Mission: Vuitton. A Very Specific Summer Shopping Spree in Paris

I didn’t get to spend much time in Paris this time around, just half a day on my way from Madrid to Sable, a false terrorist alarm (a middle eastern looking boy had bounced his toy ball into spaces he hadn’t meant to) keeping me trapped for half an hour at Charles De Gaulle, leaving me with exactly 50 minutes to navigate the whole metro and catch the last high-speed train of the night (was in the station with barely 8 minutes to spare, and in my seat literally 3 minutes before it sped off). I’d never been so happy to catch a train in my life. By dusk I was safe in Sable, ready to de-stress. But that story’s for another post.

is that LV in the distance?

I then got to spend a whole summers’ day in the city on my way back up from Sable to Brussels. What a difference the weather makes! Although I was lugging my trolley all along the Champs and La Defense, I felt tons lighter than I did the last winter, maybe because I was wearing 60% less clothing and there seemed to be 60% less tourists on the streets. I was so glad to be back but so sad that my return visit was so fleeting.

the mothership!

Nostalgia aside, I had a mission to accomplish. My old, dear friend Kathy’s beloved Louis Vuitton handbag had been stolen in the operating room as she was performing a C section just a couple of weeks ago. My trip’s timing was fortuitous. I had now been tasked to acquire for her a replacement LV Damier Papillon straight from the source itself: the LV flagship store along the Champs Elysees.

this photo was taken in the LV store before i knew better

So briefed by my Parisian friends Marie and Anne, and my cousin Jamie (who used to work for LV) as to how to deal with the legendarily snooty LV staff, I breezed into the store’s doors with Kathy’s euros burning a hole in my pocket and dragging my not-quite-as-expensive-as-LV luggage behind me. As Marie had briefed me, the millisecond you walk in somebody (in my case, a big tall swarthy bald guy with a radio plugged into his ear) asks you whether you’re going to buy something. The magic word of course is “yes” and that makes all the difference. The 2nd question that Marie didn’t foresee was that I was also asked (probably due to all the travel gear, airline stickers and all, I was schlepping with me) and I quote: “From where did you fly in from?” A little bit flustered by this not being in the script, I quite honestly but literally replied “From Madrid.” And thanks to that faux pas, that’s when I discovered the fun in luxury shopping.

the last photo I snapped before big bald swarthy guy waved his finger in my lens “no no no photos!”

Moments later, I had been assigned my very own personal LV shopping assistant – Angelo from Madrid! Cute and curly-haired like a cherub, but probably twice as slick, Angelo seemed a teensy bit disappointed that I obviously wasn’t really from FROM Madrid, if maybe not by how I looked, then definitely through my not-very-native Spanish accent. But he seemed legitimately happy to be able to serve someone in Spanish and as we waited for them to bring down the last and only Damier Papilion in stock (lucky girl that Kathy!), a process which took some special authorization from on high before I could get my grubby hands on it (being the last unclaimed Damier Papilion in Paris and all), Angelo kept me amused and refreshed with conversation and Perrier. I’m not one to care much for  expensive handbags but I gotta admit that the way they pamper you, it really helps make you feel a lot better about forking over that much dough for one. Or maybe I just lucked out with Angelo. It was positively surreal though being in Paris and still shopping in Spanish.

ala bryanboy – the moneyshot. yes, it’s real, didn’t just fall out from the back of a truck!

After a quick stroll up to the Arc De Triomphe and as much summer sightseeing I could squeeze into 15 minutes, I headed off to La Defense, the modern side of Paris which I didn’t get to explore much before (and because of renovation work on that particular Metro line, I got a free ride that day! Yipee!). Continuing what has now become almost like a tradition for us when in Paris, I met up for lunch with Jussi and Anne, who just happened to be celebrating her birthday that day. This I couldn’t miss as part of my 2nd Parisian Mission: to deliver Jussi’s birthday present of Team Manila T-shirts (“smuggled” in my baggage) to Anne. I’d just spent the last 3 days staying with vegetarian friends in the French countryside so the skyscrapers around and the big beefy burgers we ate really made me feel more like the carnivorous city-boy that I usually am again.

Paris’s other arc

Right after lunch (which went on till 3) Jussi gamely accompanied me through the Metro (he had an extra ticket so another free train trip, yipee again!) seeing me off to the station to Belgium (from where he’d just arrived that day, ironically, hauling tons more luggage than I). Two hours later I was crossing the border, off to another adventure, other rendezvous-es, but now with a really expensive handbag making me really paranoid about losing my luggage.

La Défense’s Dark Tower

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first posted 2008

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Gad About Gaul

Tucked into my comfy seat on a Lufthansa Airbus (plying their now dearly departed Manila to Europe route), an Audrey Tautou movie on the personal video screen, Pimsleur’s French course in my MP3 player, and Michelin’s Green Guide in my carry-on bag, I was literally flying by the seat of my pants. I had no fixed plans and no clear agenda, just an entire country to explore and a whole month to do it.

