Day 1 –
For a socialist country France has some serious social problems. The first thing that strikes the visitor is the massive amount of graffiti everywhere. It lines the highways and railroad tracks. It’s on the side of houses and on the outside of trains. In fact pretty much any surface is game. Unfortunately it isn’t good graffiti. It’s tagging like dogs marking their territory. Some of it is mildly interesting. I saw a few that were takes on the Simpsons, and a few that enveloped entire structures engaging with the space around them, most were just names, “Zaga” or “Sawek” Like I am supposed to know or care who that is. Just dogs barking…
Some I thought were well done like the paint drops that ran down the side of the building like someone had poured a giant can of paint on the top, or the paintings of water droplets on a site of a smoke stack that made it look wet. My favorite though where the silly airbrushed faces that stretched around a couple of water towers. Their giant eyes looking down like something from George Orwell sans the menacing bit.
The second issue is poverty. I was shocked that in a country like France you would find such a destitute population. It seemed as though a disproportionate number of the impoverished were foreigners though. In fact I was a little shocked to see so many dark-skinned people in general. Perhaps a by-product of colonialization?
As I took the train from CDG Airport to Montparnasse I noticed many little shantytowns. The gypsies, “Romas” I think they are called living in whatever space they can eake out between the rail fence and the highway. “Pykies” as portrayed by Brad Pitt in Snatch pretty much sums it up. These people are completely transient and are totally unaccountable. As in, they do whatever they want. Unforunately for everyone else it usually stealing something.
We had our first run in with thieves getting on the Metro. Three girls, who couldn’t have been more than 12, one sporting a black eye, sort of pushed in front of Zuimei’s mother. This caught my attention as the French are not rude in general, they just get a lot closer to each other than North Americans are used to, but this was rude. As soon as we stepped onto the train two of her little entourage started asking me questions in French. At first I thought they were beggers but I noticed the zipper of Yoshiko’s bag was open. I reach across and zipped it up, saying quite clearly that I did not speak French. “Okay mister, okay..” they said as they stepped off at the sound of the door closing alarm. The girl with the black eye tossed something back onto the train as the doors snapped shut, and gave me a look as if to say “too late!”
I picked up the card holder that the girl had lifted off of Zuimei’s mom. I looked back at the girls as we pulled out of the station. The girl with the black eye, still looking at me shrugged, and then they were gone. We were lucky because they didn’t get the wallet with the money, We’d just changed thousands of dollars into Euro that morning and the card holder had contained Yoshiko’s health card which would have been a pain to replace so we were lucky they tossed it back to us.
Still I was a little dismayed that some people on the train just watched us, knowing full well what was happening. It put us all on edge and from then on I srutinized every face on the metro. I am positive I thwarted a few would be thieves by giving them a cold, hard look.
I was still shaken up by the experience when we got to Champs Elysse. I kept running it through my mind and wondering what she’d done to get the black eye. We got out at the wrong end though and started near the needle which is at one end the shops are all at the other, near the Arch de triumph. We walked along carefully clutching our bags in case more thieves attempted to separate us from our belongings.
Our goal was the flagship store for Louis Vuitton. Let me say, if you want to see a brand image done right, that is the place. All the staff are multi-lingual, impeccably dressed, well groomed and polite. Even the security is helpful. The shop is divided into multiple levels with the bags on the main floor.The shop was awash with people, milling around gazing into display cases, trying out different bags in the mirrors, paying for their puchases with the happiness that only consumerism can provide. Don’t get me wrong, I am not disparaging it; I am as guilty of it as anyone is.
While there Yoshiko purchased several wallets and we were sent upstairs to have them personalized. When you purchase an item from LV one of the services they offer is to stamp your initials or whatever into the item to mark it as yours. Not unlike the graffitti taggers, but with more taste since you own it and are not pissing like a dog on someone else’s fire hydrant. We must have spend an hour or two in Louis Vuitton because it was after lunch by the time we left.
