Paris shopping Part Two: From treasures to tears and back

My Parisienne friend Huguette took me to her favourite boutique; I had warned her that I am an extra-large French size (44 or 46, maybe a relaxed 42), not easy to find, and my height often is a dealbreaker. I know where I can get French clothes that fit, but her place would be all new, exotic, exciting. 

She waved off that concern like a croissant flake on a blouse, hailed a cab, and we were soon entering Trésor by Brigitte Masson, in a tiny lane (6, rue du Trésor) in the Marais. This was the magical little gem I had literally dreamed about.

Huguette was right: I liked everything I saw. The colours were unusual and nuanced, the price point reasonable for the quality, and the pieces had that "don't see that on everyone" effect. The racks murmured: "Venez ici!"

The racks were organized by colour groups, with a notable paucity of black.

But the clothes didn't fit: sleeves and skirts too short, buttons in the wrong places. Mme Masson had maybe ten items in my size and I tried every last one, even things I couldn't really use. A woman of my proportions was twirling before the mirror in a shift dress over pants, but it's not a look I like on myself. 

Much as I wanted to join my friend in her spree, I was shut out of the action. Huguette, presently size 38, merrily bought a spring coat (around €400), hat, and scarf.

I too found a scarf; coincidentally, we both chose the same Epice linen/silk in different colourways. Below, she wears hers with her winter coat, a soft peach tweed coat from Trésor, which is lined with a photo-print of gondoliers in Venice, a secret mural that delights the wearer. (You can just see the pale blue of the lining at the rolled cuff.)

I wore mine with a featherweight down jacket which I packed at the last minute:

I'm smiling in that shot, but I surely wasn't when I came home, miserable and owly, partly due to a painful arthritic knee, but mostly from frustration. Le Duc was initially annoyed with Huguette—he had to put up with the fallout. He reminded me that I've had more or less the same experience for decades. 

We walked to a favourite restaurant—but despite the very best food and company, I felt a lingering mournful longing which, I'm embarrassed to say, dampened the evening. 

Life resolved my snit, the very next day.

On Sunday morning, we strolled through a street market at Place Monge and fell upon a sidewalk sale held by a local church parish. I spotted a quirky tweed (pinks, violet, burgundy, off-white) wool-and-cashmere jacket in unworn condition; it would have looked at home in Trésor's chest of delights.  

Cost? 10 euros. (Full disclosure: I'm having it tailored to fit me precisely, for another $65.) Even at that, it's a bargain-priced lesson in not letting frustration dent one's joie de vivre.

Paris shopping Part One: A little help from my friends

When in Paris, I realized that, if a person has any interest in beauty, the ability to indulge that characteristic, in any form, is boundless: a bunch of glowing ranunculas, dinner plates from La Tuile à Loup, a Marie Mercié "birdhouse" hat. 
Hat by Marie Mercié

I'm grateful that before departure, I read this aphorism, which holds true no matter where one lives:

I could have refused all, the ultimate freedom, but I'd arrived with a short list of things I needed: shoes for a son's end-of-summer wedding, and possibly a "dress-up" top for related festivities.

I admired this silk blouse, printed with the doors of Lisbon, by the designer eun hwa:

Beautiful? I thought so, though beauty is a matter of individual judgment.  

Adaptable? Yes, it could be worn as a blouse or light jacket, and goes with any solid colour. 

Sound? I had to look up the definition, as it's an unusual word to apply to a garment. One meaning is "showing good judgment or sense"; another is "solid". (She probably wrote this in the 1940s, when the Dirty Thirties were but a few years in the past. Not everyone wants clothes to last, but I share her view.)

The blouse did not meet that third criterion. In our climate, there are only a handful of weeks in which to wear that weight of silk comfortably on its own. Upkeep would be costly; the vendeuse said "Don't even think about handwashing". Given the steep price (over $US 400), I decided no.

A week later, after a delightful where-did-the-time-go lunch in Galeries Vivienne with the lovely, vibrant author and blogger Tish Jett, we visited one of my favourite Paris boutiques, Wolff & Descourtis, a 140-year-old family firm who produce exquisite textiles of fine wool, silk, and velvet plush as a tabby's neck. The shawls and scarves are limited editions; only twenty-four are made in each pattern.

Tish and Victoria Wolff liked me in a paisley shawl of soft "English colours", gentle rose, taupe, robin's egg blue, ecru. I too responded to the scarf's serene charm, but as I carried the bag to our apartment, began to question why I have no other clothes in that colourway.

When I modeled it, Le Duc said, "The colours are so subtle and marvelous—but they wash you out. I think you can do better." 

We returned to the shop. I eventually chose a zodiac-themed shawl of pinks, blue, orange, green (and on closer inspection, about five more colours I didn't know were there: grey, peach, khaki, tomato, mocha) punctuated with sunny yellow.  

