What is it about Paris? I first went there as a teenager, have visited as part of a couple and am now here as a mother with my three year old son and my mum. I love it and so does my son whose unlikely passion for the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe is unrivalled.
Once upon a time I thought of Paris as the capital of all things fashion – not simply the home of Breton t-shirts and the beret but a city so achingly sophisticated that its inhabitants wore a uniform of navy and camel accessorized with a permanent look of disdain. The French were never considered the friendliest of the species and yet somehow we deserved the Parisians’ cool treatment by virtue of our nation’s dubious penchant for cagoules* and trainers. They sipped café au lait and nibbled on croissants while we downed porridge and tea. Even Parisian dogs were tiny and neat, held under the arm like the ubiquitous Chanel clutch. We Brits couldn’t compete and we wouldn’t want to, the two nations were divided by the Channel, but style-wise were oceans apart.
Paris is of course the home of Chanel, St.Laurent and Dior with Paris Fashion Week arguably regarded as the most important of the four cities, if not the most ground-breaking (an honour usually bestowed on London). Interesting then that the 1990s saw not just one but three British designers taking the reigns at what were quintessentially French brands. By 1997, John Galliano was at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy and Stella McCartney at Chloe; Paris must have wondered what on earth it was coming to. With these three London-trained designers at the helm, the brands flourished and the profile of London Fashion Week went from strength to strength. Suddenly, by association, London was a force to be reckoned with even if the McQueen bumsters and platform shoes were not something most Parisians would ever be seen dead in.
Walking around Paris in 2013, things have changed, the vibe is more laid back, even a petulant child in a café is endured. I have spotted gentlemen in trousers which are too short, women with bad hair and ooh la la even a pair of outrageously patterned tights on a not so skinny pair of legs. Could the British actually be influencing the French in how they dress? Admittedly my mum and I stood out in the rue de Rivoli in our fake fur coats but no-one looked down their noses at us, not even in the infamous Café Marly where they allegedly seat non-beautiful people out the back. My son’s attempts to speak French have been greeted with broad smiles, patience and even the occasional head pat. In terms of tips for travelling with small children to this historically non-child friendly city, I would honestly say I have only one and (though it pains me to say so) it would be to avoid the department store Printemps. This fabulous shop in the hub of the shopping area has a wonderful roof terrace cafe complete with 360 degree view and Ben and Jerry’s ice-cream. Obviously it is located on the top floor, what is not so apparent is that the closest loos are way down on the first floor. A three year old announcing he needs a wee “NOW MUMMY!”is enough to throw you into a panic. When you descend seven floors and then arrive at the toilets to be told you must pay 1 euro but you’ve left your purse on the 8th floor, it feels like game over. You plead, “Mais, s’il vous plait Madam, mon fils…” but are met with a firm “Non”. You briefly consider letting your child relieve himself all over the very nice highly polished French floor. There is only one thing for it, you’re going to have to go all the way back up to get your purse on the top floor. However this time, rather than negotiate the seven sets of escalators, you try the lift for your return journey to the 8th floor. Said lift then stops at every floor. Miraculously you make it back to the café on the roof where your half-eaten ice-cream has been thoughtfully placed back in the freezer. Quick as a flash, you empty the contents of your bemused mum’s Evian into her glass and head out onto the terrace with your now desperate little boy and the empty bottle. Needless to say, we didn’t visit the toilets on the first floor again and we didn’t pay a euro for the privilege of having a much needed wee into an Evian bottle with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower either. It doesn’t get more French than that.
Everyone loves Paris in the springtime but I’m partial to Paris at Christmas. Their festive decorations and markets are second to none and the city looks beautiful. We got on a bus that was so packed my son was actually perched on the counter alongside the driver and yet everyone was laughing. There was so much good cheer it made travelling like sardines a pleasure. Then when the bus emptied out, I watched as a lady in a black cinched in jacket, on the knee prom style skirt, ankle boots, red lipstick and a huge black bow on top of her immaculate jet black hair got off and teetered down the road. She was at least 70. It’s the air of ‘je ne sais quoi’ that does it. Whoever it was that said there is no English word for chic because everything chic is French hit the nail on the head. Paris is always a good idea. Joyeux Noel everyone!
*Whaddyaknow, the word cagoule comes from the French word for hood…