Saturday, April 30, 2011

Murder in Paris: How About You?

Have you always longed for a sliver of immortality? Do you especially dream of that immortality intersecting with Paris? Well, here is your chance.

Acclaimed author Cara Black, of the Murder in Paris series, has generously offered to name a minor character in her next novel -- for a good cause! The French American International School in San Francisco will offer to the winning bidder at the school's annual fund-raising auction on May 7 the chance to be a minor character in Cara's next Paris-based novel. The kind of immortality that normally one just can't buy. Interested parties who can't attend the event can bid by proxy.

The juicy details: the character might be murdered or maimed, or might be the snitch or the all-seeing neighborhood boulanger or concierge. The only disclaimer is that the name needs to be French or willing to get Gallicized. "John" would become "Jean," for example. "Polly" would be.. hmm. Pauline? Poulette? I'm working on it.

The fame, fun, and glory?


Friday, April 22, 2011

French Easter Bonnets, 1947

From the magazine Plaisir de France, 1947.
A selection of French designers' (modistes) Easter hats.

Legroux: a capeline (broad-brimmed hat) covered with irises.

Jane: a felt hat pierced by a stem of camelias.

Gilbert Orcel: a straw hat veiled in mousseline.

Rose Valois: a toque with multicolor flowers.

Schiaparelli: a bird's nest, a bouquet of sweet peas, and a straw hat decorated with poppies.

Joyeuses PĆ¢ques!

Friday, April 08, 2011

Paris Shoe Anxiety

A new friend – someone I met at a dinner party a few weeks ago – emailed me the other day to follow up on our recent conversation. She and her husband are going to Paris next September, and I had offered to give them some ideas for their one-week stay in my Favorite City. Maybe it was because I was still nursing my first cup of coffee when I replied, or maybe it was – well, who knows? – but I found myself extending a bit of advice that I’ve never mentioned before.


“The most important advice I can give for right now is: find a pair or two of stylish shoes to wear that will be broken in but still attractive when you go to Paris. Because walking is the best way to see the city; and wearing nice shoes will garner you better treatment in cafes, stores, etc. And if you wear brand-new shoes and get blisters, it's just rotten.”

Weird advice, I know, but based on lots of experience. “It’s funny,” I continued, “people break in their hiking boots before climbing Kilimanjaro, but don't usually think about it for Paris!”

Ah, memories. I was so woefully shoe-inappropriate when I first moved to Paris. I cringe to think about it. On earlier extended visits before the Big Move, I had bought shoes in Paris, last minute, to try to blend in. I had such bad new-shoe blisters that I couldn’t shuffle across a street.

Then, idiotically, before moving to Paris, I got rid of the shoes I should have brought with me. Once I arrived I wore shoes that I thought were acceptable which got disdainful stares. Suffice it to say that I arrived in Paris laden with seven suitcases and a huge case of shoe anxiety.

It’s all relative. For example, within my first weeks living in Paris, I met up with an American pal, a friend from high school, who had been married to a Frenchman for 20 years. She was wearing running shoes and jeans when we met for dinner. I gasped. “But, M, that looks so… um... American!” I had said.

“I am American,” she quipped with total confidence, proudly displaying her Nikes and sports socks.

So, I initially tried a variation of her proud-to-be-an-American footwear bravado, sporting a pair of black Bally sneakers in my daily walks around the city. I found that the designer sneakers were vaguely acceptable (that is, they didn’t meet with open derision) if I kept walking; but if I stopped to have lunch or shop some place that was respectable, I instantly had a sense of fashion faux-pas. Shopkeepers addressing me in English, despite my perfected “Bonjour, Madame” greeting.

“Oh, pardonnez-moi, madame," the salesladies semi-apologized to me, "but you just seemed so americaine.” (In those silly shoes. )

I kept trying to learn.

You see lots of stylish French women in impossibly spiky stilettos or mile-high wedges gliding down the sidewalks of Paris, it's true. But I learned a trick from an uber-Parisienne colleague: two pairs. She wore her incredibly stylish but comfortable heels for hoofing it across the Seine. Then, just before the business meeting where she needed to charm the Big Guys, she stopped, sat down outside the building, and changed into her most dangerously feminine shoes or little wobbly bootlets, for maximum effect. It worked like a charm, every time. I was in awe.

Another time, I was determined to be a total Parisienne with my footwear. I bought a pair of Dior pumps because my glamorous friend, Marie, who is an honest-to-god French countess, had the same pair. She always looked chic and hip and wore her Dior pumps with blue jeans or a slim skirt or a dressy outfit. Would it transform me?

Guess what? I ended up wearing those expensive copy-cat Dior pumps exactly once. I later sold them at a US consignment shop to a former Miss France. Don't ask. Lesson learned.

As a casual visitor to Paris, of course you need not go to such extremes. But wearing shoes that are appropriately sophisticated will make you feel more at ease. For practical yet chic shoe staples, I eventually settled on a pair of black mid-heeled boots, some nice Italian leather ballerina flats, and a pair of loafers that could have been (but weren’t) Tods. Friends have also recommended Cole-Haan’s Nike Air-soled shoes.

Moral of story (if there is one): Paris is a sophisticated city. It is also a walking city. My advice: wear footwear that is sophisticated and comfortable for maximum enjoyment.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Poisson d'avril

Poisson d'avril, as you may know, is the French equivalent of "April Fools." While taping a paper fish to someone's back isn't the essence of hilarity, what the heck. But my favorite French funny-fish story bears re-posting. It actually took place at the plush Cercle de l'Union interalliƩe in Paris the last time I had lunch with the wonderful late Polly Platt. Polly had her back to the couple and missed all the action.

In a large sky-blue dining room with 25-foot ceilings and a hushed atmosphere, a kindly American couple sits primly at the elegant table nearby, scanning their large white menus through their reading glasses. The waiter returns to their side, and with a short bow he flourishes the answer to the question they had asked which had sent him scurrying. "Eet is 'goldfish'," he announces.

"Goldfish?" Startled, the husband and wife look at each other in disbelief. They shake their heads and hastily dive back into their menus to find another selection
. I return to my menu to make my choice for lunch. The poisson du jour is rouget.

("Rouget" is red mullet -- delicious. "Poisson rouge" is goldfish.)
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