THIS PARISIAN LIFE – PART I
“One is not born a woman; rather one becomes a woman.” – Simone De Beauvoir
The French model wears a petticoat crafted from balloons. The model behind her flaps wings styled like a bird of paradise. Men sit rigid in their seats during this Parisian couture fashion parade, admiring these heavenly beauties.
Cameras flash, flattering some of the models and insulting others, who sneer at the audience. We are engulfed in wall-to-wall white balloons, as if we are floating in bubbles beneath the sea.
Model after model glides through the several small rooms used in this gala show which, appropriately, is called Walking on Air. With names such as Legs in the Air and Silent as the Air, the costumes resemble the palette of the sky and sea in moon colours, Milky Way mosaics, wave foam and gauzy sunlight.
Many of the outfits have minimal construction and appear to dance as models move to the weightless music of Bjork. Twenty or so of us mere mortals are squeezed into a tiny room reeking of stretched rubber from the hundreds of inflated balloons. A model draped in ivory and gold chiffon struggles to fit her enormous train of balloons through the narrow doorway. She blushes while tussling with her costume, which resembles a fishing net.
After the show I feel inspired to find my inner French girl. I know she’s in there somewhere. As otherworldly as the models may be, the average woman here possesses the same ethereal beauty, only with seemingly less effort. Or so they want you to believe.
There’s an institut de beaute on virtually every corner in the French capital, and I realise the beauty and grooming regime of these Parisiennes is not a luxury, it’s simply about maintenance.
Entering one of these shrines to glamour, I’m overwhelmed by the volume of cosmetics, potions, perfumes and hair and skin products. I fumble with my euros and French nouns and verbs before settling on a musky body lotion. Slinking back to the street, I pass a building with heavy wooden doors concealing closeted lives, much in the way a French woman’s mysterious allure remains classified.
Willowy frames sporting flirty sundresses saunter past, wafting expensive perfume. Breasts are unrestrained, yet their owners remain stylishly groomed, despite the uninhibited absence of underwear. Perhaps French women appear natural because they have learned to do more with less. Despite being the size of a pantry, her bathroom is a sanctuary that compels her to linger. This intimate oasis is an expression of her personal aesthetic. She applies religious care to her body.
I pass a mademoiselle, possibly one from the fashion parade. Green silk barely covers her slender frame. She prowls along the pavement until her beau revs up on a motorbike and nonchalantly nods towards her. She climbs aboard and zooms off, blonde tresses floating in the wind.
I’m left in her wake. Sweat drips down the backs of my legs in the summer heat. So much for being chic. I pause by a busker tying balloons and he hands me one in the shape of a poodle. A passing stranger with twinkly eyes smiles playfully as music drifts down from above. Dean Martin serenades us with Sway. With my pooch accessory, I sashay along the boulevard to join the passing parade.
THIS PARISIAN LIFE – PART II
I love Paris in the Summer Time
Paris, Summer 2006
It’s 4.46 a.m. and a woman’s scream cuts through the thick air surging up into our open bedroom window. I suddenly sit upright in bed. The scream was cut short and I envisage she suddenly woke up, imagining her husband to be an intruder before realising her error. Maybe she saw a mouse. Perhaps it was a nightmare? I know she wasn’t murdered because she did it the following night and several times after that.
The mysterious screaming woman would make a great story, I decide as I look out over the trees from my studio in the Perth hills. Fog rises in the distance and I imagine the mist spreading out over Parisian rooftops. Fantasies of living the French life distract me from the uncomfortable reality of living in a cramped apartment with a poor excuse for a shower. Maybe that’s why Parisians are so thin; they couldn’t fit in their apartments otherwise. I can imagine a gale blows through most of those lovely old buildings in the winter. There isn’t any air-conditioning to keep you sane in the summer heat either. I speak from experience after spending the summer of 2006 living in a little box. Boxes on top of boxes. Nonetheless, it’s painfully romantic.
Our apartment is quintessentially Parisian and perfect. I love that the parquetry flooring sags beneath our feet and that all the rooms have battered French doors. I take delight in that many of the kitchens in the building open out onto the central courtyard below, and the combined flavours of our dinners flirt with abandon. I adore flinging open the wooden windows facing the street letting the still air out to play.
In the apartment upstairs lives a well-to-do family who own the entire floor. I know their young baby doesn’t sleep well and their son likes to bounce a ball after kindy. At 7.00pm their children have baths and later the parents sit down to a proper meal with adult conversation. She likes to wear heels and he wears a suit and carries a briefcase. I also know that the gentleman who visits in the afternoon isn’t her husband.
Most Parisians fill their apartments with books. The occupants of the apartment two floors below lovingly scatter their books about the floor, which they randomly pick up and flip through at intermittent intervals. Most don’t bother to make their beds in the morning. And despite looking so well turned out, many of the locals keep their homes messy. I figure they’re just too avant garde for housework. The woman opposite us lives alone in a studio apartment and she often gazes out over the street. She dines with her plants and sometimes she just stands there in various stages of undress. I wonder if she cares she is being watched. But maybe that’s the point.
