On a Paris sidewalk, a scarf seduces me. It tempts me from behind the window of a boutique, the size of a rich woman's closet. Just last night, in my Paris apartment -- swapped Paris apartment... one month, anyway, (three weeks left) -- a lucid thought sneaked into the pre-dream trailers, playing inside my almost-asleep noggin:
I must buy myself a beautiful scarf.
A key ingredient in the recipe for style, here in the City of Lights, Parisian women -- young, old, in between -- don't wear scarves... they flaunt them. A splash of panache, affecting walk, attitude; a confident flair; a statement to gawking tourists: I am French, and you are not!
The scarf in the window is une jolie escharpe. A Beautiful Scarf. A black veil of a scarf, patterned with black flowers, connoting romance; mystery. Only I don't want black. I want color.
"Bonjour," the young saleswoman says, as I enter the empty shop, her French voice a rhythmic lilt. She adjusts the already-perfect symmetry of gloves, berets and scarves displayed on top of the glass counter she is standing behind.
"L'escharpe dans le vitrine c'est jolie." This is me, speaking French. And I am trying to say -- with all the fluency one can master from having endured four years of high school French, in New Jersey -- the scarf in the window is beautiful.
"Oui. Tres jolie," the saleswoman says. "Vous est Americaine?"
I am disappointed she guessed so quickly. But I am undaunted; apologizing (in French) for my hideous grammar, conveying my adoration for the language, suggesting that, perhaps, if I speak French everyday, my vocabulary will improve.
The saleswoman insists: I speak lovely French. And before I can mess up the translation for, do you have that scarf in another color?, I see it -- in a lush, dark violet that has me purring: "Ohhhhhh... j'aime cette couleur."
"C'est tres tres jolie," the saleswoman says.
Scarves intimidate me. Not that I mean to compare this insecurity with a more worrisome neurosis like, oh... say, fear of clowns. It is just that I do not know how to tie a scarf properly; how to not feel overly accessorized. In short, I do not know how to wear a scarf with insouciance.
Until this precise moment. The saleswoman places the scarf around my neck... and voila: She reveals the secret of how French women tie their scarves.
"C'est une bonne couleur pour votre face et cheveux." A good color for my face and hair, the saleswoman is saying. And I couldn't agree more. "When you wear that scarf," she says -- her accent giving each and every word a French makeover -- "you do not need make-up."
I gaze into the mirror and it is true: this burst of violet -- tied just-so -- gives my face an honest-to-goodness glow. "Combien?" I say.
She announces the price of this glow as if it makes perfect sense: "One hundred and
"C'est tres chere pour moi. I wish it weren't so expensive."
"C'est rare...very special," she says. "It is made in Florence."
"J'habite avec le denim?" I ask, pointing to my jacket.
It dresses up anything casual, she tells me. Looks good with my denim jacket and my black t-shirt. "And..." she says, "it looks elegant with elegant clothes."
I study my reflection: a casual woman, made in America, "dressed up" by a scarf made in Florence... which sells in Paris for 150 Euros -- 225 dollars! I can not rationalize the expense. Yet, I can not remove this scarf, that I cannot afford, from my happy neck.
I explain that I'd seen a scarf in Ile St.-Louis: silk, similar color, but simple--for 50 Euros.
"This scarf... c'est rare," the saleswoman says.
No argument. It is rare -- this scarf that replaces the need for makeup. "I'm a writer,"
say. "I just finished my first novel. It is necessary for me to sell it -- because I have expensive taste."
"Paris c'est difficile. It is easy to spend money here on beautiful things," she says. "C'est difficile."
"The fabric is so delicate....what if it rains?"
"Not a problem...you tuck the scarf inside your jacket."
"Show me again how to tie it," I say.
I remove the scarf... and -- presto! -- my look has been downgraded.
The saleswoman folds the scarf in half, lengthwise, making sure both ends hang at equal length. She drapes it around my neck, loops the ends into the fold, adjusts the scarf until that burst of violet caresses my chin.
I remove the scarf. Put it back on.
"Parfait," the saleswoman says. "C'est une bonne couleur."
"Oui. Une bonne couleur."
"The last in that color," she says.
"No more," she says, as if she is talking about the last precious puppy in the litter of a rare breed.
