Sunday, October 28, 2012

Love and Life Lessons at 31, Rue Cambon

Last month in Paris I cheated on Louis Vuitton…

I tried very hard to stay faithful to LV, dragging Chris to each store several times over where he waited patiently for me to finger zippers, slip my hands inside linings and twirl in small circles in front of full-length mirrors. I researched bags online in the evenings trying to find a bag to add to my LV family. Rien. You cant buy an LV, despite what the madness in the Champs Elysées will have you believe what with I-pads, currency converters and passports flying every which way, if you don't LOVE it.  And I didn't fall in LOVE. 

This was my first trip to Paris where I travelled with an LV. I took the first one I bought in 2007, from the Champs Elysées store, a now beaten-up, patina-ed Monogram Speedy 30 that looked perfectly at home in Paris, aka “Dirty Louis”. Every morning, I stuffed Dirty Louis with the necessities of a 12 hour day in Paris: an umbrella, an extra pair of ballerina flats, Haribo candies, a half-eaten croissant from breakfast, tissues, my TimeOut 2007 Paris travel guide, and my Christian Lacroix notebook. I felt just as comfortable with the bag in a nice restaurant as I did spilling crèpe sucre crumbs all over it. Dirty Louis was the perfect Paris traveling companion and I finally felt like one of those Parisian women who use their LV just as much as they love their LV.

With Dirty Louis in London's Hyde Park, 2007.
On one of our blissful September Paris days, we and by “we” I mean Chris, me and Dirty Louis - stopped at 31, rue Cambon, Chanel. Yes, that Chanel. The one with Cocos atelier, the one with the famous mirrored spiral staircase and unfortunately the one that often has a long line of tourists out front.  There was no line and and though I know the security guards aren't bouncers, on each visit I am always surprised when the heavy glass doors swoosh open and I am allowed to enter into all things Chanel. Le sigh.

I know better than to head to the back of the store where Parisian women of a certain age and status perch on the plush ottomans, mahogany hair bouffed just-so, red lipstick lacquered perfectly to their lips, never on their teeth, surveying the latest collection, the couture, the suits and everything Chanel that I can only dream about. 

I know better so I went left, the accessories room, into what I can only assume feels similar, in noise level and chaos, to the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange.  I remind you that Chris and I are 64 and 510 respectively.  We are hard to ignore, especially in Paris, even standing quietly amongst frantically waving braceleted arms, blinking I-pads, and chipped manicured nails tapping impatiently on the leaded glass display cases.  It was Jean-Guy who came to our rescue.  Really, his name was Jean-Guy.

I immediately panicked about not knowing exactly what I wanted to buy, much less what I even wanted to look at. On two previous trips to Chanel, I had made modest purchases of a scarf and a pair of sunglasses. This time I was looking for something un petit plus.  And I wanted to savour my Chanel experience.  Something that is difficult to achieve when you are standing knee deep in the population of a tour bus, all with their elbows up.  

Jean-Guy was très sympa and realized that while we may not be his largest sale of the day, we would likely be some of his least demanding customers and he embraced the role of patient and attentive Chanel sales assistant . I was shown a stack of tempting silk scarves, tried on a shiny black cuff, even considered a second pair sunglasses before deciding on what I think of as a classic Chanel piece… a long strand of black and gray pearls interspersed with delicate charcoal gray interlocking “Cs”. I fell in love and once again Chris generously indulged another of my Paris fashion fantasies.

My Chanel fantasy comes true!

It was over all too quickly and I expected Jean-Guy to escort us to the payment room and bid us "au revoir". Instead, he asked,

“Have you had a tour of Chanel before?”

If by “tour”, I thought, do you mean had I crept around the perimeter of the store trying to avoid eye contact? Then, oui!  If by “tour”, I thought, do you mean had I once purchased one of Chanel's most accessible items -sunglasses -while slightly drunk from a Hemingway Bar cocktail just because I desperately wanted the Chanel, 31, rue Cambon shopping bag with the silk (?) camellia flower stuck on it? Then, oui!

Non”, I replied in my quietest and best French.

