The French don’t wear bérets. T-shirt-wearing Americans do. Sausage-eating Brits do. And some mail-order Russian brides do, but the French don’t wear bérets. They stopped when the first postcard came out of the Eiffel Tower wearing a navy blue béret with a smiley face on its head. But the tacky postcard didn’t stop DKNY and Gap from putting them on their models. Even Sarah Jessica Parker had a brief affair with one on Sex in the City, but that doesn’t make it right. (Note: she later went on to model for Gap.)
When visiting Paris, if you want to fit in with the French, fight the urge to purchase the matching cashmere set of baby-blue béret, gloves and scarf—unless, of course, you just can’t live without them and you also happen to be a super model, a movie star, or both. In which case, you can wear or not wear whatever you like. However, keep in mind that Instyle and Vogue reserve the right to nit pick and criticize every accessory on your body, including what had better be a non-fat, blueberry muffin in your right hand.
Recently, I’ve been forced to spend a little more time than I’d like in the city of London. Two days ago, I was crossing High-Street Kensington, when I saw something tall and pink coming my way in a béret. Could it be…a flamingo? The Pink Panther? A cast member from Mean Girls? Or more likely, a tourist in a fluorescent pink lamb’s wool béret with matching scarf, gloves, coat, belt…and boots. French? Hardly. American tourist, clearly on her way to Waterloo station.
I shook my head and fought a tear of pity from rolling down my cheek. Had she any idea, the embarrassment that was in store? I should know. Three years ago, when I was in living in London working on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my mom concealed a black cashmere DKNY béret in my suitcase. I thought it looked cute. It didn’t. My flat mates ridiculed me and eventually I loaned it to a friend going to Paris for the weekend, and refused to take it back when she returned. She said the French were rude to her, and I don’t doubt it. I’m not French, but I do live in France and I don’t speak to people in bérets.
It’s not that the French are rude. They simply demand a certain level of respect. There is an unspoken dress code of perfectly polished shoes, well-knit stockings and flawless skin. Contrary to popular belief, that the French don’t demand designer labels or Hermes scarves, it’s not how much you pay for it, it’s how you polish it.
The French demand that you say “Bonjour” before you ask them for something, “Excusez-moi” if you want directions, and “Pardonnez-moi” when you bump into them. Henry Higgins said in My Fair Lady that, “The French don’t care what they do actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.” The basic rules are: Don’t butcher the language, don’t butcher the dress code and go to a butcher for your beef.
The French are particular. It’s all about the details. They buy cheese at a cheese shop, bread at a bakery and pastries at a patisserie. Everything—food, clothes, etiquette—is “just right.”
The Brits buy bread, cheese and meat at a place called Sainsberry’s. The best coffee in the city is found at Starbucks and people smoke, and don’t look cool doing it, (and they have yellow teeth). I have recently been spending a bit of time in London, on Courtfield Road in South Kensington, near the Gloucester Road tube station. And I don’t like it.
The food is inedible, the women buy anything with fake fur on it and look like Julia Roberts in the first scene of Pretty Woman, only ten pounds overweight. There are no edible fruits and vegetables and the lettuce is brown. One cannot sit outside anywhere and we’re stuffed into small corners of restaurants, with loud, smoking, poorly dressed people surrounding us, normal people visiting from France.
The only thing civilized about London is the theater, but that too, is ruined by audiences in jeans and halter tops eating ice-cream. Whoa…..okay. What is going on? Criticizing wardrobes, eating habits, lifestyles—this is so… judgmental. And that is just not nice. Is it possible that during my visit I have become a complete and utter snob? Or wait—have I become just a little bit French?
