Sunday, December 6, 2009

Love and a Louis Vuitton

This post is a love letter in two parts; one part to a luxury brand and one part to my husband. I waited and wished a long time for both of them.

But first…

Stop reading if you the type of person who would never spend a month’s rent on a handbag; stop reading if you are the type of person who associates morality with frugality; stop reading if you are the type of person who buys fakes from dubious street vendors and thinks that no one can tell.

However keep reading if, like me, you know that there is no substitute for the real thing; that there is nothing wrong with eating tuna fish – and not the expensive no-dolphins-harmed-kind but the cheap caught-with-a-net-soaked-in-oil-kind - because you spent all your grocery money on a bag that is worth feeling hungry for; that you understand that love sometimes can be best expressed with a luxury item.

In 2003, while backpacking around Paris, I became obsessed with Louis Vuitton. I watched with envy as Parisians from eight years old to eighty years old casually toted their LVs, using them to transport everything from lipstick to baguettes. LVs rested on cafe tables, rode the Metro and picknicked in Les Jardins Tulieres. LVs were everywhere.

And there I was - a filthy Canadian. Any vague sense of style I had back in Canada was hidden by my massive backpack, which by west coast standards was "designer", being a name brand (Jack Wolfskin for Women) and waterproof compartments. Oo la la! I have never felt more ugly in my life. I stood outside the LV flagship store on the Champs Elysees and vowed to one day carry my own LV.

I returned to Paris in 2007 on my honeymoon. With a more appropriate wardrobe and sans backpack, I dared to cross the threshold of the LV store and swooned at the sea of logos and chic, multilingual staff shuffling customers from display cases and holding the bags up for inspection. In what still feels like one of the most critical decisions of my life, I approached a clerk and asked to see the Speedy model.

For those of you who don't understand LV lingo, the Speedy is their most entry level bag. Think of it as buying a Cadillac without an engine. LV makes it in many sizes, many patterns, and it is probably one of the most commonly produced fakes. LV actually sells scarves that cost more than the smallest Speedy. The Speedy is not leather but "treated fabric" with leather handles and trim and the tell-tale brass padlock engraved with some of the most beautiful words in the English language: "Made in France".

I was sold the minute I held the bag in my unmanicured Canadian hands. I felt like I was buying a tiny bit of Paris and it was no regret that I spent my month's rent on the gorgeous, traditional logo covered handbag. Leaving the store, all honeymoon shiny, my LV nestled in its own bag, in its own box, with its "passport" tucked inside, the telltale brown shopping bag slung over my shoulder, I was on a major LV high. My new husband graciously bought dinners for the rest of our honeymoon.

Before my husband and I returned to Paris in 2009, I had a stern conversation with myself about the financial irresponsibility of purchasing another LV. I also convinced myself, and quite rightly, that I didn't need another LV. On our first day of walking around stunning Paris, I tried hard to ignore all the LV bags out for red wine and spring strolls. I didn't cross the threshold of the LV store and tried to content myself with buying far less superior French items, like jam and lingerie.

It didn't work. I was craving an LV bag. I started to joke with my husband about buying "Louis" un petit frere. I started to visit the LV boutiques in all the major department stores and I stood outside the LV administration offices, near Les Halles, snapping photographs like some sort of deranged designer bag stalker.

On our third-to-last day in Paris, my husband and I were enjoying one of our long, ambling strolls around Paris, trying to savour every detail of its beauty and trying not to focus on the fact that we would be leaving soon. Predictably we ended up on the Champs and my husband steered me towards the LV store. Once inside I tried not make eye contact with any of bags, walking in a determined straight line for the escalators that lead to the store's museum, or what I think of as a kind of personal place of worship. My husband stopped me and spoke the most romantic words he has ever spoken after "will you marry me":

"Pick out your bag."

I am only a tiny bit ashamed to write that I cried a little. Tears of happiness. Tears of gratitude for my incredibly generous husband who understands, and never judges, my love for luxury. Tears of disbelief that I was fortunate enough to marry a man who has never once said, "how much did that cost?"

