Beautiful Boots Can Change Your Life

I have an old friend who loves to shop. Needless to say, we have a lot in common. Over the years and through countless shopping excursions, we’ve developed a kind of shorthand to warn each other off needless indulgences.

“It’s cute. But it won’t change your life,” is how our saying goes.

Walking along the rue du Cherche Midi yesterday, I spied a pair of boots, however, that I was sure would do just that.

I ducked inside the tiny shop to get a closer look. It was a consignment store, meaning only one of everything, so odds were good that the boots (did I say fabulous?) wouldn’t be my size.  

Alors, as luck would have it, they were a size 39. Parfait!

I asked the slim saleswoman if I could try the mate as I slipped the black leather beauty on my foot. I casually turned the price tag and my heart began to flutter: Robert Clergerie, “Neuf” (New) it read, right next to the price, a bang up bargain at two hundred euros.

Now, I wouldn’t normally consider two hundred euros a bargain. In the realm of clothing and accessories, this would actually be a fairly major purchase for me. Even though I love to shop, I’m more of a bargain hunter than a big spender and most enjoy the thrill of finding a deal on a treasure. In fact, racks and racks bearing dozens of the same item tend to leave me cold. Give me a small boutique filled with one-of-a-kind, hand-selected items, knock off the price and I’m one happy camper, er, shopper.

So, brand new Clergerie boots for two hundred euros? The rationalizations came fast and furious: They retail for four to five hundred. The price was just too good to be true. Even Greg would have to agree. (Wouldn’t he?) And what’s more, they were new! Never worn! Last season at the very oldest. In supple black leather on a funky wood-esque platform, they were unbelievably comfortable and forget-about-it cool.

No doubt about it, I was in love. They were my latest crush in a lifelong love affair with shoes that had begun decades ago in the closet of my childhood friend, Sara Whaley. Oh how I’d lusted after her hippie-fabulous Korkease bedecked with tiny red cherries!

I’d somehow learned to live without Sara’s platforms in the early 80’s. But this time, I couldn’t imagine leaving the store without those boots. 

And yet.

I pranced around the shop, admiring the boots in the mirror. Appraising looks from other shoppers — jealous perhaps that I’d nabbed them first — only enhanced their appeal. When the saleswoman approached and began singing the boots praises, I knew I was really on to something. “Elles sont super jolies, madame. Tres chic,” she said, that French magic word. “Une vraie affaire…” A real deal, she pressed, a fact about which I was painfully aware.

Given the deep disinterest of most Parisian saleswomen, her attention was almost shocking. Normally standoffish, often downright rude, Parisian salespeople don’t work on commission. They don’t give a toss if you buy something or not. More often, in fact, they seem annoyed that you even walked in the store, as if the simple act of watching you touch clothing is just too taxing to bear.

So, was I buying or not? The moment of truth upon me, I thought deeply about boots — their many joys and practical uses in a rainy walking city like Paris. Two to three pair (four?) would be considered de rigeur. I no doubt had that in my current inventory. Elegant knee-highs to wear with skirts? Check. Chic ankle boots to sport with skinny jeans? Check. Black leather mid-calf boots to wear with…anything? Check. Check. Check.

As I mulled my current collection — barely yet worn at this, the start of boot season — my resolve began to falter. Another pair of boots? Paige, are you insane?

Although I’ve always felt that “bargain” is a relative concept (five hundred is always a good deal if the original price was a thousand), this time I realized I must admit defeat.

Reluctantly, I placed one boot back on the shelf and handed its mate to the incredulous saleswoman. “Vous les prenez pas?” she asked, with an audible sigh. “Pas aujourd’hui,” I replied as she positioned the boot back in the window.

Out on the Paris sidewalk, I thought about my old friend and was sure she would have disagreed with my decision; this was a purchase she’d have supported wholeheartedly. But boots or no boots, perhaps this wonderful life of mine has changed quite enough already.


