…you think the air conditioning is making you sick

A few years ago, I was at the office during one of the delicious heat-waves that Paris enjoys at least once a summer.  Our office was on the 5th floor and was orientation ouest (west-facing), so it got the afternoon sun and became a veritable fournaise (furnace) in the summertime.  One day it got so hot that I could no longer work, so I reached to turn on the air-conditioning (“la climatisation” ou “la clim” for short).  My co-bureau (office-mate) immediately stopped me and said, “Oh non, je n’aime pas la clim – cela me rend malade” (“Oh no, I don’t like air-conditioning – it makes me sick”.)  And with those little words, which I have come to hear so often, everything changed.

For some reason, in France a majority of people seem to be convinced that “la clim” is making them sick.  I had never heard this before.  Where I come from (Australia), air-conditioning is essential to get through our long, hot, dry summers.  I had always grown up with it and never once suspected that it may have been the cause of my recurring summer head colds.  So when I heard about the air-conditioning thing, it really stuck with me.

Those of you who know me well will not be surprised.  I am a notorious hypochondriac.  So much so that my high school friends nick-named me “Colin”, after the pale, sickly little boy in the Secret Garden who wanted to stay inside with the curtains drawn to “keep out the spores”, until one day the other children rolled him out into the garden in his wicker wheelchair.

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To this day, if ever anyone tells me that they are sick or coming down with something, I immediately start edging away from them.  Sometimes in France when you go to give people la bise (a kiss to say hello), they stop you and say, “Je te fais pas la bise car je suis enrhumé / je suis malade / etc.”  (“I won’t kiss you because I have a cold / I’m sick, etc.”).  I love these people; selflessly trying to protect others from catching their illness.  But in the moment, I immediately jump back a few paces and then try to avoid them as much as possible for the rest of our encounter.

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In the same vein, another ailment which I never knew I had until the French told me about it was “les jambes lourdes” (heavy legs).  Emma Beddington describes this phenomenon perfectly in her fabulous book We’ll Always Have Paris.  Basically, in France, people (generally women above a certain age) are obsessed with the idea that your legs get heavy due to poor circulation.  In Australia, this is not really a thing (or if it is, I had certainly never heard of it).  But as soon as I caught wind of this jambes lourdes thing, I knew they were onto something.  And sure enough, a trip to the médecin confirmed that I should be wearing compression socks all year round and low, thick-heeled (man-style) shoes to counter my condition. Très sexy.

So all of this made me think that maybe I’d found my natural home in France, which might just be a country of hypochondriacs. And even more so in Paris, which is undoubtedly a city of pharmacies.

Many an expat has written about the French obsession with pharmacies (including Ms. Beddington herself).  It is true that in Paris it is rare to find yourself on a street where you cannot locate at least one green, neon pharmacy cross (often accompanied by a wildly inaccurate temperature sign) within your field of vision.  (Side note: I recently met a fellow Australian who told me a brilliant drinking game that comedian Paul Taylor has created around this concept, involving google maps).  By way of example, I have at least 13 pharmacies within a 1km radius of my apartment, including the oldest pharmacy in Paris, just one of the many must-see destinations in my neighbourhood.

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So many pharmacies, so little time…

Thus, whenever I am exposed to la clim (some shops and restaurants insist on it, and even proudly announce “salle climatisée” on their front windows, I assume mainly to pander to the oblivious tourist crowd), or when I’ve attrapé froid (literally, “caught cold” but not necessarily a cold … yet.  In other words, basically my condition 50% of the time), I go to one of my nearest pharmacies.  That is when the real fun begins.

All of the clichés are true: if you go into a French pharmacy complaining about a sore throat you will walk out with at least a throat gargle, a spray, aspirin and/or paracetamol, lozenges, cold and flu tablets and maybe even some sort of product in suppositoire form if you’re not careful (yes, a pharmacist recently tried to give me codeine in the form of a suppository to treat a cough.  I had to ask him three times to be sure of what he was talking about, including some Bridget Jones-style gesticulating, before bashfully declining).  And of course no trip to the pharmacy would be complete without some sort of cream for “les jambes lourdes“, a travel-sized Bioderma eau micellaire, some hand cream, a Labello and a few other strict necessities.

One of my favourite pharmacy products is Oscillococcinum, although I can never remember its name and mumble something like “le oscocilium truc”, pointing over the pharmacist’s shoulder into the “products for suckers” section.  (*Note: this is not a sponsored post for Oscillococcinum, but I would be totally open to that).  As far as I know it has no proven benefits, but since I took it once and my rhume didn’t materialize, I became convinced it was a miracle drug and take it every time I feel another HC (Head Cold) descending.

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Ocsillococcinum : French for “placebo” ? 

And here I’m just talking about over-the-counter products.  If you have a Carte Vitale (public health care card), maybe even a Carte Mutuelle (private health care card) and go to the médecin and get yourself an ordonnance (prescription) – well, that opens up a whole new world of pharmaceutical possibilities (and indeed could be a blog post on its own).

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That feeling when you get your Carte Vitale 

La clim season is now firmly upon us.  I now have a new office (hélas, sans office-mate), which is orientation sud (south-facing), and also gets super hot in the summer.  Yet, I stubbornly refuse to put on the clim.  Instead, I close the windows, draw the curtains (Colin-style), turn off the lights and put on my fan, causing some colleagues to call my office “la tannière” (“the lair”).  Others just call it “le sauna” and hover at the door, not daring to enter.  If ever anyone asks me why I don’t just put on the clim, I knowingly repeat what my office-mate told me all of those years ago (“Non je n’aime pas la clim – cela te rend malade”), and they nod their heads sagely and say, “Oui tu as bien raison.” (“Yes, you’re completely right.”)

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…you learn to live with the strikes

The strikes (or “les grèves“) are one of the biggest clichés about living in France.  And much like the difficulties of dealing with l’administration or the frequency with which French people say “oh la la“, after you live here for a while you quickly realize that this cliché is very much true.