Then we kissed in the middle of the LV flagship store on the Champs Elysees in Paris. An almost French kiss! And then we picked out a petit frere for Louis.

That night my husband still bought me dinner in Paris...

Friday, October 23, 2009

C'est Pas Rude

Are Parisians, and collectively the entire nation of France, rude? It seems that almost everything I have read about traveling in France - directly or indirectly - suggests they are.
Some American published travel guides caution about the famous French attitude and suggest ways of dressing and speaking that will help hapless tourists blend in. For the record, wearing white, American branded running shoes accessorized with a massive Rick Steeves fanny pack will make you stand out, and likely be ridiculed in any country but your own red, white and blue United States of America. It's not de rigeur.
Apparently the closer you get to the capital city, the more likely you are to be the recipient of a sneer or a shrug. I recently read an article in Runner's World magazine that basically summed up Paris' annual marathon - - as a disappointment because of the scant number of volunteers and spectators. I guess the stunning scenery, history, and amazing selection of post run carbo loading opportunities - bonjour chocolate mousse bar! - wasn't enough for this embittered American runner. I sincerely hope they enjoy the free Power Bar gels and the view of their local Walmart Superstore as they run past herds of overzealous, cowbell ringing spectators at their annual "Rock and Roll Marathon".
Closer to home, and distinctly un-Canadian in my opinion, was the comment made to me recently by a colleague that she hated "French accents". Admittedly I am biased when it comes to all things French but of all the accents to disdain, French does not rate. French is sexy and delicious; the accent makes me want to eat well, live well, and spend hours in architecturally rich museums wearing scarves and discussing arte.
But back to the question of rudeness...

It was in Julia Child's lush book My Life in France that she observed - and here I am paraphrasing in the cruelest way - that the French are not rude, but they are proud. Proud of their culture, their history, the almost aggressive beauty of their country, their food, etc., and etc. Her observation struck me for two reasons: First, though I have never experienced a travel anecdote worthy moment of French (specifically Parisian) rudeness, I admit that I have often walked the streets of Paris in half-anxious anticipation of such a moment. Second, I live in a city that for much of the year is overrun by tourists frothing at their fanny packs at the promise of spending time in a city that has often been rather depressingly marketed as "Little England". with the added bonus of scenic ocean and mountain views and marine wildlife. It is a city that is no stranger to Conde Nast's "top ten lists" ( and it is a city that can bring out the worst, as in the rudest of rude manners of locals, myself included.

Perhaps then rudeness is best measured in relative terms. If you live in a place that boasts a two-lane bridge and a Dairy Queen as its star tourist attractions, then as a resident of such a town, you can ill afford to be unwelcoming to any poor tourist that stops on the bridge to take a photograph. But if, like me, you live in a "top ten" destination, where during certain months of the year negotiating your favourite local street to get your lunchtime sandwich becomes a nationality obstacle course and your emotions get the better of you, then you can perhaps understand the French tendency towards exasperation.

As I dream - quite a bit these days - about living in Paris, I wonder if I would ever stop being in awe of its beauty. I wonder if I would ever just walk past the Eiffel Tower without so much as looking up or be able to not stare in open admiration at the parade of female chicness. Would I become blase about Paris?
I doubt it but I would love to find out...

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Paris-logical Clock is Ticking...

