Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Notes on Paris: Fashion and Gender Identity

Yes, Parisian girls really are that pretty, and yes, Parisian boys are also very good dressers, and no, they are not at all feminine. In fact, the gender lines were very clearly drawn in France; it’s been some time since I felt so clearly that I was A Woman, put on earth to be Decorative, and the other person was A Man, put on earth to choose his Decoration. It must be a difficult task for any man in Paris, where each and every girl on the street would turn heads here in the States. Not being a man, I tried to break down Parisian fashion, if only to copy it correctly and not stand out so much as a tourist—especially important, I thought, when traveling on my own.

First: Parisian girls dress very, very classic. They follow trends, yes. But only to a very small extent, and the style of their pants and shoes and coats is much more classic than trendy. Their heels are lower, their pants are neither as skinny NOR as flared. My mother would have felt comfortable in almost everything a Parisian seventeen-year-old would wear, except...

Second: the greatness of a look is in the details. Bags, printed scarves, tousled, pinned-up hair, rings, necklaces, earrings: that was what made a look trendy. Jeans on the inside or the outside of the boots? Hair up or down? How many earrings? What kind? It was the details that made every outfit pop, and clearly, everyone had worked hard on those details. Jeans were covered with decorative seams and embroidery. T-shirts and hoodies were stenciled, painted, and ripped in just the right places. A single ring placed on the perfect finger drew the eye in. Comparatively, back in the States, everyone looked like they had just rolled out of bed.

Third, the details were even more important because, if you weren’t paying attention to those details, everyone looked the same...almost. For example, all the girls had the same coat. Except...that one collar might be a little taller, one hem line might be a little shorter, one coat might have trim on the sleeves where another coat has trim on the collar. Everyone had jeans with decorative seams...except that the seams were in slightly different spots. As opposed to downtown Seattle, where I can see the same pair of Rockin’ Republics ten times an hour (those are designer jeans, boys) in France I saw hardly ANY mass-produced fashion; I never saw the same pair of jeans twice. No, I have no idea how they did that. It's a hard balance: how to look classic while still standing out from the crowd? The girls nailed this balance. And yes, the boys noticed these details. French eyes are more attuned to that level of detail, across the genders, which is probably why they recognize country of origin so quickly, too. After all, if you'd grown up in a country in which every building, every post office, every PARK BENCH was decorated with levels and levels of gold leaf and tiny sculptures, you'd spot miniscule differences, too.

Fourth, that much attention to one’s outfit inspires confidence in oneself, and the Parisian girls had that in spades. Due partly to the culture—they know they’re supposed to be decorative, and they take that charge seriously—and partly due to the amount of time spent on looking good, the girls practically sang with confidence and poise. They didn’t trip, they didn’t bat their eyelashes, they didn’t sweat. They didn’t even wear much makeup. Many of the girls even had acne, which they didn’t bother to cover. They just stood there in their classic outfits and their heads held high, and boys fell all over them.

Fifth and final tip: Approachability. Sure, you can spend a lot of time on your outfit, but if you don’t have a look you’re going for and are COMFORTABLE in, what’s the point? Parisian girls had a look. They’d carefully studied themselves in the mirror, from all angles, and they made sure their shirts were tucked in and that their hair sat just right, and yet none of them looked too perfect to approach. They were almost casual in their great coats and black pants and perfect heels, just standing there, like it weren’t no thang. Again: comfort, and confidence, and one begets the other.

It was very inspiring. I didn't have space to buy anything--say, a coat--and take it home, but I wished I did. I did the best I could with what I had, wearing my jewelery and my scarf and my boots, and succeeded well enough that French people stopped me on the street and asked me for directions at least once a day, so I'd consider that a rousing success. (WOO-HOO!) Back here at home, I'm trying to spend more time on the details, and when I dressed up this past weekend for Bonza Bash, I thought ahead about comfort and ended up rocking my dress.

Travel is the best education there is.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Notes on Paris

I return!

I’d like to blame Paris for my long absence, but that would be totally untrue. Or, rather, only partially true. Yes, I was gone for more than a week, and yes, there was a lot to catch up on when I came back, but that’s not entirely it. What Paris really did was fill my head up with images of gorgeous young Parisians and gorgeous old architecture, and I’ve spent every second when I haven’t been at either job...well, thinking.

Yes, thinking. I don’t do it so often. (Practically not at all, according to some people.) But there’s nothing like going to a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and spending hours upon hours each day in museums to make your brain go haywire, and I mean that in the best way possible, but it’s still unsettling.

I’ve had a lot to think about.

People Watching: On Ethnicity

American truly is the world’s melting pot. Blending of cultures and ethnicities is happening more and more the world over, but not half to the degree that it happens here in the States. It was a shock to be in France and clearly be able to see one’s country of origin stamped on one’s forehead. I was in a club in Eastern Paris down by the river, the Pont Ephemre, and was talking to a nice boy, and he said, very early in the conversation,

“So where do you think I am from?”

“Paris?” I guessed.

