Paris : Pairs

Everything in Paris is twinned, it seems. There are companions, long-sought matches and doubles from different points in time and space. I find an illustrated reworking of Beauty and the Beast  in a graphics shop, which tilts the original, so that Beauty is as sweetened by the Beast, as he is by her. Her charms are obvious, a face of Garbo-like symmetry and intellect; his, soft fur, a pleasing largeness and a great capacity for love. Reading in French, where both words are gendered feminine (la belle, la bête) you can’t help but think that they are cut from the same cloth, are equally vulnerable, receptive and hunted.

Translation: ‘It was the first time she touched his fur and  was troubled at finding it so soft…’ Is this really a children’s book? Illustration by Violaine Leroy

During my visit, I make other matches. An accordionist is on my heels in that first transition from the Eurostar to the Metro. A serenader, he arches around the wheels of my suitcase and plays – what else? – Edith Piaf. Flattered and embarrassed, I  put down my book and listen. The trouble is, I haven’t a single pièce, only a virgin fifty euro note, which I’m not quite ready to hand over. He shrugs disappointed, when I confess the inevitable. I crane my head in shame and vow that I will be prepared when I meet his match. Who incidentally, is on the Metro the very next day, crooning out her pain in the long notes of a Spanish ballad. Emo as the cloudy Monday, this balladeer slouches obstinately in the doorframe. She ain’t serenading anyone; in fact, gives the impression that she’d be singing regardless.  Her mannish leather jacket and greasy chignon – and are those tears streaked down her cheeks?- make you think her lover threw her out about an hour ago, and she swiped his leather jacket for the running. Half-wondering whether it’s truth or Method, I’m ready with my pièce this time.

Little Dancer Aged Fourteen
In Degas’ time, young ballet students were nicknamed ‘petits rats,’ denoting their underworld status. Nowadays, pickpockets and street children have a similar reputation for deftness and anonymity.

On the Metro another time, I spot an unmistakeable profile – that of Edgar Degas’ sculpture, the little Dancer, aged fourteen. As bronze as the original, with the same kinaesthetic awareness, she boards the train with her sister. They file off to the available  seats on either side of the carriage; dressed in plaid shirts and ripped jeans, they almost blend in. Other passengers and an aisle are in their midst, but they remain choreographed into the same routine.  Torsos tipped forward in a preparation pose, their feet identically turned out in first position. The woman sitting next to the sister gets up and leaves. In a flash the Little Dancer is beside her- though she doesn’t appear to have been looking. They don’t converse, at least not in words. A bloke enters the carriage, with a sturdiness and milky pallor that I’d pin-point to about Yorkshire. Equally white is his shiny I-phone. And even before he notices, before his eyes twinkle, as though to say ‘Noo luv, not ‘avin’ that…,’  her sister, about a hair of an eyebrow lifting, ‘Him?’ The Little Dancer wrinkles her dainty nose, ‘Nah, not my cup of tea,’ as though they’re just two teenage girls judging a stranger’s attractiveness. But a survival instinct grips them and when the next station arrives, they scarper.

Audiobook display at Gilbert Jeune. Have to love the pixie swimsuit

Just as sisters will always be compared, so will two cafes on opposite sides of the street.  One, named for the lore of tea leaves, is world famous,  enjoying Trip Advisor fame and local acclaim; the other named Les Rosiers for the street where it stands resolutely, less so. The Lore has an Astaire-hipped host who bounds up and down the queue  telling people how long they’ll have to wait, down to the minute; the Rosiers, a lone balding waiter with a towel thrown over his shoulder. Laptops are unwelcome at the Lore: to sit there, you’ll have to be truly part of the cafe, engaged in consumption, conversation or something equally atmospheric. You are made oh-so-tactfully aware that your body occupies a precious space, and that it plays a role in animating that space –  or else here’s the cheque. Weirdly, it reminds me of a socialist play I once read, where the moral was that those who farm the land are its rightful owners; though we are about as far away from an Eastern European potato field as it gets. Anyway, not so the Rosiers – which people hit upon for the most imminent need, or greed for that matter. A student hunched over her laptop, knuckles camouflaging with a white espresso cup; a pair of new lovers holding hands over the dredges of a dry coffee pot  and a rotund-bellied gentleman gobbling a ginormous triangle of pie before his wife catches up with him and smacks an insulin needle into his right arm. Atmosphere’s a funny thing – like love, or that exasperatingly Parisian cliché, je ne sais quoi, it finds those who don’t seek it too hard.