There’s a Cream for That

Vous auriez une peau sublime…” said the lab coat-wearing saleswoman, cradling the miracle-promising potions in her hand.

My skin, sublime? C’est impossible.

And yet, I contemplated it, awestruck and giddy with hundreds of bottles of serum and cream glistening on the shelves around me.

Sublime skin at my age? Clearly, I’m old enough to know better. After years of unabashed product junkie-ism, few potions have gone untried. By now I’ve learned (or should have learned) that no cream, scrub or organic algae masque can truly deliver that which heredity, two babies and years of dedicated sun worship have denied.

And yet, je suis optimiste!

So there I stood, on the brink of another purchase, ready to plunk down a hundred euros in pursuit of the as-yet-unattainable dream. Perhaps it was the confidence of the saleswoman, 50ish with a radiant, unlined complexion. Or maybe it was trust inspired by her white physician-esque coat and official-looking name tag, “Francoise” and below it, “Aestheticien.” That had to mean something, right? (Okay, so it means “beautician” but still.)

Two cellophane wrapped pots of cream in her hand (“Il faut avoir les deux, madame!“), she glanced back at me and pursed her glossy lips. “Le serum pour les yeux, aussi?” Clearly, I needed the eye cream as well.

At this point, I had all but surrendered. Sure! What’s another eye cream? After all, this might actually be the one. Plus, doesn’t everyone know that these products work better together?

Carte bleue proferred, items bagged and one hundred plus euros poorer. All in just eight minutes. What had begun as a quick trip for kid’s shampoo had turned into yet another pit stop on the quest for lasting beauty.

But of course, this is France. Everyone knows they have the best stuff. The internationally-known brands are legendary: Clarins, Avene, Caudalie, Decleor, La Roche-Posay, Biotherm…There are even a few that aren’t French at all
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   There are even a few that aren’t French at al (Creme de la Mer, anyone?) but seek to capitalize on the cache of sounding francais. If it comes from France, it must be good.

Even Gwyneth Paltrow’s ever-informative GOOP newsletter included her list of favorite beauty products found only in French pharmacies. From kiddie knee scrapes to crows feet, these are the products Gwynnie recommends.

In fact, here in Paris there seem to be precious few ailments or imperfections that cannot be remedied by the right creme. Cellulite? Pas de probleme. Slather on some Elancyl “Offensive Cellulite” cream and erase those unsightly dimples (like this woman!)

A few extra pounds? Try the Minceur 2011 Slimmer Plate (yes, it exists) or some targeted ultrasound treatment. No need to exercise (sweating is so not seductive). Just strap on a contraption (don’t forget la creme minceur), light a cig and relax. In a few hours, voila! Firmer buns, c’est chic.

Pale pallor? Ready your skin for le bronzage with Oenobial, carotene-laden pills to be consumed daily during the weeks prior to les vacances d’ete.

No matter what ails you (or your appearance, anyway) there’s a fabulous cream for it here in la Belle France.

As for the beautifying results of my pharmacy purchases? Only time will tell.

You Say "Nounou," I Say "No, No…"

Most mothers have considered the question: Would I hire a “hot” nanny or babysitter to look after my kids?

Someone younger and more fit, with perkier you-know-what’s? Someone who gets a full night’s sleep and even if she doesn’t (because she’s out clubbing) she’s young enough to shake off the prior night’s abuses with a diet coke and Egg McMuffin (or here in Paris, un cafe and a pack of cigarettes). She’s breezy, carefree and more than happy to sit on the floor with your toddler for hours at a stretch with nary a complaint aimed at your man when he comes through the door.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably come to the same conclusion: No way.

Because really, who needs it? When we’re in the ballpark for a new sitter or nanny, we’re not likely to be at our very best. We’ve probably given birth recently, or are about to, or perhaps did so awhile back and are therefore perpetually tired, under-showered and overall less attractive. Or at least it feels that way.

So, the very last thing we need is a super attractive babysitter.

