12 September, 2013

What to Wear – Paris

Nobody wants to stand out as a tourist.  Here are some tips on what to wear when visiting Paris with both style and comfort in mind.

Lou Doillon-Vogue Magazine
Stereotypes exist for a reason. Parisian women like to smoke. They are often overly thin and dressed in monochrome black, gray and navy blue, nothing that strays from the palate of an overcast sky. One flashy piece goes a long way so don’t play the peacock. Model and musician Lou Doillon’s androgynous style exemplifies Parisian chic with a dose of vintage flair.  You can also look to boutiques like Vanessa Bruno, Maje, Sandro and Comptoire des Cotonniers, mainstays for “modeuses,” as they call the fashion forward gals.  Check out their collections to see what is trending.

Young girls mirror their mother’s sophistication opting for pieces like blazers and skinny jeans, none of this running around in pajamas.  I’m fond of the original version of the film Lol (Laughing Out Loud)’s depiction of life in Paris.  It chronicles the coming of age struggles between a high school girl and her single mother who share more than just clothes.  Invest in timeless basics that can be worn repeatedly like the cashmere sweater Sophie Marceau, who plays the mother, isn’t so keen to lend out.

Pay attention to your choice of footwear.  Trotting all over the city in heels only seems like a good idea in fashion week pictures in the fashion week pictures.  Your feet would never forgive you.  Opt for sensible and stylish in the likes of ballet flats and boots fit.  Keep a sweater and scarf into your tote to ward off evening chills.  

To sum it up dress comfortably, pack warm layers and keep your wardrobe simple. French fashion magazine fixture Ines de la Fressange’s book, Parisian Chic, is a list of dos and don’ts that is worth reading if you are still looking for ideas on how to pull off effortlessly cool.

03 July, 2013

Visiting the Paris Opera

Nestled amongst the grand magasins, Paris' most established department stores, lies the elaborate façade of the Opera Garnier. From the top floor of Galleries Lafayette get a bird’s eye view while taking the edge off your appetite in a casual cafeteria setting. Look closely and you might be able to decipher the colony of bees that inhabit the rooftop and produce over a ton of honey each year together with their siblings that live atop the Opera Bastille.

Equally as impressive as the Second Empire façade is the ornate interior, which together equated the most expensive building in Paris in its time. Those with tickets in hand are ushered in beneath the busts of Beethovens and Mozarts, through the lobby, up the marble staircase and into the gilded and velvet swathed opera hall. A seven-ton crystal chandelier tops Marc Chagall’s dreamy fresco, an anachronism that the room wears well. Squint your eyes to airbrush audience attire and time travel back to the 19th century when, during a performance of Faust, a counterweight of the chandelier came crashing down and inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera.

“But how do I obtain tickets?” you might ask. Don’t waste your time on the opera tour that is little more than a 10-euro saunter through the halls. There are several ways to book tickets for a ballet or opera performance that will allow you to experience the Opera Garnier in all its glory, as the lights dim and the curtain rises.

It's best to be date savvy and stake claim on the reasonably priced tickets as soon as they become available. Sales are staggered: first the Internet, then telephone, and lastly the box office releases tickets.
Verify the location of the show as the modern Opera Bastille hosts an equal share of the performances but lacks the belle époque magic. Located in the Place de la Bastille where many a head was offed, it was intended to be an “opera populaire” welcoming all walks of patrons. It is an angular eyesore but once beyond the external structure, functional modernity resonates within the star-ship sleek interior and even the farthest seats offer an unimpeded view of the performance.

On the opera’s website mid range places at 30 to 40 euros are quickly snapped up. For those that want to splurge on prime seats, it is a completely different experience from the front rengs, detail rich with couture costumes, dancers’ expressions and the patter of ballet slippers discernable through the orchestra bruit.
Reserving by phone is an option if you speak French but even those making a local call will be charged by the minute, as is the custom for phone service in France.

For the spontaneous-natured, visit the ticket office (located on the side of the building) to see what is available, but beware, cheap seats aren't the bargain they appear. Those labelled “visibilité réduite” may mean that your head grazes the rafters or you’ll have to strain for a peek at the stage limits, which I find terribly frustrating.

A cultural night out in one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris is well worth the effort. It also gives you a chance to doll up, though black tie attire attracts as much attention as wearing a Halloween costume would. I once shared a box with a dancer’s mother who complained of the tourists in their blue jeans. When it comes to opera attire, a happy medium is classiest.

To find out more about availability and ticket release dates visit the Opera de Paris website.  Signing up for their newsletter will keep you in the know. I once attended a costume sale at the Opera Garnier that was announced via their newsletter. Nothing is more surreal than men trying on crinoline gowns and penguins promenading through the opera halls. After sifting through racks and racks of costumes I settled on a Napoleon hat and a corduroy corset and bird’s nest headpiece that were worn in a representation of William Tell.

If you are interested in getting to know more about Paris architecture, I recommend One Thousand Buildings of Paris, a dictionary-sized tome of old and new.

