Thursday, June 30, 2011

Material girl

Summer in Paris is not only about the possibility of meteorological extremes and the certainty of pricey sorbet. Summer is also about unchained, triumphant materialism. Sales, in other words. Big sales. Sales on everything.

The warmer months hail the arrival of France’s annual soldes d’été, five weeks during which stores great and small slash their prices in order to make way for the arrival of the autumn/winter collections. As hideously depressing as it is to think at summer’s zenith, OMG-winter-will-be-back-before-we-know-it, the soldes also represent a glittering opportunity for consumers to gleefully and exuberantly indulge in the very same conspicuous consumption that is supposedly so disdained by the infamously discreet French. In other words, who’s depressed? Pas moi! For during the soldes, all bets are off; consumers from all walks of life, French and foreign alike, are openly encouraged to engage in a veritable orgy of frenzied hunting and gathering until their feet and wallets cry overdose and they collapse in a dizzy haze, feeling exhausted and vaguely guilty ... yet somehow strangely fulfilled. Or is that just me?

It never fails. Every year I tell myself, “Self, you have MORE than enough clothing. So no soldes for you! True spiritual fulfillment must be sought within, not without.” But then my Self comes up with something like, “That’s true; I DO have enough clothing ... for now. But not nearly enough shoes/jewelry/books/electronics/housewares/kitchen gear/potted plants...!” And, realizing the futility of attempting to counter such watertight logic, off I run to get my next material fix.

Now, such behavior could be considered as both totally selfish and fiscally irresponsible, except that I’m one step ahead of such petty accusations. As G. and I inhabit a typically space-challenged Parisian abode, without so much as a basement in which to store any excess, I can’t just go on acquiring without end. Therefore, I frequently donate my no-longer-desired clothing to such benevolent organizations as the Children of Madagascar, and thus clear the way for NEW clothing while at the same time placating my conscience. Why, thanks to me, Madagascar’s youth are sporting some sweet attire—even if some of my contributions may be less appreciated than others (that floor-length black wool coat I disposed of last month comes to mind).

G. surely senses that my addiction to zestfully accumulating what can only be referred to as “stuff”—which is to say miscellaneous material items that soothe, flatter and reassure—is as American as macaroni and cheese, and as such, looks upon it with bemusement. Indeed, rather than attempt to find an appropriate French translation for the word “stuff” (there isn’t one), G. has gone and adopted it just as it is, interjecting it into otherwise entirely French sentences and applying it to everything from the pile of magazines sitting on the coffee table to the forgotten sock by the front door. He has even developed a new grammatical form for it, wherein the partitive du becomes the singular indefinite “un.” Thus, “un stuff. (Ex: “Il y a un stuff coincé dans la cafétière !” – “There’s something stuck in the coffee machine!”)

Considering the success of this small-scale experiment, I think I have reason to hope that “le stuff” will eventually spread among the greater French population, and perhaps one day even join the ranks of such widely accepted, originally English words as “cool,” “fun,” “geek,” and my personal favorite, “funky.” It could happen! And if ever it does, I fully expect to be granted the honorary title of Stuff Ambassador to France.

Monday, June 27, 2011

In the summer when it sizzles

It’s HOT in Paris right now. Hot-hot-hottttttt. It’s so hot that my boss has asked everyone in the office to draw the window shades and turn off our desk lamps, thus betraying his insanity for he must suspect that our energy-saving Ikea light bulbs are partially to blame. Ever the rebel, I have not obeyed orders because first of all, no way do these silly lamps generate any heat worth mentioning and secondly, never underestimate the parakeet effect, i.e. darkness = zzzzzz. I personally have no desire to awaken hours from now, the right side of my face decorated with key-shaped indentations, only to spend the rest of the afternoon taking witty remarks from my colleagues like, “Hey, fall asleep on your keyboard again?”

This sudden heat thing happens every year, always with the same effect: June gloom takes up most of the month, everyone bitches and moans about how wretched Paris weather is and how lucky those bastards in the south of France are and then, all of sudden, BONJOUR la canicule! Overnight the temperatures sky rocket and everyone seamlessly switches to bitching and moaning about how unbearably hot it is. It doesn’t last, generally speaking (the heat, not the bitching; this is France after all). A notable exception was of course the summer of 2003, which featured endless days of scorching heat, alternating with endless nights of scorching heat, and ended only after some 15,000 people had died of dehydration (a public health catastrophe that bizarrely no one seems to discuss anymore).

Never one to shun an occasion for harrowing adventure, my family made the trip over the big blue water to visit me in the middle of that very same 2003 heat wave. I remember us all sitting around my 5th floor apartment dinner table, eating only after 10:30 pm—when the heat had subsided just enough to allow us to conceive of consuming anything solid. We took cold showers at regular intervals, slept with spray bottles next to our beds and would awaken in the middle of the night, wander over to the open windows and stretch our sweating arms out into the stifling darkness, attempting in vain to catch even the slightest whisper of a breeze. Yeah, it sucked.

At the time, I had no fan (still don’t). This of course shocked my parents, even after my explanation that Paris seldom heats up enough to warrant a fan and that besides, where would I store such a thing during the 11.5 cooler months of the year? But faced with day after day of 100+ degree weather, even I was willing to hoist the proverbial white flag. We thus embarked on a wild goose chase through the city, visiting shop after shop after shop, only to be told that no fans were to be found—not there, not anywhere—and that furthermore, no new deliveries were expected anytime soon. This of course DOUBLY shocked my parents, who could not believe that a first world country could just run out of something as common as a stupid fan—and at the height of summer no less! France in their eyes was demoted right then and there to second world status (where it shall remain indefinitely). So we resorted to fanning ourselves with anything lying around my apartment: newspapers, museum brochures, table mats....

