Uncool in Paris

I was in Paris for just six weeks, the hottest six weeks of the year, World Cup season, away from my husband and living away from London for the first time since I left the US as an exchange student eight years ago. After the Portugal-Ghana match, I walked over to dinner at Candeleria, a trendy Mexican bar/restaurant in the 3rd one of my coworkers wanted my authentic American opinion on. I got a seat at the bar and regretted it almost immediately. A rail-thin American woman was standing next to me in a tied-up crop top that was basically a long-sleeved bra, pouring drinks all over herself (and me) and wailing insincerely, “I’m soooooooo sorrrrrrrrrrrry!” In an attempt to set a good counterexample of My People I sat up straight and pointedly read Eric Hobsbawm, although this was on my Kindle so I think the snobby leftist intellectualism failed to come across. The bartender was an exasperated geek girl aged about 20 in a white-and-black-striped cotton shirt and dark blue skinny jeans, who looked like Velma from Scooby Doo and had not yet learned the Parisian customer service art of blithely not giving a shit.

I ordered a plate of guacamole and a chorizo taco (both excellent) and a SoCal-Mexican-style frozen margarita. The bar had two frozen margarita mixers, one pale green (lime) and one red (hibiscus). The man accompanying the drunk American woman pointed to the red one. “We’ll have two of those, I guess? Liz?” He was also American and had a beard and looked like an annoying Ryan Reynolds. Young Velma poured them and handed them over with a hopeful openness that made me want to take her home and explain about everything terrible in the world.

Two minutes later the woman had a sip and set the drink back on the bar, and waved over Young Velma. “I’m soooooooo sorrrrrrrrrry,” she said. “But I don’t know how it happened, but we ordered regular margaritas?”

“…”, said Young Velma.

“I just,” she said to the man, “I can’t.” She gestured. “Drink this, I can’t. Drink it.” To Velma. “I ordered a normal margarita.”

“…”, said Young Velma. After a fifteen-second eye contact standoff that I don’t think Liz understood was happening, Velma poured a regular frozen margarita and handed it across to her.

I moved the hibiscus margarita away from the edge of the bar, as I was wearing a white sundress and Liz had been tipping drinks all over the place. She knocked back the one in her hand in about five minutes and started holding onto her man friend like he was the hand rail in a metro carriage. He looked torn between feeling like he should be delighted at having a Hot Drunk Woman in his arms and genuine concern for her wellbeing. Liz looked around. “Where’s my drink?”

“You drank it, hon,” he said.

“No. There it is!” she said, and grabbed the red margarita. A third of it went onto my skirt. “Oh my god, I’m sooooooooooooooo sorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrry!” she said.

Young Velma wordlessly ran a clean dish towel under the tap for ten seconds, and handed it to me to dab at my dress.

I got stain out and decided that was about as much Cool Bar as I had the energy for, so I finished my own drink, paid up and tipped Young Velma 50%, and slid past Liz’s man, who had moved through confusion into full anxiety (“Hon, don’t you think you should have some food?” “People are always saaaaaying that! You sound like my rooooooommate!”).

As I walked towards Republique metro station, from a first-floor window I heard glasses clinking, people laughing and someone playing a guitar and singing in a French accent one of my favourite ever songs: “Well, our luck may have died and our love may be cold, but with you forever I’ll stay/We’re going out where the sand’s turning to gold…”

I stopped to listen. I felt a very simple happiness. I started to sing along quietly.

An incredibly handsome man sitting at the window noticed me. He leaned out and said, “Bon soir!”

“Bon soir!” I said. I was embarrassed and lightly drunk.

“You like it?”

“I like Bruce.”

He laughed. “Come up! I mean it. The door code is B1467.” I had to make him repeat this three times. I crossed the street and buzzed inside. Upstairs he had opened the door to the flat, and greeted me with two cheek kisses and a hand grazing my lower back.

Everyone in the room was very good-looking and (this is crucial) cool. The women were thin, with long, unbrushed hair and bright red lipstick; they all looked like Kate Moss body doubles. The men were also all thin in a wiry-muscly way, and were wearing white or blue button-up shirts and pressed jeans, and everyone – everyone – had a glass of wine in their right hand and a cigarette between the first two fingers of the same hand. I was immediately and unquestionably perceived and treated as The Fat One. (I am a UK size 14.)

A Belgian woman named Mathilde introduced herself (everyone also spoke English). “So what are you doing in Paris?”

“Er, je suis journaliste.”

“Oh, de la mode?”

“Uh, no, de, um, terrorisme.”

Wide eyes. “Wow! …Do you read much about fashion?”

I determined that Everyone usually met at this place before going on to Wherever. “How do you know Michel?” she asked. Michel was presumably the ridiculously handsome man whose flat it was. “Oh, I don’t actually, I was, um, just passing by after dinner–” “Oh, you’ve had dinner? Already?” It was 9pm.

Michel slid by and pulled me up by the hand. “You can drink whatever you want!” he said, guiding me to the kitchen bar. There was a bottle of room-temperature rosé and a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels; I poured myself a full glass of the rosé.

