French men make khaki look cool

I probably think slightly more about fashion than the average middle-aged American male.

That said, I feel like a slob in Paris.

When I met Sujata in 2000, I looked like a holdover from the late 80s with my pegged jeans, baggy shirts and weird, faux-mullet haircut.

There are a number of critical junctures that can make or break any romantic relationship. There’s the first kiss, the meeting of the parents, the first argument and, at least for us, the first time Sujata critiqued my sartorial choices.

It doesn’t matter how well or how poorly you dress, the shirts and pants and sweaters and ties and blazers and whatever else that you choose to cloak yourself in everyday say something about who you are or who you think you are and pretty much no one wants to be told, in blunt or even gentle terms, that the clothes they are wearing look stupid, or out of date or, worse, ugly. In other words, even if you profess to not care what people think of your sartorial choices, you actually do, and you will be (even slightly) offended should someone/anyone raise an objection to anything that you might choose to wear.

That’s partly why fashion as a topic of discussion (or critique) rarely comes up in normal adult conversation and that would especially be the case with dudes. Imagine strolling down the sidewalk with your best friend and offering, “You know, you look like you are on your way to Applebee’s, man, why don’t you change that shirt before we head to the pub?” Because unless you sleep next to the person who is leveling critiques at your sartorial choices, you should really just not go there, unless you are trying to derail the relationship/friendship in the first place.

That said, one of the critical junctures in our relationship was the first time Sujata verbally turned her nose up at my fashion sense. I think her first shot across my couture bow was directed at my jeans, which she declared to be too tight and high-waisted. This was in the early to mid 2000s as low rise jeans were coming into fashion. I, stuck in the mid-80s, still thought that the jeans Springsteen wore on the Born in the USA tour were in fashion and I wasn’t aware of the low-rise craze. Next, came derision cast at the houndstooth blazer that I’d been wearing for upwards of 10 years and then from there, there was a protracted assault on my denim shirts.

I grudgingly took her advice and, over the years, acquired at least a modicum of fashion sense. It’s not like I have a fashion coach, subscribe to GQ, or read the Style section of The Times, but I will go out of my way to find a stylish shirt, a nice pair of dark wash denim jeans, a pair of smart shoes and a few nicely-fitted blazers.

At my age and given my subject position (white, male, middle aged) the object is, at minimum, to not look like a denizen of the American suburbs, which, as it turns out, isn’t that hard to do. You just have to stay away from baseball caps, cargo pants (or shorts!) or t-shirts emblazoned with “Just Do It,” “No Pain No Gain,” or “Go Hard or Go Home.”

And I have to say that as you get older, it’s a lot easier to look older simply based on your fashion choices. A baggy pair of jeans or khakis, a schlumpy collared shirt (or worse, a polo shirt!) and suddenly 50 looks like 60. And I’m not ashamed of admitting that I’m slightly vain enough to care.

We’ve been living in Europe for nearly nine months now and, over time, I’ve figured out European fashion. I bought some beautiful wool sport coats and fashionable European-cut slacks in Italy and a pair of Campers in Spain. In Saigon, I found a tailor who made me three beautiful shirts and, of course, I have the classic sweater that Sujata made me in Ireland.  I’ve purchased a scarf in just about every country we’ve visited. So, I felt pretty fashion forward throughout most of our European journey. Well, at least I didn’t feel particularly fashion backward.

European men favor slim-fitted slacks with an inseam just above the ankle, a style choice which allows them to show off their shoes as well as their socks. Most men over 30 wear a European-cut blazer (fitted, shorter in the sleeves than most American blazers and shorter at the waist as well) with an open-collared shirt. You rarely see ties. Soft leather or suede chukkas or (better) pointed, high-top, wing-tip leather boots (very cool!) are popular as well.

If you had to characterize European men’s style you’d say it’s quite minimal and close-fitting. The lines in the shirts, blazers and pants are straight and smooth and there is no taste for baggy or oversized fits. Colors are, by and large, muted, earth toned. There’s no room for loud plaids or paisleys and forget about wearing plaid on plaid or plaid with stripes.

French men, though, are at the top of the pile of European fashion. In Dublin, for instance, dudes walk around with skin-tight spandex jeans–they look like they just got off the boat from Queens. Romanians dress like guys on the Atlantic City boardwalk, Spaniards dress like San Franciscans and the English dress like they just woke up and couldn’t remember if they were going to the rugby match or the office. The only European men who can compete in a fashion sense with the French are the Italians, whose taste for fine wool blazers and trousers is impeccable.

French men, though, can make khaki look cool.

The other day, as we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, a very fashionable young man walked by us. Dressed in his spring fashion blazer, open-collared cotton print shirt, perfectly creased trousers and pointed wing tip boots, he appeared to have leapt from a catwalk. “Look, children, a flaneur,” I whispered, to which Atticus quipped, “He seems like the kind of guy who should have a television crew following him.” Well played, young man!