With this in mind, I interviewed a new sitter yesterday. Let’s call her Veronique. Veronique, a French “student” from the chic coastal town of Deauville, came highly recommended by another American mom in Paris. She raved: “Veronique is fabulous. She took care of my four children everyday after school…took them to activities..they loved her…10 euros an hour.” Sounded great.

We are actually looking for more than just an occasional sitter — a part-time nanny (“nounou” in French) for a year-long commitment. We recently lucked into renting a ridiculously cheap extra room in our building known as a chambre de bonne that we hoped to exchange for a handful of babysitting hours. Veronique wanted this exact arrangement. Parfait! No money would change hands; she’d stay in the room (entirely separate from our apartment) and Greg and I would get our long coveted two nights out per week. The room is tiny and lacks a private shower but hey, this is France. She’d manage.

Then yesterday, I met Veronique. Actually, we met Veronique. Greg was home slightly earlier than usual enabling him to participate in the bizarre ritual of sitter interviewing — a task which normally falls to me alone.

Not sure what struck me first about Veronique: the tussled blonde mane, the micro-mini, bare legs and high-heeled ankle boots? Or was it perhaps the sexy/nerdy glasses framing her heart shaped face? No, none of those. Perhaps it was the ridiculously low cut tank top worn sans bra? Ah, yes. That was it.

And if I hadn’t noticed, you can be absolutely certain who did.

Poor Greg. I actually felt kind of sorry for the guy. Not because of the young, French – and virtually topless – woman in our living room, but because I was right there to observe how he reacted to it all.

Suffice it to say, he handled it like a gentlemen. After asking some routine questions about her background and experience with kids, we sneaked off to the kitchen to let Veronique engage with the kids.

Greg looked at me with a half smile and shook his head. “I don’t think this is right. She seems like a party girl. And besides…where would she shower? Here?”

Hmm. Not the first concern that sprang to my mind, but clearly something Greg had been considering.

I agreed that Veronique didn’t feel like a fit for us. I had been told that she was bilingual — she had spent a year in Chicago as an au pair — but it seemed like her English was fairly limited with a particular fondness for the phrase, “It’s cool..

When I asked if she could read English, she responded, “You mean, like, Virginia Woolf?” Uh, no, more along the lines of Cat in the Hat, I said. She giggled. Hair toss.

In fact, there was altogether too much giggling and hair tossing; far too little interest in the kids. No sitting on the floor, no asking to see their room, no inquiries about their favorite toys. (minimum requirements for a babysitter to pass muster). So we parted amicably with me mumbling something about other babysitters to interview and being in touch.

As she sauntered out of our apartment and into the Paris evening, I tried to be level-headed. Was I overreacting because she was young and attractive? Overly put off by her lack of appropriate undergarments?

Well, maybe.

But I’m still not hiring her.

But How’s Your Underwear?

After moving to Paris the first time, I quickly realized I had a problem.

My underwear had to go.

The cotton panties, the athletic bras, the no longer new, yet rarely-worn lacy thongs that matched poorly with my sad selection of everyday bras. The stuff was so bad that Greg had a nickname for the shriveled, over washed underthings that emerged from my dryer: the insects (thanks to their resemblance to those crusty dead little creatures you find on window sills…)

Not exactly sexy.

Moving to Paris was the perfect chance for a fresh start. Because, as everyone knows, the French are crazy about lingerie. In fact, I used to joke that unless I overhauled my underwear drawer, the Frenchies simply wouldn’t let me stay.

The Parisian obsession with small stretchy pieces of lace — embroidered, embellished and often painfully uncomfortable — is apparent everywhere you go. From the ubiquitous soft lit advertisements featuring headless, amply-endowed torsos, to the city’s hundreds of boutiques devoted exclusively to under garments, you realize quickly that lingerie here is serious business.

I remember shopping for some new lingerie and being offered “help” by a Parisian saleswoman. I held up the scrunched bundle of panties I had selected and said I was ready to pay. But where were the matching bras? she asked, clearly horrified that I might buy the underwear alone. Wearing a bra and panties that aren’t part of a set? Mais, ce n’est pas possible.