Why is this sound? It's portable (when traveling, it folds to a small roll and shakes out unwrinked) and gives at least three-season wear; I mean, I came home on April 23 to 1C/34F and snowflakes! Though it eventually requires drycleaning, because it's worn on top of other clothes the frequency is far lower than the silk blouse. 

The price was about $US 265 given the detaxe allowance for non-EU residents. Silks and velvets, especially the devoré pieces like those Luciano Pavarotti collected, are far more.

Is also there a lesson here about others' advice? If someone "loves it on you", relish the compliment but don't make it the deciding factor. Even though Tish, Victoria and Le Duc each have a superb eye, they are different eyes. (His first choice was not the one I chose, either.) Also, I chose the first scarf when tired; its calm colours soothed. After a night's sleep, my mood changed.

When Victoria handed the box to me, along with a small bag of marrons glacés, she remarked that I had picked the "Parisienne hipster one", tongue firmly in Gallic chic.

Wolff & Descourtis pieces are not sold online, so there's an excuse for your trip.

PS. For those intrigued by pearls: Kojima Company have just begun their spring sale: 19% off with code DARAJA till May 11.

Pubic health bulletin

Years ago, I had a friend, Tim, who was a Public Health Inspector. He used to routinely black-out the "l" of the first word on his badge with his Sharpie, until his superiors would notice.

But there is such a thing, as I was reminded when I saw (and who did not?) the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, featuring a model with a bare lower (very lower) torso.

My sole foray into serious nether-waxing happened in the early '80s, and, because I ran and took several ballet classes per week, I learned within two days that pubic hair is there for a reason. 

These days, lasers offer permanent epilation, but a woman should think first before she opts for lifetime bald ladyparts. Tim would object, as would OB/gyn Dr. Jen Gunter, who lists the risks in a forthright post called "What to tell a partner who wants you to remove your pubic hair". 

I did not think total depilation (the "Full Brazilian" or "Hollywood") was sought by women over 50, but a friend recently changed her occupation to become a medical aesthetitian, and told me otherwise, saying she had many mature clients who asked for the works. "I just took everything off a woman past 70", she told me.

Jennifer Weiner wrote a tart op-ed piece in the New York Times about the swimsuit cover, "Great! Another Thing to Hate About Ourselves"

She says, "Show me a body part, I’ll show you someone who’s making money by telling women that theirs looks wrong and they need to fix it. Tone it, work it out, tan it, bleach it, tattoo it, lipo it, remove all the hair, lose every bit of jiggle."

One of my friends said, "maybe she likes it", and I replied that we should think about why she does. Why do women feel they should erase one of the significant signs of sexual maturity, returning the pubis to a pre-adolescent state. If a partner wants that, wouldn't that creep you out?

So, three good reasons to reject a hairless undercarriage: the health risks Dr. Gunter lists, the mysogyny lurking behind the erasure of a woman's evident  sexual maturation, and the exploitation of insecurity.

Betty colour
I am not against grooming what is already there; some special effects are quite cheeky. An acquaintance applied a fuchsia tint (with this specialty product) for a 50th birthday trip that she knew would include a spot of skinnydipping. (She liked the effect so much she kept it for a few years. Her last name at the time was Brinks, earning her the inevitable nickname Pinksie Brinksie.)

But the total stripping, no. The memory of that abrasive experience remains indelible after 30-some years, but even more intense is my belief that we are perfect and exquisite, as we are.

Paris, then and (right) now

The Passage shutters for a few weeks, while we walk, flâneurs in the real passages of Paris.  

Packed: black or ecru on the bottom (all narrow-cut pants), spring colour on top via fine wool and cotton tees, navy/black matlassé jacket, short stack of scarves—and an umbrella.

Plane pjs

Above, ready to fly in the jacket, squashy black and ecru cotton scarf, tee and matte jersey pants (aka "plane pjs"). 

We take one level of attire that spiffs up for a bistro, and forgo dressy occasions. Our French friends, retired or about to be, are in the same mode. 

Our time in that city has changed, over the years. 

From our honeymoon on, Paris with Le Duc was like signing on to a forced march. No downtime whatsoever during the day, treks across the city for massive meals at 9 p.m. The result: deep immersion, from posh Neuilly to funky Belleville, but also inevitable sobbing fits and, on one trip, my request for an escape to the seaside. (Granted.)

Given his encyclopedic knowledge and passion for food and wine, I followed his lead. (The one restaurant I chose on our first visit served borscht that tasted like recycled sewing machine oil.) Because French is Le Duc's home language, Paris opened to me like an exquisite jewel box— a box presented by a guide who ran on espresso and never seemed to need a loo.

