Theadora was on the verge of quitting Paris – until she spotted Elizabeth II.
I had just moved to Paris, and wasn’t exactly having an easy go of it. I was late to my mandatory French placement exam, and my hair was a stringy mess thanks to a new conditioner I’d tried. I’d somehow missed the instructions for a centime-sized application on the Petit Marseillais label and instead I’d applied nearly the whole bottle, thinking it would somehow soothe both tresses and melancholy, too. Even the taxi driver had difficulty breathing, thanks to my gooey, coconut-glazed Medusa-like hairdo.
My state of mind was less Lily Collins’s perky Emily Cooper in Emily in Paris and more Sarah Jessica Parker’s mopey, croissant-eating Carrie in Sex and the City. Several unhappy months into my stay, I’d even knocked over a rack of clothes in the Jennyfer store at Place d’Italie while hunting for fitted blouses to wear to my French class. Hoping to keep up with my classmates, I’d studied the fashion mavens in the Jardin du Luxembourg and their shopping bags: Jennyfer and décolleté were having a moment.
The mall at Place d’Italie was not far from my new language school in Butte-aux-Cailles, the village-like neighbourhood that would soon become my daytime stomping ground. By stomping, I mean running, because the teacher locked the door precisely at 9am each morning, allowing no latecomers, Métro strike or not. During one mad sprint I may even have booted a puppy out my way as I ran down rue Bobillot, scant seconds to spare. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back to that placement exam. Easy-breezy, I remember thinking to myself while trying on an armful of blouses at Jennyfer, fortified by chocolate, flattering lighting, and songs by Pharrell Williams and Justin Timberlake. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t exactly prepare for it. Well, not if you exclude my new ability to spot soldes (sales) signs from a distance. How many did I purchase? “Cinq chemises en noir,” I said to my new teacher during the next day’s exam, before adding, “I took French in college.”
She raised an eyebrow. “It shows,” she said, snapping her test book shut. “So it’s the beginner’s class for you.” I didn’t cry, not then. No, I didn’t get teary until I missed my Métro station while slinking past multitudes of fluent Francophones at every corner.
Then, there was no closing the floodgates or backtracking. I just kept snivelling and walking in the cold rain. No one noticed my bleary eyes or red nose as I made my meandering way back toward my new digs in Abbesses, pausing only to hide a price tag still attached to my skin-tight shirt. Feeling daunted and itchy, surrounded by tourists stranded on a traffic island at Place de la Concorde, I began making a list of what I’d need to do to return to my old life in Baltimore. I’d had it with Paris.
Suddenly, sirens and flashing lights were everywhere. “The Queen’s procession!” a woman next to me yelled as a string of vehicles sped by – Queen Elizabeth II’s motorcade, complete with carriages and horses at nearly full gallop. In a blurry flash, I spotted Her Majesty’s famous gloved wave. Naturally, I did what any monarchy fanatic would do: headed straight to my flat to e-spread the news about this chance encounter with everyone I knew. But not before stopping by the nearby WHSmith to grab myself some French primers. Once home, the books stayed closed. Instead, I was up all night sharing my tale.
I still don’t know why the Queen’s procession changed my mood, but it did – and it also changed my decision to leave, despite the rain, the exam setback, and the messy entanglements with hair conditioner and dangling price tags.
After all, I was hardly the first to feel a bit intimidated by Paris. In fact, I recently read in a 1957 newspaper that the Queen experimented with straight-skirted suits and slim sheaths specifically designed for her first trip to Paris as Queen, by royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell. According to Reuters, Her Majesty even declined a coat during her opentopped ride through Place de la Concorde so that “the thousands cramming the pavements should see her new clothes – despite a bitterly cold wind”.
Who hasn’t been there? As my 94-year-old friend Ormond recently said to me: “Live your life like it’s for ever.” And that goes triple when it comes to dressing to impress oneself.
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Theadora’s Aunt Elsie’s clipping of the Baltimore Evening Sun declaring Elizabeth had become Queen
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