The love of lingerie extends to sleepwear as well. No Parisian woman worth her Repetto ballet flats would reserve the good stuff only for special occasions (like anniversaries) and sport men’s t-shirts to bed the rest of the year. Sacre bleu! They don their lacy best every day (and night) of the year and coordinate it with the same care they devote to the rest of their artfully-crafted looks. Nice lingerie is un plaisir, after all, and isn’t pleasure what life is all about?

Le Flirting

This leads me to another topic about Paris life that I find endlessly fascinating: the game of seduction between men and women. I’m not talking about dating or love and certainly not marriage. Just the pervasive flirtatious rapport that men and women expect from one another. Sure it’s a cliche but honestly, it’s as much a part of life here as fresh baguettes. It’s part of what makes Paris the world’s most romantic city; that thing that draws lovers and aspiring romantics and lingers in our imaginations long after we depart.

French men are taught to appreciate feminine beauty (and not just in women under 30) and women believe it’s their job to provide it. They expect to be openly regarded by men and take no offense at being complimented on their appearance. Au contraire! Le flirting is a game that underlies most exchanges between men and women. And most of the time, it’s entirely harmless. Men liberally deliver appraising looks or gentle compliments. Women work hard to garner them and appreciate being admired. No one takes offense or feels demeaned. And strangely, it almost never feels gross or worse, dangerous. Despite its size and dark cobbled streets aplenty, I can honestly say I’ve never felt unsafe in Paris.

So, the flirting. Confusing sometimes, but also, fun! Having entered adulthood in the post-Anita Hill era, I expected (and sought) male attention only in certain settings. In the States, open leering or construction-worker style cat calling is a big no-no. And in the workplace? Hello, lawsuit.

Single American men and women flirt at parties or bars (and now, online and via text, so I’ve heard…) Married people do not flirt at all unless they’re scumbags who routinely cheat (or want to cheat) on their spouses, right?

Not in Paris. I once had a French friend flirt openly with my husband. We were at a dinner party with a large group and all enjoying multiple verres du vin. I watched (glared?) across the table as she laughed at his jokes, stroked his arm, even talked about how “beau” he is. Hmm. Being the loyal gentleman he is, he was flattered by her attention but claimed not to really notice. “Flirting with me?” he said later. “No waaaay….”

It was only later, after coming to understand Paris, that I realized her gestures were entirely harmless. Just an expected part of the male/female rapport. And as time goes on, I figure, why not? From within the happy realm of a committed relationship, why not enjoy some harmless attention and appreciation from someone else? Whose ego couldn’t use a little boost? A reminder of what it felt like before wedding bells, midnight feedings and preschool play dates?

As long as it doesn’t go too far, of course, vive le flirting. As my French friend explained it, “It’s just for ‘le fun!'”

La Bonne Maman? Mothering in Paris

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But when it comes to parenting, I’ve been amazed to discover just how different we are.

As a parent (or as anything, for that matter), I am far from perfect. I’m probably too lenient and emphasize fun over firm. I abhor the sound of my kids’ distress to such an extent that I often go to great lengths to forestall it.

I tend to fall victim to flavor-of-the-month parenting, trying one approach after another to confront the ever-changing challenges the kids present. A believer in “positive discipline,” I struggle to find logical consequences for undesirable behavior and find myself uttering bizarre phrases like, “No, you cannot have that flashlight on the toilet,” and “If you don’t go brush your teeth now, I’m taking away Big Monkey.” Huh?

If you’re a parent – or an American parent, anyway – chances are, you’ve tried different approaches. From “attachment parenting” replete with a family bed to tough love “Tiger Mother”-ing, there’s always something new out there and with it someone to remind us that we could be doing better.