Children? Never.
Paris? Always.
I am at that certain age and marital status where people - and by "people" I mean everyone from near strangers to friends I have known for years - are compelled to ask, "When are you having children?"
It's not entirely their fault, what with me being of that "certain age", my wedding ring starting to dull after two years, my friends joyfully having babies, etc., etc. But then again, my husband and I don't exactly embrace a lifestyle that screams, much less hints, at planning for parenthood. We live in a rented apartment, we don't have a proper dining room table, we dry clean our jeans, and last year we bought a horse. And then there are our trips to Paris; those already taken and those being planned.
I keep waiting for the itch, the longing, the urge, the feeling of tears pricking my eyes as I hear a stranger's baby cry at Starbucks but non, all I want is Paris. My Paris-logical clock is ticking.
I think about moments in my life gone by that could have in Paris like my first kiss and my first sip of champagne. I think about moments in my life spent in Paris and I long to go back; I long to market, I long to take classes at the Sorbonne, I long to have a Parisian address, and I long to spend Sundays strolling the streets of Paris with my husband. And when I think about not having this life, I anticipate regret that stretches beyond my ovaries and sticks itself in the deepest places of my heart.
Idealistic, mais oui. But I am no different from a woman my age who believes that having a baby will be all about cozy late night feedings by candlelight and days spent at mommy-baby yoga classes followed by lattes and naps. I know Paris wouldn't be all abricot crepes and beautiful things. I know my husband and I would argue and I know my anxieties would learn to speak French.
About two weeks ago, I tentatively said to my husband, "What about living in Paris one day?" To my delight, he didn't tell me I was crazy. Instead we indulged in a fantastical conversation about the possibility of this dream and how we really could make it happen. As we talked and talked, we came up with more things that we love about Paris, and we agreed to make it a priority to spend more time there over the next several years. Next September, we are planning another two weeks divided between the south of France and Paris.
My Paris-logical clock is still ticking but I believe it will one day be silenced by the sound of us practicing French in our Parisian apartment. La belle vie awaits...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Le Mickey Mouse

I am guilty of going to Disneyland Paris.

You may have already concluded that my Parisian amour doesn't stray towards the eclectic or the intellectually haute. I like my Paris straight up with its Eiffel Tower light show, crepes on every corner, my Louis Vuitton bags and never passing a chocolat shop without stopping. My love is uncomplicated. I have no desire to tour the catacombes, participate in the weekly rollerblade around the city or search long and hard for a dark restaurant that doesn't serve cervelle until 22:00. C'est pas moi.

However I don't embrace the distinctly Americanized aspects of Paris either. No McDonalds, no Starbucks, no Nike, no asking for non-fat products or raising my voice to make myself understood. C'est pas moi.

But I did find myself at Disneyland Paris this past May.

Please understand my husband, at nearly forty years old, has never been to Disneyland. As we had a full fourteen days in Paris, we figured we had one to spare at The Magic Kingdom. Please also understand that Paris, at first blush, can be a bit overwhelming to some - my husband is one of the "some" and we thought Disneyland would be a good place to ease into our trip.

The first embarrassment came early in the day when surrounded by chic Parisian commuters at the Metro Station I had to ask for "deux carnets pour Disneyland". I swear it is the only train ticket you cannot purchase at the automated machine thus earning me a major eye roll and shoulder shrug from the attendant. Still I was hopeful.

Like all public transportation in Europe, the train was uneventful and efficient and in less than 45 minutes we were in a land far, far away from anything resembling the Paris of my dreams. Rather imagine any suburban strip mall containing oversized stores and restaurants that no one ever seems to shop at or eat at and then plonk down a smaller, exact version of Disneyland (Anaheim) to its left and le voila.

It is eerily similar to its California predecessor - starting with Main Street USA, the piped in music, the placement of Frontierland to Adventureland, etc., etc. It took us less than the train ride to realize we were not anywhere we wanted to be. The magic of Disney does not translate into French.

I felt uncomfortable for the French people working there dressed in cheap, unbreathable uniforms, Disney logos stifling their usual slouchy chicness. It was like when you see a dog dressed in one of those doggy designer outfits to make them look like a biker or a princess or a dog that likes to wear Cosby sweaters. You know the dog is dying of embarrassment. But you can't look away because it so wonderfully, unnaturally freakish. Trust me, that is what it is like to see French people wearing in Disney uniforms.

My husband and I stuck it out for most of the day. We had come all that way, spent all those Euros to get in and we knew we would never be going back. We embraced the Disney, bought silly ears and wandered the park taking pictures and eating Disney themed food.

