Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Church of the Holy Brand

The Dome of the Galleries Lafayette Shopping Center
It's about 20 degrees C ( that's room temperature) in Paris and sunny. You wouldn't know it's so warm because everyone is wearing coats and scarves and boots. That's what one wears in October in Paris. I have a meeting in the morning and then the rest of the day is mine. I have decided that shopping is in order.

I walked and walked and walked today. That's also what one does in Paris. It is somehow very reassuring to come to a foreign city and know your way around. Alex and I were here just a couple of years ago. We went everywhere on foot and by Metro. We stayed at a small boutique hotel and because we liked it we chose to stay in the same hotel again this time.



I arrived late by train from Darmstadt, Germany last night. I had been at a very successful Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) Leadership Summit there. I decided to take the train to Paris where I had a business meeting and was meeting up with Alex and his mother to view an art show this weekend.  It was a really lovely and civilized train ride. No security screening, no customs, no immigration. I sat alone most of the way in one of those private sections with six seats and was able to stretch out.  I read my books while sipping a very nice red wine. But the train was delayed, and so I elected to take a taxi rather than struggle with luggage on the underground at this late hour of arrival after refreshments on the train.

Lovebirds on the hood ornament. 
My taxi driver had no idea where my hotel was even though it was a short distance from the Gare de l'Est train station where he picked me up. He called the home station for directions, then proceeded to drive at breakneck speed and curse vehemently at top voice every time he came to a street that went the wrong way. Of course with the arrondissements structure of Paris streets, no two streets are aligned in this city. They go every which way. I was chuckling the whole way, when suddenly I recognized the street the hotel was on.  "A droit, l'hotel est la, la bas la bas," I yelled over his cursings.  He was so elated he turned right and came to a screeching stop right in front of the hotel with no warning. Cars started honking after tires squealed to a halt behind us. A police car came alongside and started yelling at him while he yelled back. I calmly took my bags out of the trunk, handed him the fare, took my receipt and proceeded into the hotel as the racket outside continued on. Phew. I had arrived. And everyone knew it.

The guy at the desk...it's now almost midnight...was laughing and said Mrs. Blackwell I presume. So I checked in and he said, "Mrs. Blackwell, we have another room reserved in your name."  I said "Yes, that's for my mother in law." "Oh good, we were worried that we had made a mistake," he said.  "No mistake. Two Mrs. Blackwell's will be here as of tomorrow."

I headed off to bed in familiar surroundings. This time our room faced the street on the fourth floor. We have windows that actually open onto a wrought iron gate. It's a small boutique hotel and I love being part of the neighborhood here. There's a school across the street and I am listening to the kids playing in the school yard, imagining that I am like Hemingway working away with the city assaulting the senses all around. One cannot help feeling creative here. Walk up the hill from here and you will be in the heart of Montmartre with Sacre Coeur at it's pinnacle. Walk down the hill and you arrive at l'Opera and the shopping districts all around it. It is a beautiful city.

L'Opera
I walked down to the Opera building, a magnificent structure, en route to the Lafayette shopping gallery -- apparently the second most visited place in Paris after the Louvre. It's walking distance from the hotel. There in front of the entrance a major scuffle was going on. Four teenaged girls were fighting with another chubby older girl who was screaming and being assisted by two men.  The men grabbed the girls and physically yanked them away from the chubby girl, at which time the young girls started hitting and screaming and kicking until they broke away and ran off. It turns out, they had tried to steal the chubby girls purse. But she held onto it and fortunately for her, the men came to her aid. It was really hard to tell what was going on. My mind was processing whether it was bullying, a skirmish between friends, or something more serious. Bonjour Paris!

I secured my purse across my body and headed over to the Galleries Lafayette. I walked in and immediately felt like a fish out of water. Brands screamed from every corner and up to dizzying heights inside one of the most magnificent structures I have ever seen.  This is the Church of the Holy Brand's heaven. All around were the faithful worshiping their brands. The stained glass ceiling was their symbol of ultimate worship. All for the Brand Image.  Re-creating themselves in the likeness of the Brands. This is shopping Paris style. Hey, I was and am an expert on branding but this stuff is totally over the top.