With its neutral, sculpted exterior and marvellous fish-shaped shadow, this pigeon in the Jardin l’hôtel des senses embodies je ne sais quoi

Even in a city of doubles, some entities remain unmatched. For example, the garments that never walk the streets. Paris boutiques are flocked with dresses more confected and shapely than patisserie tarts. And yet, you never see their like on actual bodies around town. No Parisienne would ever appear so obviously ornate. Who are these magpie-teasers made for? Are they there just to draw the eye and fly out to export?

Narrative Archetype: The Don Juan


Johnny Depp in 'Don Juan' by Marina Cardoso
Johnny Depp in ‘Don Juan’ by Marina Cardoso

I’ve always been fascinated by the stories that are continually re-told.   These tales often involve odd-balls, who subvert the dominant social code in order to re-shape the universe according to their desires, for better or worse.

The Don Juan or womaniser, is one such selfish, idealistic creature. Of course, the D.J has a female counterpart, (the femme fatale), but she comes with her own mythology, so for now we’ll focus on him. Infidelity is so common, that only those who cheat or womanise spectacularly achieve folkloric anti-hero status. While the one-time interloper, who ruins a relationship often elicits scorn and disapproval, the man who beds and deceives multiple women, often simultaneously, arouses a host of more complex emotions.

A few months ago, when I sat down to dinner with a group of old work colleagues, my friend Amy suddenly piped up ‘have I got a shit-bag story for you!’ The story concerned Amy’s friend, (let’s call her Lucy) and a love-interest  (James) who protested that she was special to him, but wouldn’t commit to being her boyfriend, because, as she later found out, he was bedding a different girl every night and asking his flatmates to clean away the residue from the previous night’s shenanigans before he brought his next conquest home. As Amy’s story unfolded, Lucy wasn’t the protagonist anymore, James was. Our sympathy for the victim swiftly gave way to marvelling at  James’s  grotesque work of deception. How had he been able to get away with this priapic bachelor’s dream and seem disingenuous enough to retain Lucy’s trust? Had she known on some level? Who  were these flatmates who compliantly spruced up James’s make-shift brothel, and then finally summoned Lucy to reveal all in a final U-turn? But most importantly, why were we so morbidly hooked on this anti-hero’s story?

DJ's conquest enjoying a pensive moment. Film still from  'Don Juan', 1926
DJ’s conquest enjoying a pensive moment. Film still from ‘Don Juan’, 1926

On the one hand, the answer was pretty obvious. This story, with its clearly-defined victim and anti-hero provided a bonding opportunity because we were in unanimous agreement that James had acted unfairly and that Lucy, apart from being  naïve, was in the right. All of us had at one point dated men who  resembled James, and hearing Amy’s story reinforced our satisfaction that we had survived and completed the experience. For many of us, dating and relinquishing a Don Juan is a rite of passage, and the narrative formula of a woman wronged, ( in Lucy’s case on a magnificent level) and a cheat discovered, is strangely appealing.

You would think that there is nothing as strengthening for the bonds of sisterhood than a Don Juan story. On one occasion, girls who entered an elite student residence were warned of one womanising resident’s ways: this gentleman did not only bed women by the twelve-dozen but openly judged whether  they were ‘fuckable’ by criteria such as breast tissue (his knowledge of the mammary gland rivalled specialists) and from his sample of two, dismissed Canadians as bad in bed. You get the picture, this resident openly regarded women as sex objects, a view that did not sit easily with most residents’ feminism. There was a silent agreement that consorting with him was absolutely verboten for any self-respecting woman. Still, despite, or maybe because of these restrictions, one new Spanish resident couldn’t resist him. However, afraid of her ‘sisters” scorn, she begged him not to tell anyone that they had slept together. When I heard this story, the dress historian in me couldn’t help but wonder if she wore a disguise on her way to meet him, maybe a Little Red Riding hood style cape – something that provides cover, but projects ingenuity…

batescape cape with domed buttons designed by John Bates for Jean Varon 1960s

I think that our Spanish heroine succumbed to (or maybe even pursued) the blacklisted seducer not only to satisfy her libido, but to actually feel part of the community she had just joined. Not content to obediently look in from the outside, she wanted her share in the adventure; perhaps by being with this man, she could vicariously imbue a measure of his devil-may-care attitude and like him, periodically live on a whim regardless of her principles and others’ disapproval. I imagine that though the Spanish girl initially lost some respect amongst the community, eventually, she was welcomed back , because ironically you have to periodically leave the sisterhood to become a fully fledged member. Our fascination with Don Juan figures and the mythology that surrounds them, stems from a need to occasionally depart from the ‘happily ever after stories’ with their well-suited couples and just rewards, and contemplate behaviour that is as enthralling and capricious as life itself.