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)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Paris Pour Mark

Half my life ago, my idea of perfect happiness was to spend an evening sitting cross-legged on Mark's twin bed, dipping McChicken sandwiches in sweet and sour sauce, talking and watching re-runs of Degrassi High.  We often stayed up all night.  It was uncomplicated and blissful. 

Half my life later, Mark is still my idea of perfect happiness.  He has stuck with me through everything.  He has been with me through my worst times bringing excessive flattery and imported bottles of gin, and my happiest times, standing next to me on my wedding day.  Our relationship means everything to me and our friendship has remained uncomplicated and blissful.

In a few short days, Mark will visit Paris for the first time.  This is my Paris pour Mark...

Dear Mark,

You may hate Paris at first.  Perhaps hate is a strong word... Paris may overwhelm you and you may wonder what I have been going on about for the last 10 years.  I remind you that I cried the entire first day I was in Paris as it fell so short of my expectations.  Don't worry, you will fall in love with Paris.  Paris will seduce you. 

Take Paris slowly even though you will want to see and do everything at once.  On your first day, resist the urge to jump on a hop-on-hop-off bus, the métro , or a bateau mouche and walk.  Let your legs and your heart settle into Paris.  Find a brasserie order something simple and delicious (Peut-être une omlette du fromage?), drink a glass of wine and watch Paris unfold before you. 

If you must cross something off your "Paris list" on your first day, I suggest one of the following:

  • Notre Dame - It will quiet your mind, open your heart and make you feel small in the best possible way.

  • Place de la Concorde - Go there and stand in the middle, near the obelisk, turn in a circle and you will see the view I love, the view I miss more than anything, the view that is my perfect Paris.  All you have do is turn in a slow circle.    Buy a crèpe from the stand just outside jardin des Tuileries.  Don't buy a coffee - it tastes like merde. 

  • Jardin du Luxembourg.  My favourite jardin in Paris.  Lots of free chairs for lounging and kiosks for snacking.  Coffee is drinkable but they also sell beer and Haribo candies.  Completely calm and it has spectacular views of Paris. 

I know that you will likely visit more museums than I ever ave and I can't wait to hear all about them.  Except for my first trip in 2003, I have taken little advantage of Paris' cultural offerings.  With that in mind, here are some Paris experiences I think you MUST have...

After several hours of appreciating art at le Louvre, buy yourself a cocktail at le  Café Marly tucked away under the arcades of Richelieu wing. Sit outside. 

Go to Publicis Drugstore at the top of the Champs Elysees, sit at the bar and order a café crème.  It will be served with a biting sliver of dark chocolate and likely by a French waitress with short, dirty blond hair and black roots.  She will be the most un-French looking waitress in the restaurant and she will take excellent care of you.  After you are done, go buy yourself at least six

Pierre Hermé macarons- say au revoir to Ladurée!- from the counter at the back of the store.  My favourite flavours are rose and chocolat caramel.  PS - Publicis has a free (!!) public washrooms on the second floor.

Place des Vosges  

When you are out walking the streets of Paris and you come across a market or food stall, buy something.  Even if you aren't hungry.  You will not be disappointed.  Try Rue Mouffetard (5th), Rue Cler (7th), and Rue Montorgueil (2nd, near Les Halles).  On Rue Montorgueil look for the now closed but still creepy horse butcher with the giant, darkened refrigerators.

Ride a carousel.  There is the one in Montmatre made famous by Audrey Tautou and a few beautiful ones near the Eiffel Tower. 

Musée Rodin

Given our shared love of McChicken sandwiches, I would be lying if I described myself as a foodie but I fell in love with Amy Thomas' Paris, My Sweet this past summer and wrote down some of her suggestions.  One of them was a chocolate eclair from Stohrer at 51 rue Montorgueil. Honestly it was one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life. Incomparable. 

Église Saint-Sulpice

At least half a day for exploring Saint Germain and the Latin Quarter.  Don't forget to stop at Maison Georges Larnicol for a kouignette. 

Rue du Bac (7th)

Rue des Sèvres where you will find Hermès, Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche and La Grande Epicerie de Paris.  This is the Hermès of the infamous orange orangutans window display.  It is also a design geek's paradise.  Buy yourself a picnic lunch at La Grande Epicerie for eating at the nearby Champ de Mars.  While you are there, check out the "North American" food aisle.  It may embarrass you more than fanny packs and Canadian Girls Kick Ass t-shirts.  A package of marshmallows sells for about 9 euros.    

View from top of Arc de Triomphe

People watching on Rue Saint Honoré.  Fighting for space amongst the chic Parisians, you will see a shocking display of wealth and bad taste.  Watch for plastic surgery victims and very old men carrying their very young wives Birkin bags.  We had delicious croissants and coffee at Café la Coupe d'Or which is kitty-corner to Colette.

Marché aux Oiseaux (birds!!) on Ile de la Cité.  Sunday only! 

You are going to wish you had more time.

There are a few things to know about Paris that will make your trip easier...

Public washrooms.  I want you to know that last month in Paris I went out of my way to "sample" more public washrooms than I usually do, even descending the stairs underneath both Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.  Both free and I think perhaps less scary if you are a man and don't have to spend too much time underground.  There are also free, self-cleaning public toilets throughout Paris.  However, typically you must pay and it ranges from .20 euros to 2 euros depending on location and luxury.  Luxembourg and Tuileries both have inexpensive toilets but their hours are somewhat limited.  All of the major department stores have public washrooms and they are usually located on a higher floor, tucked into the back, i.e. you have to look for them.  The fanciest public washrooms are at the bottom of the Champs Elysées, Pont Vac.  Unlike the rest of the Champs, it's not open on Sundays.  Washrooms in brasseries or cafes, are almost always in the basement and down a steep set of stairs.  

Try to start every conversation in French.  A little French goes a long way in Paris.

Remember it's considered impolite to enter a store and not acknowledge the person working.  You must also say good-bye (au revoir!) and thank you (merci!) when leaving.  Shopping is a lot less self-serve in Paris so don't be surprised to have several shop assistants descend upon you as you reach for a pair of jeans or a sweater.

Do not fall victim to anyone that tells you that you dropped a "ring" or that you need to donate money to the "Red Cross".  Keep walking and say "non merci".  The same goes for anyone that tries to braid a "friendship bracelet" on your wrist.  Watch out for this when visiting Montmatre, especially as you start the walk up the stairs.  Keep your hands in your pockets.    

You never get up in a brasserie to ask for or pay for your bill - "L'addition, s'il vous plait."  It is always brought to your table, often it will come with whatever you have ordered and you can pay immediately.  If you want to have a quick, and often less expensive drink, stand at the bar. 

Most importantly remember to slow down and relax.  All of the travel guides, the "Paris Top 10's", my ramblings and other advice are worth nothing if you don't find your own Paris.  I hope you fall madly in love. 

I wish more than anything I was going with you.  Next time.  Bisous and bon voyage.  xoxo