|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE FOUR|
Chic in Paris - Part One
by Maxine Schur
the most extraordinary place in the world.
Charles Dickens, 1844
In Paris over the last several years that I have learned how to 'put myself together.' The saleswomen, as well as my good Parisian friend, Sabine, have taken me in hand and taught me important laws on how we must shop. I say we, to include all women who want to improve not just their appearance, but their lives, by imaginative and strategic credit card mischief.
From Sabine I learned how to shop, for she's the best shopper I know. Perhaps it is Sabine's North African grandmother who has blessed her with the art of the bazaar. She scans the wares of any store within seconds. She bargains for things like a lawyer while charming the salesperson with deadly precision. She shops the way the way many Parisian women shop ~ with premeditation and drama.
To give an example, a few years ago a friend from San Francisco had come to visit me in Paris and was interested in buying clothes. Paris is overwhelming for tourists because every single arrondissement boasts oodles of seductive boutiques, and where do you start? Sabine took us to a boutique in the la-di-da 16th. The shop was so tiny that it looked like it had almost nothing for sale. I soon realized that this was merely a storefront and somewhere behind, above or below must lie a treasure house, for gorgeous things just appeared. My friend picked out a rainbow striped velvet jacket, black velvet pencil skirt and white silk blouse. Sabine herself chose a green silk cropped jacket while I stood there as she later affectionately described, 'Like a Dear in the Headlights', when she pronounced, "Maxine you need a bustier!" (pronounced boost-yay) I suppose I did need one as I was not only sure I didn't have one, I didn't even know what it was!
It turns out that a bustier is one of three words that the French use for our word, 'corset.' Depending on whether the corset is laced or has hooks or buttons, the item is either a corsage, a guêpière, or a bustier. We think of corsets as something quaint ~ so Scarlett O'Hara ~ but in France corsets remain an essential piece of both under and outer wear and perhaps this is one reason why it has often been said that when French women are dressed well, they are what the French call 'fashionably undressed.'
I was shown several jewel-tone silk fabrics and chose aubergine. Within seconds, a very old man suddenly emerged. I have since observed that many shops in Paris house, in some murky antechamber, a very old man whose sole purpose is to appear at just the moment you need to be fitted. I have also learned not to be embarrassed about having a man in your dressing room as you stand half naked behind a too-small curtain. The old man will be all business, posting pins between his teeth as he drapes your bust in silk and measures your bust. Had he been a woman you would have been tickled in more ways than one, as she would have measured by lightly rubbing your breasts with her hands ~ yes, that's how it's done here. Quickly, the old man took his measurements then informed me that my bustier would have silk covered buttons down the back and he certainly hopes, heh, heh, that I have a Monsieur in my life to button (and unbutton) all of them as they will be many and small. Then he returned to his hidden realm. Now, I thought, I will pay (most likely through the nose) for this exquisite bustier, and if you, too, are now thinking this ~ you're wrong.
"It is time," Sabine suddenly announces, "to take a coffee!"
Yes, the timing seems off not just to me and my friend, but to the dismayed shopkeepers who have already begun to tally the total.
Abruptly leaving the shop, Sabine leads us to a café where over café crèmes, she pulls out her calculator and does the math. She adds up the purchases that all three of us want then she slashes that total by 25% to come up with a figure above which we must not pay. "And", she adds with glee, as if in Marrakech, "they must give us baksheesh."
Back at the boutique, she transforms into a pussycat. She meows at them and purrs her offer. They must appreciate, she smiles, that she has brought them not one, but two customers and both are buying! Even she is buying! And, she will bring them more happy visitors from America. After rapid fire discussion, the store owner capitulates, and to our joy presents each of us with a Chanel camellia of white and black silk. We depart in triumph, and on the sidewalk Sabine whispers to me, "In America, your bustier will create a furor."
Besides strategy, one of the best things Sabine has taught me is that the experience of the purchase remains forever a part of that purchase ~ like a fetish. If you have a choice between buying an item for the same price at a department store or at a flagship store with embroidered Louis XVI chairs, you must make the effort to buy at the more beautiful one. The experience you have in the lovelier ambiance will linger in your mind, enhancing the pleasure of your purchase for years to come.
Of course, shopping for anything in France is a great pleasure. Even window shopping is considered delicious. Why else would it be called Lêche Vitrine, 'Licking the Shop Windows'? Shopping for clothes is never a chore nor even a peaceful pastime as it is in America. No. To shop in France is a heady experience because of the constantly changing array of imaginative things. It is courteous, slightly formal and above all, highly educational. I have been given so much helpful unsolicited advice from salespeople here that I am thinking of writing a book, Everything I Learned about Life, I Learned in a French Shop.
I learned, for example, that the French look at the appearance of things much differently than we do. A chic man I know here says that if you dress truly stylish, you will look bizarre back in the States. Fashion here is an induced epidemic that leaves few untouched. And in Paris, anything goes. Everything on the planet is grist for the French aesthetic mill and nothing ~ nothing ~ is too odd to be thought delightful. All manner of curious things are used to serve the fashion gods. I am the proud owner of pretty necklaces made from buttons, rubber water bottles, metal springs and zippers.
In France, I put myself together differently. I wear perfume that has pepper in it and have gloves with tiny inner pockets for sachets. I wear a pale green hat that sports a baby blue felt heart secured by diaper pin and another hat that is brown and looks no more than a collection of dried leaves tumbling down my head. I have trousers with hidden thigh-high slits up the side and a matching purse with felt flowers snapped on. But wait! The flowers are roses and the purse comes as well with snap-on daisies, should I grow bored. Nothing is too strange for the French to wear. If it's inventive, it's chic! "Isn't this a bit much?" I have asked hesitantly before each of my purchases ~ the black and white beret with the red leather flower, the Isabel Marant dress with a wide angle watercolor image of Paris on the inside of the dress, the skirt and blouse with the jewelry already embedded in it, or the purse made from old colorized French films.