I’ve seen many a grève during my time in Paris.  For example, when I first arrived in France in 2010 there were widespread strikes about the government’s decision to raise the retirement age from 65 to 67.

It was all quite a novelty for me at that stage.  I remember the first time I saw a manif (as a grève is often coupled with a demonstration a.k.a. “manifestation“, or “manif” for short) making its way through the Place de La République I thought it was some kind of street party and stopped to take photos.  In my defence, it was a fair mistake given the grèvistes’ penchant for large, colourful hot-air balloon type things attached to cars, flags, marching bands and roving drummers.

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Carnevale?

In fact, the get-up for manifs is taken so seriously in France that you can even go to the website of the main unions (such as the CGT, the Confédération générale du travail) and buy your own “matériel manif” (protesting merchandise), ranging from novelty glasses to smoke bombs (with buy-in-bulk discount (“tarifs dégressifs !!”)).

Needless to say, after a few years living near the Place de la République and witnessing many a manif, nuit debout and general rabble-rousing on a regular basis (once we even had to close the windows of our apartment because tear gas was getting in), we grew a little tired of seeing the CRS armoured trucks rolling down Boulevard Magenta (the CRS or Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité are in charge of crowd and riot control in Paris – whenever you see their trucks lined up and down the street you know there’s a manif, parade or some kind of public spectacle brewing).

Once the smoke has settled, it’s always funny to hear the notoriously large discrepancy between the estimated number of demonstrators according to the unions versus the number estimated by the police (“Selon les organisateurs ils étaient 100,000. Selon la police ils étaient 30,000” / “According to the organizers they were 100,000.  According to the police they were 30,000”).  This is such a recurring scenario that one entrepreneurial consulting firm has even set up a business to count the number of demonstrators using a system of radars installed along the planned route of the manifestation.  But of course, as soon as they started publicizing their results people started protesting against them.

Like most French people (et oui, I am officially French now), over the past few years I’ve lived with the grèves without much fuss.  Of course, they inevitably tend to be scheduled for the day you’re supposed to take a train somewhere, fly with Air France, or go to see La Traviata at the Opéra de Paris (yes, it happened to me a few years ago – the show was cancelled because the set and costume designers went on strike).  And it usually takes a while to establish who exactly is on strike and how it may affect you (“If it’s just the pilots we should be fine, right?”  “Ah non, it’s the air traffic controllers, that changes things…”).  But for the most part there’s not much you can do about it, so you just learn to vivre avec.

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Yes, the set and costume designers are a surprisingly powerful bunch

Recently, however, things have gotten out of hand.  In April, just before the Easter break, the unions of France’s national state-owned railway company, the SNCF (“Société nationale des chemins de fer français“) announced a three-month, rolling mega-grève.  The strike is in response to the government’s proposals to reform the railway sector, including phasing out the “cheminot” status enjoyed by many of the SNCF’s workers.  As a result, the cheminots decided to strike for two out of every five days over three months (a period that *could* be extended), which looks a little like this:

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Pin this up in your office, stat

When the strikes were announced, I knew we were in for trouble.  First, the strike days often coincided with the famous ponts of May.  The ponts (or “bridges”), for those not in the know, are a wonderful French invention, up there with the Minitel and the Café Gourmand.  Basically, if a public holiday (“jour férié“) falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, then the pont potential opens up to take the Monday or the Friday off to “bridge” the gap between the jour férié and le week-end.

This year was a great year for salariés (employees), pont-wise: Labour Day (la Fête du travail , 1 May) and Victory Day (Victoire 1945, 8 May) both fell on Tuesdays and Ascension (10 May) fell the Thursday after Victory day, creating the potential for a “mega pont” (or viaduct, as some of my French colleagues liked to call it).  I realized it had all become a bit ridiculous when I overheard an exchange between two colleagues at the office on a Monday (at lunchtime) that ended with a mutual “allez, bon week-end“.

Bref, seeing the calendar of strikes it became obvious that they would put a stick in the wheels (literal translation of “mettre des bâtons dans les roues”, a great French expression I learned recently) of the little suitcases that Parisians love to trot out of the office with on Friday evenings.  And sure enough, colleagues and friends quickly started hatching alternative plans to get to and from their weekends in Deauville or weddings in the Sud.

That was not the only flow-on effect.  The strikes have made it near-impossible to schedule meetings at the office: I cannot count the amount of réunions I have had to cancel or reschedule or the number of Doodles I have had to send around in the past three months to try to work around the grèves.  It is *almost* as hard as trying to find a Saturday night to catch up with my girlfriends, when the diaries magically align and nobody has a dîner/anniv/mariage, etc. (proving yet another cliché about Parisians – that their diaries are booked up for months in advance – to be entirely true).

But all of this was fine.  I could deal.  The right to protest is sacred in France; I knew that coming in.  It may not be protected in the Constitution, but it does feature in Article 10 of the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen of 1789 (« Nul ne peut être inquiété pour ses opinions, même religieuses, pourvu que leur manifestation ne trouble pas l’ordre public établi par la loi » / “No-one should be harassed for their opinions, even religious ones, provided that the expression of such opinions does not cause a breach of the peace as established by law”), a copy of which I signed when I agreed to become a French citizen.  That the French are willing to take to the streets to protect their rights and to express their opinions freely is something that should be admired, not mocked.

So I was making do and dealing with the grèves like any good Parisian.  Until just the other day, when I ran into a former colleague after work on Rue Danielle Casanova near the Place Vendôme.  He was standing outside a bakery, briefcase in hand, looking exasperated.  Why?  “The vélib’s are on strike!”  He told me.  (Vélib’ is the public bicycle-sharing system in Paris).  “The bicycles are on strike?!”  I asked.  “How is that even possible?!”  Mais oui, you only had to look at the empty bicycle racks and error messages on the screens of the bornes to see that it was true.

