Sunday, 20 March 2011

It must be Spring

The sun is shining and people are playing pétanque in the gravel next to the pavilion in the middle of my street. Our jackets are open and the air has lost its dampness and its bite. Fewer people seem to feel the need to smoke angrily over their coffee. Such bonheur...
I rejoice in the easy contentment, though mourn the passing of that determined attitude which erects liveliness and life in the streets on chill dark nights. Like the ferociously hot heat lamps under which you sit outside with a coffee and cigarette, while the snow falls around you, the winter way of being strikes you by its uncompromising nature, with its contrast.
I recognise warm weather societies; the European winter has been foreign and surprising.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Fine Line Between Gallantry and Battery

I made some comments previously as to Latin sensibilities and the rapport entre les hommes et les femmes in France: a peculiar mix of veneration and disenfranchisement of the feminine gender. My thesis was elegantly illustrated to me the day I that I tripped on the metro steps.
I had just come from a rather heart-rending, long-term goodbye at the airport and was feeling more than a little fragile. My immediate response to the shock and embarrassment of falling on my face in public was thus tears, only compounding my mortification.  Seeing me crumpled on the steps in self-indulgent misery, three burly RATP guards came rushing to my aid.
“Are you hurt?” they said. “Shall we call the pompiers?”
I shook my head but the tears – damn tears – fatally undermined my agency. The three guards then decided that something was clearly amiss and responded in the best medieval fashion: one of them scooped me up in his arms, and they carried me off to a quieter spot where they could minister to my ills.
I was so stunned I could barely even protest. Being physically, literally, swept off one’s feet by strange men is not something which tends to happen ever so often to a woman in anglo-american society. In fact, it’s called battery. My inner lawyer was outraged, I was speechless.
The guards sat me down, patted my hand and straightened my belongings for me. Having established that I was uninjured, there remained the question of my tears.
“Are you unhappy?” asked one, solicitously and in genuine concern.
The answer, of course, was yes – I was terribly unhappy, a little heart-broken, even. However, I was also surprised by the question and – reverting as in times of crisis to my reserved anglo-saxon cultural background – I replied that I was perfectly fine. After further repeated assurances that I was not only okay but also running late, they allowed me to continue on my way with worried looks.
I left marvelling that only in France would direct enquiries as to the state of one’s spirits form part of standard first aid for a fall. But I was rather more discombobulated by the experience of having been physically manhandled by a stranger – even if in the most gallant and well-intentioned fashion.  A line from a judgment in an old English assault case kept springing to mind: “any touch, ever so slight, may be an assault if it is done without consent”.  Are my stiff English sensibilities as irrelevant in France as the English common law which defends them? Perhaps. The jury is still out on that one.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Lipstick, and the dark seduction of la culture de luxe

Since I have been in France, I have discovered the decadent pleasures of lipstick. Good lipstick, luscious lipstick. It all started when I wandered into the Sephora store on the Champs-Elysées.  It’s like a theme park for grown women: lit up like Christmas, with row after row of luxury products and teeming with staff just waiting to imply how fabulous you are.

Once you are convinced that you are fabulous, you feel inclined to start buying fabulous cosmetics to make yourself even more unbelievably fabulous than you – clearly – already are. All of a sudden, you believe that you really are sufficiently breathtaking to wear that sultry cherry lipstick which will have all eyes on you. This is not, however, as vile a hazard as it might first appear: a judicious investment in top-end French cosmetics will usually suffice to ward off any unwelcome collisions with reality. The fact that your own mother might not recognise you by the time you leave the store is only a mild side-effect.
Thus, I was seduced by Sephora, and a very pleasant infatuation it’s proving to be. How could I have lived all these years without lipstick? I feel like the wolf-child coming out of the woods. How could I not have appreciated the easy sophistication bestowed by an understated glossy rose-beige? Or the femme fatale allure of siren red?
I am converted, and feeling exceptionally feminine.
In fact, feeling exceptionally feminine now strikes me as a particularly French state of being – if you are a woman, of course. French women are renowned for being thin, feminine and wonderfully dressed, and after a few months of immersion within the fantastically bourgeois parameters of Paris proper, you begin to see that their mysterious aura might not be so mysterious after all. The culture de luxe is so ubiquitous, so unavoidable. You begin to assimilate.
And yet, there is a dark side to the luxuriously feminine pantomime of the City of Light. This celebration of femininity is deeply ingrained in Latin culture – just ask any Frenchman as he propositions you, ever so gallantly, on the street. The problem is thus: the more that you are, as a woman, celebrated for your femininity, the greater the risk that you will not be valued in other ways. It’s an insidious and seductive pigeon-holing; a social spectre disguised in Chanel.
It’s fabulous being a woman in Paris – and yet all young French women seem terrified of marriage. They see it like the death of all independence and fun, to be put off until the very last minute on your biological clock. It took six months before I finally began to be convinced of the genuineness of this feeling; I thought, at first, that it was simply a feminist aversion to out-moded institutions... but it is not. Apparently, marriage – or any sort of committed, de facto relationship – amounts to death, darkness and the end of fabulousness.
There is something rotten in the State of Chanel.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

On Wearing Fur

The anti-fur movement seems to have translated into a general sentiment, among Australians, that wearing fur is just bad taste.  This coincides neatly with the national predilection for despising and/or pitying the overly rich (along with a tinge of envy that few are game to admit).  If you wear fur in Sydney, no-one will throw paint at you but they will certainly look at you strangely.
And indeed, why not? Given the average temperature, the only possible reason for wearing fur in Sydney is terminal pretentiousness.
It’s a different story in Europe. On days when the mercury doesn’t peek above minus one despite flooding sunshine, when the cold seems to radiate up through the soles of your shoes – then, practicality starts to win out over pretentiousness. Add to this the unashamed decadence of the Old World and voila! – the chic, the old, and the rich parisiennes are all getting about in fur.
Despite my acceptance of my own essentially decadent, hedonistic and corrupt nature, even I struggle with feelings of ambivalence in the face of quite so much sleek, dead animal.  First of all there are the old ladies and the overly-rich in their 100% fur coats. Talk about overkill – this is Paris, not Moscow. They all look like well-fed grizzly bears stalking along Boulevard St Germain. Then, there is the similarly over-stuffed “hundred tails” look, where the coat is – or is made to look like it has been – assembled from the tails of dozens of unsuspecting small animals. I’m no vegetarian, but this obvious connection between coat and creature can be a little disconcerting.
Having said all that, there are definitely some fabulous fur-trimmed coats about this season. In the (relatively) mild Parisian climate, a fur trim is all you need and will keep you fabulously warm – just a bit around your collar and across the chest does wonders. Fur is practical, but it is also just the most wonderful material – nothing can imitate the lustre and the tactile luxury of fur. Having said that, let’s not kill a dozen stoats for no good reason – wear only as much fur as appropriate in the climatic conditions, not as much as you can fit. And let’s not look like we are going about wearing a collection of small animals on our backs. Best of all – go vintage. Letting wonderfully crafted garments moulder, disused, won’t save a single furry creature but it will surely be a terrible waste.
And so, as the mercury hits 41 degrees Celsius back home in Sydney, think of us in Paris, being fabulous, warm and vintage in fur.