I spent a lot of time during my visit to Paris last week wondering (out loud, much to my husband’s dismay) whether I had make a mistake by leaving such a beautiful city. Now that I am back home in Palo Alto, I am fairly certain that I have not, mainly for reasons involving the number of sunny days in a year, ease of access to swimming pools, and abundance of palm trees. But there is one thing that I will really, deeply miss about my life in France.
I know what you’re thinking – fashion. And you’re not wrong. But it’s bigger than that. It’s the reason the fashion is so good. It’s the reason the food is so good. It’s the reason that Americans flock there in hoards.
The evening Christian Constant: Apero chez Cafe Constant and dinner chez Les Cocottes
In fact, I am not really sure how to characterize what “it” is. The closest words I have found to describe “it” are cultural identity, or maybe cultural cohesion. All European countries seem to have it. It’s something that seems to require history – long history – the time to develop a sort of standardized set of common habits – like drinking strong espresso after lunch, or buying fresh bread daily from the bakery.
France’s cultural identity is so strong that it subsumes sub-cultures and immigrant cultures to a much greater extent than many other countries. If you live in France, you are first and foremost French, before being Moroccan or Algerian, Catholic or Jewish, or whatever your sub-identies are. You are not allowed to wear a head scarf at school, even if your religion requires it, allegedly because in France there is separation of church and state, but in reality I think it’s because French women just don’t wear head scarfs et c’est tout – fin de discussion. Think of how starkly different this is from the United States, where people latch on to their immigrant history and proclaim to be Irish before they tell you they are American, despite being 4th generation US citizens.
Obligatory baguette selfie and breakfast at Le Petit Cler, which was basically an extension of our apartment while I lived there
Don’t get me wrong, there is something wonderful about the cultural diversity of the United States. Our American cultural vacuum has allowed sub-cultures to flourish here in a way they do not in France. There’s an Indian restaurant down the street from my house that is – as my Indian colleague puts it – more authentic than Indian food in India. Within a 10 mile radius of my home, I can get very authentic Japanese cuisine, Mexican cuisine, Burmese cuisine, Greek cuisine… And I can attend a not-so-small version of the Indian Holi festival, Cinqo de Mayo festivities, Chinese New Year festivities, you name it.
But these are not my cultures, and while I appreciate them, I still feel like a tourist, an outsider, whenever I participate. And what are my cultural traditions? What is my cultural heritage? Super bowl Sunday? A tradition that has become as much about the advertisements as the match itself? Sometimes I feel like America, with its obsession over free economy and commerce, has let consumer culture replace what could have been our common cultural identity. I thought about this a lot when I was searching for an apartment in the Bay Area. I realized that one of the most important criteria for me was that the place I live should have a downtown – a place where people come together to eat, drink, enjoy whatever little culture there is in Suburban California. And I was socked by how few districts in Northern California have a downtown. Most of them are centered around sprawling strip malls where the gathering places are generic chains like Starbucks and Chipotle.
Our bed and breakfast in Dijon (Bourgogne) where we attended a wedding
In France, every town has it’s central square. Even in Paris, the city is organized by arrondissement, each with its own set of local merchants – a separate shop for bread, cheese, wine, produce. The stores are independently owned, and anything but anonymous. The merchants know the customers, the customers know the merchants, the customers know the customers. People live within the arrondissement almost as if it were an extension of their home. Cafes always have a counter where you can stop for a quick espresso on your way to work or a beer on your way home and chat with the clientele or the barista. It’s more common to eat meals out and Brasseries serve dishes that are similar to local home-cooked meals. Fast food chains have attempted to gain a foothold in France but have nowhere near the penetration they have of American towns and cities. People simply prefer the traditional ways of eating, dressing, living.
The perfect morning: shopping the first day of private sales in fashionista heaven, le Bon Marche, followed by my favorite brasserie lunch, hot goat cheese salad
This dichotomy is equally true of fashion. Americans are obsessed with fast fashion – Forever21, H&M, Zara – brands that allow them to consume one season and throw away the next. It’s generic (how many times have we seen someone wearing the same Zara dress we just bought?) and anonymous (we have no relationship with the maker of the clothes or the brand and we do not care to know).
In France, the shopping experience is different. There are two or three depots-ventes in the city where I used to regularly check in for new merchandise. The owners knew what I liked and would even set things aside for me or call me when something came in. They were always honest with me – they would tell me something didn’t look good when it didn’t, even if it cost the sale. This time while I was there, I scouted out a boutique that sells leather handbags and briefcases called Leo et Violet. I had seen a French Instagram influencer post a photo with one of their bags and loved it. The shop was about the size of a walk-in closet, sandwiched in between ramen restaurants on Rue Saint Anne. The owners are a young Parisian couple who started out selling briefcases online, funded by a Kickstarter campaign. Today, they make about 10 styles in a few colors each, and everything is perfectly crafted in a workshop in Italy. The prices are reasonable and there is no obnoxious logo splashed across the merchandise in big gold letters. I love the bag, not just because it is beautiful (it is) but because of its story and authenticity.
Outside of Charvet Place Vendome – the frenchest of french brands (Monsieur Charvet worked for Napolean and apparently invented the shirt as we know it), and with my new Leo et Violet bag, plus an Isabel Marant blazer from my favorite depot-vente, La Marelle.
Even the big fashion houses – Chanel, Celine, Louis Vuitton – are a deeply intertwined with French history. Dressing well is simply part of the French cultural identity. Walking for kilometers through the rain in high heels and stockings is not practical, but maintaining a certain aesthetic is important enough to make it worth it, just like taking a two hour lunch break to eat a three course meal during the work day is not practical, nor is going to three separate stores to buy the ingredients for dinner. But all of this is part of the French savoir-etre and as such, it is essential.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the practicality and comfort of my new American life. I love driving home from work in my big car and opening my big fridge for a big beer at the end of the day, and drinking it in front of my big TV on my big couch. I love talking too loudly on the phone without people staring. I love that I can go to the supermarket in my PJs and no one gives a rat’s ass. And I love piling my big bags of groceries into the trunk of my car, instead of lugging them four blocks home, only to do it all over again two days later, because that’s all that will fit in our fridge. But I will miss French culture and feeling like, even as an American, I was part of that culture. I will miss the sense of community, the attention to detail, the care and importance people attach to things like food and fashion. Maybe I will find that here, with time, or maybe I won’t. Maybe I will decide that, despite this romantic article I just pulled out of my rear, I actually prefer comfort and frappucinos. But I think France will always be a big part of my life (I married a frenchman, after all) and either we will succeed in cultivating some of the best parts of French culture here in our home, relationships and lifestyle, or we may some day find ourselves migrating back across the Atlantic.