All this is probably making you wonder, “How can I look dress more Parisian?” Or, “How can I get my partner to dress more Parisian?”

Well, if that’s the case, then read on. As I’ve been admiring French architecture, the Seine and French Impressionist paintings, I’ve also had my eye on French fashion so here are a few tips on how to look as cool and fashionable as any Parisian man nonchalantly waking through La Marais:

  1. Get a scarf. I started wearing scarves when we were in Cambodia last summer. The Cambodians (perhaps because they were colonized by the French) love their scarves and Cambodian scarves are made of a light cotton that you can wear throughout the summer. I bought about 10 of them when we were in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and hardly a day has gone by since then when I didn’t have one wrapped around my neck, even in warm weather. In Paris, though, a scarf is simply required.
  2. Get a pair of high-top, wing-tip leather shoes. If you are in the States you may need to special order these because I don’t think they sell them at Cole Haan, but, it’d be worth the extra postage and, anyway, get a pair of French boots so you are at least supporting the French (who voted the right way in the last election) and get them before #45 levies import taxes on European goods because after that happens, everyone will want them.
  3. Keep at least two buttons of your collared shirts open. I know, this is hard for American men, but, you know what, you just have to do it and then, eventually, you’ll get used to it and you’ll feel free. In the week that I’ve been in Paris, I’ve not seen one Parisian man wearing a collared shirt that wasn’t opened at least from the last two buttons. Since we’ve arrived, it’s been getting progressively warmer and I’ve noticed that at the temperature rises, fewer buttons get clasped. You just have to try it and then it starts to feel normal. Today, for instance, I left the flat with three of my top buttons undone while kept looking around to see if anyone was staring at me on the walk to the Metro, by the time we got to the Musee D’Orsay, I completely forgot about it and just melded in with all the other Parisian men.
  4. Wear v-neck tshirts. You will never, ever see a Parisian man walking around with a crew neck tshirt. C’est horrible! V-necks are way cooler and fashionable and if you are really freaked out about keeping the first two buttons of your collared shirt open, the v-neck will make you feel safer and more secure.

If you are feeling fashion adrift, I hope this little bit of Parisian advice will get you through the spring and summer fashion season.

 

 

 

 

Paris and the Unexpected

After five months in Ireland, it was time to move on. The semester at Maynooth University came to an end, the Regis students all dispersed across Europe and back to the States, the children finished their school work and our Irish visas were about to expire.

Paris seemed like as good as any of a place to end the first part of two-year hiatus from 45’s reign, so we boarded a flight early this morning and landed in the city of lights before noon.

It’s a miracle we got here at all.

A few days before our departure, I walked into our living room in Maynooth only to find Sujata staring at the computer with a look of complete horror on her face. “Um . . . I think I made a big mistake,” she declared and then informed me that the Aer Lingus flight from Dublin to Paris that she thought she purchased never really got submitted and we didn’t have a flight. After a frantic search, she found us reasonably-priced seats on Air Transavia (it’s not that bad!) and the crisis averted.

I wasn’t actually that excited about visiting Paris. I really like beaches and although we have been traveling for a year, we have spent probably about two days at the beach so I really wanted to finish up this European part of our adventure in Cadiz or some quiet Grecian island. Plus, it’s been so cold in Ireland–I felt like I needed to bake a bit in the sun to get all the cold and dampness out of me.

Those dreams were roundly outweighed by a nine-year old’s dream to climb the Eiffel Tower and Sujata’s dream to spend her fortieth wandering through Parisian arrondissements, munching on croissants and sipping wine. Besides, they blithely informed me, we’re on our way to spending a year on the beach in New Zealand and you don’t even have to work! So I set aside my ocean dreams for at least two months.

But, I have to say, after Emmanuel Macron’s white-knuckle handshake of 45, I was ready to come here and support the man, and the country, that is willing to fight to make the planet great again.

Plus, it didn’t take long for me to fall for Paris. We usually take public transportation from the airport to our hotel or Airbnb, but we left Dublin with more luggage than we would have liked so we took a cab to our flat in La Marais. I was glad for the ride, though, not just because I didn’t have to lug a 15kg duffle bag as well as my backpack (although that was nice), but because I got to see the city as we sped along the surface streets.

In some ways, Paris’ cathedrals, haute couture shops and outdoor cafes reminded me of Vienna and Rome, and I even saw a little of Barcelona in the way the sunlight glinted off the white stoned buildings along the Seine and among Paris’ many lovely plazas.

We left our flat with a clear set of objectives: 1) find a creperie, 2) stop by the Notre Dame cathedral, 3) walk over to Shakespeare and Company and 4) find a nice outdoor cafe to relax and watch passersby.

Objectives 1 and 2 went swimmingly.