He shook his head sadly. “Tunisia,” he said, almost apologetically.

Like, “I just want you to know NOW that I’m not very respected here.” Like, “American girl, you may be the only girl in the club who is talking to me right now because the rest of these girls are from Paris and they won’t give me the time of day. I just wanted you to know so you could leave if you wanted.” Up until then it had never occurred to me that other countries in the world—even Western European countries that the U.S. gets along with, such as France—still have a class system. Yes, we certainly have racial and economic strife here in the States, but it is entirely different from the rigid structure in Europe.

Several days later, my hotel manager was telling me a story about going out with a lady friend of his and leaving her outside McDonald’s to finish her cigarette, only to come out and find her surrounded by Parisian roughs giving her a hard time. The minute he showed up on the scene, though, they showed hesitation. “Look at him, he’s North African,” said one. “What are you? Tunisian or Algerian?” said another. “I’m Algerian,” he said. “Get lost.”

They left. The North Africans have a reputation. To me, Maissy—the hotel manager—was just a dark-haired cutie who spoke three languages. He could have been Spanish, French, possibly Italian. Parisians clearly saw that he was Algerian.

It blew me away. Once I realized that Parisians could read faces the way I can read a book, I started to make the effort to read features and decipher accents. Maissy’s French was clearly more mumbled and less nasal than Parisian French, once I started to listen for it, and there was also a difference in class structure between Parisians—some deliveries were more subdued, some were more forward, some were more mumbled, some had sharper accents. All Parisian French was incredibly nasal, just like the stereotype. Amsterdam Dutch, on the other hand, sounds a great deal like American English except you can’t understand a word. German sounds more like British English—the speech pattern and lack of R pronunciation makes German and Queen’s English sound more like a caricature than real life, to these American ears. (Possibly due entirely to watching Beerfest.)

I had a difficult time distinguishing between Italians and Spaniards, in spite of all of my unabashed people-watching (read: staring). The two languages even sound so similar that many times I’d be eavesdropping and wondering why I couldn’t understand a single word, and it would take me fifteen minutes at least to realize they were speaking Italian.

Tomorrow: Paris Fashion!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Looking for Foreign Jobs

It's 7:34 am, Continent time, and I'm on the high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris, passing through Brussels and a few other places on the way. I have been to the Picasso Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Rodin Museum, Luxemborg Gardens, Tuileries Gardens, the Centre Pompidou, the Anne Frank House, and the U.S. Consulate, and I have been to the Louvre twice. And I have met some of Paris' finest, the gendarmes.

And it has all been fabulous (except for the Consulate and the police station) and I don't want to leave. I don't want to leave Paris EVER, really.

I have learned many important things:

1. Parisians really are very pretty and very well dressed, all of them. I arrived on a Wednesday and I kept thinking it was a Sunday morning, because in my mind, being on a train or bus surrounded by people who are all dressed up means it's church time. There ARE jeans, but there are no athletic shoes. Ever.

2. And yes, everyone is quite slender.

3. On the plus side, the girls in Paris have just as bad skin as we do in the U.S., so that's comforting.

4. On the other hand, Amsterdam residents--while still being skinnier than us Americans on average--are quite a bit heavier than Parisians, especially the ladies. And their skin is certainly not perfect, either.

5. Whereas the Amsterdam boys all look like they could model for Abercrombie tomorrow. It was completely nuts. I've never seen so many good looking straight men at once in my life.

6. The red-light district in Amsterdam is, still, the red-light district. And yes, there was hash.

7. No, I didn't try any.

8. Europe faces the same problems with socioeconomic class and underprivileged youth that we do. There is graffiti everywhere, and there is definitely some riff-raff. Sacre Coeur, a beautiful church on a hill, was almost ruined for me because of the persistent nature of the con artists. Seeing an American couple about to fall for the "friendship bracelet" scam, I approached them and told them about it, at which point fifteen members of the group standing around--and there are DOZENS of them all around Sacre Coeur--confronted me. One of them grabbed my arm. "What you saying?" he demanded roughly. "What you telling them?" I shook him off and kept walking. (About now is when my mother is having a heart attack.) It was certainly an adrenaline-producing experience, but I was happy I had tried to save the young American couple. Even if they brushed me off as a bitter American, I did what I could.

9. I probably did sound a little bitter, since earlier in the day, I had personally met a member of the pickpocket elite, who managed to relieve me of my passport.

10. Hence my experience with the French police and the U.S. Consulate. And among the OTHER important things I have learned, I have learned that the U.S. Consulate is in Tuileries Gardens, and it is only open until noon, Monday through Friday, and you have to email ahead for an appointment.

11. Since I showed up there on Friday at 12:22 pm, you can bet I didn't allow them to enforce any of these rules on me.

12. That's another post.

13. Aside from this episode, Paris is really gorgeous, I had a fabulous time, I could hear the bells of Notre Dame from my hotel room, and I got my art geek on at the Louvre and even met some Parisians, who were extremely hospitable.

More on the way!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Things I Have Learned About Paris (Before Trip Edition)

Does everyone know I'm gone to Paris for six days, very soon? You don't? You do now.