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“Ce n’est pas possible” – up there with the top 10 expressions you hear in France on a daily basis

I, too, could feel my exasperation levels rising.  Alors, I dug a little deeper and realized the Vélib’ workers are indeed on strike, and probably with good reason.  So I had no choice but to think to myself, “chapeau” (hats off) to the Vélib workers, while praying to the RER gods (who control the suburban train system I take to work everyday) that the cheminot mega-grève would not be renewed.

…you start using French expressions

Learning French in Paris is a daily battle.  English is everywhere, so much so that you could actually get by without speaking French at all.  Well, at least in most places.

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In this GARDEN we speak FRENCH, BUT we don’t smoke…  (insert thinking face emoji) 

But, if you persevere, you do have little victories every now and again.  Like the feeling you get when you learn a new word and then you hear it absolutely everywhere, making you wonder how you got by without it.  (For example: I recently had this with the word “punaise”, which means bug (or thumb tack) and can also be used to say “gosh” or “golly”.  Something similar happened a few years ago with “machin”, which is equivalent to “thingy”, and pops up all the time.  And again, once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it.)  Or when you successfully order your vegetables at your local market – and don’t, for example, find yourself trying to order three navettes (shuttle buses) instead of three navets (turnips).  Or when you manage to wrap up a voicemail in French without sounding like the most awkward person on earth.

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#dailystruggle

But you know you’ve really made it when you start using French expressions.  This is where the richness of the French vocabulary and their gift for les jeux de mots (word play) come together.  There are literally hundreds of French idioms out there, suitable for just about every aspect of Parisian life.  I was reminded of this recently when discussing the weather with some colleagues.  This is always a popular topic of conversation at the office, but more so at the at the moment, with the mercury expected to drop below -5 this week in a phenomenon described by meteorologists as “Moscou-Paris” (which sounds more like a delicious cocktail than a cold weather front to me, but that is by the by).  In English, I could only think of two expressions to say “it’s cold” (one of which was, spoiler alert, “it’s cold”).  The French, on the other hand, have at least five expressions to describe le froid, each more colourful than the last.

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“Moscou-Paris” a.k.a. “Instagramer’s Delight”

After a few years here, I’d picked up a number of these expressions, applicable both to the weather and to many other aspects of life in Paris.  When I hear them, I note them in my phone (often incorrectly, as shown below), and then try to bring them out at the appropriate moment.

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One of the many incoherent notes in my phone.  FYI, “cou” (neck) of the crémière (dairy woman) is wrong (for reasons explained below) 

But the thing about using expressions or idioms in any language is that you have to use them word for word.  It’s not enough that you convey the general image or the idea.  (Even in English, you can’t say “You have to make your ducks stand in a line” or, “You shouldn’t count your chickens before they are born.”)

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Bref, even one word out of place and you’ve gone from impressing your French friends with your witty repartee to becoming fodder for their dinner party anecdotes.  Regrettably, but much to my French friends’ delight, I have found myself falling into the latter category on more than one occasion.  And more often than not it’s because I’ve taken an innocent turn of phrase and unknowingly turned it into something far more risqué.

To give some examples, starting on the tamer side: a few years ago I learned the expression, “Il n’y a pas le feu au lac” (literally, the lake is not on fire).  Essentially this means there is no rush or urgency.  This seemed like a great expression for use in the work context.  So, in a team meeting one day, when it seemed like we were clearly not in a lake-on-fire situation, I decided to assert myself and said, “Mais le lac ne va pas prendre feu.” (literally, something like, “But ze lake iz not going to catch on fire.”)  I looked around my colleagues’ puzzled faces and instantly knew I had failed.  A beat, before someone copped on, “Ahhh elle veut dire il n’y pas le feu au lac.”  It’s like a reversal of that familiar moment described by Stephen Clarke, when a French person says just about any Hollywood actor’s name and you make them repeat it three times before saying, “Ahhh, you mean Keanu Reeves!

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It’s WEEVES, like “W” for “Wyan Gosling”…

Another racier anecdote, which is a particular favourite among my French friends, happened when we were on a group ski trip last year.  We had rented a charming apartment in Val d’Isère.  It was our last day and we understood that nobody was checking in after us so we could fit in a full day of skiing before heading back to the apartment to shower, pack our things, tidy up and take our train back to Paris.  Hélas, we were out skiing up a storm on La Grande Motte when we got a phone call from the owner saying that there had been a misunderstanding and the cleaners were back at the apartment waiting to clean it before the next guests checked in a few hours later.  We raced down the mountain, dropped off our skis, ran back to the apartment and quickly packed our things.

When we piled into the elevator to go downstairs (along with a family of four with two small children, of course), my friend and I were lamenting the fact that we had not been able to shower due to the rush.  I said, “C’est bon, je vais me faire une douche à la chatte plus tard.”  What I had *wanted* to say was I would take a toilette de chat, which I understood to mean freshening up sans a proper shower, like a cat (i.e., wash my face, hands and underarms using a make-up remover wipe).  What I ended up saying was something far, far more rude involving another word for cat (you can guess the rest).

Another minefield is French slang.  Once you use it you start to feel like you have total street cred.  But again, you need to get it exactly right or else you sound distinctly uncool.

A dear Parisian friend of mine Caro is my go-to person for the latest French slang.  She’s a fan of verlan (a form of slang created by cutting words in two and turning them backwards) and regularly coins slang terms of her own.

One day Ro-ca (or Ro-K to take it a step further) was admiring my “bagouze” and I had no idea what she was talking about.  It turns out that bagouze (or bagouse) is slang for bague, which means ring.  I dug a little further into the practice of putting “ouze” at the end of words and found out, for example, that flouze is slang for money and that piqouze is slang for injection (piqûre).  I made a mental note about this “ouze” idea and carefully filed it away for future use.

