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.


pdxknitterati/MicheleLB said...

As a one week tourist, I didn't mind being pegged for one. But yes, shoes are important! One of my favorite pastimes in Paris was looking at the parade of shoes going by, and wondering how women could walk in them.

Ksam said...

That is really funny - I literally just sent the same tip to a co-worker and his wife (they'll be spending a week in Paris in May)!!

Susan B said...

I tried wearing some Ferragamo ballerines on our first visit four years ago, but was almost in tears after a couple of hours because the soles were thin and I felt every bit of gravel and stone. The Cole Haan shoes are good, but my favorites are a pair of Ecco pointy-toed mary janes with a bit of a wedge. You do see a lot of well dressed women in Paris in nice loafers.

(This next visit in May, I'm determined to get myself a pair of the Roger Vivier low heeled pumps.)

Amy said...

You might recommend Dansko shoes - they're a European brand that has some clod-hopper looking styles but also some very cute styles, too. And they're great for walking - they saved me in Paris more than once!

In light of "breaking in the hiking boots before approaching Kilimanjaro" I do my own kind of "training" when it's time for me to get to Paris: I spend a couple of weeks drinking caffeinated coffee in prep for all the delicous moments in the cafes (I've been caffeine-free except for some mild green tea for years...except when I'm in Paris!)

KathyMac said...

It *is* a great tip! And I so had to laugh about the Kilimanjaro comment!! It's SO true! :)

Not that people need to practice walking, but I know that I walked a LOT less before I moved here. I don't think people really realize just how much they are going to be walking (or SHOULD be if the weather is nice!) when they get here - especially as a tourist.

Lord knows I could do with getting a pair of stylish (but comfortable) shoes to walk around in here.

Christine Hueber said...


A beintot,
Christine Hueber

Anonymous said...

I was born in France but I'm totally North American when it comes to shoes. I walk a lot, especially when I take pictures, and I hate heels. I'm tall enough anyway.

My favourite shoes are my Doc Martens boots, otherwise I wear sneakers.

Willim said...

I actually just wanted to share a link with you but couldn't figure out how to contact you. It's for a multimedia novel about Paris. Hope you enjoy it.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Merci, all.

Christine, I found that my faves, Repetto, didn't give enough support for long walking around Paris, but are a great substitute to have in your bag if you're wearing clunkier shoes. Paris is stone underfoot and something sturdy is called for!

And yeah, I really believe in the "prep for Paris" shoe-breaking-in. And some walking in advance! IMHO if you have only a week to enjoy the World's Greatest City, best to do it all above ground, mostly on foot!

Anonymous said...

On my annual pilgrimages to Paris, when out walking I carry my large, Longchamp Pliage bag with an extra pair of shoes. Ferragamo flats on, then off, Cole Haan loafers on, then off. Change every two hours or so and I'm good for a whole day!
No, the big Longchamp isn't a pain to carry because the French aren't big on shopping bags, so all those little things you buy along the way get tossed in the big Longchamp anyway. Double bonus!

Cerulean Bill said...

Do French guys worry about what shoes to wear? My guess is yes, but I don't know. Any thoughts?

Villas in France said...

Oh my goodness, this makes so much sense! I went a few years ago and wore trainers the whole time, and got terrible service. My mum went last year, always wears lovely high heels, and came back with only the nicest tales of waiters and waitresses. I thought it might be that she was older and therefore more worthy of respect, but it was totally the shoes.

Lesson learnt!! :D

Richard Schatz said...

"wearing nice shoes will garner you better treatment in cafes, stores, etc."

Quite representative of the French "accueil" n'est ce pas? How utterly sad.

That reminds me of a story Polly Platt once told about going into a cafe and ordering a coffee and a croissant. It went something like, if they don't have any croissants then propose to go to the bakery and buy them for the cafe.

So very sad indeed how some people will bend over to get service in Paris.

Do you propose also wearing stilettos while touring Paris so you can attract the "regard des hommes" and cut in front of people in lines.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

I appreciate your observations. I hope you also appreciate mine! From my experience living in France, I learned that for the most part it is appreciated if you appear to have made an effort in your appearance. It is part of the aesthetic. Ask any expat who lives in Paris about the learning curve of making sure one is properly dressed, even for taking out the trash or dashing across the street to the epicerie! Just a cultural difference. I can't speak for my dear late friend Polly Platt, but I think she would have agreed with me about the shoes. She chided me occasionally about appropriate attire in Paris. I sat up and listened!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Cerulean Bill,

Mes apologies for not replying to your question. Men's shoes in France, worthy of an entire blog post! Church, etc.

Cerulean Bill said...

Church as in 'what I wear to church vs what I wear to the office vs what I wear at home'? Or a name?


Polly-Vous Francais said...

Cerulean Bill,

Definitely a brand name: Church or Weston are the men's fashion version of Louboutin or Manolo Blahnik

And I wont' even begin to delve into expensive Italian loafers...

Cerulean Bill said...

So when I was astonished at the price of a nice pair of loafers that I got for the trip - which was about $150 - I'm so far from being in the ballpark of what they consider good, I'm not even in the same hemisphere as the ballpark.

Good thing for my wallet that those guys don't sell in the United States. Although I'm sure that local equivilents -- at least, in the price category -- could be found!

Madelyn said...

You are so right!!! Shoes are so important....they have to be comfortable, but chic at the same time. We wrote a post a few months back for winter sightseeing in Paris, and looking for fashionable, but comfortable boots.
Would you agree with our suggestions?

Love love love your blog.
Madelyn, and the Paris Perfect Team

Richard Schatz said...

Yeh. The french have got it right. They are debating their macho society every day in the news media here.

Some even dare to day they've got it wrong.

So sad that some women still have to consider themselves objects in France to get decent service.

To each their own

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