Welcome to a new series, which we’re calling “Paris/France and…” –the “and” being categories (such as colors, food groups, the classical elements, and more) whose subcategories we are going to link to the city/country we know and love. And given their reputation for gratification (physical and intellectual), where better to start than with…Paris/France and Body Parts (top down, of course)?
head: Say “head” and you think (with your brain) of “brain.” Say “brain” and you think of “intellect.” Say “intellect” and you have to have been living in a (non-Internet-enabled) cave for the past at least 300 years not to think of the stereotypical Parisian intellect spending hours at a café, cigarette dangling from wine-kissed lips (this would have to be on the café’s terrasse [outside area] nowadays, as smoking inside cafés, places of business, the métro, etc. has been banned), rambling on and on and on and on and on in intense, profound, arm-gesture-enhanced solemn debate with another stereotypical Parisian intellectual, cigarette dangling from wine-kissed lips, on a subject the details of which most at least non-French mortals do not know and would not care about if they did know, all of this passing for perceived perfection as to how an afternoon should be spent in “the best of all possible worlds ,” to quote a character created by one of what The Guardian has referred to as “The 10 most celebrated French thinkers”! (As you work your way through this list, keep in mind that Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake” and note that any thirst for additional pages and pages and pages of Parisian-/French-intellectual-related facts, figures and feelings can be quenched here.)
nose: Staying in the upper anatomical reaches for now, we can highlight the body part to which the French gave new meaning: the nose. Cyrano de Bergerac might have HAD a famous nose but in France, you are lionized if you ARE a famous nose. (What a GREAT moniker!) While France did not invent perfume (this blow-you-away, every-word-is-fascinating site will unquestionably confirm that), not only is it, according to the aforementioned site, “the [center] of the European perfume design and trade” but also it and its capital city seem most frequently to come to mind whenever the very concept of fragrance is evoked.
As for that capital city–where perfume-house flagship stores often seem like mini-museums and maxi-paeans to the “nose” ’s artistry–you might want to wander into some of these. (Hint: To find whence the name of number 8 in this list, peruse the “France” entry in the website noted in the previous paragraph.)
mouth: Before we go a bit further down the body, there are the four M’s: MOUTH (through which all that great gastronomy passes), MYTH (whereby we kiss one of our heretofore favorite food-factoids good-bye!), MISCONCEPTION (about the geography of that gastronomy) and MONUMENT (one built not with stone and marble but with croissants and babas au rhum).
MYTH: Cook’s Info tells us that “Catherine de Medici is credited with introducing many food innovations to France. She’s said to have taught the French how to eat with a fork, and introduced foods and dishes such as artichokes, aspics, baby peas, broccoli, cakes, candied vegetables, cream puffs, custards, ices, lettuce, milk-fed veal, melon seeds, parsley, pasta, puff pastry, quenelles, scallopine, sherbet, spinach, sweetbreads, truffles and zabaglione. She is reputed to have arrived in France with her own personal cooks, pastry cooks, chefs, confectioners and distillers. On a good day, she’s even said to have invented women’s knickers. As always, the truth is less easy, and less exciting.” The rest of this site gives the rest of the story, as does Chef François de Melogue, who doesn’t mince (or hash, grind, chop) words when he announces that you’re about to read “The True History of French Cooking: The Italian Myth of Catherine de Médicis Debunked”!
MISCONCEPTION: Yes, Paris has the renowned Maxime’s. Yes, it’s cool and fun to get all dressed up and go to an elegant Parisian restaurant with countless courses, frequently changed forks and wall-to-wall white-gloved waiters. But Paris is not–that’s: not–the gastronomical capital of France. Lyon is (of France and some say of the world), as the numerous sites you’ll find here will tell you (keep clicking through the sequence of pages).
MONUMENT: If you love history (at least almost) as much as you love pastry, your joy will be boundless when you discover the oldest pastry shop in Paris. Expressing that joy, however, can be less gratifying than the sugary embrace of the baba au rhum invented by founder Nicolas Stohrer, as an enraptured tourist recently found after excitedly bellowing “DO YOU REALIZE WHAT A PRIVILEGE IT IS TO WORK IN THE OLDEST PASTRY-SHOP IN PARIS?” to a clueless young man behind the cash register whose non-reaction suggested that all he really cared about was the ability to pay his rent.
heart: The heart is an obvious body part to link to Paris, given its label as The City of Love–and, by extension, Eroticism (although this more balanced view–with Hemingway misspelled–might discourage the connection). Tom Cruise brought his fiancé to Paris to propose on the Eiffel Tower. Women around the world buy perfume with names like Paris Night, nail polish called Pink Paree (a phonetic rendering of the way your Parisian cousins pronounce the name of their hometown) and lingerie in shops whose shingles say Naughty Paris. We have French kisses, French letters (an expression used by Europe-based Anglo soldiers during World War II for “condoms”) and French other things a bit too risqué for a family website.
What you might not know is what sparked this universal impression that the streets of Paris are swarming with virile, loving, sexy men and beautiful, loving, sensual women; that no expression of attraction here is off-limits; that blissfully pairing off with the partner of your dreams is as easy in Paris as slipping on dog-droppings (sorry to spoil the image). You are not alone: When you ask Parisians whether this represents their reality, they look at you with a combination of bemusement, amusement and shock–and then run off to the stress-producing activities that prevent them from feeling or, in some cases, even being virile, loving, sexy, beautiful, sensual, attracted, attractive, blissful.
