How Do They Know?

I had an interesting conversation with Chris this morning. I was telling him that I spend much of my day attempting to appear French. He was sort of aghast and said that it sounded exhausting. But no, I insisted. It’s like a cultural game. Can I observe acutely enough and adapt well enough to “pass?” I’ve been playing this game so long—shoot, I have a college major in this game—that it never occurred to me to do it any other way. But it’s a constantly baffling puzzle. Because, though I give myself credit for being 15 years out of practice, they always know. No matter what you wear, how cold a scowl you set on your face, whether you adjust your pace to be faster, or slower, wrap your scarf more and more eccentrically, or sit silently in a café and drink a tea, you are frequently (or at least I am frequently) pegged as an American. Tonight when I stopped quickly in the Monoprix downstairs to grab some mustard and olive oil the handsome young man behind the register had me in deux secondes. Yes, I had to ask him to repeat himself when he asked me if I needed a bag. But what couldn’t he just assume I’m a deaf Frenchwoman? What is it about me that screams American?

When I was in college, studying French, it was our actual coursework to try to figure out how to be French. We had one teacher who helped us deconstruct the placement of consonant sounds, to help us put them in the right place to sound more French. We Americans put our consonants at the end of syllables. So mon ami spoken with an American accent would sound pretty close to the way it’s written: “mon am-i.” The French, on the other hand, pull the consonant sound to the start of the following syllable. So correctly pronounced, mon ami sounds like “mo-na-mi.” Back in college, the kids that paid attention on that one specific day in class went on to blend better, to get that much closer to the intonation and lyricism of the French language. To get closer to the holy grail of “passing.” The ones who missed that day or who were busy doodling kept on sounding like Americans for the whole year. Those kinds of little nuances are that important.

I never had much money in college, so adopting French dress was never really in the cards for me. I had enough dough to shop at Kookaï, and buy crappy things that blew apart in a month. I had two pair of school shoes, brown and black, both brought over from TJ Maxx in the States. I had one pair of running shoes. I would work so hard during the week to understand the nuances of the language, of the culture, of the dress. I’d make every effort to fit my brown shoes into some Kookaï outfit and pull off something that was modestly sophisticated and sort of French. On the weekends, though, when I would pull out my Europass and go traveling, I would intentionally go to the other end of the spectrum. I had a pair of corduroys and a striped sweater and would don the running shoes, pull out a shabby fleece hat, and run with the American look. I did it because I had found that, as an American, the Europeans assumed you were stupid, which meant you could bend all sorts of rules. Cheating on your Europass by faking the date? Just speak loudly and pretend you only know English and they’d throw up their hands and let you off. Need to find your way to the hostel in Italy? Look like an American and they sigh wearily and point. It was a strategy—a costume I adopted to serve the purpose of the day.

So, back to Chris’s question… why am I bothering to try to blend? Well, honestly, it’s a good question! And I don’t know! He’s right, it’s probably more exhausting than it is beneficial. I’m not a college student studying French culture in intimate detail anymore. I’m a 39-year-old woman on vacation in Paris, having somehow made the jump from “mademoiselle” to “madame” in the years since last I was here. I’m one of hordes of foreigners walking the same streets and ogling the architecture and the incredible shop windows. Why try to pretend I’m anything else? Point taken. Old habits die hard, but I’m going to attempt to ease up a little on the compulsive self-analysis in coming days.

The window of a tiny art supply shop on the way to the marché.
Another beautiful, if cruel, storefront.

In other news, it’s the biannual soldes here—the massive sales event where every single store attempts to liquidate the goods of the previous season to make room for what comes next. It is adopted by every Parisian vendor as if it were a law. And luckily for me, it means that beautiful French things are available at 40% or 50% off across the board. It’s especially lucky because I’m having to reboot my wardrobe every 3 or so weeks right now. So that means, a) I’m not going to splurge on anything luscious and outrageous, because I’m not a normal shape or size, and b) this is a really inexpensive time to throw down some cash on some clothes that work for a preggo lady. It’s also a dangerous time to walk into a baby store.

