Monday, September 08, 2008

What to wear in Paris & L'Orangerie

It's three in the morning and I can't sleep because it feels too hot in our cozy little apartment, so I've opened the window and can see the man across the street furiously writing on his laptop too. The stars are out and familiar. I can see the plough clearly above the glow of the city. My mother is sleeping soundly, and silently, and it smells like wild strawberries (fraises du bois) which we bought earlier at La Grande Epicerie next door to Le Bon Marche.

Paris is a whirl. It is a city I know little of, have travelled to rarely but it is a city whose charms are not lost on me. In less than two days, I have walked my mother off her feet. I am sure she has never done so much walking, even when both her legs worked properly, and I am proud of the way she has met the challenge. Besides, I love that we walk a bit, then stop to look at our maps, or stop for a cafe au lait, and then carry on. People are awfully helpful and go out of their way to stop and give directions, or step aside while mamma crosses the street slowly. With the notable exception of last night's waiter, who couldn't have been more obviously xenophobic, everyone has been lovely.

One cannot, as I tried to do, hit Paris running. However hard you try, one cannot arrive in Paris and expect to fit in like a local. The style, the rhthym, the tempo is so different from LA or NY, that there is nothing one can do but allow it to float you along, picking up things as you go. Two things are good: 1) I am no longer shy about speaking French and sounding like an idiot (in fact I took great pride in speaking in interminably long, rambling sentences to our rude waiter this evening, just to piss him off) and 2) I will never speak like a native. So one goes on. French women are chic. Maybe not in Bourges, but in Paris. And chic is not just about the ones you find on Haussmann with their Balenciaga bags. This morning, at the cafe across the street (Cafe Diplomate, Blvd de Courcelles) where we ordered croissants and cafe au lait, our waitress was dressed in the prettiest little pleated silk skirt, navy blue jersey and navy blue shoes with a small heel. She had great legs, a working woman's legs, and the efficient manner of a little sparrow (no Piaf pun intended here but yes, she reminded me of her, perhaps). Both my mother and I commented on it. On the Champs Elysees, which is on a Sunday where the great unwashed come out to play, and sit in the streetside cafes (the Parisian equivalent of the beach cafes attached to the hotels in Cannes) sucking on sodas and munching down filled baguettes, you see less of it. Here you're more likely to find a shell suit or an Adidas zip up number but one glimpses it. In St Germain, however, there was evidence, and had I not risked looking like an embarrassingly besotted voyeur, I would have taken pictures of everyone I saw just because of what their clothes said about them. I do not consider this superficial either. If you really break down how a person dresses, it gives you a brilliantly accurate anthropological profile. (Ha ha).

First things first. People do not wear beach clothes in Paris. Other than the ubiquitous flip-flop, that is. Women dress. Even if it is jeans, it is jeans with a good sweater, good shoes, a good bag. Our bus driver, on the tourist bus no less, wore very good looking wool pants, a very chic short-sleeved shirt with ruffled cuffs and covered buttons, had a delicate pale grey sweater around her shoulders and a pretty, small handbag. Secondly, September is most definitely autumn in Paris. People are wearing wool and colors like brown are appearing everywhere. Third, women my age do not wear short shorts with high heels, nor do they wear sweat pants. Nor do they wear gobs of make up. I sound like an old puritan man, don't I? Los Angeles does give you an oddly warped sense of who you are because everyone you see has plastic surgery, enormous amounts of make-up, false nails and no-one has grey hair. It is the culture of the permanently young. It is Katherine Helmond's stretched face in Brazil. I am so delighted and relieved to be in a city where women look chic and sexy, and who they are. Let us not forget that this is the country whose first lady speaks unguardedly about making love to her husband, and has naked full-length portraits of herself on the auction block while she is on the official state visit to the UK.

Jeans are both skinny and flared. Shoes are flat, still. Boots are being worn, sometimes with bare, brown legs, sometimes with black tights, sometimes with pants tucked into them. Large sunglasses are everywhere (plus ca change). People do not carry small dogs around as fashion accessories. People wear jackets. Women wear raincoats, trenchcoats, belted waterproof coats, all with dark glasses, sometimes with leggings. Coats are very fashionable. (My mother is wearing a beautiful red coat and looks ultra-chic, I must say). American tourists are notable because they dress enormously practically -- Columbia jackets, the kind I wear to the barn when it's cold, are everywhere, rip away washable trousers (the ones that become shorts), sensible sneakers. At the L'Orangerie, while looking at Monet's water lilies, a very brilliant American, proably an Art scholar, at least an Academic of some kind, ruined it for me, because I heard her before I saw her, and she really was very learned. But she was dressed head to toe in stuff that you can order from the catalog on the airplane, the one you reach for when you're stuck on the runway for three hours -- one hundred retailers in one hundred pages. Everything was drip-dry, waterproofed and beige. Including her hair.

Someone had said to me beforehand, prior to setting foot in L'Orangerie, how the two oval rooms that house Les Nympheads, Monet's water lilies, feel sacred. I don't think that would have escaped me, sitting in that room, surrounded by that purple and blue water. It was like being in church, in the best way possible. I found myself staring up at the ceiling, through the layers of muslin they used to shade the paintings from the sun, up through sheet upon sheet of whiteness to see the sun held at bay and yet floating gently down. You try to take photographs of things like that, but it just can't be captured.


Anonymous said...

I am just about to leave for Lyon with a stop over in Paris. Your description accurately captures why I always stop over in Paris. The ugly waiter with whom I can practice my bad French. The chance to acclimate to the rythme of France and distance my self from California. It takes more than a polar flight to travel.

moonchildalways said...

Perhaps I will be reborn
Parisienne, but right now I am going for a jog, followed by a quick shower, then to the post office, the bank, and an afternoon of classes, before I rush home to reshower and change for a dinner engagement.
I think my worn Kenneth Cole jeans, my Target Mossimo T shirt and my Converse is all I can handle today! The eve might bring
me more inspiration.
Thanks for your beautiful descriptive passages. They bring back memories of a lovely summer week I spent in Paris with my daughter. And, of course, for that one week we both dressed impeccably!

Anonymous said...

Thank God! I can smell the croissant and the parfum... I am so glad to hear that Paris is still Paris and women are still stylish, simply stunning and sexy over 40. A grateful reminder of what is real and tres important, when Hollywood is filled with stretched faces and women with vaginas where their mouths should rightly be! Have they never heard of Catherine Deneuve!?!? L.A is corrupting my European sensibility.... I have recently been wearing check cowboy shirts, short shorts and have my toe nails painted very bright pink!
I am grateful to Miss Whistle for putting me back on the cultural track. Tout n'est pas detruit!! Merci x