You find yourself in Paris for a day. How do you make the most of the opportunity? You go to the Marais.
And in the Marais it occurs to you that some people are simply born French; the rest of us may pine and dream, but the privilege of being French belongs to only 65.7 million people in the world. Being one of 315 million crass Americans, you lament you are not French.
You see a tiny man with crutches and beret, shuffling his way along a cobblestone street. More than likely he has lived out his seven or eight or nine decades in this very neighborhood; his blessing and his curse. It can’t be easy to navigate in his condition but there he is making his way slowly, past three little girls in flapper haircuts and school uniforms, each vying for their Daddy’s ear to report their day. Does the old man have daughters, you wonder? Have they gone far away from him by now?
You turn down a quiet, non-commercial street, walk past a large building block with a gated inner courtyard. You see open casement windows, spilling warm light onto window boxes full of geraniums and perfectly symmetrical topiaries. You notice that other buildings on the street, those without the protection of a courtyard, have decorative iron grilles on windows, not bars like your neighborhood in Brooklyn. The grilles create an elegant fortress which simply wags its finger, “No, no…” at threats from the outside world.
Another turn, another commercial street, an entire shop selling only scarves. The French have elevated the humble scarf to such prominence in fashion. Earlier, you saw a man in a v-neck sweater looking quite sexy. Then he put a scarf around his neck and instantly looked effeminate. Too bad, but so French.
Then, a window display of artful underwear, panties made of perfectly smooth Lycra, scenes from assorted famous paintings across the crotch. Wearing them would make one feel beautiful from the skin out.
Here, a perfume shop advertising custom fragrances. You recall your last trip to Paris, meeting two girls on the Métro. One of them spritzed herself with a heady, autumnal perfume. You asked what it was and learned that the girls were second year students in a five-year course developing fragrance. You had never heard of such a school; but of course, they replied, “It exists only in France.”
You step inside a home accessory shop filled with objects made of glass and paper and wood. Their beauty is juxtaposed against the setting: a hodgepodge of storefronts joined together, their once elegant tile floors unapologetically veined with patches of cement. You almost buy an enamel tray, to fuel your addiction to trays, but decide against it. You’re trying to edit your style and none of the trays in this store call to your heart.
Moving on, you see a cheese shop and brace yourself for entry, knowing the aroma will overpower. You used not to like the strong smell of cheese but now you enjoy inhaling deeply, coating the insides of your lungs in the must. This shop is a sensory treat in more ways than one with careful displays of pickles and chutneys on the shelves, towers of cheese wheels and tubs of crème fraiche in the chilled cases. The walls of the shop are covered by art deco tile in light yellow and green. Reading the labels in the case, you vow to improve your knowledge of cheese, your ability to choose something nice. As you exit, you have a laugh at the “No Smoking” sign on the door. Probably the only place in France where smoking has forever been forbidden, le fromagerie.
Outside, a motorcycle honks before rounding a tight corner, and you do a double-take at a woman in drag. A woman, you’re quite certain, so that means she’s not wearing drag, right? She’s the most carefully dressed specimen you’ve seen all day. You’ve noticed most French women look incredible, yet often their clothes do not match. This woman is a Pantone vision in purple and black. It must have taken her hours to prepare.
Other shops: a purveyor of fine tea; a tiny, tiny florist; a novelty store where you catch the clerk’s eye and share a laugh over a sweatshirt in the window, emblazoned with an Hermès style logo, only this one says:
Next you see two women at the trunk of a car, one pulling a dress from a large shopping bag. It is cream-colored lace, and obviously holds significance to the one who shows it to the other. In a few minutes, while you’re browsing a vintage store called Gilda, the woman will come in with the dress, present it to the male attendant, and make a strong sales pitch. You overhear the man say, “I find this part strange,” as he examines the bodice. Yet, a price will be proposed, a bargain will be made, and the woman will leave with cash in hand. The man will stuff the dress back into the bag and under the counter.
In front of a pharmacy is a group of university students, talking and laughing loudly. Their presence almost keeps you from going inside, but you’re on a mission. You’re looking for papier d’arménie, an ancient natural room deodorizer. You try always to buy this on trips to Paris. It’s a small booklet of paper strips, and when a match is set to a strip, like incense, the paper slowly burns and sends forth a rich, clean perfume. So you step around the students and look inside the pharmacy, and behold! papier d’arménie. You buy three booklets. When you complete the transaction in not-quite-fluent French, the clerk says the price: “sept euro,” then to account for your deficiency repeats in English: “seven Europe.” He immediately catches his mistake, as does the woman working at his side, and you all have a laugh. You tell him it’s okay, you understood.