"A few years ago, in Paris..." I say. "I bought a black blouse, patterned with flowers... pansies - -same color violet. And the other day, I bought purple boots, swirled with ecru... a shop in the fourteenth."
I am having an out-of-body experience: I am watching myself remove 150 Euros from my purse.
"A couple of years ago," I am saying. "I bought a hat on rue Daguerre... une grande
fleur -- I wore it while writing my novel. The hat inspired me."
"The shop is no longer," the saleswoman says.
"Ma romaine est tres sensual...mouvant...mais drole." I think I am saying: My novel is sensual, moving, yet funny. Then I hear myself blurt: "This scarf will inspire me!"
And I am doing it -- handing the saleswoman a 50... another 50... and another. One hundred and fifty Euros. For a scarf.
"Je suis fol," I say. "I am crazy."
The saleswoman places a lavender lace sack -- where my scarf will live when it is not residing around my neck -- inside a store bag with handles fashioned from thick ribbon.
"Bon journee, Madame," she says, handing me the bag.
I leave the shop, wearing My Very Own Beautiful Scarf. I feel stylish; romantic... French.
And broke. 5 Euros in my purse.
So I hit the nearest cash machine. I insert my bank card, press the button that will allow me 300 Euros, promising myself -- this will last me until I leave Paris!
The machine emits a grating sound of effort, like coughing up money hurts. A message appears on screen: PLEASE TAKE YOUR CARD.
But the machine has not given me my money. Suddenly -- it sucks in my card... and a new message appears:
YOU WAITED TOO LONG TO TAKE YOUR CARD...GO TO YOUR LOCAL BRANCH.
No bankcard. No money.
An achy, old Frenchman, walking an achy, old basset hound, witnesses my distress. He suggests I talk to the manager inside the bank. And it is only then that I realize: There is a door, not far from the machine; and through that door -- a bank.
"Parlez vous Anglais?" I say to the teller.
"Un peu," he says.
In French, I explain: I love the French language, but my grammar stinks... and this is
too important -- too complicated for me to struggle with language.
The teller nods.
In English, I explain: the machine gobbled my card without giving me my 300 Euros.
"I can get your card," the teller says. "Attendez."
He disappears into a tiny office behind the machine. A minute later, he hands me my bank card.
"But what about my 300 Euros?"
"We do not know if the machine took it from your account."
"But what if it did?"
"There is no solution."
"What do you mean... no solution?"
"Not today. Tomorrow we will check with the bank. If it has been taken... you can write a letter with your account information and we can transfer the Euros into your account."
"How long will that take?"
"Maybe one week...maybe two."
A man (Sarkozy-esque-handsome) announces himself to be the manager. "Is there a problem?" he says.
Is there a problem? I convey the problem in French (with my bad grammar) and in English (with my pretty good grammar.) The next thing I know... I am explaining how Air France broke the zipper on my baggage; a suitcase worth 250 Euros. And-- I just bought the scarf that I am wearing... cette escharpe that I can't afford...for 150 Euros. "I gave the saleswoman every Euro I had in my purse!" I am saying. "I have been to Paris, five, six times... and never a problem. Now -- so many."
"Sometimes it is like that," the manager says. "But there is no other solution."
Ah, but I remember: a blank check in my purse -- for emergencies -- folded into a tiny square, tucked beside my last 5 Euros. I hand the check to the manager. "My account information!"
He studies the check. "That is not what we need."
"It is what you need."
"We need your routing number."
"C'est ici," I say... pointing to the routing number on the left side of my check.
"This is your routing number?" the manager says.
The teller fills out a form with my account info; I sign it. The manager says: they will call me tomorrow.
I ask for a copy of the form and their phone number.
"Do not worry," the manager says. "You will not have to call here. We will call you."
"I would feel better if I had your phone number."
The manager hands me his card. I thank him. I walk to the door, and he says:
"Your scarf... "
I turn to him.
"It is wonderful," he says. "Le couleur d'une bonne nuit."
"Le couleur d'une bonne nuit?"
"The color of a good night," he says.
And with that one, gloriously sexy phrase, I am certain: my purchase was a wise one.
I step outside onto the Paris sidewalk, smiling. I know why French women wear scarves