I have since discovered that the acme of H-O-T in Paris is in fact underground: aboard the RER, a mode of public transportation that is half métro, half suburban train. In the suburbs, the RER runs above ground, but when it passes through Paris, it actually descends below the métro—much closer to Hades in other words, which I suppose would account for the heat, as well as for the demon-like characters one may spot while on board. In addition to being damn hot, the RER is notoriously poorly-kept (that’s a euphemism for “ghetto on rails”). All of this leaves RER passengers with a serious dilemma during the hotter months: either a) dress conservatively and sweat away in silence (but avoid drawing any unwanted attention) or b) dress in skimpy summer attire and take their chances with the more dubious of their fellow passengers. Tricky. My tactic is to avoid the hot heinousness of the RER like the plague (incidentally, the RER and the plague have something in common: rats).

Between us, I am enjoying the heat this time around. It’s nice to eat outdoors, nice to wear sandals to work, nice to leave the jacket at home. And I’m sure that if, heaven forbid, the heat wave were to stay past its welcome, I could always just pop out and buy a fan (surely they are back in stock by now).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

An ode to acrylics

Ten days before my wedding, which is to say toward the end of April, I marched into an empty nail salon in Southern California and requested a full set of acrylic “French tip” nails. I’d been toying with the idea for months, as “What am I going to do about my NAILS?” is a question that every self-respecting bride-to-be asks herself at some point. I’d begun early: interrogating my loved ones, scouring the web, consulting my inner child.... Most opinions were negative, acrylic nails being notoriously rough on one’s natural nails (really? You mean cementing prosthetics to one’s hands and then covering them with three layers of foul-smelling resin is harmful?). But there is no such thing as natural beauty—at least not in the world of nail art—so I paid no heed to the naysayers. Besides, I wanted gorgeous hands for those wedding photos and no way was I going to settle for a basic manicure. I wanted to go whole hog. I wanted my Steel Magnolias moment.

Thus, on a sunny Wednesday, in I strolled into my chosen nail salon and within minutes was seated comfortably facing my nail technician, a portly Vietnamese lady wearing a gaping, washed-out tank top that left little to the imagination and kind of made me feel overdressed. One other client was there —a 40-something character named Linda, the kind of woman who just hangs out in nail salons: big hair, loud makeup, ocher skin and a smoker’s voice. She wasted no time in announcing that she had a blind date in an hour, and had come over to get ready. She also fully intended to choose an outfit while at the salon, and thus had brought along several possibilities to model for us. This initially struck me as surreal, but a few blinks of incomprehension and I was over it. Besides, the surreal seems to follow me wherever I go—so why not here? Otherwise, the salon was fairly classic: rows of reclining pedicure chairs, little tables adorned with manicure lamps, displays of brightly-colored nail polish and a big flat-screen TV. In this case, the channel was set on Disney. I figured there must be a small child hiding in the room somewhere—a daughter perhaps?—but no, my nail technician just had a thing for Hannah Montana. Who doesn’t?

That and gambling. As it turned out, acrylic nails are actually quite labor-intensive, which left us plenty of time for light-hearted banter. So as she proceeded to glue 8-inch-long appendages to my nail bed (step #1), I lent a polite ear to sordid tales of gambling away her livelihood at the big casino over on the nearby Indian reservation. Not that I had any choice in the matter—I couldn’t very well get up and walk out looking like Edward Scissorhands, plus I really needed her to do a good job. So I shut up and listened.

Apparently, she had begun hitting the game tables ages ago, not long after arriving in the US as a Vietnamese refugee(?!).

“I used to play all the time. Sometimes I lose. Sometimes I lose a lot. My husband, he no like it when I lose. You know, hundreds I lose, sometimes thousands (laughs). He get real angry when I do that.”

“You don’t say,” I answered.

“It used to be real bad but now is better. Now I play, but not all the time. Sometimes I win. But also I lose (laughs).”

“Interesting,” I said.

“Do these pants make me look fat?” interrupted Linda.

Three and a half hours later, I felt as though a certain level of intimacy had been established between us. Upon leaving, I almost wanted to give her a hug and encourage her to stay away from the casino. But instead I gave her a nice tip, hoping it wouldn’t end up where I was imagining it would.

And in the end, I didn’t regret my choice. My nails were impeccable for the wedding and remained so for the honeymoon. In fact, I grew so fond of them that I had them “refilled” upon my return to Paris, which was almost as amusing as the initial operation. Nail salons here tend to double as erotic message parlors, which kind of makes sense. I mean, men have to do something while the ladies have their nails done—thumbing through magazines is just so prosaic. Incidentally, women can also get massages at these fine establishments, but the cost for men is always significantly higher. Now why would THAT be...?

But dubious salons aside, I’m still loving the fake nails. Why? Because they’re flawless! I mean sure, they do make a hell of a lot of noise when I type, but otherwise it’s pure pleasure wearing them. They’re unbreakable, unsplittable, unsulliable; I haven’t so much as caused one tiny run in my stockings since I had the nails put on and that alone is well worth the cost. Plus they’re still relatively rare in France, which is a nice boost for my ego.

The ONE downside is that they’re ... um ... flammable. I found that out the hard way while lighting a candle the other evening. Suddenly it was my thumbnail that was twinkling away and not the wick. “What’s that smell?” G. asked. “Nothing!” I said, trying to hide my singed nail. Oh, it was fine. I filed it down a bit and it was good as new. Mostly.

So in conclusion, I give two singed thumbs up to acrylic nails. Sure they’re somewhat dangerous. But in the end ... aren’t we all (philosophical pause)?