Monday, June 8, 2009

Smelly Post

It was a treat to see that the "this day in history" site featured my favorite perfume the other day; Channel no.5. It looked like a sign...of summer, of time to dream and loll about. So, though life all around me has been chaotic and sometimes sad lately, I will dwell on the fluff today, on the happy stuff, perfume and being French. The fun parts of French are so much fun. They are the ones that lose their impetus for more worthwhile pursuits when one is raising five children in the stoic Midwest, but they are still there, on the periphery, waving to me once in a while.

A year in France as an exchange student was one thing; soaking up life all around me and the many many different ways of doing things. Returning to France to live for real was quite another. Now that I could fully understand the language, I embarked on the study of different ways of seeing and feeling and thinking. The first mystery for me was fashion. Until then, fashion meant what to wear to school or the prom, make-up tips, etc. I was only vaguely aware of designers and neither knew or cared about this world. In France I was confronted with an entire population who knew everything about Dior, Kenzo, Gaultier, etc. The first manifestation of this was a friend who was an extremely serious college student in grad school in poly sci. She also knew exactly which knock-offs to look for in which stores for this year's designer bag, and all about who made the original. Louis who? I would murmur, trying to pretend I was following the conversation. The billboards everywhere included not only teen store icons; Benneton and Kukai, but also the great names of fashion. As the awareness seeped into my subconscious, I began to notice the style of LaCroix compared to Channel, sort of, or their names at least. I couldn't help it, even my techie/surfer husband could discuss fashion! I believe, as I struggle to name even a few names, that it all comes down to livelihood. In France, design and fashion are an industry, and a government-subsidized one as are art and music. Money gives impetus to both the silly and the vital. The upside is that most everyone in France looks presentable at all times and they smell nice. The downside, for an American, is that going out in sweats and sneakers on a down day is just not done. I had to stay home on down days, or get dressed. For me,then, the study of fashion became a study of who these French people were, what made them tick, what image had they chosen to portray to the world. Never did they deliberately give the impression that life was the worst and that they just didn't care enough to get dressed. A first step to integration was to become more French-like in my dress, and since everyone looked so much more elegant than I did, it was an enjoyable goal to work towards.

When I lived in France, fine red and delicate white wine were a fact of life. The farmers' market was our main source of food and it was always within walking distance. We stocked up on beautiful vegetables of every sort (truly works of art in themselves, see picture below), fish fresh from the ocean, oysters born in the local oyster beds and cheese from the creamery; stinky mountain sheep wheels, chevre wrapped in leaves or coated in pepper, Roquefort with veins as green as grass in the creamy white base. We also indulged in little rolls baked around sausage bits or a sort of pepperoni. I would bring home three or four sorts of dried apricots; orange ones, black ones and everything inbetween, tried licorice root and summer-type sausage, butter with sea salt. My favorite stall by far though, was the olive lady. She had all kinds of olives, all kinds. Green fresh ones from the French Mediterranean, oily, fat black ones from Greece, spicy red ones from Morocco in an herb sauce. They were in great big wooden barrels, scooped out with a soup ladel into a plastic bag. You could sample any new (or old) varieties and no amount was too small to sell.

A typical Saturday morning for us, BC (before children), was a stroll to the pool for a few laps, then to the farmers' market, stopping by a cafe on the way home to have a croissant, hot coco and read the paper. Even after having children, we would take turns going to the pool and out for coffee. Friends frequently stopped by for a chat or came for dinner, time seemed more elastic.

Even literature was a bit debauched, Channel takes me back to Colette, author of fantastic literature, all slightly naughty in nature. After the war, she, like Coco Channel, launched her own line of beauty products, believing in helping women be as beautiful as they wished to be, at any age. If not a deeply moral goal, at least a well-intentioned one.

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