We have so many worries and precious little social support to help tackle them. Should I “go back to work” after the baby is born or should I stay home? How will either choice affect my child? Will she grow up resentful of a mom who wasn’t there 100% or benefit by my example of hard work outside the home? And if I want to continue working, will my salary be eaten up by childcare? Is my child being bullied? Or worse, bullying? Am I protecting them from harmful chemicals? Sunburns? Are they taking enough classes (and are they the right ones?) Will they end up in therapy because I yelled when they spilled their milk? Or be scarred for life because I just threatened to “go back to work and hire a nanny?”

French mothers do not share many of these worries. They don’t fret over their “parenting style” because here there is only one: tough. They don’t worry about what other parents will think of them or agonize over the choice to work or stay home. Breastfeeding for a year is inconceivable as is the idea of schlepping a breast pump to work (or anywhere else). By law, mothers are guaranteed sixteen weeks paid maternity leave (considerably longer the more children they have) with the promise that their job will be waiting. When they decide to go back (and most do), quality daycare is available for free and is structured to accommodate the realities of a real working schedule. Families even receive monthly compensation for each child they have, which increases significantly if you have three or more.

Guilt — an emotion most American mothers are intimately acquainted with — isn’t really part of their repertoire. In fact, a comparable word for “guilt” (of the emotional variety) doesn’t really exist in French. And why should they feel guilty? Weekends are largely devoted to family and because people aren’t expected to work 24/7, they don’t spend that time distracted by a beeping Blackberry. Plentiful national holidays (observed by schools as well as businesses) and the customary six weeks annual vacation mean lots of quality time with the kids and often grandparents, too.

Of course, I’m making big generalizations. But it’s undeniable that French mothers are less burdened than we are. They take time for themselves without apologizing for it and don’t feel the need to over-manage every aspect of their children’s lives. I have a French friend (with three kids) who recently returned from a 5-day spa trip by herself. Bravo. They trust the schools (and to a certain extent, the state and other parents) to help them along.

French women aren’t big on self-doubt and have no concept of self-deprecation. The idea of cutting to oneself for the sake of humor or another’s comfort would strike them as utterly ridiculous. I have never once heard a French mother describe herself as a “bad mom” because she forgot to restock the diaper bag or allowed her child to nap in her stroller rather than her crib. Kids here routinely use pacifiers until they’re three and tote dirty loveys (“dou-dous,” a term my kids particularly enjoy) wherever they go. They have no problem dolling out sugary snacks (including their beloved “bon bons“) at any hour. The consumption of chocolate is so pervasive, it’s practically a sanctioned food group. And why not? C’est un plaisir

Helicopter parenting is another concept they don’t get, preferring to remain on the sidelines until (and unless) a problem crops up. They don’t dig in sandboxes and climb jungle gyms. I have yet to see a French mom on a slide or actively manage interactions between children. Although my days on the climber are now behind me, I’m not above a good game of chase or building the occasional sandcastle, (despite the bizarre looks it occasionally attracts.)

Maybe this is because this time is so fleeting – an idea American moms seem utterly in touch with. This precious window when we are our children’s favorite playmate is so very brief that we seek to take advantage of every tiny moment. We know the day is just around the corner when our outstretched hand will grasp only air and that toddler who once ate from your spoon will proudly fill (and refill) his own cereal bowl.

Observing it all has made me wonder: why are we, American mothers, so terribly hard on ourselves? Why are we so hard on each other? Why are we so obsessed with being “perfect” when none of us really even knows what that means? It’s as if we’re striving to follow a set of prescribed parenting rules but no one seems to know who set them.

Despite their outward appearance of confidence, French moms, like us, are far from perfect. It’s not unusual to see a mom smoke while pushing a stroller. Yelling is a completely sanctioned parenting technique as is the occasional swat (in public). Behavior that I find surprising often goes overlooked while minor transgressions merit an outsized response. A toddler who wants his bucket back from another child is told by his mother, “Prends-le!” (“Take it!”) rather than encouraged to share. But a youngster who deliberately whacks another may be met with a shrug of indifference.

