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By special guest writer Philippa Campsie, Toronto, Canada

Parisian woman on bicycle, by Barbara Redmond

Parisian woman on bicycle, by Barbara Redmond

The volcano in Iceland with the unpronounceable, unspellable name grounded planes throughout much of Europe for the last few days. We are here in Paris under blue but faintly hazy skies with a great many stranded tourists and some Parisians who have been deprived of a holiday in Morocco or Greece, as the two-week French spring vacation started this past weekend.

And here we have one of the big differences between France and North America − holidays. In France, and much of Europe, people expect to have a couple of weeks every few months to rest and regroup. By comparison, we North Americans are pathetically grateful for the occasional long weekend.

Despite the volcano and the long line-ups in front of the Air France office, life goes on. The Parisians have a fairly philosophical attitude towards disruptions. Strikes are a regular feature of life, as are the problems that close the Metro from time to time. One hears of mysterious “perturbations sur la ligne” (disruptions on the line), which could mean anything. The Parisians just shrug and head for the nearest Velib’ (bike rental) stand.

The Parisienne and her bicycle

Parisians have really taken to bicycling, and we’ve seen elegantly dressed women in high heels and short skirts, Chanel or Prada bags stuffed into the bike carrier, pedalling through streets clogged with rush-hour traffic. We are sure the success of the system rests on the design of a bicycle that does not require one to wear unfashionable clothes while riding.

French elements of fashion and style

During a long conversation with our friend Elisabeth over a bottle of rosé on the apartment terrace we talked about this and other French elements of style − on behalf of all readers of A Woman’s Paris.

We talked, for instance, about buying clothes. Mindful of those who are feeling the pinch these days because of the recent economic downturn, we asked how a Frenchwoman might save money on clothes. Elisabeth said that rather than wearing last year’s fashions or buying something cheap, a Parisian who needed, say, shoes, might buy a single, expensive, trendy pair and wear them all season until they fell apart, then throw them away.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it reflects the fact that space is at a premium, and Parisians can’t waste precious real estate on excess clothes storage. Apartments are small and closets are smaller, and you can’t hang on to things you are not using regularly. It also means that here, wearing the same items of clothing several days running, or even day in and day out, is not frowned upon, provided that the items are in the latest style.

Elisabeth also talked about how the French try to avoid displaying their money. Well-to-do women drive unostentatious cars, and the exteriors of their houses often look a little shabby. One never talks about money, or about how much something costs, or even about how one bought something at a great bargain. Simply not done.

We saw this for ourselves as we walked by a polo club in the Bois de Boulogne yesterday. Rows of gray Renaults and navy blue Peugeots − not a flashy sportscar in sight. On the other hand, no one arrived by Velib’ either.

Un nuage volcanique cloue les avions au sol en Europe,” was one of the headlines in Le Monde. Literally translated, a volanic cloud has nailed airplanes to the ground in Europe. The newspaper went on to talk about “le panache de cendres et de poussières” (the plume of ashes and dust) which could “provoquer des dégats sur les aéronefs” (cause damage to aircraft). But it is printemps, and the ciel is bleu and Parisiennes have some compensation for the perturbations.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Ciel: Sky.
Bleu: Bleu.
Le Monde: (French, The World) French daily evening newspaper, considered the French newspaper of record.
Parisian: Native or resident of Paris.
Parisienne: Female native or resident of Paris.
Printemps: The season spring.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond
All rights reserved.
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