19 April, 2013

Fitzgeraldien Summers in the South of France

 Sepia toned photographs of sunbathing beauties sprawled alongside phonographs or posed underneath papery umbrellas and a few Art Deco mansions tucked amongst tastelessly built apartment buildings, tell tale of summers past when everything was grandiose.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue  1927

Fitzgerald dedicated his book Tender is the Night to the very couple that launched the trend of summering on the Cote d’Azur and inspired the main characters Dick and Nicole Driver. “Many fetes,” his inscription to Sara and Gerald Murphy who convinced the owner of the Hotel du Cap to stay open through a season when the businesses normally closed. And so the story begins “On the pleasant shore of the French Riviera, about half way between Marseilles and the Italian border.”
Sometimes I think they had it right in the 1920’s when Normandy’s beaches were the French destination for summering. To migrate towards heat rather than escaping it seems counter intuitive in a country that functions without air conditioning.
While there isn’t much of this modern oceanfront town that resembles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s accounts, Juan les Pins remains a retreat of the privileged where the beach monopolizes daylight hours. “It seemed that there was no life anywhere in all this expanse of coast except under the filtered sunlight of those umbrellas…”

The population climbs with the temperature. Native dames sunbathe topless, slipping the straps off their one-piece bathing suits and shimmying them down to their hips. They spend months cooking their skin to an orange patina that lasts through the winter while wrinkles add up like growth rings in a tree trunk to account for each summer. Families picnic on French bread sandwiches eaten from aluminium foil wrappers, and about the time the Mediterranean Sea is heated warm as bathwater the jellyfish arrive. Translucent pink like the rose in everyone’s wine glasses, they add an element of risk to late summer swims.

…”Few people swam any more in that blue paradise…most stripped the concealing pajamas from their flabbiness only for a short hangover dip at one o’clock.” It is still very much see and be seen minus the day ware trend for pyjama pants that was born here in the 20’s. Renting a chair on the beach in the bustling heart of Juan les Pins at the Belles Rives Hotel, once called Villa Saint-Louis when it belonged to the Fitzgeralds, will set you back an excessive 40 euros. Winding away from town through the airy Cap d’Antibes mansions, I like to nestle in amongst the parasol pines to swim behind the Villa Eilenroc. From there a footpath traces the rocky peninsula of the Cap d’Antibes and ends on a cosy slice of beach called la Garoupe, a spot where the Murphys, Picassos and Fitzgeralds lazed summers away drinking sherry. Though it is often crowded as all the local beaches are in season, Fitzgerald voiced distaste of it having become overdeveloped even in the five year span between the opening and closing his novel, the view is unmarred.
All quotes from
For more images of the 1920's by Jacques-Henri Latrigue visit this excellent photography site la petite melancolie.   

17 March, 2013

How to Order Coffee in France

How to Order Coffee in France

Ordering a cup of coffee in France means more than just getting your caffeine fix. After a day of wandering or working, it is a chair in the sun, a place to rest your feet, a bathroom you have permission to use, a dessert (coffee is often served with a piece of chocolate or a speculoos biscuit), but most importantly, it initiates you into the café culture of stretching something that takes a few minutes into an hour long affair.

Whether you’re people watching or setting up writers’ residency in a cafe like Hemingway, you’ll want to order the right cup. Here’s how:

Robert Doisneau, Les coiffeuses au soleil, Paris 1966

You can usually help yourself to a table rather than waiting to be seated, especially those that are outside but when in doubt, ask. If you’re alone make sure to have a prop such as a cigarette, magazine or notepad to scribble on.
Try to make eye contact with the waiter, who will no doubt be very busy and very aloof. A simple, “Monsieur, s’il vous plait,“ should get his attention.

Drink wise something that resembles a cup of drip coffee is referred to as allonge.

Coffee with milk is referred to as café crème. You are often given the choice of a petite or grande portion.

Cappuccino is a universal term for coffee with frothed milk.

For those that are “gourmande” as the French call being indulgent, a café viennois is topped with whipped cream and a dusting of cocao powder.

I find the coffee very acidic therefore a thimble full is often enough. If you prefer your beverage black order a shot of espresso and fit in. Put a splash of milk in it and it’s called a noisette.

You can request tap water by asking for “une carafe d’eau.” Don’t forget to follow that with a “S’il vous plait,” as courtesy is expected.

You may be asked to pay upon your drink’s arrival in contrast to dining protocol where you won’t be presented the bill until it is explicitly asked for. You’re still entitled to stay as long as you like. Time stands still.

“Sometimes we used to enter secret wayside cafes. There might be a step down, and there was always a table to choose in the silence or the murmur of speech. A shadow was the most ancient of the regulars. A long, long time she had sat at every place. The sun would be there, on good terms with her, lying upon her forehead, on your hand, on a glass. And soon he left, like a god one forgets. During these halts that seemed to become eternal, experience came to us, and we always left these secret cafes subtly changed from what we had been before.” Guillevic, from Stopping Along the Way

Enjoy the commotion of life unfolding around you in a moment of meditation. When finished you can leave the change on the table for your waiter or choose to pocket it since service is included in menu prices.

Voila, there it is. For more café culture images and quotes, I like this book...