Later that night, back in our natural, glorious habitat of downtown Paris, we grinned like lunatics at the blinged out Eiffel Tower while eating crepes bought on the steps of Trocadero.

Paris. Straight up.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Paris Blues

It's been awhile since I have posted. In fact I was shocked to see how long when I logged in this afternoon. You see I "write" nightly - - in my head as I am falling asleep I think of beautiful things to write about Paris. But then I don't actually sit down at the computer and the beautiful things disappear in my dreams.

So now its September and I have wasted a summer of ideas. Paris hasn't been far from my thoughts though. On July 12 I fulfilled a on-my-must-do-list and had an Eiffel Tower tattooed on my right side. If I wasn't so worried about the ramifications of posting photos of oneself online, I would post a photo to show it off. Trust me, its perfect. And yes, I know true Parisians would probably faint from how unchic it is but I love it more than enough to justify its permanence. Chic or not.

And then of course there was the media explosion over the movie Julie & Julia.

Earlier this summer,following a soul enriching 2 week vacation/love-in spent entirely in downtown Paris with my husband, I bought him Julia Child's book My Life in France. Finally a book written by an American about France that isn't condescending or full of smug Americans traipsing all over Paris looking for non-fat dairy products. Julia Child LOVED France. Pure and simple. The book made me ache for Paris.

And no I still haven't seen the movie. I did just - barely - finish Julie Powell's bestselling book Julie & Julia and I must write that I believe a lot was lost on me. First, obviously the book is set in New York not Paris; second, I abhor cooking -even French cooking. It is really the one thing that can't be made better for simply being French.

A quick digression to list just a few things that are better because they are French: public transportation, hats, apricots, smoking, accordions, Vogue magazine, small tables and even smaller dogs.

Anyway as our vacation become more distant, my Paris Blues descended.

Then a few weeks ago a dear and very talented writer friend visited me from London. Over cocktails in a neighbourhood that can only be described as nouveau hippy chic, he "invited" me to Paris for his magazine's Paris issue celebration and launch. At the very famous English bookstore Shakespeare & Co. - this bookstore can be found in any Paris travel guide from stoic Rick Steeves to the backpacker bible Lonely Planet.


My Paris Blues are now clinical. This coming Friday while he toasts his magazine with French alcohol deliciousness, I will likely be curled up on my couch eating confiture d'abricot straight from the jar.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The First Time

There was a time when I didn't love Paris. In 2003, 26 years old and several weeks in to a backpacking (not a Louis Vuitton packing) trip around western Europe I met Paris for the first time. And it wasn't love at first sight.

I wanted my first glimpse of Paris to look like a Taschen coffee table book -- all crisp monuments and quaint street scenes, shot from romantic angles, familiar and iconic. Instead I found myself arriving at Paris Beauvais airport, humping my giant backpack across the tarmac and boarding a bus out of sheer lack of other options. And then the longest bus ride of my life as I waited for the Paris of my dreams to come into view. The French countryside, admittedly beautiful, rolled on and on until without warning we came to drive along endless streets of grey: grey cars, grey buildings, grey trees, until finally a giant, gray parking lot. Not even a bus station, but a barely-paved parking lot.

All of the bus passengers started grabbing their luggage and rushing down the bus steps into the parking lot. It was as if they had all planned to start their Paris vacation in the middle of a parking lot and as they disappeared into the greyness I was left standing there trying to look as though I had somewhere to go. When all I had was the voice in my head saying, "this can't possibly be Paris."

It went from bad to worse. I panicked and randomly selected a city bus without knowing the destination - it didn't say "centre ville" or "opera" or "tour eiffel" or anything even remotely suggested by my Lonely Planet travel guide - and then panicked again and randomly got off. Randomly got off in the Paris ghetto, surrounded by cracked sidewalks, mangy dogs (Paris street rats?!), old men wearing stained undershirts and eating their food from packages. I felt like I was back in Mexico but only it wasn't charming and authentic because I was supposed to be in beautiful, bloody PARIS.