A bit depressed by my dreary surroundings and no cappuccino at Le Danton to cheer me up, a Euro Star ride away, I decide to take myself out for dinner. There is an intimate Italian restaurant just around the corner from my flat, which is consistently packed. It’s not super expensive and definitely not cheap—the risotto (my favorite Italian dish) runs about $30 per person. I slide into my knee high boots and my long sleeve black wool, Donna Karen dress. Earlier that day I spent the equivalent of $50 on stockings, which I must say, look fabulous (patting myself on the back). I pull my hair into a pony tail and apply my frosted pink Chanel lipstick purchased with the stockings at Harrod’s, and I’m ready.
Two minutes after I step out of my flat, it’s raining; I sprint to the corner and fling open the door of the restaurant. In the mirror, I catch a glimpse of what used to be a pony tail, but now looks more along the lines of a rat’s nest. Attractive. The hostess is standing two feet from my face staring at me. She’s not speaking. I start to get uncomfortable and my eyes shift above the doors leading to the kitchen where deer antlers are mounted on the wall. I wasn’t aware that Italians were such avid hunters. Finally, I open my mouth and ask the hostess if she has room for one. Her head jerks, as if I’ve just awoken her from a dream and she stares at me blankly. Her black, button-down shirt and mismatched black slacks hang off her bones. She hasn’t eaten in weeks. I request a table again. This time I appear to have gotten through because she leans in and squints at me and then shakes her head. “Follow me,” she says in a thick Russian accent. Russian! I hope this place is run by real Italians.
We approach the smallest table I’ve ever seen. In fact, I’m almost positive that it’s the same table that The Borrowers eat breakfast at each morning. She points to the seat against the window, facing the room, and tells me to sit there. I ask her if I might sit in the seat across from the one jammed up against the window, so that I might look out the window. She says no. As I scoot around to the other side and sit down, there is a loud bang as my chair knocks against the window, thankfully not breaking it. Rather than check if I’m okay, the starving hostess shakes her head and asks me to, “Please be careful of the glass.”
While I wait for the waitress, I check out my company for the evening. To the right of the deer antlers on the wall hangs a rifle, under which sits another single diner at a normal-sized table, not a mini-table like mine, which would be used to represent an actual table in one of those shoe-box diaphragms I made in the 5th grade. He wears a gray beard, a long-sleeved, button-down flannel shirt, jeans and construction boots. He’s staring directly at me. And not in a friendly sort of way, but in an “I have a gun underneath this table,” sort of way. He’s a serial killer.
To my right, there’s a plastic replica of the statue of David with a Hawaiian lei hung around his neck. The lei compliments the rattan basket of bananas on the bar. I’m confused. Is this an Italian restaurant? I can’t tell, because no one in the restaurant has actual food in front of them. Next to the plastic statue sits a Muslim family. The five-year old boy and his father speak in a language I can’t understand while eating hard bread. The mother stares straight ahead in silence. For three minutes, she moves no part of her body and does not speak. Maybe she’s not allowed to talk?
It has now been eight minutes since my arrival and I’m still waiting for a waitress. Oh, here she is. Her tight black pants cling to every ripple of fat on her thighs and her black and white horizontally striped sweater extenuates her breasts, each of which is larger than my head. Her hair is black, and she has more of it on her chin than on her head. She’s not Italian either. I choose a Diet Coke for my drink, minestrone soup for my appetizer and a creamy mushroom risotto for my dinner. The waitress walks over to the table where the Muslims are sitting takes their bread basket and brings it over to me. She must be joking. I push the yesterday-bought half eaten bread to the corner of the table.
My Diet Coke arrives, in a can. No glass. My tap water arrives in a glass, but it’s the size of the Hard Rock Café London souvenir shot glass I bought for Myke. To the left of the serial killer against the cheap paneled wood walls and underneath the faux bear’s head is couple making out. The dress she almost has on dangles from a single ribbon tied around her neck, her long silky brown hair covering more of her body than the garment does. Her date’s completely shaved head reflects the red and green lights from outside the restaurant. He wears a gold cross the size of my hand around his neck, six gold rings, including a diamond on his pinky and a gold chain dangles from his right ear lobe.