"Pas de tout!" the vendeuse cries, surprised, even offended at my concern. Often the saleslady herself will put on the item to show me the way it is to be worn. How that shames me! Yes, it does look charming. Ca engaié, Madame, which in French means that the thing you think odd about the item is the very thing that makes it more gay (in this context, more merry). It enhances its allure. One vendeuse demanded rhetorically, "Haven't peasants always done this by embroidering their rustic clothes with flowers?"
Another vendeuse, a young salesgirl, cute as candy, with touches of turquoise in her hair, regarded me for several moments as if I were bland as blancmange, then with a rippling laugh and a little shimmy, cried "Il vous faut un peu de WAOUH!" ("You need a bit of WOW!") Later, when I came to regard myself in the store mirror wearing the skirt with three different hem lengths, I knew I was on the right track for getting WAOUH! and the sale is confirmed when I hear that lovely but odd French compliment, "On you, it succeeds."
The main thing to remember when shopping in France is that the French are not only bold with fashion; they're fussy. The French are fussy because they inherited a tradition of aesthetics in grooming and fashion that dates to the Renaissance, and they can't shake it. They keep up with fashion as with current events for they understand Jean Cocteau's famous words, "Style is a simple way of saying complicated things."
Now, the French take a long time making decisions when they shop and the salespeople expect you to consider carefully and discuss all aspects of the item, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I can only illuminate this fact by relating the time I walked into a candle shop in a small bastide town in the Dordogne. My friend waited outside as I was to quickly buy just a candle candle I’d seen in the window. I emerged twenty minutes later and to her question, "What took you so long?" I explained, "I bought two."
Don't miss Part Two of Shopping Chic in Paris in our August issue!
Lady Cruises in Champagne
by Ellen Sack
The Barge Lady, has been a broker of French canal barge vacations
Over the past twenty years, I've enjoyed cruises on every river and canal in Burgundy, Alsace, Provence and the Languedoc. But there remained one popular barging route that I had never experienced (despite my personal preference for champagne over wine!) and that was the Champagne region. In July, 2008, it was finally time for this long-awaited trip, which turned out to be an idyllically beautiful six-night journey on an itinerary which began in Paris, flowed east on the River Marne and ended in Reims.
Even for those of you who have driven or taken the train through the French hinterland, barging provides a very different vantage point: from the water. France is criss-crossed by canals and also has a plethora of smaller rivers with slow current that meander through the deepest countryside. The average barge cruise route is fifty miles per week ~ one could WALK it faster! The idea is to slow down, enjoy the pampering, and immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and experiences of one small region.
Barging also takes you back in time to 150 years ago when the canals and rivers served as 'highways' conveying freight from one village to the next. These early barges were pulled from a towpath by donkeys, horses, small trains ~ even people. Today's barges are for travelers and have been built for luxury. Our barge, the eight-passenger Nouvelle Etoile, offers king-bedded cabins, private tiled baths, email access, a small gym and a hot tub! The five crew members include a chef, a multi-lingual guide and the captain and his wife who had also designed the barge.
Our six-night cruise began on Sunday afternoon in Paris. My husband and I boarded the Nouvelle Etoile moored in the Bassin de L'Arsenal - a park-like marina near the Bastille where the Canal St-Martin meets the River Seine. Before arriving in Champagne, we would enjoy two very contrasting cruises right through Paris ~ and you have not experienced this great city until you have seen it from the water!
We began our first city cruise immediately upon boarding, setting sail past the major landmarks. Our guide joined us on deck to point out Notre Dame and other famed monuments, but my attention was drawn to the locals who flocked to the Seine on that warm summer day. We had a front row, floating seat to observe the ease and romance of Paris and its citizens. They frolicked on the 'Paris Plage', an artificial Seine-side beach; a serious group was learning to tango; musicians gave impromptu concerts; families picnicked; and lovers strolled hand in hand across the bridges.
Alas, the vibe was distinctly different the following morning, Monday, when we began our cruise out of Paris to the first mooring in Meaux. Now we experienced what I called the 'back to work' Paris! We cruised past office buildings, under bridges on which the Métro rushed by, and by docks where commuters were boarding water taxis bound for the financial district. However, in less than two hours we were in quiet suburbs and by afternoon had reached Meaux, our first mooring in Champagne.
Known as the home of Brie cheese, Meaux turned out to be a lovely and well-preserved town that had remained undamaged through two World Wars. Our regular excursion to a cheese farm had been canceled (mon Dieu! The farmer was on vacation ~ after all, we are in France!) but the substitute excursion might have been even more interesting. After visiting the local market and tasting Brie cheese at the Tourist Office, we met a local guide who showed us the gorgeous Gothic cathedral, complete with outbuildings and a garden. She explained that in the Middle Ages, simultaneous Masses were held in every corner and that congregants worshipped with their cats, dogs and even livestock in tow!
the next several days, we continued to travel farther east into Champagne
on an itinerary that deftly combined scenery and sightseeing. Cruising
on the River Marne was as beautiful as barging in Burgundy or on any other
scenic French cruise routes. Vineyards, fields and farmhouses clung
to distant hills, while closer in, we cruised past colorful villages and
riverside gardens. Patient fisherman waved us by, as did families taking
an after-dinner stroll.