I went back to the sitting room, where after the contractually obligated singalong of “Wonderwall”, Michel announced, “OK, bar! We are leaving here in two minutes!” I thought, what the hell, it’s only nine-fifteen, I’ll go on to the second location (which by then was technically my fourth location). It was after dark but still so pleasant that no one needed a jacket. As we walked over to a bar I chatted with a tall woman from Thailand. “You live in London? You’re so lucky!” She was extremely pretty and turned out to be a model.

At the bar drunken conversation followed and I hated all of it. Every time I made a joke people looked blank and smiled politely, and I don’t know whether it was because I couldn’t speak French and they were all getting back at me by pretending to not get jokes in English, or I’m just not very funny, but each time I felt more insecure and retreated, so my contributions got more and more obscure and incoherent until I was just chugging red wine and paraphrasing All’s Well to make myself laugh.

I finally decided to cut my losses and go home, and au revoired everyone, who half-heartedly waved me off and kept talking to each other.

Michel stopped me on the corner with a hand on my wrist, and slid his arm around my waist.

“But, you’re not coming home with me?” he said. He seemed genuinely confused. “I thought we were going to sleep together.”

Reader, he was banging hot, and I had a sudden flash of what it would be like to kiss him, and it was very excellent indeed. I was sincerely tempted to go back to his flat and make out frantically for twenty minutes before jumping up and running home in a fit of self-loathing (this was my MO in university). But I discovered I really didn’t want to, because I love my husband so much.

It was one of the most illuminating moments of my marriage. I’ve never had such an enticing temptation so obviously laid in front of me, or had such a clean response to it. I could see that it would be a delightful experience, but also I just didn’t want to do it.

When I got together with Ewan I was much younger than I thought I would be when I met my husband – I was 23 – but I have never felt anything that was automatically so right and made me feel so happy, except maybe moving to London when I was 20. I can’t believe that I’m 27 and I’ve been married for three years. 22-year-old me would be so skeptical. But getting married to Ewan was both the easiest major decision I’ve ever made and the one that has made me the most happy every day since making it (you’ll be excused to go vomit in a plastic bag).

Anyway, I couldn’t remember whether I’d mentioned my uxorial status, but I thought my ring was a clear signifier, so I said, “Um, I’m married…?”

Michel shrugged. “Not in Paris.”

I didn’t have the skill or sobriety to argue against such urbane sophistication, so I stepped back and said, “Okay, bye,” and shook hands with him and walked off through the Marais back to my flat. I got in about 1am and I’m pretty sure I was still drunk in the morning when I got up and went to work.

I think a cool person would have been comfortable at the crowded noisy bar and resigned to Liz dumping drinks all over the place, at home in the strange house party, and possibly even okay with having a one-night affair with the hot (he was so hot) Frenchman who was so clearly into me. But guys, I am really not cool. Even including the first and last extremely flattering exchanges with said Frenchman, I was uncomfortable and awkward in every conversation I had. Not that the people weren’t nice – they were, or seemed to be, generally good-natured, friendly and welcoming, and even Michel took rejection very easily, with a Gallic shrug and a handshake – but because I just didn’t have anything to talk about with them.

Really what I think this means is that I need to get a paper copy of Hobsbawm, so that when I am stroppily reading mid-century revolutionary theory in a trendy bar, I can do it at people.

7 thoughts on “Uncool in Paris

  1. C. says:

    I grinned a bit. I didn't expect to marry at 23 (our five year anniversary is on Tuesday, cripes…) but it was the easiest and best decision for me as well. "Not in Paris." How borderline stereotypical.

    For what it's worth, you're very cool. The crowd was clearly just incapable of the proper appreciation, their loss.

    • Kerry says:

      Yes, I have some friends who met their first week of university(!) and had a similar "oh, what, I thought this would happen ten years from now, what even is this!" experience. Congratulations on your anniversary! :D

      Anyway I'm perfectly happy with not being cool, it means I can focus on trying to being great instead, which is much better.

  2. Sebastian says:

    You know, I think the time I realised that I wasn't cool was also at a random party in a foreign capital, although these were arty political hipsters in Berlin, rather than fashionistas in Paris.

    The thing about being cool though is that it's completely incompatible with excessive headlong enthusiasm, and that is a)one of the things I love most about you, and b)way more fun.

    Also, awww :)

    • Kerry says:

      Political hipsters sound awful! I mean I often laugh at lefty politics too but it's (mostly) out of affection. I also like that point about coolness vs enthusiasm. The people at that party weren't particuarly aloof or above-it-all, it just didn't feel like any of them were enthusiastic about anything, or at least anything they were talking about.

  3. Jenny says:

    You may not be cool (frankly, I do not know, as I am sufficiently not cool I don't think I could reliably identify cool if it came up and threw a copy of Vogue at me. Is Vogue cool? I DON'T KNOW) but you are super awesome! Also, A+++ for Hobsbawm.

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