Mind you, her lack of clothing is understandable as it’s so damn hot there are people running around the streets in their underwear in preparation for the World Cup. Although these fanatics probably don’t need any encouragement for being semi-naked and when they’re not exhibiting themselves, they’re hanging out of cars, tooting horns and waving flags. The city has gone World Cup crazy. Or maybe it’s the heat sending people into a frenzy; intensifying the essence of this intoxicating city. The flowers are more fragrant, the food smells more flavoursome and the dog excrement is ripe. Garbage rots on the pavement outside our apartment window, souring our rooms. We’d close the windows but then we’d suffocate from the heat.
I have come to Paris to write, like so many before me. There is no shortage of inspiration and I’m like a sponge. I spend my days in class and wandering the streets; nights are spent churning out the words. Naturally, my desk is by the street and everyone’s windows are open with the lights on. I indulge in the ultimate writer’s pastime.
THIS PARISIAN LIFE – PART III
We’ll Always Have Paris
In the distance the Eiffel Tower peers at the Luxembourg Gardens. Sunrays speckle across the Peter Pan statue standing guard over grounds resembling a Monet painting. Birds coo while dancing around nannies, mothers, and their dawdling little ones. The clock on the Luxembourg Palace chimes eight times as I select a bench next to a group of giggling school girls. At first, they are uncomfortable by the intrusion, until I start writing in my notebook and they return to their chatter.
A sleeping vagrant rousing from his slumber disturbs my scribbling and I gaze across the playground at the little girl on the slide. Her mother announces it’s time to go and she obediently climbs off the equipment. If that was my daughter we’d be having an intense “discussion” by now. I don’t call it bribing, merely an incentive. My cherub has unknowingly signed up for the Incentive Program.
I’m in the French capital to attend a Creative Writing Workshop, and I have my family in tow, Stephan my husband Paris, our daughter. Paris in Paris. It was time the two met anyway; and opportune as Paris celebrates her third birthday by visiting the happiest place on earth, aka Euro Disney. We traipse onto the RER and during the journey we explain to birthday girl that Euro Disney is like a very large park. We alight an hour later at the appropriately named Marne la Vallee/Cheesy station and head straight for Fantasyland which is geared up well for the little ones.
We patiently wait in line to watch Paris spin around in a teacup for a bit, visit It’s a Small World and board a steamboat. We lunch at the Lucky Nugget, a colonial style ranch complete with a buffet lunch and a honky tonk band. Various Disney characters wander between the tables terrifying the kids and Paris spends most of her birthday lunch gripped onto my neck like a cling-on monkey until she asks, “When can we go to the park?” Realising that Paris’ interpretation of a park doesn’t necessarily include Sleeping Beauty’s castle, we locate some swings and a slide.
Eventually we board the train and collapse into the first seats we find – only this time we have an additional family member. A Pooh Bear balloon about twice the size of an adult who bops along to the rhythm of the train causing many a raised eyebrow from passing Parisians.
Pooh Bear turns out to be a fun housemate. He floats between the rooms, and despite his size he manages to regularly sneak up on the unexpected. Late one night we surprise each other when I walk in on him in the toilet, after my husband hid him in there as a joke.
Just as we have been watching our neighbours in the surrounding apartment buildings, I imagine they are wondering who our houseguest is, especially when we have flung open all the windows and Pooh Bear drifts around in the breeze.
As wonderful as the cool air is, I worry about Paris being around the open window with only a petite lacy balustrade between her and the street four storeys below. Naturally, the windows are a magnet to a small child to watch the world go by and I wonder what precautions other parents’ take. Perhaps Parisian children are too sophisticated to indulge in such juvenile activities like climbing onto forbidden things.
I try not to fret about the window situation whilst I’m in class. But given Stephan’s track record for losing things, like our apartment keys and his wallet, I have panic attacks from time to time. I imagine her being left on the RER endlessly travelling between Place d’Italie and Bobigmy Pablo Picasso. Of course this is coming from someone who never manages to work out the complicated spaghetti system of tracks and resorts to using the bus on almost every outing.
Our visit coincides with summer and before leaving Perth I had an image of floating about the city in chic sun dresses. However, I lack the panache to pull-off the sweat encrusted look whilst pushing a pram along the quivering pavement. There is little relief as no-where is air-conditioned except for the occasional cinema or shop, so we visit the swimming pool. This eye opening experience includes unisex change rooms where there is no place for inhibition. Nonetheless, I learn a valuable tip: never, EVER wear a strapless bikini top while caring for a small child in a wave pool.
We cool off in the evenings by the River Seine, where we join the locals picnicking, busking and strolling; except for the ones who have vacated to their country chateaus to sip Rose under cool grape vines. The temperature is so intense that our lives are consumed by it – but the heat hasn’t sapped my cherub’s boundless energy. I savour the city through her eyes. And at last I have found Paris.