (Just so you know, shoes are a really big thing in Paris.)  Or how could you have thought to use that makeup?

Congratulations!  When you get what I call "La Regarde" (trans: The Look), as far as I'm concerned you've achieved the pinnacle of what Parisian women strive toward:  To be hated by other women.

Interestingly, it's not personal.  In fact, it's so not personal that they're not actually seeing you - if you see what I mean.  They're seeing some amorphous, intangible competition which they've been trained from birth to do all they can to destroy.  And if they can do it with a look, they've really won.

When I first came to Paris, I reacted very much as my British friend did.  I wondered and I got uncomfortable - and then I got militant.  What did I care what these Parisian bitches thought about me?  They didn't know me!  Where the hell did they get off making faces at me as if I was somehow insulting their sense of the aesthetic?

Yes, it got that bad.

Then I got analytical (which, if you know me, is way typical of me).

I started observing women on the street to see if this was truly pointed at me or if this was simply a trend that Parisian women followed.  It is definitely the latter.

The competition is fierce in Paris - particularly when it comes to women against women.  It's as if the same species is its own natural predator.  As a result, you can't win - because the system is gamed so that no one does.

In fact, one of my favorite and most telling analytical episodes was when I was in La Grande Epicerie one evening picking up a few things before going home.

Petanque Courts in the Luxembourg Gardens
There was a tall, gorgeous, beautifully dressed and coiffed woman - probably in her late 20's or early 30's - walking with her basket and being watched by another, slightly older but also beautiful and beautifully dressed and coiffed woman who was standing with a man.

The second woman had La Regarde on her face as she watched this other woman walk by.  It was as if, suddenly, right near the truly exquisite bakery counter, a stink-bomb had been set off.  Her expression looked as if what she was looking at so offended her sensibilities that she would either have to leave or complain - vociferously with lots of gesticulation and pfffs - to offset the insult.

I watched this with real appreciation.

First, it was a simultaneous pleasure and fashion lesson because everyone was dressed and coiffed so well.  Second, looking at how La Regarde was being applied, I knew without doubt that there never was, had been nor would be anything personal toward me about that experience.

And, finally, it was my favorite because, when the second woman saw me watching her watch the other woman with a smile on my face, she smiled back at me, shrugged in that oh-so-French way and then went off with her gentleman friend - who had been oblivious to the whole experience.

It was perfect. 

Now, when I'm walking on the streets and I get La Regarde, I get the biggest smile on my face.  As far as I'm concerned, these women are paying me the compliment of considering me a worthy adversary even though it's for a prize I'm not interested in winning.

In their world, that's the highest compliment possible.  In mine, it's just part of the fun and fascination of Paris.