Saturday, March 21, 2009

A Fashion Innocent Abroad

I was not prepared for how woefully out of place I felt as I strolled down the boulevards of Paris. The sidewalks were teeming with intimidatingly chic women, slim as whippets, carrying tiny shopping bags, often accompanied by sleek men radiating insouciance and effortless disdain. My look, by contrast, screamed: “Say Bonjour to Monsieur Doofus.”

Believing the devil is in the details, I tried to deconstruct the Parisian look. I started with accoutrements, like scarves. Back home I considered a scarf an article of clothing, associated with mittens and wassailing and scraping the ice off my windshield. But in Paris a scarf is a statement. Eskimos may have one hundred words for snow, but Parisians each own about 1200 scarves.

How they wear them is the result of subtle confluence of many factors: sex, age, height, attitude, posture, time of day and, for all I know, shoe size and the phase of the moon. Air temperature and weather are only marginally relevant. I’ve seen people wearing them with T-shirts and shorts, while jogging, even indoors teaching class. Knotted, double knotted, draped, tightly wound around necks like an attacking python, it doesn’t matter. Parisians look dashing in them. When I strove for the same panache, I resembled a deranged lumberjack.

So I moved on to shoes. I decided I would buy what was popular. And what was popular were Converse sneakers. These are perfectly adequate coverings for feet, but I could not bring myself to spend the equivalent of a meal in a three-star restaurant for what is essentially canvas glued to a slab of rubber.

Then one day I noticed a shoe boutique around the corner from me. I knew the store was dangerously expensive because it had in its window a single shoe. Nearby, mounted under plexiglass like an information plaque in a museum exhibit, was an exegesis of the exotic piece of footwear [See above].
The item was a “mocassin fétiche” – a shoe which had a fanatical following among “collégiens américains.” In my country, I was informed, it was known as: “Le Penny Loafer.” And in Paris it cost the equivalent of a semester at the Sorbonne.
I should have been pleased. I own a pair of “Loafers de Centime” and even a pair of “Sneakers Converse.” The problem was they were in a storage container in Nouvelle Jersey.

Plus this brought me no closer to solving the fashion conundrum. So I switched to analyzing the gestalt of the Parisian look. My epiphany came from my stylish daughter who had lived here. Parisians, she noted, do not wear a lot of color. I decided that if I dressed as though I were going to the memorial service of a casual acquaintance – dark but not overly somber clothes which say, "I am marginally sorry Bob is dead, so I'm dropping in, but I will be running a few errands afterwards" – and wore a scarf, I would get by. And I have.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Entre Les Murs - Our Version

If you Google "French lessons, Paris," you get roughly 485,000 suggestions. I figured if I took a one-week sampling of each it would come out to roughly 1300 years of conjugating verbs. I didn't have that kind of time so I decided to narrow it down to a two-class a week, one-semester offering by the city.

I learned there are five levels in the
French for Foreigners course. To get slotted into the system you have to attend what is a combination registration/audition session where you take a quick written and oral test. I had no doubt where I would be placed. I was, as they say here, a débutant.

A few weeks earlier I was trying to order lunch in a cafe. The young waitress stared at me as peculiar, strangled noises came out of my mouth. I was trying to speak French. She probably thought I was having a seizure. Eventually she figured it out and sweetly suggested, in perfect English by the way, "Would you like an English menu?"

Fast forward to Registration Night. It had that First Day of School feel, which is what it was. The sidewalk outside the school building was crammed with excited people all of whom seemed to be in their twenties and most of whom were chattering in fluent French. Which raised the obvious question: why are they here?

Registration started with a talk from one of the teachers, a serious young fellow who gave us the ground rules: we could not eat or drink in the classrooms; no cell phones; promptness required - the doors would be locked ten minutes after class began; no talking in class. I began having flashbacks to my school days at St. Francis parochial school, every one of which I loathed.

He handed out forms and asked if there were any questions. That was when a young American woman walked up to the desk and said quite loudly and in English, "I can't speak French well but I understand it with no problem; so I don't think I should be in with the beginners." He gave her a kind of "Un-huh" look and suggested she take her seat.

As the finale we were each given a paper quiz which even I could understand. Then we sat patiently as our mentor and another teacher went from potential pupil to potential pupil, reading our papers and then talking to each of us. It was like speed dating.

My interrogator was a chic, slim woman with big dark eyes. She was a wearing a plain white blouse casually unbuttoned to reveal more than any nun ever showed, the obligatory scarf and tight black leather jeans. She was like no teacher I ever had at St. Francis. She was like no teacher I had, ever. Her questions were blunt and simple: where was I from, why was I taking the class, how many years of French did I have, how long did I plan to live in France, what did I do.

When I said I was a writer, her eyes sparked. Really? She leaned forward. What was I working on? Who did I write for? She gave me a flirtatious smile, made a note on my test and moved on to the nervous young Brit sitting next to me. I would never see her again.

Two weeks later we were back at the building and to my horror and confusion I learned I was in the Troisieme Niveau. Level Three. The same as Louise. That made sense for her. She had been speaking French since she was a child. I, on the other hand, was one of those Americans they make fun of in the movies, an uni-lingual. I could not believe it and wanted to appeal my rating.

One problem. In order to get transferred to a lower ranking French class I had to explain why I wanted the transfer in a language I could not speak. So I had no choice but to stay.

Out teacher was Mlle. G. a sturdy, energetic woman who could talk for hours about the subjunctive with an intensity and enthusiasm I found scarily impressive.

It seemed like the whole world was in her class. There were young people from Japan, China, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Cuba, Hungary, Austria, Italy, England, Ireland, Australia. And they all spoke much better French than I.

To make us comfortable Mlle. G. broke us out into groups of four and asked us to introduce ourselves to each other. My ensemble consisted of a young woman from Australia, a young woman from Spain and a very well-dressed and very depressed looking woman in her 40s from Japan.

Things went smoothly until it was my turn to introduce my seatmate to the class. I got her name wrong, her nationality wrong and her job wrong. All I got right was her sex. This has to get better, I thought. Has to.