We wended our way from La Marais, across the Seine and over to Isle Saint Louis where we stumbled upon a quant creperie.

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Ice cream apres crepes
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On the Saint Louis Bridge

Afterwards, we found our way to Notre Dame and admired the flying buttresses, the ancient stained glass and the absolute grandeur of the place.

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It really is a marvel

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Everyone was excited for Shakespeare and Company, but for different reasons. For her part, Sujata wanted to get a book by an American expat to Paris (she was thinking James Baldwin or Richard Wright), get a classy Shakespeare and Company stamp on the inside cover and then retire to a cafe (preferably by the Seine), order a glass of wine and begin reading. The children just wanted another book to read and I just wanted to walk around the bookstore that published Ulysses and served as a lending library to the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and other members of the Lost Generation who made their way to Paris following the first World War.

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Water fountain outside Shakespeare and Co.

It was at Shakespeare and Company, though, that things went a bit awry and we found ourselves caught up in that very thing you think will never happen to you, namely, a terror attack.

I was standing in the middle of the store reading Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers (they have like five copies–try finding any Cohen book in any US bookstore), Sujata was at the register with an armful of books (she chose Wright’s Native Son) and the kids were somewhere in the store, I wasn’t exactly sure where.

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The Shakespeare and Co stamp inside Sujata’s copy of Native Son

I was really enjoying the first few pages of Beautiful Losers and even contemplating getting my own copy when Sujata sidled up to me and asked, “Did you hear that?” No. I didn’t hear anything. “Gunshots.” Oh. I carefully put the book back on the shelf and looked around the front of store where an employee was calmly shutting the front door. He turned around and in a voice as calm as the Seine, he announced that there was a shooting at Notre Dame and could everyone please stay in the store?

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The scene after the doors were closed

No one said a word.

There was some scuffling of feet and of course everyone whipped out their cell phones. We didn’t get SIM cards at the airport so we had no data and of course there was no wifi in the store so we just kind of moved to the back of the store, looking for the kids. We found them in the back, quietly reading in the kid’s section, so we sat down with them and waited it out.  I, bizarrely, picked up a copy of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution (don’t ask!) so to take my mind off whatever the hell was happening outside, cracked the spine and tried to read.

You could hear sirens in the distance, but the people in the store, just stood in groups, chatting quietly and flipping through books.

Some people in the store started quietly narrating events: a man with a hammer attacked a police officer in the plaza in front of the cathedral. Later, we learned that the assailant was “neutralized” (dead? handcuffed?”) but the area was sealed off and folks were under no circumstances to go near the cathedral.

I’m not really sure what I was thinking. I wasn’t scared and I certainly wasn’t thinking that the store would be stormed or anything like that. I figured that we’d be okay, but I do remember worrying for the people who were at Notre Dame (we were just there!) and hoping no one was hurt.

Then I just got disgusted.

Here we were, holed up in a store, listening to sirens pass by, following the news on phones and wondering what exactly was going on. Plus, we have been wandering around the world for the past year. I have seen exponentially more acts of kindness and grace then I’ve seen or been a party to acts of stupid bullshit like attacking someone with a hammer and I just became internally furious to think that in my country a semi-elected cretin (not Cretan!) is holding us (and the rest of the world) hostage and now here, in Paris, we’re held hostage by idiocy on a whole other level.

After a time (it felt like around 30 minutes), the back door swung open and an employee told us that we were free to leave the store, if we wished.

Minutes before we were allowed to go, the skies opened up, delivering a tremendous Parisian thunderstorm. It rained earlier in the day, in fact, on our walk from Notre Dame to Shakespeare and Company and as we stood under oak trees, watching the rain bounce off the sidewalks, I remarked to Sujata that these are the things they used to write songs about. Despite the rain, we walked out of Shakespeare and Company, away from the cathedral and on a roundabout way back to our flat. I opened our umbrella and Sujata noted that that probably wasn’t the best time to leave the store (on account of the rain), but I just wanted to get out of there at that point.

The mood on the streets was cautious. Mothers were still out there pushing prams, but they were walking with a purpose, heads down, home on their minds. Couples sat at the outdoor cafes, sipping wine and smoking cigarettes, but the sips seemed like gulps and the inhales seemed like long drags. We walked quickly and quietly, looking back over our shoulders periodically.

Later that evening, as we ate dinner in our flat, the children said they were nervous, but definitely not scared.

Our friends from Denver came to visit us in Ireland last week. After they left us, they flew to London so they were in the environs when the terror attack happened on the London Bridge.

I guess this is the new normal. As we were walking back to our flat from Shakespeare and Company, I watched the kids as they walked ahead of me, arm and arm with Sujata. What will this world look like when they are my age, I wondered? Will they even be able to bring their children to Europe and retrace our steps?

I hope so. It’s just so damn beautiful here.

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Walking home, across the Seine, on streets wet with rain