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It was the week of Bastille Day in Paris and the rain was making the air so cold you could see your breath. The weather had been like this since the day I arrived almost two weeks before and seemed strangely symbolic of the way things were going. Twenty-two and out in the real world for the first time, I’d planned poorly for this trip in spite of a hard preparatory work ethic.
Although I grew up in Manhattan the cost of just about everything in Paris shocked me and my first few weeks were spent panicking over how to make the woefully inadequate savings I’d brought last as long as it would need to to keep me fed, sheltered and enrolled in school for the next few months. It had been my plan to return home with an all-French wardrobe and dine out at trendy cafés every night, but now I was just concentrating on how to make my dorm’s complimentary breakfast stretch until dinner.
And I was lost. Incessantly lost. In the months before my trip I had pictured myself easily gliding around Paris, instinctively aware of my surroundings as if on some kind of invisible magic carpet. I suppose I was counting on my adoration and study of Paris to cosmically guide me around this most complicated of cities. Projecting an entirely undeserved savvy about the city had been as much of goal of mine as completing my course work or developing a taste for foie gras and my failure to reach it was as big disappointment as not being able to afford anything. It was in this frustrated state of unreasonable but very real self-loathing that I found myself on that July day, standing outside the Ines de la Fressange boutique, soaking wet, freezing, and with not the slightest clue where in this city of mazes I was.
Founded by former Lagerfeld muse Ines de la Fressange, the boutique is a sophisticated but whimsical space that looks like a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and the set designer of I Remember Mama (only a Chanel model could make Tyrolean interior design look this hip). Although the official French June sales are over, there is still the occasional bargain (if you call a $98 t-shirt a bargain) and the store is bustling with the kind of Parisian woman I thought I would be able to fool people into thinking I was. The sales help is falling all over the customers and the give and take is like no other; in the world of shopping there is no symbiosis like that between the Parisian clotheshorse and her advisor. When the storm subsides I decide it’s time to leave but the idea of going out back out into this exasperating labyrinth is more than I can take and I resolve not to step one foot out the door until I have some idea of at least what neighborhood I’m in. I manage to barely get the attention of a sales woman, which, since I am young, modestly dressed in comparison to the other shoppers and clearly not a regular, is about as easy as catching an annoyed bee with a greased hand. There is no doubt in my mind that this woman will never give me the twelve seconds it will take to tell me where we are so instead I ask for a business card. Begrudingly, she reaches behind the counter, grabs a card and virtually drop-kicks it at me. On thick card stock it has yellow stripes and comes in a small envelope that, when open, becomes a miniature purple and yellow awning. If I had been given a piece of art from a wall of the Louvre it would not have excited me the way this ingenious little offering does. Instantaneously, this simple card becomes the saving grace of the trip thus far. In addition to having that which has eluded me, an actual address and therefore potential understanding of where I am, I now have some kind of material proof of my trip that not only isn’t expensive, but literally can’t be bought. This 2” x 3” symbol of triumph re-energizes me and when I step back out into the rain-drenched streets of Paris I feel one step closer to fooling the world into thinking I know what I’m doing. I treat the card and its envelope as if I am transporting an ancient manuscript, carefully placing it between pages of my Paris Par Arrondissement when it begins to pour and I duck into a no-longer in existence, block-long kitchen supply warehouse. The size of a small museum, Au Bain Marie is wall-to-wall cooking equipment, both practical and otherwise and carries everything from 80-quart stainless steel pots to dainty escargot forks with mother-of-pearl handles. Food being what it is to the French, is it possible that they too, might have an equally impressive business card? I ask the woman behind the counter of linens for one and she hands me a bingo card-size piece of cardboard made to resemble a Victorian-era restaurant menu. Surrounding the information about the store are five happy kittens, each dressed like cooks, presenting plates of ham, fish and dessert of some kind. Coming upon this second card is more intoxicating than finding the first because I now realize that there must be dozens, even hundreds of the little masterpieces waiting to be found. It was like an archeologist finding a second skeleton. In spite of the rain I dash out to find the next gem, utterly disinterested in what the store actually sells and heavily concerned with what their business card looks like.
I hit Au Nain Bleu, a legendary toy store I would never have entered if not for the fact that they looked as if their card might be really great and as it turns out, it is. Oval, it is navy ink on substantial cream stock and has the store details on one side and an elaborate etching of toys on the other. It looks like an invitation to a very exclusive wedding. Before the day is out I hit about five more stores and return home with a small art gallery which I spend the evening arranging and rearranging on my dorm-room shelves. If I were standing here arranging acquisitions from Sotheby’s I could not be more pleased with myself.
The Card Project continues throughout my stay and my focus on it is such that I am no longer concerned with what I can’t afford. As long as I keep finding cards, I’m happy and oh, do I find cards. The card from the Annick Goutal parfumerie is about four inches in diameter and the garland of flowers around its perimeter looks as if it has been hand-gilded. The one from chocolatier Girard, which is about the thickness of four or five playing cards, has embossed brown-on-white script and a sharp, elaborately scalloped edge that makes it look almost framed. Avant-garde milliner Marie Mercié has chosen an etching of one of her models done in black and white with bright red lipstick. The card is at least 6” long. The store’s counterpart, Anthony Peto sports the same shape and color scheme but the etching has been replaced by a simple but striking etching of a top hat. The almost 150-year-old patisserie, Maison Cador uses just a square inch of doily paper on which to print their address in shiny gold. Even the simplest of cards are usually stunning in their color-combinations, their embossing, their script, their paper quality and in many cases their over-sized, custom shapes. No matter how small, how obscure, how humble the business, there is a more than likely chance that the business card will belie the modesty of the actual business. Because they are so elaborate and, one would have to assume, expensive, they are almost always kept behind the counter, requiring a certain daring in even asking for them.
About a week later, on an even rainier afternoon, I find myself in a shoe store somewhere in the St. Germain-des-Prés area. My instincts about which stores will have a great card are well-refined by this point and as I study the suede seating, the well-groomed clientele and the surly saleswomen I conclude that they must have a really, really good one. My guess is at least 48-pound, acid-free paper, deep embossing from a custom die and 1/8” gold border, but that’s just a guess. I ask for one and the woman looks panicked. They are out and instead of graciously accepting this fact and getting on with my life, my mind immediately goes to who else in Paris is competing with me. Who out there is denying me my cards? What other stores have they struck and left cardless? The look on my face must have been unreasonable enough for the saleswoman to panic as well and she suggests I take one of their shopping bags as it has the address and contact information on it.
The bag is made from a stiff, brown paper almost the weight of balsa wood and has the simple brown-on-brown block letter logo of the store on the side. Two thick, brown grosgrain ribbons act as handles. It looks better with my outfit than my purse does. I leave with my bag and the beginning of an obsession that will eventually trump the first.
Wait until next week for part 2 of Courtney’s delicious article!