Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to Spend an Anniversary in Paris

This week will mark my five year anniversary in Paris. September 15, 2006 I moved here temporarily, with all intentions of returning to London after six months. I meet so many Americans who come through Paris in search of a dream: “what brought you to Paris?” I ask, always interested in what makes people move countries, move cultures, and choose to live in a different language, on a different continent. What motivates people to live on the outside, as a foreigner in a city that insists on reminding us we don’t belong? I would say that 90% of the time, the answer to my question is, quite simply, “I always wanted to live here, it was my dream.” But of course, life in Paris is not like it looks. It may be the most beautiful city in the world, but the city is not kind to everyone who comes here and looks to it for elegance, charm and a world of romantic make believe.

The daytime view from my window
... and nighttime
I ended up here by default, and so I have few expectations and certainly don’t have a dream awaiting realization. And together with that, I am more or less content to be an étrangère, not to belong, to create an identity somewhere around the edges of a city that, in its own way, nevertheless welcomes diversity. I think of myself as different, not Parisian, and have no real desire to ever be. And then that belief gets shattered when I have visitors from America who hold up a mirror that reflects all of the American ways that I have already shed, all of the Parisian rituals that I am always in the process of adopting. Yesterday, I sat with an American friend in a café discussing high heels. My friend was amazed at the number of women who strut through the streets of Paris, across the cobblestones, up and down the stairs of the metro, and of course, who ride bikes in anything up to 5 or 6 inch heels. Wedges, stilettos, chunky or razor thin, it doesn’t matter. It had never occurred to me that high heels could even be a source of intrigue, or that wearing them was something women might not do all over the world.

Since I have been in Paris I have begun to wear high heels, but I always thought I was merely keeping up with changing fashion, rather than adopting the cultural norms of the city. I have heels of different heights, different shapes, all the way from designer stilettos I only wear to a party or a dinner that I can travel to by bike to Mary Janes from DSW that I wear day in, day out. The minute I have to walk in my designer high heels, I am in trouble: I may wear heels, but unlike the women walking in and out of Yves Saint Lauren on Avenue George V, I haven’t yet mastered the art of mobility in stilettos. The uneven stairs of my 18th century apartment building are as far as I go. I manage to wear 5 or 6 inch wedges to the library, but not stilettos because of the spaces between the panels of wood decking that I cross to get from bike to library entrance. For every activity I have a different height in heels. And for every surface I tread in Paris, there is a different kind of heel.
Photo taken by Maria Aragon
 In the mornings I often feel as though I am on a stage when I go running down Boulevard Richard Lenoir: men stare, children point, the dogs all run towards me. It is as though they have never seen a runner, or sometimes I wonder if it’s the attire that attracts attention – shorts and running singlets are perhaps too revealing for the demure Parisians. Whatever it is that has all heads turn as I run through the streets, the same cannot be said for women in high heels. In spite of the absurdity of wearing high heels in a city that is best navigated on foot, the heads turn with desire not incredulity as women of all social strata, from mothers with babies, through shopgirls, to the rich and famous on Avenue Montaigne parade the streets, usually with confidence, but at times with what looks to be painful difficulty, in the highest of heels. And while only the homeless people on Boulevard Richard Lenoir dare talk to me in my running shoes, when in heels, conversations abound.
Same shoes, different party with Jennifer Murphy
In French, heels share their word with the claws of a bird of prey.  Les talons are appropriately termed as the symbol of Paris’s performance of heterosexuality. For high heels are the mark of a city in which men admire women, constantly, especially in heels. And they are a mark of a city where women, acutely aware of their femininity, typically minimize that admiration. With their large talons, women can loom over their diminutive French men, just as the female eagle overpowers her male. But whether Parisian women's power is, like their city, anything more than a visual appearance, I am not sure.

Another photo by Maria Aragon

What I am sure of is that in the mirror of my American friends visiting Paris, I see that after five years, I may not be always be as different as I think I am. I may not yet eat the top off the baguette as I walk down the street, and I may insist on breaking form by running through the streets, and laughing out loud in restaurants. But in my heels I have succumbed to their ways and perhaps, momentarily, might pass for a Parisian. Wondering how I would celebrate my five year anniversary, the dye is now cast: I am on my way to the basement of Galeries Lafayette. 

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