Well, then we will take a tour.”

Chris and I followed John-Guy in his impeccably cut black suit. I tried to look elegante and unsweaty. Readers of my blog will know by now that French luxury brands make me incredibly nervous, and as a result, sweaty. I thought Jean-Guy would rush us through the various rooms… “Ici, haute couture, ici le rouge Chanel, ici le sac Mademoiselle, ici, etc.” 

But he didnt. He toured us slowly through the store, answering my questions, letting me practice my French, and then took us back to the entrance of the store, near the swooshing, heavy glass doors and massive security guards, where he stopped in front of another set of identical glass doors. These glass doors, though, are to the right of the entrance and provide shoppers and gawkers alike with a clear view into the marble foyer of Chanels apartment and the famous staircase.

Jean-Guy swept his hand in the direction of one of the security guards, the doors swooshed open, and incredibly Jean-Guy invited us beyond the glass doors.  And there Chris and I stood, with Dirty Louis, at the bottom step of Chanels famous staircase.

The part of me that had a three inch, black Eiffel Tower tattooed on my right hip many summers ago wanted to strike a pose and have Chris take a picture of me hugging Jean-Guy at the bottom of the stairs. The part of me that knows better, that exhausts myself in Paris trying to hide my unchic Canadianess, knew that the reason Jean-Guy took us behind the doors was because he trusted that we wouldnt do anything to embarrass ourselves, him or Chanel. And of course we didnt. One or two tears may have trickled down my face as I tried to explain to Jean-Guy, in my now-broken and emotional French, how much the experience meant to me.

Avec plaisir.”

A moment of reverence and we were back on the other side, back into the chaos of 31, Rue Cambon and into the room where you pay for your indulgences.  I sat primly on a chair, Dirty Louis squashed on my lap, while Chris stood beside me waiting to be called. The room is tiny so if you choose to conduct your business by yelling at Chanel sales associates, other customers will hear you.  And we did.  The woman paying before us screeched her disapproval at the sales associate at only being allowed to purchase one quilted bag and a pair of earrings.

Do YOU know how MUCH money I have? I have LOTS of money! I can afford more than one bag!”

This being Chanel, the sales associate remained calm and quiet-voiced.  When the womans 31, Rue Cambon shopping bag was presented to her, all carefully wrapped and ribbonned, and she thrust her hand into bag, ravaging the artfully arranged tissue paper, to make sure Chanel had not forgotten her costume jewellery earrings, the sales associate remained smiling, her cheeks just pinking slightly.  The bill was over 3,000 euros.

Just another meaningless shopping day in Paris. 

I have witnessed far too many interactions like this in Paris over the years. On these same trips, I have experienced sublime customer service at a range of stores from Chanel to Monoprix, from LV to the neighbourhood traiteur or boulangerie.  Therefore, when I read an article about terrible service in Paris or Parisians being rude, I get angry and I have to question the source and perhaps the writer's lack of cultural sensitivity or awareness.

Without a doubt, Chris and I make adjustments in Paris. We speak more softly, we dress better, we walk slower, and we make an effort to interact and engage in French with whoever we meet. It is far more measured and formal than how we behave at home.  Like any other city, Paris has a different rhythm, its own customs and peculiarities.  If you can embrace it, you will experience a side of Paris you never imagined.  We have drunk champagne at Louis Vuitton, been personally instructed on how to cook an Easter dinner of lobster and paella, had our often terrible French complimented and encouraged, and now stood in the foyer of Chanel's apartment.  We have had countless, once-in-a-lifetime experiences in Paris that I believe wouldn't happen anywhere else in the world.

Paris, and what you can experience in Paris, is not about having "lots of money", it's about opening your heart...

All of my favourite things in one picture... Chris, La Tour Eiffel, Dirty Louis and Chanel.  And another once-in-a-lifetime Paris experience from our wonderful friends at CobbleStay and Pictours Paris (photo Pictours Paris)

1 comment:

Licette NJ How said...

Oh Erin - this was so good to read. Yet another splendid account of a very personal experience written with unabashed humility and love.