Weekly column on Paris for UK Harper's Bazaar, including photographs. Read the five articles on the site (by clicking the title links) or below. 

Week 5: Nostalgia

© Claire Oldman

© Claire Oldman

So much of what pulls me back to Paris is nostalgia - the missing of it. As I’m boarding the Eurostar for London, the tweets and Instagrams of people in Paris for fashion week make me jealous before I’ve even left. That should be me, on that bridge, in the sun, riding that Velib, sitting at that café terrace! In reality I'd spent the entire afternoon at a launderette, peering at the blue sky through steamed up windows, before negotiating multiple flights of steps in the metro with a large, impossibly heavy suitcase.

The idea of Paris is what fuels every comment on an Instagram photo taken there. Just writing ‘Paris’ causes paroxysms of envy and desire - the most common sentiment being, understandably, “I wish I was there now.” But what if you are there, but you still wish you were there? 

The filter of the Internet makes everything look rosy and perfect if you choose to skew it that way. The much re-quoted, “A bad day in Paris is still better than a good day anywhere else,” refrain sums up the general feeling evoked by Paris. But when you meet people who call it home, you'll hear the same thing over and over again: “It's not like that when you live here.”

Paris offers fleeting euphoric moments that form our memories of it. But you can't grasp at or expect them; these ephemeral instances happen naturally or they elude you. This is what makes some visitors to Paris feel let down when they don't experience it as magical or romantic. 

Paris has its harsh realities like any city, some more obvious than others. But there is somehow a pressure or at least a mutual agreement to present the dream version of Paris at all times. This was brought home to me recently when I attempted to regularly frequent a very famous café on the left bank. One day I watched Adrien Brody having breakfast, the next I watched as a large rat ambled around under the tables, while the clientele blithely continued to see and be seen. I tweeted this, then deleted it, not wanting to ruin the dream. The following day at the same café, another British journalist ended up with a glue trap with two dead mice attached to it stuck to her scarf. When I retold this story, everyone I spoke to had his or her own rodent tale. Everyone knows, but since that’s the place to go, they shrug and continue to flock there. There is a certain amount of compartmentalisation and denial required to do that, which I think could also be how Parisians accept other unpalatable aspects of life in Paris.

Every time I go to Paris I experience a different side of it. This time I lived in ordinary Paris, as opposed to what is now known as my Haut Marais dream bubble. I scratched the surface and some of the things I uncovered were eye opening to say the least. Things I previously thought were outdated clichés turned out to actually be true and an integral part of the culture. (Naïve, moi?) I had never asked anything of Paris before, except for it to share its visual beauty with me perhaps. I suppose I was asking what it would really be like to live in this culture, as I always assumed I might. I still love all the same things about Paris, but when I go back there in two weeks I expect the light to be less rose tinted. 

14 March 2013

© Claire Oldman

© Claire Oldman

At the end of this bitterly cold month in Paris, the forecast is for warmer weather - starting the day after I return to London. Some manage to navigate the arctic temperatures with stylish aplomb: enter my friend S looking very chic in his girlfriend's navy shearling Celine coat, with a thin down jacket layered underneath; to avoid the worst possible fate of getting ill just before fashion week. Now, even though it's still freezing, the arrival of the fashion circus into town has encouraged people to shed a few layers - one must suffer for fashion. I don't really believe that, so I'm still wearing all my clothes piled on at the same time, which I'm truly fed up of after five weeks. Of course you don't have a washing machine in Paris.

The eternal question of how Parisian women stay so slim is easily explained: You walk up six flights of narrow stairs to get to your tiny apartment, lug bags of washing to a launderette and back, and walk for miles every day unless you want to spend your life in the metro, where the view is much less lovely than above ground. And dinner at a chic restaurant in Paris consists of a tiny portion of something delicious, which is to be savoured. Last week this led to a friend from New York making a secret emergency stop at McDonalds on the way home after dinner, to avoid fainting from hunger.

If I wanted, I could have a comfortable life in Paris spending my days going to Tuck Shop, The Broken Arm, Ten Belles, Telescope (for decent coffee/snacks), Bob's Kitchen, Nanashi, Le Bal and Rose Bakery (for a lunch that includes vegetables/salad). I love that these places exist in Paris now, as with the exception of Rose Bakery they didn't five years ago. But at any of the above, you could be in Brooklyn or Berlin or Dalston. I had an obsession with "breaking out" of what I perceive as the ex-pat circuit earlier on this trip. I took a trek out to Black Market Cafe in the 18th arrondissement as I'd heard rumours it was owned by real French people, but it was closed due to the barista being taken ill with la grippe (flu)!