None of this is to suggest that the French love their kids any less. It’s just that their parenting seems intent on producing a different outcome, namely an independent, well-educated, well-mannered young Frenchman (or woman) who understands the rules and abides by them. They will rarely admit to error (as children or adults) because they learned early on that mistakes are dealt with harshly. They prize respect above overt affection and assume parental intimidation is the way to achieve it. Sometimes it seems we’re so busy being pals with our kids that we forget to foster the autonomy they will so desperately need.

For now, I’m just observing and marveling at the differences. Mostly, it’s made me see that we American moms are a pretty amazing lot – dedicated, creative and always striving to do better. I just wish more of us knew it.

"Home" in Paris

When I read that kids could learn a new language in four months, I was skeptical. Four months? Barely enough time to unpack boxes and install cable, I thought, let alone communicate in a foreign tongue.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

For Cole and Adele it started slowly — a tentative “bonjour” to the elderly woman downstairs, a reluctant “a demain” to their teachers at the end of the day. After about two weeks, more words emerged. “Attends, attends!” (Wait, wait!), Cole would say while playing or “arrete!” Adele would yell during a vigorous round of wrestling. Within weeks, they could each count to 20 and even name various body parts en francais.

Soon they were coming home with new questions each day. “Mommy, what does ma copine mean?” Adele asked. How about “le pistolet” or hesitantly, “ka-ka?” Cole asked with a sly smile.

Now, with nearly 12 weeks of school under their belts, they are amazingly integrated in their new world. They’ve both made friends and been invited to birthday parties. They come home with little stickers and drawings friends have made just for them. They recognize friends’ names only by the French pronunciation and often look puzzled when I say them. “Who did you play with today?” I ask. “Ca-meee,” (Camille) Adele replies, or “Jo-vaneee,” (Giovanni) Cole says, as if there is no other way.

While they know, of course, that they are American, they seem to be becoming a bit more French everyday. I can’t help but wonder how long their “American memories” will last — when their recollection of snow days, our little branch library and their pals next door will be replaced by the imagery of this very moment, that world that children so fully inhabit.

I wonder, too, when they will begin correcting my French and snickering at Mommy’s funny accent. That day, I fear, is coming sooner rather than later. Hard as I try, my French will never be what theirs is going to be — an effortless flow of words that comes easily and without forethought.

Much like their personalities, Cole and Adele have each adapted a distinct style for learning French: Adele through verbalizing, Cole through listening. Adele has long had a habit of singing to herself, providing a musical accompaniment to her games of babies, dress-up and tea party. Now, that singing has a distinctly Gallic melody and includes a mix of French and English words. It’s like when she first learned to talk; the way she would babble incoherently before clearly articulating the words.

Cole, however, is learning by observing, be it his favorite French cartoons or snatches of overheard conversation. After listening in as Greg and I spoke in French (something we have always done for non kid-friendly topics), Cole proudly jumped in, “But I don’t want to do that,” he said, flashing a knowing little grin.

It’s all taken me back to my own experience of high school French, reading incomprehensible words on the blackboard and scribbling in my notebook. Je vais, tu vas, il va…My kids’ experience is nothing like this. They are learning-by-doing, by full immersion. We chose this method with speed in mind, believing that it would both quicken their learning and shorten our potentially difficult adjustment. So far, it appears to be working.

But now that we’ve settled on this new path, I can’t help but wonder where it all leads. Will my Boston-born babies end up feeling French? Will they develop faint accents when they speak in their native tongue? As Cole abandons Spiderman in favor of Tintin and Osterix, I sometimes think about what’s lost as well as gained.

We believe, of course, that this experience is a gift to them. Depending on how long we stay, they will likely be bilingual. This most storied of cities will form the backdrop to their memories — its carousels, manicured gardens, and pierre de taille facades. They will never know that awe of first seeing Europe through adult eyes, of realizing that the world is vast after years of rarefied American youth. To them, this city will always be a place they once (and perhaps still) call home. These are things I celebrate even as I mourn them the tiniest bit as each day we become more of what we set out to be: an American family living out our dream in Paris.