A few weeks later I was in Berlin with Ro-K and some other girlfriends, one of whom had brought her boyfriend along.  On the Friday night we went out to one of Berlin’s famous night spots.  As we were walking into the club, I turned to the group wanting to announce something like, “Let’s party!”  (Or “Let’s make ze party !” (“On va faire la fête !”), as the French would say.)  I’d been toying with this “ouze” idea, so, for reasons I still cannot explain, I came out with “Allez, on va faire la part-ouze !”  Which actually means “We’re going to have an orgy !”  (“Partouze” = orgy).  Of course, as luck would have it I announced this within earshot of another group of français.  And given the club we were in, this did not sound like such an improbable proposition.  Needless to say, our male companion, in particular, found this absolutely hilarious and has dined out on the story on many occasions since.

Another favourite anecdote occurred when I was at a fancy business lunch at the prestigious cercle de l’Union interalliée on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.  I was seated next to a high-ranking executive from a large French company.  I was very carefully vouvoie-ing him (i.e., using the formal/polite form of “you”) and using my best French.  We started talking about our jobs and for whatever reason I found myself wanting to tell him that I had a sore neck because I was working long hours sitting at my computer.  So I told him that “Je travaille devant l’ordinateur et cela m’arrive d’avoir mal au cou.”  Except that instead of saying “cou” I said “cul”Et oui, a slightly different vowel pronunciation meant that instead of telling this gentleman I had a sore neck (“cou“), I instead told him I had a sore arse (“cul”).

To add to the complexity, you also have to watch out for traps laid by mischief-making locals.  For example, I used to work with a guy named Jacques* who is lovely, but has a very cheeky streak.  Jacques has that lethal combination of super quick wit and perfect English.  Once in my early days at our company we went out to lunch with a group of colleagues.  I hadn’t even been in France a year at this point and was struggling to keep up with the conversation.  I found myself wanting to say something but wasn’t sure how to say I “laughed out loud”.  Luckily (or not) I had Jacques beside me, and so I leaned in and asked him how to say it.  He whispered the phrase to me and I turned to the group and repeated what he had said, announcing, “J’ai ri à gorge profonde.”  What I should have said was, “J’ai ri à gorge déployée.”  (Literally, “I laughed with an open throat.”)  Instead I said, “I laughed with a deep throat.” Cue many LOLs from all around the table, and especially from Jacques.

A similar thing happened to my better half, who also had an equally quick-witted and mischievous (yet lovely) colleague named Stan. One day my chéri was feeling under the weather and asked Stan how to say he had “the flu” in French.  Lightening fast, Stan said, “Ah, c’est la chtouille !”   So my poor chéri went around the office saying he wasn’t feeling well and gravely telling people that he thought he had la chtouille.  Again, many LOLs were had until his dear office-mate (co-bureau) Mathilde kindly told him that la chtouille in fact means syphilis (and the he should have been saying that he had “la grippe”).

But none of this will discourage me from diligently noting down French expressions and using them (or trying to use them) in everyday life.  I would never throw in the sponge (“jeter l’éponge”) on my mission to turn Parisian so quickly !

*Name has been changed to that of my other favourite actor from Le Dîner de cons 

…you become a French cititzen

It has been a while since I last blogged.  Nearly two years to be exact.  In those two years, a lot has changed.  Some changes have been good, others bad.  France elected its youngest ever President, Emmanuel Macron (cf. macaron.)

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Macron on a pile of macarons by illustrator Parisian Postcards, inspired by the latest Earful Tower podcast

Colette, a favourite hang-out of fashion folk and celebrities alike, closed its doors definitively.

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Where will I buy my overpriced candles now?

And David Pujadas, heart-throb of many a high school French student (or was it just me?), was unceremoniously booted from France 2’s celebrated nightly news show, 20 heures.

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Parting is such sweet sorrow.  And that hair – was it indeed too good to be true ?

So it’s been a big two years, full of unexpected events.  But nothing prepared me for the letter that was waiting for me in my boite à lettres upon my recent return from a month-long séjour in Australia.  The first sentence of the letter simply read, “Madame, J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez acquis la nationalité française depuis le 20 décembre 2017.” (“I have the pleasure to inform you that you acquired French nationality on 20 December 2017.”)

Accordingly, I was told that I would be receiving, in around 6 months’ time, a letter from President Macaron himself enclosing some official-sounding documents, including my French birth certificate.  (I already asked about this and no, I am not being “re-born” French and I will not get a second birthday.  From what I understand I will get a certificate saying that I was born on my actual birthday (but in France?), which apparently will come from Nantes.  And no, technically I do not think this will make me bretonne, but I will claim it nonetheless.)

This letter came as quite a surprise.  Although it’s true that I applied for French citizenship nearly two years ago, all the rumblings I was getting from the Prefecture to the press indicated that, due to the overwhelming number of British people applying for citizenship, the already sluggish wheels of the bureau des naturalisations would be slowing to a snail’s pace.  Plus, at the end of my interview to acquire citizenship (yes, it’s a real interview – more about that later), I was effectively told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  So I did my very best to “bien vouloir patienter” (a nice way French people basically tell you to shut up and be patient), put the whole process out of my mind and assumed I would get some forewarning if and when my dossier had been accepted.

But no, I did not hear a peep out of the Prefecture until I got back from Australia around half a year later (in mid-January), when I found out that I’d been French for a month and didn’t even know it.

This was all the more surprising given that I didn’t exactly pass my citizenship interview with flying colours.  I’d done my best to study.  I read the Livret du citoyen (a handy booklet prepared by the Ministère de l’Intérieur, a kind of Dummy’s guide to how to be a good French citizen.)  I highlighted the key dates.  I tried to memorize the notoriously complicated carte administrative (the administrative map of France), and then quickly gave up (much like the time my parents told me I was going to a Catholic high school and I tried to read to the bible the night before.)  I learnt the names of five rivers in France (someone told me this might come up.)  I went into the interview feeling good about my prospects of becoming French.

