Once upon a time, my father went to Paris on business and brought my mom along. It was the perfect dynamic: all day he went to meetings and she visited museums, perused shop windows, and drank chocolate (it was early spring). When he was finished for the day, she'd give him the "highlights" tour, which was usually an hour of sightseeing followed by dinner. One day he snapped a photo of her next to this shop near the Madeleine metro.
Several years later, at Christmas, my sister and I opened identical envelopes. Inside was that photo, which had been clumsily doctored to include our figures as well as our grandmother's. My mom's was the same, as was the one all the way across the country under Grandma's tree. It took some collective puzzling, but we finally figured out the nature of the gift: we were going to kick off my last summer as a single girl together, in one of the greatest cities in the world.
It was an amazing trip. The greatest part of the gift was that I wouldn't have to attend my college graduation, which I had been dreading: hundreds of dollars in expenses and a long day in the boiling sun with people I didn't even know. (As a commuter transfer student, I was there for class, period. I think I made one friend in two years there.) Instead, we rented an apartment for two weeks and drew up a battle plan. Museums, cafes, jackets (Paris in May is quite chilly.)
And shopping. You were wondering where this was all going, weren't you? We did plenty of shopping, as I had before and have since. To go all the way to Paris and not bring back goodies for your pantry and your friends would be lamentable indeed.
But, after thousands of photos from half a dozen trips over almost two decades, how many of my shots do you think evoke the experience of shopping in this magical city?
Zero. Well, maybe this one comes close. We so badly wanted to reproduce that original cut-and-paste job that we searched long and hard for the location (this was pre-smartphone) and found a passing tourist to take an unabashedly touristy shot of us smiling in front of the landmark as if to say, "SEE?! We really did come here!" Carefully cropped out is the woman who was almost certainly trying to pick our pockets while we posed for the photo.
What's missing? Oh, everything. The carefully-tended shelves, for one thing: woe to the American customer who disturbs their colorful equilibrium by fiddling with the merchandise. Such practices are frowned upon in France, though examining with the intent to purchase is allowed (beware the fine line between!) The crisp "Bonjour, madame!" that rings out from the desk when you enter and is expected to be returned promptly. The incredible diversity of the shops, which tend to be tiny and focused on one subject or aesthetic. It's just impossible to convey how pleasant shopping can be, even to someone like me who really doesn't like doing it. I never set out to go shopping; I just did it along the way, naturally, whenever I saw something useful or intriguing or beautiful that I could afford. I bought a few things every day, and by the end of each trip my luggage was well stocked.
So I suppose it's a testament to the pleasantness of the experience, that I don't have any photos of the experience itself. What few I had were afterthoughts, usually blurry or ill-composed or of no significance except to a handful of people.
Instead, then, I offer a few of my favorite places to buy French goodies:
- Place de la Madeleine: named not for the cookie or for the twelve little girls in two straight lines, but for the nearby church of St. Mary Magdalene, this is the location of the mustard shop in the photo above. It's a great location for food lovers. Maille is a great place for inexpensive gifts: you can find dozens of flavors of mustard in addition to the standby white-wine Dijon that's now available in the US. Fauchon is home of beautiful fruit gelee candies and curiosities like red rice with jasmine flowers. Mariage Freres, home of the world's best tea and this heartbreakingly sweet encounter. Laduree is just around the corner, home of the best macaroons in Paris as well as the richest drinking chocolate (served with milk for diluting and sugar for sweetening; the stuff in the pot is pure silky liquid gold!)
- Museum Shops: These are getting better and better, and tend to stock more than the requisite stuffed animals and postcards. I usually walk through once, by which time I've found a book or vase or art print I can't live without.
- Saint-Germain-des-Pres: The shops here tend toward home decor. I've found beautiful tea towels and napkins for reasonable prices. Also a great place to faire de leche-vitrine (window shopping, or literally translated, window licking!)
- Les Halles: the old market has been torn down in favor of a tres riche shopping mall, but there are plenty of reminders that this is a cook's paradise. E. Dehillerin, the wholesale cookware shop, is awe-inspiring: you can buy a pot big enough to climb into or a paring knife that you'll reach for again and again. (Warning: prices are not listed anywhere here, but you'll see a 6-digit code on each item. Look for books posted throughout the store where you can look the prices up.) Also, don't miss G. Detou and Jean-Charles Rochoux of Lebovitz fame.
Then there's the Undiscovered Shop: the best finds are always the ones you're not expecting. An antiques shop in Monmartre that sells absinthe spoons (these were almost impossible to find in Paris before I discovered Vert d'Absinthe.) A tiny, crammed hardware store where, inexplicably, there is a section of essential oils. A surprisingly affordable boutique that can ease the pain of the underdressed on a blustery day. A cafe that does a side business in beautifully-wrapped Belgian chocolate.
Wherever you go and whatever you buy, if you are enjoying the experience and not just running errands, the spirit of Paris will be with you. I know it.