Prowling Through Paris

Champs Elysees a-sparkle for Christmas

Upon exiting the Charles De Gaulle airport terminal, the winter wind hits you like a slap in the face, but then you step out into the open and finally get hit by the light. The same pale yellow light of Paris that inspired the Impressionists to pointillize with their paintbrushes and billions of shutterbugs to point-and-shoot with their cameras. Alive and active, dangerous and decadent like only a big bad city can be, the City of Lights may be full of museums and monuments, but it never feels like a theme-gineered showcase or a dormant relic. I’d read stories about some naive tourists having nervous breakdowns after having gone to Paris and not getting the storybook experience that they may have originally imagined. Emerging into the streets or submerging into the Metro, the city swallows you, enveloping you with Parisians of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, clustering about in a diversity of cosmopolitan configurations sure to unnerve the xenophobic. Bearing in mind that you aren’t exactly in Eurodisney (that’s 32 kilometers to the east), one just has to take the sordid with the sublime.

crossing the bridge from the Ile de la Cite to the left bank

Most relatively modern train systems (including Manila’s) seem like a straightforward cakewalk compared to the menagerie-in-a-maze configuration of the Paris Metro. It may be crowded and not all that clean in parts, but if you want to feel Paris you have to take the Metro at least once and jostle with the locals. But if you want to seeParis, you have to move aboveground, take a bus, cab or carriage, or bundle up and walk tall. Go down an unfamiliar street and try to get lost. If you’ve got even the feeblest sense of direction, it’s not easy. At worst the River Seine, a Metro station or a major landmark is usually just a few blocks’ walk away. The closest I got to losing myself was while student-watching around the Sorbonne. After blithely loitering about the many schools and libraries of the labyrinthine Latin Quarter, I ran smack into the Pantheon before I could even start to panic.

snaking up to the Sacre-Couer

Each arrondissement or district of the city has its charms, and devoted residents and fans will promote their favorites with typical French fervor. I thought it best to take their word for it, and with my Parisian posse plumbed the rabbit hole of Le Marais, a storied district on the Right Bank of the River Seine where alchemists, Knights Templar, royal mistresses and Victor Hugo himself once walked, and where the city’s Jewish and gay communities currently keep an avant-garde peace (the neighbourhood has been receiving special attention from the current mayor of Paris, who happens to be both openly gay and Jew-friendly). From the red lights and red windmills of Pigalle, we clambered up the hill of Montmartre, its steep streets filled with art and music, clowns and cats, culminating in the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur and one of the best views of the city.

The usual sightseeing suspects are still going gangbusters. The Louvre teems with gawking art appreciators, the Champs Elysees bustles with harried shoppers, the Eiffel Tower stands as the scene for many a photo-op. But the chill of winter acts as a crowd-controlling force that thins the yielding herd. Spring is for sissies. Summer is for slackers. At temperatures barely above freezing, it takes a fierce fire in one’s belly to brave the cold, get out, paint the town, and take snapshots while your fingers go numb. But all you need to do is just down a few glasses of French wine, a crepe or two, and a bowl of hot onion soup and you’re set. In my shivering wanderings I stumbled upon countless stories, most of which I’ve resolved to keep to myself (particularly the ones involving gypsies and laundromats), but then secrets always make for the best souvenirs.

Strange Things in a Strange Land

Rusty-red iron plates and rambling patches of rough foliage spread out from under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, marking the unconventional structure that houses Paris’ controversial new museum, the Musée Quai Branly (or MQB). A showcase of indigenous artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, much debate has been provoked by the museum, from its conception and content, to its arrangement and architecture, made more contentious by the current heightened awareness of issues regarding race and migration. But then the French do love stimulating tete-à-tetes, which is probably why the MQB has been a smash, drawing in crowds of both jaded museophiles and virgins to the museum scene, and in a reversal of the usual situation, more French than foreign tourists.

Constance Monbrison, curator of the Insulinde collections, in La Rive (the riverbank) at the Musee Quai Branly

A meander through the MQB’s dramatically lit and sculpted halls is like drowning in a French fever dream of all they consider to be the world’s darkly unfamiliar, enigmatic beauty. I may not exactly share the sentiments of the museum’s critics that the savannah /jungle ambiance yet again stereotypes non-European art as primitive and unsophisticated, although granted that the imposed atmosphere does play up the exoticism (by conventional Western sensibilities) of the pieces, some of which take on a rather ominous appearance in the half-dark. There’s a studied savagery to the tightly controlled lighting, curving organic surfaces and twisty pathways that makes you feel as if you’re walking through an eerie twilight-scape far removed from the urban sprawl just outside. This effect encourages one to move away from the shadows and huddle close to the glow of each display, like explorers drawn to a fire in the wilderness at night. It almost forces you to pay attention to pieces that you could easily walk past in a more conventionally arranged and illuminated space.

the musee’s green wall, designed by Jean Nouvel

In a struggle between style and substance, the museum highlights the artistry inherent in relics which may not have been meant to have ever been admired as “art” (or the Western concept of art) to begin with. Museums are spooky spaces in general but the MQB can really get under your skin and play tricks with your head. I couldn’t help but ponder how ironic it was for me to have traveled to a whole other continent to see and appreciate artifacts that come from my own. I found myself marvelling at a collection of silver jewelry from the royalty of Mindanao, their history and significance explained to me by the curators, two French ladies who shared more passion for my country’s ethnographic treasures than I could muster at that moment. Coming full circle was disorienting, and succumbing to the Stendhal Syndrome seemed imminent. Fortuitously, the MQB’s roughly textured gardens, lush even in winter, are just what one needs to clear your head of thematic overload.

continued in next entry, Border Break

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

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