My strategy for getting my solid walks each day has been to choose a destination, preferably far away, then use my feet to get there. Today’s goal was the Petit Bateau store on Rue Tronchet in the 8ème, right down the street from where I used to live. Petit Bateau is the über-French purveyor of extremely adorable baby clothes and oh-so-soft t-shirts for ladies. I used to live in their tops. They are luscious.

There are a dozen Petit Bateaus in Paris, but I wanted to go to the one on Rue Tronchet because it’s the one where I used to go when I lived here. It’s also where I bought little PB onesies for my cousin Thomas when he was born and my cousin Nick when he was just a little tike. It’s also just down the street from Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, and I wanted to swing in and see what the soldes were like in the grand magasins.

To get there requires that I walk up to the Seine through the 6ème, where I’m staying, and then cross over the river to the rive droite. I made the crossing at the Pont des Arts, and skipped into the courtyard of the Louvre rather than walking alongside the river on this cold and windy day. I continued on through the Tuileries, Arc de Triomphe in sight in the far distance at the end of the Champs Elysées, and then turned right a the Place de la Concorde, toward the Madeleine church. The Madeleine, a massive, impressive structure in the neo-classical style, was also my Metro stop when I lived here. Rue Tronchet runs straight out of its back.

I had only bought one thing for the baby so far—a cute little otter onesie that Chris and I got at the Christmas market. But Petit Bateau was like crack cocaine. Up until today I’d been fretting that little boy things aren’t nearly as cute as little girl things. Within 2 minutes I had baby clothes dripping from my arms. I then exercised extremely good self control, putting everything back except for a little pack of so-soft onesies for 3-month olds, a cute pair of striped leggings for 6 months, and an itty-bitty newborn onesie that I’d like to put the baby in on Day 1. I am very proud of myself. And, thanks to the soldes, the whole thing cost a pittance. So much gratification for so few dollars.

I carried on up the street to Printemps which, along with Galeries Lafayette and the Bon Marché, is one of the three grands magasins of Paris—the original department stores upon which the fantasies and luxuries of women were built 150 years ago.

Printemps is completely inaccessible if you’re not filthy rich. Or, apparently, Korean. I don’t spend much time in cities any more, so I don’t know what’s going on with Korea and its economy. Or maybe they just love high fashion. But the whole store was full of Koreans, maps and signs were in Korean, and there was a “Korean welcoming service” on the bottom floor. Clearly something is working out for them.

I always feel incredibly lucky and wealthy in my life, and rarely pine for money. The exception to that is when you put me in a building full of designer clothes. I love designer clothes. I seem to have an uncanny ability to gravitate toward 1,600€ skirts printed with orchids, or hand-beaded gowns that fall to the floor and are made by 20 half-blind children somewhere very poor that sell for 4,000€. When I’m in a place like Printemps all I can think about is winning the lottery, or writing a really fabulously successful book, or seven. That get made into blockbusters. I would like, one day, to walk into the flagship Ralph Lauren store and just buy it all.

In the meantime, it’s a pleasure to look. There are some truly, truly beautiful clothes out there. And lots of Korean women here in Paris to buy them.

Speaking of beautiful, I had a great outing to the marché in the wee freezing hours of the morning. The lovely fromagière helped me find cheeses that are safe in pregnancy, and my refrigerator now has that lovely reek when I open it. Ah, France.


And finally, in the closing hours of my outing I hopped the Metro to get home. (This was after 7 miles of walking, mind you.) Two things I’ve delighted in noticing on the Metro are these: 1) The proportion of people staring at their phones is far lower than in the United States. 2) Instead of staring at their phones, people are reading. Reading REAL BOOKS. This includes, in particular, young people. (I’m sure they’re studying, but still.) Anyway, a man in his 30’s got on the Metro and stood next to me. And he was reading Albert Camus. L’Etranger. For real. It was fabulous. J’adore.


Goodnight from beautiful Paris. Everything here is just as perfect as it ever was.

Bonne nuit.