Those honeymooners are 66 and 60 now. I've counted five ways in which the years have changed our travel habits.

1. Targeted forays
We used to operate, as one French friend said, "like a monkey in a Christmas tree", with only occasional considerations of efficiency.

Now, we organize errands or outings by neighbourhood, and choose restaurants near friends' apartments, or ours. We're using cabs more, ever since we got into a growlfest that could have been prevented by a €12 ride. 

We visit favourite shops in the first few days, to allow time for thinking or placing orders. We chose the apartment, in the 5th arrondissement, for the ease of operating from a familiar base and proximity to Le Duc's beloved booksellers.

Home base

2. One speed: idle
One major attraction or destination per day, done at a leisurely pace, feels right. We leave ample time for wandering, reading the paper at a zinc, or taking a nap. (I used to think, "You can't nap, you're in Paris!" and then wonder why I was so cranky.) On the list this time, a day at the track at Auteuil and a visit to the hidden gem Musée Nissim de Camondo.

If we find the lines daunting, we return later or ditch; flexibility means the day belongs to us, not the ticket-taker. (At age six, Le Duc's brother Jean made the remark now famous in the family: "I'm tired of having my nose in people's rears.")

3. Splitting up
We have many shared interests, but Le Duc likes to rent a bike and cycle at a good clip, in Paris traffic. I'm a walker, which allows me to stop by a shop, or slip into a courtyard at whim.

I rise first, head out for a few solo hours, then meet him for lunch. In a boutique, I have too often seen the scene where a fidgety, bored partner pressures his or her companion to make a decision; I wonder why they don't negotiate an hour or three apart. 

Also, I have girlfriend time scheduled; Huguette has tickets for the Gaultier exhibit at the Grand Palais.
Gaultier retrospective

Occasionally our split-up strategy results in odd experiences, like the time I had my nails done, with magnificent ineptitude, in an establishment that was actually what the Brits call a knocking shop.

Le Clown Bar

4. More lunches out, dinners in
This time we plan to make lunch our main restaurant meal at least half of the time, and cook or carry in simple dinners. Many of Le Duc's favourites, like Le Clown Bar, serve lunch. (I had to check before he agreed to this major concession.) We have several big dinners out scheduled with friends, but no more multi-course extravaganzas every evening.

This mitigates overindulgence, at least in theory, but an evening stroll that ends with a digestif is a pleasure we intend to keep; we'll be steps from the wine bar Le Vin Sobre.

"Happiness is too brief."

5. No work for him, no blogging for me
Though Le Duc packed his laptop, mine stays home with the house sitter. The days of trying to fit in projects (across five time zones), sight-see, and commune with friends till well past midnight are over.

I'm a travel hypocrite; while I enjoy other blogger's daily photos and commentary, I will pass the time like Joni Mitchell wrote in "Free Man in Paris": "...I'd just walk out those doors and wander...from café to cabaret".  

I will be back on April 28. Meanwhile, here's a treat: breathtaking, rare colour photos of Paris taken at the beginning of the 20th century. Do watch as a slideshow!

Meanwhile, skip into spring, and à bientôt!

Feminine effects: Lingerie bags

When I first began regular trips to France, over 30 years go, I was obsessed with noticing differences. My French women acquaintances (who became close friends over the years) would not dream of shoving their tights or lingerie into a drawer. Mais non, they used elegant lingerie bags, flat envelope-type sacs of beautiful fabric.

I use lingerie bags for small scarves and handkerchiefs. I also use them for travel, a more graceful version of "packing bags". A woman could stuff her smalls into a ziploc, but this is so much more pleasing.

A lingerie bag makes a most charming personal gift. Like an eiderdown powder puff, it's an item of discreet sensuality. Those with basic sewing skills and a machine can make one, but, having given my beloved Singer Featherweight to my prospective daughter-in-law, I am placing some made by others in the Passage's windows.

The French understand lingerie bags. The bag is properly about 12"x9" and will therefore hold up to four bras or six pairs of panties. They don't claim to be  "purses" or "shoe bags". Therefore, amid a sea of "lingerie bags", French bags are predictably the genuine item.

French antique embroidered linen; price, $28:

Blue floral Liberty-print, price, $31.76:

Pink fine cotton butterflies, price, $31.76:

A serene white satin bag from lingerie maker Myriam Girard: Price, £15.

Padded silk faille, circa 1910, embroidered with a two-letter monogram, LL. Could there be a more nostalgic accessory? Price, $32.

There is small niche for such refined accoutrements: shoe bags, drawstring pouches, a beautiful shoe horn or comb. Whichever you choose, a feminine grace note that speaks of an era before plastic snap-lids and Tide Sticks lends pleasure to even the plainest drawer.