A series about how to experience the best of another country without leaving home.
Spring is the air. Which makes me dream of Paris. It’s my favourite city in the whole world. In one afternoon, you can see the Mona Lisa, climb the Eiffel Tower, wander through the former private gardens of Louis XIV, explore the Catacombs, and say a prayer in Notre Dame Cathedral.
Beyond the romance of its history, Paris has vibrant contemporary art and fashion and ever-changing street culture. And food, the glorious food. Why wouldn’t you want to pretend you’re in Paris, everyday?
My only problem with Paris is that I can’t keep away from it. It’s one of those cities I return to, at the expense of visiting new places. Once at a dinner party, when I was pondering whether or not to take yet another trip there while I was especially down on life, a worldly grand dame of European cinema leaned over and said, quite forcefully: “Go to Paris. You can never be sad in Paris.” She was right. I went, and I wasn’t.
Here are 9 of my favourite ways to pretend you’re in Paris.
But what if you can’t go to Paris? What if you are still in lockdown, or you are waiting for your vaccine before you hop on a plane again? Can you experience Paris from home? Oui.
Wear good underwear
Let’s start our mental journey to Paris before we even get dressed. I learned from reading the lovely little book Paris Undressed: Secrets of French Lingerie that French women always match their bra and panties. Now, I know plenty of women who have ditched bras completely while working from home. So this extra effort at the start of your day is a great way to transition out of our dishevelled just-keeping-it-together pandemic life into a more sensual Parisian mindset.
If you want to splurge on a proper set from France, the fashion house Maison Lejaby has been crafting exquisite lingerie since 1930. Their stuff is playful and sophisticated, works for everyday, and, unlike most fancy French brands, they fit above a size 12. For extra ooh-la-la, Impudique by Maison Catanzaro’s fetish-inspired collections have you covered. (Barely.)
Make friends with your cheesemonger
Growing up, there were two types of cheese in my grandparents’ fridge: Cheez Whiz, and Velveeta. So when I first tasted brie from France? My taste buds and mind exploded at once.
All my trips to Paris now involve trying new cheeses, and I’m constantly delighted at how flavourful and rich they are compared to what we generally eat in North America. Even the cheapest Camembert at the tiny corner grocer is next-level. And walking into a proper fromagerie? Mon dieu. Morbier! Coeur de Neufchâtel! Brillat-Savarin!
This is one thing that’s super easy to replicate at home by talking to your local cheesemonger, who can recommend French cheese to suit your taste and budget. Or start with searching an on-line guide like one from my favourite Toronto specialty shops, The Cheese Boutique. Bon appetit!
Eat lunch outside
You’ve got the cheese, now grab a freshly baked baguette and make yourself a sandwich, then find a park bench near your home to sit and enjoy it. Take your time. Parisians famously spend up to two hours enjoying lunch on café terraces. Scarfing it down at our desks is a horrible North American habit. Use this “pretend you’re in Paris” fantasy as an excuse to slow down and appreciate something delicious in your day.
Become a flâneur
Flâneur is a French word describing one who strolls, saunters or loafs around, traditionally an urban man of privilege with free time to wander. It’s a wonderful way to spend a whole day in Paris on the cheap. But you don’t need to be on the Champs-Élysées.
Anyone can take a long, lazy walk around their own town or city like a Parisian, simply by having no fixed destination or purpose. Pick your own neighbourhood, or a new one. Observe the architecture, what the locals wear, look for hidden street art. Bonus if you stumble across a French patisserie along the way.
Take an Art Class
On my first trip to Paris, I bought the museum pass and then set about getting my money’s worth. After the ninth museum in three days, I stood outside the colourful Centre Pompidou, the national modern art gallery. With my head filled with famous works from antiquities and medieval times to modern day, I actually thought I’d “seen it all” by then and couldn’t imagine traipsing through one more exhibition.
Then I went inside and walked smack dab into a poster from Guerrilla Girls — the culture jamming feminists from New York. I was confronted with art from Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Jana Sterbak’s meat dress. The Pompidou was hosting the largest all-female art exhibition in the world and it was like nothing I’d seen yet.
The Pompidou changed my view of women in art history. Which is why I highly recommend, if you understand French at all, their free on-line programme Elles font l’art, exploring women artists from 1900 to today. (Available now to July 21, 2021.) In English, they’ve also got a 4-week free course on the general history of Pop art.
Explore the Louvre
The world’s largest art museum has a really good YouTube channel. You can walk through the apartments of Napoléon III in stunning 4K set to classical music; wander the galleries to an ASMR soundtrack if that’s your thing, or watch one-minute cartoons meant for kids to learn about great paintings but hilarious for all ages.
For an even more immersive experience, there’s a Mona Lisa Virtual Reality app available for smartphones or through Viveport. And of course you can still exit through the (on-line) gift shop. They even sell Mona Lisa face masks.
Fall in love… with Lupin
Emily who? The best series on Netflix this year is Lupin, which opens with a heist at the Louvre and quickly envelops the viewer in a thrilling mystery over five binge-worthy episodes. The show stars the magnetic Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a Senegalese-French single father and con man obsessed with the fictional “gentlemen thief” Arsène Lupin. It’s like Sherlock Holmes meets James Bond….in France.
Lupin involves themes of race, power, family, and being a complete nerd for hundred-year-old books. It takes you to some of Paris most beautiful places, but also inside real urban life. I’ve read complaints that the show lacks black women characters (the love interests are all white women) which hopefully the writers rectify with the next five episodes, coming summer 2021. Lupin is a perfect way to spend time with French culture that goes beyond the clichés.
Dance to some French bangers
I like Ediaf Piaf ballads and the Amelie soundtrack just fine. But the sound of Paris for at least ten years has been hip-hop. Type “French rap” into your music streaming service of choice, find a playlist, and shake off those cheese calories before bedtime to veteran Booba or the politically charged 13 Block. On the alternative side, androgynous pop star Christine & the Queens, aka Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier, is one of the coolest artists working anywhere in the world. She sings in both English and French, with a vocal style I can only describe as the smoothness of Michael Jackson, the coolness of Debbie Harry and the bad-assery of Patti Smith. The epitome of chic that will absolutely make you move.
Wear a beret
Hey, we have to hide our pandemic hair somehow, right?
What is your favourite place in Paris? Or your dream place ? Let me know in the comments below. Merci!