The interview started well.  My rapporteur (a.k.a the guy looking after my file) kicked things off by going through my dossier.  Luckily, it was generally in good order; my yearly battles with the Prefecture had trained me well.  We looked at my birth certificate, passport, lease, gas bill, criminal record checks, diplomas, tax forms, social security forms, my parents’ birth certificates, my parents’ marriage certificate (and the list went on…)  My rapporteur laughed as he tried to pronounce the names of the towns where my parents were born (Bacchus Marsh and Yarrawonga, #theypartylongerinYarrawonga.)  He had a map of the world on the side of his cubicle and I pointed out various places in Australia.  We talked about how long it takes to fly there and I told him “ça vaut la peine quand même” (“but it’s worth the trip”), as I tell so many French people.  It all felt very pleasant – friendly, even – so far.

We looked at my pay slips and got chatting about my recent change of jobs.  I explained that I had recently moved from an American company to a French one; big change of culture, yada yada.  Without looking up from the papers he asked me if I had many French friends in my entourage.  I started explaining, “Obviously, having worked in an American company for so long, I have a number of expat friends…”. He looked up at me with a look that said, “WRONG ANSWER”, at which point I quickly corrected myself to add, “But I have lots of French friends, too.”  Relieved, he looked back down at the paperwork and I understood that the official part of the interview had begun.

Then the questions came.  “What are the values of the French Republic?”  Liberté, égalité, fraternité.  “What does each of them mean?”  Freedom, equality, yada yada yada. “What year was the French Revolution?”  1789.  So far, so good.  Then came, “Which King was overthrown by the Revolution?”  I panicked. Was it Louis XVI?  Or Louis XIV?  I should know this.  I took a gamble on Louis XIV (which, I know, makes absolutely no sense.)  My rapporteur gave me the same, “WRONG ANSWER” look.  He dropped his gaze, took a note and said, “Ce n’est pas très grave.”  (Which means, “It’s not very serious.  But it kinda is.”)

We carried on.  He asked me to explain what laïcité is.  I rattled off something about separation of Church and State and tried to suppress flashbacks to Arrested Development.

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Church ‘n’ State Fair, home of the Father-Son Triathlon and the “Miss Inner Beauty” Pageant 

Then came the million Euro question: “Why do you want to be French?”  I faltered.  I hadn’t prepared an answer for this.  I blurted out, “Parce que j’adore la France.” (“Because I love France.”)  He gave me a look that said, “Well, duh,” and asked, “Pourquoi adorez-vous la France ?” (“Why do you love France?”)  I drew another blank and started reeling off the first random things that came into my mind, “Son histoire, sa culture, sa cuisine…” (“Its history, its culture, its cuisine…”)  My rapporteur looked intrigued.  This must be the moment they prepare you for in French citizenship-testing school – get ’em to make a grand statement and then drill ’em with follow-up questions until they break.

“Well then, what is your favourite French cuisine?”  My mind went blank – it was like Louis XIV all over again – I know so many French dishes but in the moment I couldn’t think of any.  I wanted to say “beef bourguignon“, but I was too scared I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it properly.  Then I thought of “steak frites“, but that’s probably the least French dish going around.  I had nothing.  “Fromage ?”  I said tentatively.  “Ah bon”, he said, “How many French cheeses do you know?”  Again, my brain checked out.  Why did I say cheese?  I cursed myself.  I don’t even like cheese that much.  I started talking to cover my panic, “Well, you see actually I don’t like blue cheeses or soft cheeses, so that limits things somewhat…”,  I trailed off.  My rapporteur looked unimpressed.

For some reason my mind went to the mountains (it was the middle of July and the sun was shining outside on the Île de la Cité, so there was no logic at play) and I started thinking about Alpine cheeses.  “Well there are some very good Savoyard cheeses like reblochon, beaufort and raclette … we like to ski, you see, and I love having raclette after a day of skiing with cornichons and some white wine…”,  I trailed off again.  For someone who said they want to become French for the fromage I wasn’t doing a very convincing job of this.  But for whatever reason my rapporteur decided that he had exhausted that line of questioning and, miraculously (as I now know), that I had apparently shown sufficient knowledge of French cheeses to become a French citizen.

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Nothing like a steaming hot chunk of melted cheese in the middle of July #sonotFrench

Next my rapporteur pulled out a contract that I had to sign.  He told me that it said, amongst other things, that if and when I acquired French citizenship then, if asked what nationality I am, I would always have to say French.  I looked at him quizzically.  I simply could not fathom telling French people with a straight face, “Je suis française.”  They would hear my accent, take one look at my outfit and know that I don’t come from here.  He seemed to understand.  “You can say you’re Australian, too,” he assured me.  “But when you’re on French soil you must say that you’re French first.”

Relieved, I signed the contract and was told that if my dossier was accepted I would receive a convocation (a scary-sounding invitation) to a ceremony where I would sing the Marseillaise and receive my passport.  I asked when this would be?  He said it was hard to say, maybe 6 to 8 months if everything was in order.  But, he said, et ça c’est très important, there was no need to call him, write to him, or come into the office before then (“Ça ne sert à rien.“)  I would just need to “patienter“, he told me, and wait for the letter to come.  I nodded.  I’d heard this word many times during my time in Paris; on the phone, in the metro, in shops.  Being patient is not one of my fortes and in France it is a verb.  But for whatever reason, I did patienter.  And then, as if by magic, the letter came when I least expected it, proving that perhaps I was ready to become French after all.

…you start using English words like a French person

There is a war brewing in France.  And I’m not only talking about the war between the police and the motley crew of Nuit Debout folk on the Place de la République (although that is still in full swing).  No, I’m talking about the perceived war on the French language.

It started out innocently enough.  An article here or there noting that the French increasingly use English words in their vocabulary.  A little asterisk on the bottom of billboards to provide a French translation of any English words used (to comply with the Loi Toubon).  Take this example from the current Galeries Lafayette advertising campaign in the metro:

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*In case of doubt, Out of office = Hors du bureau

But lately the anti-Anglais sentiment has escalated into an all-out war.  Take, for example, this video that the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (the French media regulator) released in March to mark La journée de la langue française et de la francophonie, which mocks people who use too many English words.  Or these examples from the newsstand this week:

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100 Anglicisms to never use again!  It’s so much better in French…
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French Language: STOP THE MASSACRE!  Dramatic much?