We ate a quick bite and then went to three different Hermes shops on the hunt for the elusive “Birkin” bag, which I nicknamed, the precious. Hermes makes lots of different bags but this is the one that all the ladies want. The first shop was just one giant room with sparcely displayed items. When you are sell a scarf for 2000 euros you can afford to not worry about square footage. He was very polite, but informed us they do not hold the precious (apparently there is no wait list) and that they only get a few in each shipment so we will need to try our luck. They couldn’t check the stock in other locations, and it wouldn’t matter because they wouldn’t hold the bag for us anyway.
At the second shop the same information.
At the third, and flagship store we lucked out. A nice young man informed us that yes indeed he did have them and in red, grey and white. We asked to see the grey, which came in large. This is a ten thousand dollar purse, so they only take them out one at a time apparently, so you cannot ask to see the red one and the grey one at the same time. He also asked for my name because there is also apparently a limit on the number of the precious one can buy in a year…one. Which to me begs the question, how the Hell did Victoria Beckham get 1500 of them?
He must have been a new employeed because when he brought us the bag he looked not unlike a scolded schooboy and was accomanied by a Korean woman. She seemed quite disturbed to see Zuimei and Yoshiko because apparently they do not like selling these to anyone Chinese. I guess the Chinese counter-fitters will take the bag apart and figure out the pattern then produce copies. France takes this very seriously with many signs to that effect in the airport. Something like a 150,000 euro fine and three years in jail for carrying a fake LV bag. To me that seems a bit excessive but clearly I am not French.
The young man produced the bag with great production carefully removing it from it’s protective trappings. In fact the Korean women seemed to be instructing him on how to remove the bag so that the front was always facing the customer, and that the tissue used to wrap the precious was not crinkled. It was a grey hand bag. I am not sure what I expected but given the amount of effort we went through to find this thing I had hoped for something a little more…flashy. After some discussion we asked to see the red bag which came in a smaller size. They said they would go check. In the meantime they asked a guard to come and stand next to the bag and watch us, so we didn’t steal it. Who did they thing we were? Romas?
They came back to inform us that unfortunately in the five minutes since we first asked, all other bags had been sold. I seriously doubted that, but I think the Korean woman was concerned that we might each walk out of there with a precious Birkin bag. The reason why Zuimei even wanted one in the first place is because he can go back to Japan and sell it for twice the money. Seriously…Twenty grand for a purse. Ahh…fashion, you silly thing you. So we bought the one we could and left with me carrying a ridiculously large orange bag. As we walked down Concorde back to the Metro you could see all the women looking enviously at my large package. They all wanted the precious.
We went back to the hotel at this point. There was no point in walking around with that ridiculous bag and I am sure it is like a magnet for the thieves. Once we dropped Yoshiko and the bag off at the hotel we went to a little place down the road for dinner. I forget the name of it exactly but it was literally a block away from the hotel. We didn’t have a reservation so we would need to wait for a table, along with the dozen of so other people crammed a the bar. There were so many people showing up the filed out the door. The bartender made sure that everyone had a drink in their hand and sliced sausage was provided as an amuse bouche. Even for the folk standing outside and waiting. Keep in mind this is at 9pm. We didn’t get seated until 9:30 and Zuimei and I felt obligated to eat quickly so others could take our seat. When we left at 10:15 there was still a lineup!
It was sort of like walking into a house party where you do not know anyone. People were chatting (in French) and laughing (in French as well I suppose) but we were outsiders looking in.
The dinner was very French and luckily for us the waiter spoke English. He made some recommendations and we agrred, not really sure what we were going to get but trusting that he wasn’t going to serve us anything too strange. It started with white asparagus salad with prociutto cooked egg and thinly sliced cheese. It tasted like summer. We also had a little sparrrib with fried fois gras and sun driedc tomatoes. It was okay. The fois gras sauce was actually better than the rib was. Zuimei also ordered a bowl of the soupe de jour which came as two parts. First was the fried onion and jambon, and then there was a tureen with the actual soup in it. It was very creamy and not unlike soup my father makes.
I had a glass of Merlot of course, my first wine in France and it was lovely. For the mains we had steak frites, but I have to say the steak was tough. Plus the knives we were given were so dull you would have had better luck with a spoon! The frites were excellent though, very hot and hand cut with cracked salt and pepper. For dessert I had the tiramisu. Mine is better…just saying.