My minestrone arrives. Finally. I dip in my spoon. Ick! It’s cold and clearly came from a can that I wish had been Campbell’s. The carrots are perfect little squares the size of my pinky nail and the potatoes are squared the size of the nail on my index finger, which is not as big as one might envision because I bite my nails. I push my soup aside and order another Diet Coke as another couple is forced to repeat themselves to the anorexic hostess. The woman is dressed in cashmeres the color of autumn and he, all in gray pin-stripe Zegna. At last, people I can relate to. They are seated at the table to my left. And a sense of relief overcomes me. A little bit of class, at last.
The classy couple is brought the basket of used day old bread as I am brought my Diet Coke. Intriguing. The waitress chooses to leave my empty Coke can on the table and place the new one next to it. Perhaps while I’m waiting for the bill I can build a sculpture out of aluminum cans. I stare at my soup and empty Coke can, defeated, while the classy couple complain about their “pain.”
I shake my head at my soup and—Wait! Did someone say, pain? Could it be that they are French? Mais oui. I have friends! At last, people I can relate to. Civilized people who understand the difference between bread you stuff a turkey with and bread you start a meal with. I tried to think of something to say to them in French, something that would show them that I’m one of them. And maybe if I’m super nice, they’ll ask me to join them and then—wait! Where are they going? They’re leaving. They’ve seen my canned soup and they’re not impressed by my drinking diet coke out of a can. They’re gone. And I’m left alone with the silent Muslim, the serial killer and the seedy couple—and all I have to show for it is a bowl of cold canned soup.
In the back booth where the bald man who was making out with his girlfriend, now sits alone. Maybe they got in a fight and she tossed her red wine in his face before storming out. Or….maybe she didn’t leave at all. Maybe she’s still here and she…oh my goodness, is underneath the table doing something horribly indecent. Oh my goodness. I have to leave. I throw 10 pounds on the table and bolt for the door…still remembering my manners I thanked the hostess on my way out—NOT!
The next morning, recovering from a sleaze hangover, I made my way to the tube, only to be left standing waiting for my train for 10 minutes. 10 minutes! C’est pas possible. Never in Paris does one wait 10 minutes for a train, unless it’s the RER, and even then a 10-minute wait is rare. Wearing my incredibly fashionable high-heeled black leather boots, I search for a seat next to someone who isn’t classless, crazy or didn’t end up underneath a table during a dinner date last night. I settle on a seat next to a woman who appears not poor or rich, but perfectly dressed. Her brown wool coat fit her shoulders perfectly; her scarf is a beautiful raw silk in cranberry, her shoes blend with her stockings. I sit down and watch, as yet another train whiz by in the opposite direction. The woman turns to me and says in a very thick and beautiful French accent, “This cannot be! Four trains going in the other direction and not one in ours! I don’t believe it this!” I could only smile.
The only French person in the station had become my friend, in a matter of moments. Everyone knows that it takes the French months to warm up to people. What had happened? Had something changed in me? In the last 14 months, is it possible that I have become just a little bit French? Well…I am staying in South Kenningston—the French capital of London—and every day I visit the baker and the cheese shop; I prefer the metro to the tube; espresso to tea; and you couldn’t pay me to eat at Garfunkel’s. This would explain my potentially conceived negative attitude to all people and things un-French. For the first time, I finally understood the French attitude. And empathized with them. It’s not that they’re negative, or judgmental, or rude. It’s that they hold all things to high standard. A standard of perfection. And I, too, had become accustomed to the French lifestyle of excellence.
Kirsten joins Bonjour Paris from Los Angeles, California where she recently graduated from the University in Southern California with a BFA in Acting. Last year Last year she co-wrote the book and lyrics to a new pop musical which expects to open in Los Angeles next spring. Two years ago, while studying at a conservatory in London, Kirsten fell in love with Paris and decided that she was destined to return for some time. She’s thrilled to experience this dream come true.