Living and working in Paris, I have to say that I have noticed the infiltration of these anglicismes.  And, somewhat ironically I’ll admit, I do find myself using them more and more.  In discussions with French friends I find myself referring to a hot new restaurant being “surbooké“, or to a particular style being “has been” (with ze French accent, bien sûr).  Around the office it is even worse.  I will ask my boss to “checker” my draft, then I will “forwarder” it to him for his OK, before finally I will “shooter l’email” to the client.  Most of the time I know that there is a French equivalent I could use perfectly easily, but for some reason I don’t.

Luckily, help is at hand.  The Academie Française, founded in 1635, is tasked with the very solemn mission of protecting the French language and being the custodian of its dictionary.  The threat of the English invasion is not new for the immortels,  i.e. the 40 members of the Academie who are, upon their admission, decked out with a green habit and personalized sword (yes, that’s right and it’s pretty damn badass if you ask me).  As globalization has taken hold, so too has the English language.  But fear not – with a wave of the sword, the Academie can transform even the most unsightly English word into a pretty French one or, failing that, suggest an appropriate French substitution.

For this purpose, the Academie have a very handy “do’s and don’ts” section of their website called Dire, Ne Pas Dire (Say, Do Not Say), with a section dedicated specifically to those pesky Néologismes & anglicismes:  

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Here, you learn that instead  of “Conf call” you should say “conférence téléphonique“, instead of “Deadline” you should say “dernier délai” and instead of “off the record” you should say “hors micro“.  However, if the Academie cannot find a suitable substitution, rather than capitulate it simply banishes the word entirely.  Such was the verdict for “borderline” (“Rien de ce qu’évoque le mot Borderline n’est possible à exprimer en termes simples et clairs. On se dispensera donc de l’employer.” / “It is impossible to express the word Borderline in simple and clear terms.  We will thus dispense with it.“).  The same fate awaited “burn-out” and “must have“.

Particularly troublesome are words associated with technology and business (or the corporate world generally), which are notoriously hard to translate.  A rare success story is the transformation of  “email” into “courriel” (i.e., courrier (mail) + eléctronique).  Recent attempts include replacing “smiley” with “frimousse“, “spam” with “arrosage” and “hashtag” with “mot-dièse“.  Sadly I just can’t see these catching on.  Vocabulary moves fast – even more so in this viral age of Twitter and mot-dièses – and once a word garners enough popular usage it is very difficult to convince people to stop using it.

Certain English words, however, do pass by the gatekeepers of the Academie.  However, they tend to do so in the weirdest and most wonderful ways.  For example, the word “footing” has been accepted as a substitute for “running” or “jogging”.  The only problem is, Anglophones don’t actually say “footing“.  Other examples (very few of which have actually been approved by the Academie, mind you) include “shooting” for photo shoot (though I still don’t dare to put #shooting on my Instagram photos), “relooking” for makeover and “brushing” for blow-dry.  Although this takes some getting used to, it is kind of genius as it takes an otherwise banal English word and puts a very French twist on it.

The problem is, French people actually like to pepper their dialogue with English words.  Especially in Paris, in recent years there has been a growing obsession with all things New Yorkais and particularly all things Brooklyn-esque.  This has been happening – at least on the Right Bank (Rive Droite) – since I arrived in Paris nearly six years ago.  But I knew things had reached a whole new level when, late last year, I saw this advertisement in the metro for the grocery section of the super-posh Left Bank department store Le Bon Marché

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Guy with beard AND handlebar moustache AND beanie/bonnet AND sailor tattoos AND band-aids (meaning he is a hospo guy who works in a cool speakeasy serving tacos DUH) eats hot dog.  So Brooklyn.

Ze hipsters and their Anglophone ways have hit the Rive Gauche.  Nothing is sacred.  This can only mean the further proliferation of cafés with English-speaking staff serving avocado toast, flat whites and cold-pressed juices.  The immortels at the Academie need to catch on fast and give us some Frenchified versions of “fixie“, “aeropress” and “food truck“, before it is too late.

…you know how to work the ventes privées

Most non-Parisians know about the soldes (sales) in Paris.  What they don’t know about, at least when they first arrive, is the ventes privées (private sales).

I know that when I first arrived in Paris, I would often see queues of well-dressed women lining up outside random, non-marked doors in the marais and be intrigued.  Being naturally nosycurious, I once sidled up and asked someone what was going on.  Was there a celebrity inside?  “Non, c’est une vente privée.”  “Ah oui”, I feigned comprehension.  And how does one access these private sales?  “Il faut avoir une invitation” (you need an invitation).  Of course.  Just when I thought I was getting the trick of the soldes, the French had to go and add another echelon of exclusivity on top.  As I watched the women emerge from the sale with non-branded white shopping bags, no doubt full of tastefully selected bargains, I knew I had to get in – and I had to get in fast.

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If there’s a queue it must be good

First, a bit about the regular soldes.  These can only take place twice a year, as regulated by law.  Let there be no doubt, the French take their shopping seriously.  The Code de Commerce provides that soldes can only occur during two six-week periods each year, the dates of which are fixed by décret (decree).  In practice, the winter sales (les soldes d’hiver) take place from early January until mid-February and the summer sales (les soldes d’été) take place from mid-June until early August.

There’s a bit to know about the soldes.  First, you need to know that there are several waves of mark-downs (démarques).  When the sales first start you have the première démarque, which is the initial mark-down.  Then, you have the deuxième démarque, when the clothes that were originally only marked down 20% might fall to 30% or even 50% off.  Then, in the final days of the soldes, you have the troisème (or often dernière) démarque, when you get the real bargains and prices can drop as low as 60%-70% off.

