Like many of you, my heart aches for Paris. It’s a place that inspires and confounds me from afar. I spent a week in Paris alone — my 40th birthday gift to myself — and discovered that the Paris of my dreams didn’t always match up with the city’s actual moods and quirks. But the stories it gave to me and the secrets it revealed continue to stir my dreams and unfold in my writing. While the following essay is hardly an answer to the violence that played out last weekend, it is a collection of moments captured and relived on the page. Moments of a place in which I was happy, sad, moved, inspired and undone. Vive la Paris.
The French for window shopping, léche-vitrine, translates to “lick the windows.”
I only buy two pieces of clothing in Paris: a cheap T-shirt dress from H&M, and a scarf from a stall in a clutch of tourists stores selling post cards and Eiffel Tower key fobs. I buy the scarf because the weather keeps turning cold, even though it’s May, and the scarf I packed is too thin against the sudden rain.
In the Paris of my mind, I spend whole days shopping. Trying on wonderful things I can’t afford. In my mind, couture happens in boutiques, in proportions that make sense, and with a readily available vocabulary. In the Paris of reality, I only see couture in magazines and I have a vocabulary for ordering coffee, and even then only with moderate success.
I do try to shop a few times in the second hand store near my hotel. It’s a revelation. I love a good thrift shop anyway, and that such a thing exists in Paris strikes me as pure genius. Cast off sweaters and skirts, previously worn by stylish French women; surely the garments retain some of the aura of their previous owners. The clothes are heaped into bins on top of long folding tables, and the shoppers — a mix of coolly disheveled younger women and shrunken grandmothers in head scarves — muscle through them. There’s no order, no system to define by type or size or quality. And half way through my first bin, one passable sweater in my free hand, the shop closes.
In Paris, stores (at least low-end ones) don’t close in a, “We’ll be closing in 15 minutes. Please bring all purchases to the register” way. They close definitively, in an instant, with the lights off and the shoppers rushed out the door. If you didn’t get to pay, you’ll have to come back for it. I don’t make it back, though. The store is closed when I pass, first thing in the morning and after dark as I leave and return to my hotel.
There are other shops in the neighborhood — the twist of streets just outside of Montmartre. I picked the hotel believing it was in Montmartre, close to the Lapin Agile and the Sacre Cour. Instead, it’s one neighborhood over, next to the Cimetière de Montmartre and inhabited by young families who shop for groceries and walk children to school. There are bakeries with confusing hours and unpronounceable pastries, and there are tiny boutiques packed with the sort of clothes you’d buy in the mall, at Wet Seal or Icing. Cheap things, too short and too bright.
In Paris, there are tons of these stores, selling bandage dresses, miniskirts and gaudy t-shirts. Faux-leather boots and giant earrings. No one wears that stuff, though. Nor do they wear vintage clothes, as far as I can tell. Nothing twee or retro or rescued from a free box on the sidewalk. Everyone wears slim-fitting jeans and jackets in dark neutrals. Black, gray, navy blue and chocolate brown. Endless variations on the same basic theme. It should be boring, but it’s not, because it’s Paris and in Paris even boring things like jeans and jackets are cool.
Booksellers along the Seine
I spend a lot of time watching people in their jeans and jackets. I sit in Cafés and in bars. I sit in bars that are also cafés. It’s hard to tell. Indoor smoking has been banned, so everyone sits in the outdoor seating, protected from the rain by plastic sheeting. To get inside, you have to walk through the smog. I order tiny glasses of Sancerre and Cotes du Rhone, sipping at the cut-gem wine while making meticulous notes in my journal about what everyone is wearing.
Not art or philosophy or slicing insights to be posted, later, on Yelp. Just clothes. My whole travel legacy comes down to notes on clothes.
I’m happiest when I’m sitting at a wicker table drinking something. I know what to do then. The rest of the time, in Paris, I’m lost and directionless and wearing the wrong thing. My hair is wrong, too. The persistent rain ruins my flat ironing, and then the flat iron overheats even though I’ve plugged it into an adapter. My hotel room reeks of scorch.
There’s nothing to do but carry on. I dress and leave the hotel in search of coffee, shedding a trail of burned hair slivers in my wake.
Surprisingly, the French don’t wear sunglasses. Hats, yes. But even when the sun comes out, no one but the tourists pulls out sunglasses. I go for as long as I can without mine, feeling conspicuous when I slide them on. Like I’m showing off. But it’s not like, without them, I blend in. Everywhere I go — to the fashion museum, to the Louvre, to the gardens and the Seine — I stand out, not in a good way. I’m the only one on the Pont Neuf with no one to kiss, the only one alone in line for the Eiffel Tower.
The only time I’m not alone is on the subway. Teenagers girls, hard and mean, leap out of nowhere to press behind when I go through the turnstyle. It’s a scam that only works in a crowd. But after the turnstyle, the long, confusing passageways leading to the trains are mostly empty. There’s the occasional busker or baffled-looking Englishman, and infrequent signs that sometimes reduce me to tears. But when the trains come at rush hour, the crowd swells and presses forward, filling in every space. There are so many people, it’s impossible to fall. I hold my bag close to my body and let myself be tumbled and borne to my stop. I body surf on personal waves of repulsion and exhilaration.
The last thing I buy in Paris is a raisin brioche. I never eat pastries at home, but this isn’t home. I discover the raisin brioche at the cafe near the Place de Clichy metro station three days before the end of my trip. It’s soft and just the right amount of sweet with something like custard cooked into the dough. Even if I haven’t found friends, or fashion, or enough words to order an omelet without embarrassing myself, I have found the carbohydrate equivalent of a torrid affair.