Monday, August 3, 2009

Shoes, Scarves, 'Spik Inglish?'

The first thought that struck me as I wheeled the cabin luggage off the escalator in the Paris airport, was : "They probably know we are Americans from our horrendous sneakers."
All the Parisiennes were mincing around delicately in shoes that would make Jimmy Choo green with envy. Up the stairs, down the escalators, triptrapping down the Champs-Elysées, clickclacking over the marbled floors of Versailles, even precariously teetering up the gazillion steps to the second stage of the Eiffel tower.
By day 2, I had got the hint. The comfy sneakers lay disconsolate under the coffee table for the room maid to shove out of the way while vacuuming, sniffing at the horrible taste in shoes of Les Americains, while I wore respectable black flats to the Louvre and the Tuileries (drat that white limestone dust!). Not chic, but not a huge fashion faux pas, either.

On day 1, riding on the metro, apart from the shoes, I noticed the casual attitude towards cleavage display. Frenchwomen seem to be quite unbothered by any gratuitous attention to their appearance and proceed to serenely read their fat literary picks in the fast-moving train, even as they stand inches from the doorways.
I kept a death's-hand grasp on my handbag, determined to outwit the gangs of pickpockets said to swarm the trains looking for unwary suspects. So grim was my expression, that on bumping into my handbag from behind , the mild-mannered Vietnamese (?) gentleman seated behind threw up his empty hands in the air, as I glared at him.
'Desolé', he muttered.
My goodness, I thought at the end of the day. How do these ladies manage those shoes and clothes and catwalks day after day without switching to frumpy mode?
But as I soon discovered, the 'fashion show' was reserved for warm sunny days.
The next day, a heavy summer thunderstorm had cooled the city down considerably. All the ladies were dressed in the same deep-necked outfits, but now topped off with little black sweaters, cardigans or jackets. Scarves were evidently no longer a la mode.
Not for me, though. As we headed towards the Notre Dame, the chill wind on the Pont St.Michel made my teeth chatter. I spied a souvenir shop promising 3 scarves for 10 euros and promptly made a beeline for the racks placed artfully outside, determined to get a scarf both as a souvenir and a protection for my freezing neck. N helped knot it around with what she claimed was the Parisienne method of wearing a scarf, and I went around the whole day, feeling rather Audrey Hepburnish in my new scarf and my dark sunglasses. It mattered not a whit that I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb in a group of stylish jacketed Parisiennes, while I looked like a relic of the 1960's. I was no longer freezing, and could loosen or pack my scarf if the sun decided to make an appearance.

'Spik Inglish?', asked a young girl in a scarf and long layered skirt along the Champs-Elysées, waving a piece of cardboard at us. She had no chance with tourists like us, inured as we were to the sad tales of beggars and panhandlers. We swept on by her, convinced that she was only a diversion for a couple of nimble-fingered pickpockets to work their magic on our wallets.
'Spik Inglish?'- I could swear it was the same girl again. This time we were near the Notre Dame, trying to decide between the extra-long queue to climb the bell tower or the non-existent queue to enter the main sanctorum. We turned past her and headed for the dark coolness of the church interior.


The trains were full of polyglot strangers, French being but one of the mumbled utterances between chatting passengers. The other language heard constantly was 'Jazz-sax', more often than not playing 'Hava Nagila' at every other stop, with the busker whisking out his battered plastic tub for a handful of euros from the stone-faced crowd.
The poster on the train wall featured a battered British bobby imploring 'Don't massacre English', (translated), part of an ad for a language school promising to improve your English to 'Wall Street Journal levels' or your money back.
Meanwhile, I was massacring my French, woefully unprepared for the speed of regular French conversation, as well as the lack of inflections and stresses that I had gotten used to hearing in American English. The receptionist and the waiters were happy to grin at my mangled French and switched smoothly to fluent English at the first opportunity. That is, till I got mad at the hotel desk personnel on Day 3, and fluent French expostulations at the tardiness of the staff came pouring out from my unfrozen tongue.

An out-of-breath trip up the 300 odd-steps of La Butte de Montmartre had me convinced that 'Steps' were the secret of the slim figures of the French. Never mind the pastries and the fat-dripping Cordon Bleu cuisine. If we climbed steps like the French, we could eat horses for lunch, whales for dinner and still not gain a single pound.
The only obese I saw all around Paris were among the tourists. Though the French TV does have a hilarious love affair with the latest and greatest in 'fitness technology'., with channels blaring the latest 'Abdo-fit' infomercials with voice-overs of the wonders of the latest from 'la Californie', they hardly need it, with their constant walking around and climbing steps.


Lekhni said...

Yes, you have to line up atleast 30 mins before the doors open for the Notre Dame towers to get in the first batch.

I remember spending my entire trip in Paris wearing sneakers - I was oblivious that the French were probably laughing at me :(

Sujatha said...

We started waiting in line for the towers and then decided that the view was probably over-rated in comparison with what we had probably seen from the Eiffel tower.
I think we saved ourselves a good one hour of wait time and more 'Spik Inglish' ambushes by entering the church.