Working the démarques is a bit like gambling.  Often, I’ll eye a piece that I like from one of my favourite (but ridiculously over-priced) brands in the nouvelle collection when it comes out.  Then, I’ll bide my time until the soldes.  In the first démarque it might drop by only 20%.  The question then becomes whether you snap it up or hold out for the next démarque (and thus take the risk that it might sell out in your size in the interim).  Sometimes, I’ll just casually ask when the next démarque is happening and whether the piece will be further discounted.

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If you get an honest shop assistant they’ll tell you “Ça commence lundi et ce sera à -50%” (“It starts on Monday and that will be -50%”).  Other times, you’ll get the shop assistant who will pretend not to know, or who will immediately say that it’s the last one in that size so you’d better buy it, etc.  (An insider tip I learnt recently to deal with this dilemma: at some shops such as maje, they write the number of pieces left in that size on the tag of the item in pencil.  Gone are the days of the faux-threat of the “last one left”, only to find that they  magically roll out more in the next démarque!).

For enterprising commerçants, there are a few loopholes in the strictly regulated soldes system.  For example, shop owners are permitted to have exceptional, off-season soldes if they are suspending their operations temporarily, for example for renovations (“Liquidation avant travaux”).  However, they do need to make a declaration to the Mayor’s office of their intention to do so.  Like I said, shopping (or rather, discounting) is serious business in France.

Another loophole of sorts is the pre-soldes that some boutiques hold in-store in the lead-up to the soldes.  If ever you go into a store and see little round coloured stickers on the tags of the clothing, that means there is a secret pre-solde happening.  Like some kind of unspoken code, the different coloured stickers represent different levels of mark-down.  For example, gold may mean -20%, silver -30%, etc.  However, a red sticker – bizarrely, in my mind – almost always means no mark-down.

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Non, red sticker does NOT mean -50%; au contraire it means “Hells not soldé!”

This leads us to the world of vente privées (or VPs).  VPs are traditionally the private sales that brands put on for their regular customers.  Although some of the more prestigious brands still put on their own private sales, many brands now use a service-provider to put on VPs.  Basically, the brands give their surplus stock to the service-provider who organizes VPs in spaces around Paris.  Any stock that does not sell in the 2-3 days that the sale lasts is returned to the brand.  A few years ago it was Adèle Sand or Catherine Max that provided these services.  These have now been re-grouped under the umbrella of Arlettie, which puts on a VP in Paris for a different brand every week of the year (except for August, when even the bargain-hunters go on holidays).

Once signed up to Arlettie’s über-exclusive database, you will then receive emails like this:

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All you have to do is present yourself at the designated time and place (Arlettie has two spaces in Paris, one in the marais near Bastille and the other at Trocadéro) with your invite and your ID.  But then of course there is the mandatory queue out the front, complete with security guards, before finally you gain access.

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Feelin’ like VIPs doing the VPs

Once inside, working these vente privées is a veritable skill in itself.

I learnt everything that I know about VPs from my beloved friend Cléa.  A true Parisienne, Cléa knows exactly how to work the VPs like no other.   I remember going to the Tara Jarmon VP with her (one of my first VPs) a few years ago.  It was in a two-level atelier in the marais.  Cléa and I did a lap of the ground floor and then made our way up to second floor, which was effectively just an amphitheater-style balcony that looked down on the ground floor.  Cléa looked over the balcony at the shoppers below.  “What are you doing?”  I asked.  “I’m watching”, she said, “to see what people are buying.”  Once she saw which pieces were moving, she swooped.

Cléa has the golden touch of VPs.  We can walk around for 20 minutes and I will see nothing.  I will give up.  Suddenly, out of nowhere Cléa will pluck the amazing piece that nobody has seen yet from a pile of sad-looking items (at the Sequoia sale a few years ago it was an amazing blue leather tote).  Within minutes, other shoppers will ask in what part of the room she found it, whether there were others, etc.  As Cléa taught me, that’s when you know you’re onto a winner and you don’t let it go.

A contrario, if you see another shopper with a piece you want in her hand, you NEVER ask her where she found it or if there are any left.  This will only convince her that it’s a winner.  Instead, you should follow her at a distance and pray that she puts it down.  When she does, you strike.

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VP jungle in full swing 

Despite learning these tricks from the very best, I have so far only ended up with a series of duds from my dabblings in the private sales.  Lowlights include a yellow polka dot skirt that I have never worn and a maje dress with unfortunately placed frills on the sleeves.  The cruelty of the maje VP is that you are not allowed to try the clothes on (and of course there is a no returns policy across VPs generally).  Thus, I didn’t realize the frills would make me look like an extra from the Pirates of Penzance until I got home and tried it on.

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#piratefauxpas

Luckily at most VPs you can try the clothes on, but on the flip side there are no change rooms.  So you see women huddled in any free space they can find in all stages of undress (while other, more modest types try tops on over dresses, pants under skirts, etc.) and then jostling for the limited mirror space that is available.  Pas très élégant, but it gets the job done.

Needless to say, just as I had finally figured out the tricks of the ventes privées I learnt about another, even more exclusive echelon of sales – the ventes presse (press sales).  These are supposedly reserved for journalists and other fashion types and allow even earlier access to the sale items.  This is my next challenge – I just need to convince someone to give me a press badge!

…you try to act cool when you see a celebrity

There are lots of celebrities in Paris.  They like it here, or so people say, because people “act cool” and give them their space.  Presumably, Parisians are so busy themselves trying to act cool and nonchalant that they wouldn’t dare whip out their smart phones, stop and stare or just freak out generally when they see a celebrity in the vicinity.

Everyone has a story about the time they saw a celebrity in Paris.  Several friends have seen Natalie Portman working out at the “chic and exclusive” l’Usine gym (she has been living here on-and-off while her husband Benjamin Millepied has been heading the Paris Ballet, although not for much longer).   The Wilson brothers are also frequently sighted here (more of that below), as well as the usual fashion pack suspects during pfw (Anna Wintour, various Kardashian/Jenners, etc.).

