Travel broadens the mind, no doubt. A routine walk becomes an adventure. History that was once so sterile in books comes alive. Architecture speaks, sometimes in the whispers of a narrow lane, sometimes in the deafening grandeur of a palace. The melody of a language. The smell of fresh bread…every damn day.
Mais oui, it’s Paris, where I’m currently a Writer in Residence. Lest anyone get the idea that it’s not a working endeavor, let me be clear: we’ve been here several weeks and have yet to visit a museum. Deadlines and revisions nudge their way into the daily calendar with nagging regularity. Coffee is occasionally the sacred ritual enjoyed at a local temple of worship (sidewalk cafe), but more often the pit stop for much needed fuel.
It would be in poor form to complain, and I most certainly am not. Paris is fascinating, whether you’re a working resident or strolling visitor. But day in and day out, the city and its inhabitants are civilized, organized, productive, and colorful. They revel in their individuality, defying and denying category, cliche, convention.
Consumerism is present, but subtle. Artisans abound, working in leather, fragrances, and textiles. In short, as one of my fellow expatriates commented recently as we surveyed a window shop full of men’s cashmere and silk scarves, “Man, they have some really good stuff here.” Indeed.
French doors, so to speak.
The craftsmanship and quality often come at eye-watering prices. Still, I find myself tempted. At this point, I rationalize, any quality piece of clothing or any accessory I purchase will certainly be in service for a lifetime (or what’s left of mine.) And yet Old Money habits die hard. I’ve lived, for the most part, in reasonably priced, traditionally-styled, quality clothing and have rarely felt the urge to splurge.
I viewed other men who dropped $5,000 on a suit or $50,000 on a watch as being Victims of Marketing, much like women who hand over a week’s salary for a Louis Vuitton handbag. My opinion in that respect hasn’t changed much, but now I live in what an arguably be called the World Capital of Luxury and Craftsmanship.
And it’s not just the 1000 euro a night hotel rooms, multi-starred restaurants, or please-ring-the-bell-so-we-can-buzz-you-in boutiques that give Paris this WCLC title. It’s not glam. It drips elegance and detail and quality, often in small, everyday things that you thought could never be described as such. Like the folding of a crisp white napkin or the opening of a door, the tying of a bow or the flourish of a scarf, the delicate kissing of cheeks between old friends.
Furthermore, in this culture, elegance is often disconnected with marketing. Elegance predated marketing and has existed for centuries here, when the only billboard that mattered was a royal warrant from a king. Elegance is not just for special occasions: it is a point of pride, a characteristic to aspire to.
Certainly, Hermes, Chanel and the aforementioned Louis Vuitton, among others, do their damnedest to pry the credit card out of your wallet and swipe it smooth with slick ads and compelling window displays. But the real quality goods frequently reside in boutiques with obscure names, steeped histories, and generations of family members minding the store.
Offerings are limited. Discounts are rare. Inspiration in design and quality in construction are the only things that are obvious. The prices reflect the time invested and the quality attained, not to mention those delightful details.
The 4th Arrondissement at sunset.
So the question I find myself asking is: Where do I draw the line? At what point to I throw habit and caution (which, for OMGs, are one and the same) to the wind and have a pair of bench-made shoes or a bespoke jacket commissioned and spend ten or twenty times what I normally would?
I have a hard time finding the logic, but I am understanding the appeal. There is joy and life in a quality, handmade product. They bloom in its conception, in its creation, in the sharing of it with a customer, and with its use and enjoyment by the customer.
I’ve only partly answered the question for myself, at this point, of where I will draw the line at how much I spend and on what. I wll draw it carefully and rarely, but once I do, I will enjoy my unjustifiable expenditures to the fullest.
After all, I think that’s the best I can do in Paris. I’m just one man against an army of temptation.