I constantly interrogated Parisians about where they like to go. The overwhelming response was that they like to go to the most convenient, bog standard, ordinary corner brasserie and will swear vehemently that one is better than another; based purely on its proximity to where they live.

While ex-pats might be concerned with trying the latest neo-bistro opened by a young, innovative chef in another part of town, hip Parisians are obsessed with Le Brunch, Le Hamburger and more recently Le Food Truck. Anything American is revered and considered cool here and the long history of American artists and writers coming to live in Paris plays into this. An American in Paris has a certain exotic romanticism to it that An Englishman in Paris, who just bought a cheap Eurostar ticket and made the two-hour journey from St. Pancras just doesn't! We’re so close to Paris, yet in a few crucial aspects of culture so different. I would need to write a twelve volume set of books to properly explain, but for the purposes of this blog, suffice to say: In London we get our recreational kicks from alcohol and express ourselves through inventive creativity in the arts. Parisians have sex.

4 March 2013

© Claire Oldman

© Claire Oldman

Until recently the weather in Paris has been below freezing and raining, with sudden bursts of hail or snow. The Seine swelled up and burst its banks, flooding the paths next to the river and closing the road alongside it. The water rose so high that boats couldn’t pass under the bridges. The spring collections are in the shops now, which usually means you get an immediate sense of the item all of Paris will be wearing, but the cold has meant that the only direction I can give you is on thick ribbed beanie hats and down parkas.

After two weeks it became clear – and not just the weather. I realised that I do know Parisians in a certain way – I’ve been coming here for long enough. I laugh out loud in recognition reading Olivier Magny’s excellent blog Stuff Parisians Like, which pinpoints aspects of the Parisian character with hilarious precision and wit.

Watching films is also helpful – but watching the Christophe Honoré film Les Chansons d’Amour the other day without English subtitles, it struck me that my experience of Paris somewhat mirrors this. I understand the general plot, but often miss the nuances of dialogue and cultural references. If you haven’t seen it, the plot of Les Chansons d’Amour revolves around Louis Garrel and Ludivine Sagnier, a couple who are involved in a ménage a trois with his colleague Clotilde Hesme. When Ludivine Sagnier unexpectedly dies, Louis Garrel takes solace and eventually finds love in the arms of Clotilde Hesme’s new lover’s younger brother, Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. This might sound like a ridiculously outlandish scenario, but I’m reliably informed that Parisians would consider this a fairly uneventful Tuesday afternoon.

Parisians are very discreet and are guarded when you first meet them. (Guarded against what, I’m still not sure. Discovering that you’re an idiot is my current theory.) But years of being immersed in social media have made me more open and sociable than the average Brit. I think nothing of meeting for coffee with someone I’ve met through Instagram or a friend of a blog friend and unless something terrible happens, we’ll more than likely become friends as well. This approach is seen as strange or even a bit suspicious here. One caveat: developing a true friendship with a local might take years, but what’s not difficult for any woman is meeting Parisian men. Even a returned glance will be taken as a solid sign of encouragement, but this is probably not the way to develop long-term friendships here!

The point of an English social gathering is to have fun, to make it to the end of an evening without offending anyone too much, but above all to have a laugh. Parisians discuss subjects. If you’re not prepared with a strong opinion that you can defend at length in an intellectual argument, then oops – they’re going to think you’re an idiot. Displaying your intellectual prowess is prized above being entertaining or funny. In fact being funny is something of a lost concept. This is an issue for me, since I’ve spent my life relying on my sense of humour to cope in most situations.

Quotes of the week:

'If you meet someone who’s really complicated and complains all the time, then they’re probably Parisian.'

'He’s a black-belt in foux de fa fa.'

(Foux de fa fa is useful shorthand to describe a completely non-ironic cheesy approach to romance.)

21 February 2013

© Claire Oldman  Drawing by Joanna Walsh

© Claire Oldman

Drawing by Joanna Walsh

Having just arrived in Paris I hit the ground running, going straight out to dinner with my good friend Lauren Cerand. She’s here from New York with her book publicity client Stephanie LaCava and we’ll go to Stephanie’s reading the next evening. But my first night is spent in Lauren’s sterling company at Balzar, one of my favourite traditional Parisian brasseries. It ticks all the boxes: oxblood banquette seats; wood panelled walls, vaguely mysterious, intellectual looking clientele and French home cooking. It’s very crowded, mostly with people a generation or two older than us and we’re crammed into a tiny corner table. About half of the waiters on duty find their way to our out-of-the-way table at one point or another though, as we seem to be something of a curiosity. After a dinner of roast farmhouse chicken and steak au poivre, we head out to meet some friends for cocktails in St. Germain.