The prize for the best celebrity-spotting story among my friends goes to Patrick and Katya, founders of Paris’s most popular picnic delivery service Paris Picnic, who were playing mölkky  with friends a few summers ago in the Jardin de Luxembourg when a guy strolled over and asked if he could play with them. They said yes, of course, and it turned out it was none other than White Men Can’t Jump star Woody Harrelson.  They played a few rounds with him and had some beers, no big deal.  They proved themselves to be true Parisians.

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Photo credit: Paris Picnic

Unfortunately the “act cool when you see a celebrity” rule is one that I personally have a lot of trouble respecting.  I get very easily star struck. It first happened when I saw Toadfish Rebecchi from Neighbours at the Races back in 1999 and it has gone downhill from there.

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Who wouldn’t swoon for this guy?  (Photo credit: Channel 10) 

My first celebrity sighting in Paris happened a few years ago. I was out to dinner at the Mini Palais (a restaurant inside the Grand Palais, which has a particularly lovely terrasse in the summertime) when Will Smith walked in.  Lucky for Will, he was a far distance away from me (and I was dining with two non-star struck Parisians), so I couldn’t cause much damage.  But I was surprised how the people in the restaurant just went about their dîner as usual.  Didn’t they want to take a picture?  Didn’t they want to yell out “Yo, home to Bel-Air”?

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You got away this time, Will  (Photo credit: NBC) 

Then there was the time I saw Owen Wilson at Bob’s Kitchen in rue des Gravilliers.  He was just chilling out by himself – mere meters from me – having a bowl of vegetarian goodness.  Everyone was acting so cool, nobody was freaking out but I was inwardly losing it and could not stop staring at that crooked yet-oh-so handsome nose of his. Again, I managed to keep it together and resisted my urge to take a photo.  There was hope for me yet!

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So crooked, yet so hot right now (Photo credit: Paramount)

Another time my boyfriend and I were going for a romantic dinner at the wonderfully awesome Septime.  When we arrived, we were guided to a table in a row of tables that were very close together.  We saw another, better table for two closer to the window and asked if we could have that.  We got the table and only moments later Romain Duris  (of L’Augbere Espagnole fame) walked in and took the table we had turned down.  Lucky for me, he was seated within my field of vision so I could stare intently at him throughout the meal (#sorrynotsorry, boyfriend).  I swear we made eye contact on several occasions.  Or maybe it was just that he looked in my general direction and could not avoid my hawk-like gaze.  Either way, we connected.

And recently I had my first celebrity double-whammy when I saw Gwyneth Paltrow walking down rue des Capucines in the 1st arrondisement and then, not ten minutes later, Luke Wilson getting a velib out the front of the Mandarin Oriental on rue Saint Honoré.  Coincidence?  I think not 

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Hey Baumer! All right!  (Photo credit: Touchstone)

I have also had the pleasure of seeing some Australian “celebrities” around Paris who are genuinely enjoying their anonymity because nobody actually has any clue who they are.  (**WARNING: The next few paragraphs require at least basic notions of the world of B-grade Australian celebrities**).

First there was the time I saw Gold Logie award-winning  Karl “Laugh a Minute” Stefanovic in the street in the 11th.  I immediately unleashed my celebrity stalker side and went right up and said “Hi Karl!” and started talking to/at him like I knew him (because of course I feel like I do).  Poor Karl began awkwardly laughing and backing away from me.  But hey, I still got him laughing.

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Another time I was lunching at Chez Janou (a fun “provinçial“-style bistro near the Place des Vosges known for its bottomless bowls of chocolate mousse) with my family who were visiting from Australia.  I saw a woman sitting inside who reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t think of who (was it someone from the Aussie kids’ show Play School?  The 7.30 report?  Someone from my primary school’s mum?).  Both my mum and my sister couldn’t figure it out, either.  It was only when my brother-in-law went to take a peep that we realized it was the former Premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh.

I also enjoy stalking supporting Australian musicians who come to Paris.  Often they do not have as big of a fan base here as they do in Australia (with some exceptions such as Tina Arena, who randomly has a bigger following here than in Oz) so they play smaller, more intimate venues.  Perfect for stalking supporting.  I have been known to stake out Boy & Bear at the end of many a gig.  Last time I even got them to sign a record for me with only minimal levels of awkward laughter and backing away.

But my most notorious – and ongoing – celebrity sighting relationship goes to Pharrell Williams.  I first saw him in the street in the haut marais on a dusky Sunday evening a few years ago.  He was walking towards me with one or two other people – no crowd, no entourage  – and by the time I realized it was him he had already passed me.  It turns out he was in town for his expo G I R L at the Galerie Perrotin.  As soon as he was gone I  immediately cursed myself for not taking a picture, saying hello, singing “Happy”, generally going cray, etc.

So, I was only too happy (genuinely no pun intended) to see him recently at colette.  I was lunching with a girlfriend when a buzz went through the room.  Even the über-cool pfw crowd seemed to be excited about whoever had just walked in.  Believe it or not a few smart phones even came out, including my girlfriend’s who snapped this pic of the two of us:

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My intimate lunch date with Pharrell

When it came time to leave, I knew it was my chance.   All of the rules about acting cool went out the window and I tried to take a photo as we were leaving via the elevator (right next to his table).  Alas, I was promptly shut-down by the waiter who told me “pas de photo“.  But I did make eye contact with Pharrell and mouthed “Sorry” to him (as did my girlfriend).  In response he gave a smile and bowed with his hands together like the Japanese folded hands emoji.   It was obviously love.  And it showed me that, at least on this front, I’ve got a long way to go before turning Parisian.

*Shout out for this blog idea to my posse of celebrity-loving not-so Parisian friends, who get as excited as I do about celebrity sightings (Camille, Sara, Kees, Beth, Leah and Sophie)  xx