It was then that I looked up and was saved by the blinking green lights of a well-placed Holiday Inn. I couldn't afford the Holiday Inn so I did what any self-respecting, 26 year old woman would do - I phoned home to Mom and cried on the phone. I think I even told her she was a negligent mother for letting her 26 year old daughter leave her secure job, leave her cozy apartment, and leave her cat for the mean streets of western Europe. I got a lot of long distance sympathy and I got money wired to pay for the $200 Holiday Inn hotel bill. The next morning, invigorated after a bath, sleep and my first bottle of delicious French wine, I found the metro and set out to make sure that Paris was really Paris.

What happened next was the moment that made me fall in love with Paris. It was the moment where I began to feel Paris settle in my mind and in my soul; it was the moment where I knew I would spend the rest of my life trying to get back to Paris; and, it was moment where I knew that other cities would never live up to Paris. And it happened as I came up the steps of a metro stop on the Champs Elysees. There from the vantage point of the top step, the Paris of my dreams stretched out before me and around me. To my right was the the arc de triomphe, to my left was place de la concorde and les jardins tulieres and le tour eiffel was massive in the distance, creating a shadow from across la seine. (A great friend, and a hugely talented writer, wrote about my experience in his magazine's Paris Issue, Five Dials, An Interruption from the Editors: )

From that moment I settled easily into Paris and the rest of my first trip in 2003 went much as expected with the requisite tourist activities: nights spent at the hostel with loud Americans, cheese-sharing Canadians, and randy Australians; wine drunk from a paper bag at the top of le tour eiffel on a starlit night; Chinese food in Montmatre; first gaufre; the beginning of my love affair with abricots; and the now familiar overwhelming sadness when I left.

Now whenever I visit Paris, I always make sure to visit that metro stop, to stand on that step, and to look out at the Paris I fell in love with. You never want to forget the first moment you fell in love.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Getting There (the first time)

In late 2002, I was newly single and living alone in Vancouver. I was capital “S” single complete with hysterical phone calls to my ex (wee hours of the morning typical), a diet made up of double gin & tonics and .99 cans of tuna, the beginnings of a potentially dysfunctional relationship, and a male tabby cat sharing my apartment. I knew how to behave –years of avid Sex and the City watching from the safety of my committed relationship had paid off. I knew that Tanqueray was the gin to drink with my tonic (thank you, Mr. Big!), I knew there was nothing shameful about sleeping with a man just because you wanted to with no last names required (thanks ladies! Charlotte excluded of course.), I knew that a Brazilian was the only wax to get (thank you, Samantha!), I knew Manolos were the shoes to aspire to (thank you, Carrie!) and I knew there was nothing wrong with using your oven for additional closet space (thanks again, Carrie!)

But I was still struggling. It was around this time that the idea of Paris, well the whole of Western Europe actually, came to me as a way of escaping my sad, single life in Vancouver. Instead of being known as Woman-who-is-Hungover-on-a-Monday, I would be reinvented as the Woman-who-went-Travelling-and-Became-Fabulous-and-Fulfilled. And the idea of going alone, though terrifying, was also incredibly appealing. I couldn’t commit to the idea of living abroad – even in Paris – so I decided on a 10-week, 100 Canadian dollars per day, solo backpacking trip across Western Europe. I took a leave of absence from my job, locked up my apartment, shipped the tabby to my Mom’s, skimmed some Lonely Planet books and boarded a plane in February of 2003. Paris was to be a highlight on my loosely planned itinerary.

I started my trip in London and stayed with a roommate from university. It was a comforting start, filled with evenings that were similar to the ones I had been having in Vancouver with lots of alcohol and nostalgic, boozy conversations. Some mornings I would wake on the couch of his flat and see him dancing manically to some obscure band and I would have to remind myself that we were in London, not Nanaimo. My London days were filled with requisite museum going and monument gaping. During once such excursion I happened upon Waterloo Station and I was struck by the fact that there were trains there that could take me to Paris in less time that it took me to drive to Whistler from my apartment in Vancouver.