The following night, Stephanie LaCava’s book reading is at the storied Shakespeare & Company book shop, opposite Notre Dame on the left bank of the Seine. I’ve been here only a few times over the years, but apart from enjoying its spectacular location and history, I feel at home knowing that various writer friends have connections with the place. You can feel in the atmosphere, in the walls almost, that it’s a friendly port. Actually for me it is literally in the walls, as my friend Joanna Walsh has covered the wall next to the staircase in her drawings of writers. Tonight is the first time I’ve met Sylvia who owns Shakespeare & Co, and I like her and what’s she’s doing there immediately.

Every space is filled and Stephanie begins a series of short readings from her book An Extraordinary Theory of Objects: A Memoir of an Outsider in Paris; interspersed with questions from Sylvia and Laura of Shakespeare & Co, then from the audience. The book is a memoir of her time living just outside Paris in the early nineties, where her family had been relocated. In her early teens, awkward and isolated, she drew comfort from small objects that held particular significance. Stephanie explains in an endearing, open way how the themes in the book (which I’ve read before coming) are connected.

After the reading it becomes clear that the girl in the audience who looks a bit like Rachel Khoo of The Little Paris Kitchen IS she, and she’s tried to inconspicuously attend the reading with a friend. No such luck. Two minutes later Rachel has been handed a large stack of her books to sign and has been befriended by everyone before she is allowed to leave.

Post-reading, Sylvia and Laura from Shakespeare & Co, Stephanie, Lauren and I adjourn upstairs to the top of the building for some more drinks and “upstairs stories”. There is much spirited laughter and connection between these bright, funny, interesting young women who are forging great paths in their respective ways; sharing a drink and a laugh in the heart of Paris together. We later head for a quiet dinner at Café de Flore, which rounds off this classically left bank start to the month nicely.

12 February 2013

© Claire Oldman

© Claire Oldman

In October 2005 I decided to spend a month in Paris. A relative had a flat in the Marais that she let to family and friends and I had the excuse of ‘needing’ to be there for fashion week, as I was a stylist then. I’d only been to Paris a few times before as a tourist, but I didn’t have any real sense of Paris yet. In the beginning I busied myself with all the clichés: taking close up beauty shots of macarons, sitting in the Place des Vosges watching the leaves change and writing notebooks full of poetry sitting next to the Seine, marvelling at how the light rippled on the water.

That month I met some friends of my aunt who lived further up in the 3rd arrondissement – the Haut Marais. New things were just beginning to spring up there: quirky little boutiques with no discernable name, where you couldn’t tell what was for sale, with a window display consisting of a stuffed deer head wearing sequinned headphones or something. I loved it. But it was also a real neighbourhood with a fantastic food market and everything you needed to live well.

By this point I had a very strong but as yet vaguely formed feeling that I had to find a way to spend a lot more time in Paris, and in that area. I had realised that Paris was my city, where I felt at home and inspired at the same time. Thanks to those friends, I spent the next four or five years going back and forth on the Eurostar, staying at their flat while they were away, which was often. I watched the neighbourhood transform, or perhaps explode, into the still trendy, but now very chi-chi, fully gentrified area it is today. And I wrote about my time there extensively – I’ve written numerous articles and ninety blog posts about Paris to date.

Over the past eight years my relationship to Paris has slowly changed and developed. Each time I go, I discover a new layer. It’s obvious it’s the place for me. What do I like? Beautiful things, clothes, art, books, perfume, flowers, good wine and food and seeing all those things appreciated and expressed in daily life. That’s Paris (on one level anyway)!

When I first started spending extended periods of time here, I didn’t know anyone, but over time I’ve built up a network of lovely friends from all over the world. There’s just one thing: none of them are Parisian. I have more Parisian friends in London than I do here. I know Paris like the back of my hand and I can tell you all the cool places to go. But if I’m going to crack that next layer of Paris, I think I have to understand more about what makes Parisians tick, or I’m just skimming the surface. It might be easier said than done, as a quick straw poll of my Paris based friends reveals that while they might have met many Parisians, few of them can count any as friends.

Over the next month I’ll be blogging here about Paris and my attempts to understand Parisians, using only my charm and finest Franglais. Of course, some beauty/art/shopping/hip new places might sneak into the mix as well.

The other night I asked a true Parisian what makes one. The answer: It’s hard to explain, but you’ll know it when you see it.

7 February 2013