I'm getting there, I swear.

ANYWAY. A good friend of mine--a friend of mine who studied abroad for a year in Switzerland and speaks French--called me this evening to mention, in passing, that HE had been the one to introduce me to Timbaland's Shock Value, nine months ago, and I had blown him off, as is my wont, and he was calling to gloat and remind me that I should always listen to him.

"Uh huh," I said. "Did I mention that I'm leaving for Paris in two days?"

Because if we were going to get into a contest of GLOATING, I wanted him to know that I had major artillery in store for him.

After he got over his jealousy, he and his lady--who also speaks French fluently--gave me a long list of their recommendations of places to go and things to do.

And he passed me the following story:

"So, my lady says that she was once hanging in the square before Notre Dame with a girlfriend, and two security guards came up and started talking to them, showing off their native charm. The lady and her friend were quite receptive, until one of the guards said,

"So, would you like to see the catacombs? Because my friend and I could give you...you know...a private tour."

"Uh huh," I said.

"So, no matter how hot French guys may be," my friend concludes, "I don't think I would recommend getting it on in a tomb with one of them."

I considered. "I don't know," I said. "I'm sure there are some girls that are into that."

"Well, sure," he says, "if you're the kind of girl that sleeps in a tomb, and..."

"...paints her nails black..." I interjected.

"Sure, and listens to Evanescence..."


"...then I can see how that might have a certain aura. But for you, I'd recommend against it."

"I will take it under advisement," I said.

And in this, as in the case of Timbaland, I feel he is correct.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Just Another Tuesday

It's been--not too long a day, but certainly somewhat long--and I'm walking up the stairs to my apartment. I open the door.

I close the door.

I open the door again. Nope, that smell is still there.

I close the door again.

I bite the bullet and open the door for a third time. Titan is confused, all the more so because he has been sick. Out of his bowels. In my kitchen.

I leash him up and we run outside. And then I start the horrible, disgusting process of cleaning up...well, you can imagine.

In the middle of this, I check my email. I have received an email from my mother, and it is not complimentary.

I text Molly. "My mother told me I look like I'm in pain on my recent facebook picture, and Titan has had diarrhea. In my kitchen."

She texts back: "You need wine. Immediately."

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Brain Space Occupied

I have done nothing--NOTHING--for the past week except listen to Timbaland's Shock Value. It's brilliant, it's surprisingly dirty, it's genius, it's genre-bending. It's addictive.

And when I HAVEN'T been listening to Shock Value, I've been bumming around Seattle and outlying areas. So, in lieu of having any sort of coherent thought at all, I present:

Recent Seattle Reviews, by One Opinionated Aarwenn

1. I do not understand why anyone ever goes to Zeek's Pizza. I got pizza from there once--delivery--and it was about Domino quality, maybe worse. Only three times the price.

2. On the other hand, Olympic Pizza (in Queen Anne) was tasty tasty, even though it was many hours old and COLD by the time I had any. I ate four slices.

3. I'm probably the last person to go to La Spiga, and this was a serious failing on my part. The food was simple, but so tasty that I could only take a few bites of each dish before my senses were overstimulated. The wine list is all Italian, so my date and I were a little out of our league, and unfortunately our server wasn't much help. His blond, surfer-boy delivery clashed with the super-classy Italian vibe. However! It really doesn't matter, because everything you eat and drink will be wonderful.

4. I also can't believe it took me this long to go to Olivar'sm especially considering I could throw a baseball and hit them. I keep thinking of them as just opened, until I was browsing old posts on Capitol Hill Seattle and realized they'd opened last summer. They, too, pack unbelievable amounts of taste into each bite. The food is a little less simple--a little more show-offy, if that's your thing--and the servers are extremely knowledgeable. Wine list is much shorter and easier to understand than La Spiga's.

5. On to Poppy: Many things have already been said about this, and I'm not sure I'll be able to say anything original. It's good, yes. But the thing about getting seven pre-arranged dishes is that one of them is likely to be a dud. Still: tasty, and I'd definitely go at least one more time.

6. Oddfellows Cafe: OH MY GOD GO IMMEDIATELY. So. Tasty. So. Reasonably Priced. So. Pretty.

7. If you have an opportunity to go to the Paramount Theater, you really should. It's so beautiful. If you're at that kind of show, be sure and pre-order your drinks from the concessions for intermission. This service is popping up at many venues--Benaroya Hall also--and it's a godsend, if your god looks upon drinking with a kindly eye.

8. Final Seattle Opinion: Get thee out in the sunshine while thee can!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Seattle Is a Very Small Town

I was out at a restaurant with a date, a friend of a friend, and he had been reading this blog.

"I enjoyed your account of seeing the LT at Beth's," he said.

I laughed. "Thank you. It's funny now, but it was extremely irritating at the time. Sometimes I can't believe how small a town Seattle is."

"Uh-huh," he said, his gaze focusing on a point over my shoulder. "And while we're on the subject, MY ex just walked in."