That night I went online to book the next leg of my trip on the wonderfully priced European airline EasyJet. The romance of European train travel was not lost on me but it was, for the most part, lost to the realities of my budget. As anxious and excited as I was to get to Paris, I also wanted to delay the anticipation and ecstasy as long as I could possibly endure so I booked a flight from London to Dublin, with five days to explore in Dublin, before another flight would take me from Dublin to Paris.

As this isn’t a Blog about Dublin, I won’t excessively detail my five days there. Obviously, it being February, Dublin was rainy and cold. And my trip started off badly when I crashed the car that I had impulsively rented at the airport en route to the seaside town of Malahide. I returned the car with minor dents and scratches and gave up on seeing any of Ireland’s picturesque countryside. More than anything, Dublin was an entry into some of the realities of backpacking alone; I coped with my first hostel and my first shared shower, met my first Americans traveling as Canadians, and battled with my first pangs of loneliness and boredom. To be fair to Dublin, I was all about getting to Paris and realizing the fantasies that had been closeted in my imagination for nearly fifteen years.

On my sixth morning in Dublin I woke up and made my way to the airport. Paris was only a short flight away…

Monday, June 8, 2009

Where are all the Canadians in Paris?

Where are the Canadians in Paris? And why aren’t they writing about it?

I (again!) spent too much time this weekend reading yet another book about an American who leaves their small Texan town, their safe job, their wide open spaces, etc. to pursue a more exciting life in the City of Lights. I have probably read about seven of these books this past year – typically penned by journalists, nannies or college drop-outs – and each time I have hoped in vain to feel a connection to the writer and each time I have been disappointed with their now predictable conclusion that indeed the United States is not only the best, but the only county to live. This past weekend’s reading provided me with a faint connection when the writer described how they developed a love of apricots while living in Paris. I as well became enamoured with apricots after several trips to Paris, particularly the jam, and I often search my hometown’s grocery and specialty food stores for new, French imported apricot products.

A bit of a delicious digression that still doesn’t answer my question about Canadians in Paris.

I first became aware of Paris as a pre-teen when I enrolled in a French Immersion language program that used, among other things, a book about the hapless adventures of “Claude” and “Jean” as they raced throughout the streets of Paris, often near the Eiffel Tower, to solve petty crimes while wearing black berets and striped shirts. In my 12 year-old mind’s eye, Paris was a small city of interlocking cobblestone streets that all led to the Eiffel Tower.
As I moved through my teens and into my early twenties Paris was never far from my thoughts or dreams. I kept up with my French lessons and learned, courtesy of my gentile “step grandmere” to eat salad after dinner, not before. As a family we hosted a French exchange student one summer from Bordeaux and I fell in love with her exotic smelling perfumes and impeccable style. I bought French Vogues; I read French history books, French art books and French memoirs – anything that hinted at Parisian life.

And then one morning I woke up, 25 years old, never having been to Paris, and recently single. I was utterly alone and suddenly Paris became the answer to all my problems. Moreover I was terrified that I would grow old – like into my thirties– and would never have made it to the city of my dreams. I know this reads as though I am going to recount a similar story to those Americans I scorned paragraphs earlier but it really isn’t.

You see I have never lived in Paris. I have never quit my job, quit my life or quit my wide open clean, Canadian spaces to chase a new existence down the cobblestoned streets of Paris. Rather at 32 years old, I have just returned from my third trip to Paris in six years – this time with my husband.

The fact that I have been to Paris three times in the last six years is amazing. My friends and my family remind me of this when I regularly moan about missing Paris and already wanting to return.

Paris is one of the great loves of my life; it is often the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and it is often the last thing I think about before I drift off to sleep at night. Last night as I fell asleep recalling moments of my most recent trip, I decided that maybe if I wrote about Paris, it wouldn’t seem so distant...