Well, tales of Belle Epoque can-cans aside, one theory goes thus: Seventy-five years ago, people elsewhere in the world sat in movie theaters transfixed by newsreels of the Liberation of Paris. There it all was: the energized Champs-Elysées; townsfolk dancing in the streets; the festive Hôtel de Ville; GIs grabbing women by the waist, shoulders, buttocks, sweeping them into tangoesque backbends, kissing them with passionate joy; the giddy quays of the Seine; girls tossing their bras into passing tanks; even nuns doing unselfconscious little jigs on the sidelines. France. Paris. Oh-là-là.
This would be like the French viewing a five-minute video clip of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and forever holding the immutable conviction that every American walks around grasping long heavenward ropes at the ends of which float outsized polymerized gas-packed reproductions of SpongeBob SquarePants. The only thing remarkable about love and sex à la française is the degree to which the French experience it–and the bodies that perform it–as unremarkable. How anything erotic could have merited the designation “French” is as much a mystery as how anything fried-potato could have earned the same adjective (the “French” fry ostensibly was born in Belgium and grew up in the United States).
It’s not that the French are bad partners or lovers. It’s just that they’ve thrown their bras into tanks once in two thousand years.
waist: Venturing ever lower, we arrive at that most challenging, seemingly untamable body-part whose enragingly ornery tendency to relentlessly expand has long fattened the bank accounts of self-help gurus, glossy-magazine editors and miracle-cure manufacturers. Except, according to conventional wisdom, in France–and especially, in highly sophisticated, severely fashion-conscious, the-eyes-of-the-world-are-upon-us Paris–where, per the title of Mireille Guiliano’s book, French women don’t get fat.
Except that now they do. America has introduced some super stuff to France: jazz, baseball, the spirit of volunteerism, even (although this would in some circles be violently condemned) Mickey Mouse. But over the years, it has also introduced fast food, sedentarily binge-watched television series and fast food. (Did I say that twice? Yes! I meant to!) Don’t believe me? Just look around you next time you’re on any Paris street or métro car. Those willowy figures sketched for the covers of 1920s-era Vogue Magazine might be hiding behind a lamppost (thin enough to be obliterated thereby) or under a seat, but they’re sure not in plain view.
Which brings us to the plethora–abundance, profusion, copiousness: no word is strong enough! –of opportunities in Paris for taming that midsection, and enjoying yourself in the process. The sites offered here (keep clicking through the sequence of pages) have for the most part been created by entities such as Paris City Hall and various sporting and community associations; plugging “Sports in Paris” into Google gets you to some Anglophone offerings.
That said, there’s more conventional wisdom to cite, that of this second decade of the 21st century, and it is that the punishing subjectivity of body-size judgmentalism has to stop! And if you buy into that, you’re in the right place to do so, as this will attest.
feet: Just as it is said that during World War II several perfectly bilingual and otherwise impeccably trained American spies–who knew of every soccer hero, local mayor and meteorological inconsistency going back decades–were foiled behind enemy lines by the way they ate their meat (their handlers had forgotten to tell them that Europeans hold their forks tines-down), an American woman can try to blend into the French fabric all she wants, but if she’s just arrived (and it’s summer), she will surely be snagged by…..her stockings.
Her stockings? Who would have thought that women in the land of Chanel, speakers of the language that gave the world the word etiquette (which also means “label,” or “tag”), heiresses to the elegance born in the Louvre when it was a royal palace and celebrated at Versailles when it was the apogee of global sophistication and grace would be in everyone’s face with their bare legs from Easter to October? Bare legs under a business suit in the boardroom of the executive suite? Under an Yves Saint Laurent frock at a table at Maxim’s? Under a black skirt and white blouse in a church pew before trundling off to grandma’s on Sunday? You can conjugate those irregular verbs like an immortel (more here) but know when to leave the pantyhose in their package or they’ll see you coming a kilometer away!
Which might explain another corporeal cultural-difference: the Great Mani-Pedi Divide. A day spent looking at Parisiennes’ hands–grasping métro poles, giving you change, acknowledging your presence, noting your phone number, passing you salt, taking your ticket–yields nary (or rarely) a molecule of polish. “French” is to “manicure” as it is to “fries” (see “Heart,” above). In other words, it isn’t. Fingernails are neglected at best and ravaged at worst.
But the feet.
The pedal extremities.
Pampered, preened, pruned, polished, pedicured, perfected to the (pedal) extreme.
Many Anglo women see their feet as forgettable bordering on embarrassing. Come to think of it, packed into the deep end of a pair of pantyhose…..aren’t they?
more feet: Where better to end than at the end of the body: the feet? “WAIT!” you admonish. “You did feet above!” “YES!” I counter. “But you have TWO of ‘em!”
RUE MESLAY: On rue Meslay’s website, the end of the paragraph headed Situation (“location, position”) informs us that On trouve aujourd’hui dans la rue une concentration de boutiques de chaussures (“Today the street has a concentration of shoe stores”), as plugging magasins de chaussures in the left slot and “rue Meslay 75003” in the right slot on the Pages Jaunes (Yellow Pages) website will demonstrate. Or better yet, you, your feet and the spirit of Imelda Marcos might enjoy sauntering down the rue in person.
THE PARIS OPERA BALLET: No, Remy isn’t the only cute Parisian “rat.” A “rat” (same word in French) is a young student at the Paris Opera Ballet. You’ll see them (and their feet) in action here (if you don’t have time for all of this, try to hang around for at least the first five minutes). And here (plus here) you’ll learn about the institution that gives them their chance at super-stardom.
FRENCH BOXING: At the diametric opposite of the above, one asks, “Don’t the French seem like a gentle lot? Refined. Polite. Subdued.” Did you know that “French boxing” is also called “footfighting” because competitors get their points across with fists and feet? I suppose that weaponizing your pedal extremities is as good a way as any to deal with all those expectations to be gentle, refined, polite, subdued.
Look for more “Paris/France and…” installments in the upcoming months.
Shari Leslie Segall is a writer who lives in Paris.