I have never seen anything quite like it. I broke out into a cold sweat, my head started pounding, but I was going to persevere in this experience. At least I would have a look at haute couture, to which we have little access in the West of Ireland. I was here. I would endure. But I would resist Brand temptation. These are false idols, and I would not worship, but I would at least learn.

I was totally overwhelmed. I took photos and wandered. OMG - a 24000€ phone created in Britain. It didn't look like much. Not even sparkly or anything. No kidding, but I couldn't take a picture because there were signs in all the displays warning against picture mongering. Thousands of watches with diamonds and precious gems sparkled in excess next door. Perfumes wafted € signs overhead. Leather handbags, scarves, fur and leather coats, jewelry, and accessories galore. EXCESS to the nth degree. Consumption could not be more conspicuous. It was nauseating. Especially when outside were homeless lying in pools of dirt and mumbling to the passersby for mercy.

I quickly realized that all major brands exhibit their choice stock on the main floor, then the first floor above is for the top brands to get more depth of merchandise I wandered onto a balcony on the second floor that had a Starbucks cafe, great place to people watch.. The next floor up is for more reasonably affordable brands, and the top floor is for the pedestrian brands. I could actually afford to buy stuff on that level. But the more I looked the more I saw nothing I liked. In fact, I got really turned off by most things and as I walked down to the main floor again, I realized that the stuff behind the brands is for the most part reaching obscurity.  That's when I realized that hardly anyone was buying. The only buyers were Chinese and Russian. The signs were mostly in French and English with Chinese and Russian translations in critical places.

The main floor. My photos do not do it justice.
So I decided to head off in the direction that I remembered outlets appearing on the street coming off the Opera.  Except I took the wrong street and ended up at the Place Vendome. That's where all the top notch jewelers are. The place where the richest of the richest in the world shop in private luxury.  I walked around window shopping and found a few things that actually were magnificent. But for the most part the work screamed, "Look at me. I am nouveau riche and you are not." Once again plenty of oriental, Russian, and Arab buyers.

Finally, I found my way to the street I was looking for. I bought a pretty little sweater and a pair of shoes in my favorite shop. But the jeans I wanted proved elusive. By then I was exhausted. I stopped into a Micky D's to use the toilet facilities and was blown away to see that this was by far the most packed cafe in Paris. Of course they had the regular fare as well as patisserie and espresso. But no way was I going to eat in a McDonald's in Paris with all this tempting food around.  I found a nice cafe on a busy street corner where I had a delicious Croque Monsieur topped with the most divine gruyere and washed it down with a glass of nice Sancerre. Yes, that's what Paris is about.

I found a supermarket on the way back to the hotel where I picked up dark chocolate with nuts, a bottle of whiskey and Perrier with which to welcome the weary travelers this evening. The hotel has a lovely little outdoor courtyard and a tiny sitting area in the lobby and they provide tea and coffee, water and juices, as well as pastries for afternoon refreshment. I sat there sipping tea, hooked into free WiFi and answering email on my laptop. I love this little place.

The Galleries
Tomorrow promises to be busy. On the agenda for the weekend is the Outsider Art Fair for the first time in Paris, including the Vernissage on Thursday evening. Alex's mother Meike is a self-taught or outsider artist and she's never seen one of these exhibits. She has no idea that there are other people around like her. I cannot wait to see her reaction. I hope it works out. It's a big part of her 80th birthday gift from Alex and me. We brought along hard-backed copes of the book we created showcasing her artwork for her birthday. We are hoping to capture the interest of the show organizers or gallery owners. Keep your fingers crossed.

Perhaps I've grown cynical because I am a sailor and that has taught me some of what's important in life. Okay so I have a PUMA foul weather jacket. It was on sale 2 for 1. Good value. Perhaps it's that I have outlived my sister by several years now that all those things take on a different level of importance. Whatever it is, I have created many brands but I have not succumbed to many.  We have a good friend with lots of money who loves nothing better than to find the same shirt at JC Penny as he'd find at a big brand shop. That's why he has so much money. And he spends it on really cool things. Like rare old cars.

Viva la difference!



Starbucks on the balcony
A view from above
Any guesses?  Yes, the devil is now designing Prada.
Actually, it's orthopedics for those who grew up wearing Prada.
Hey, Uki friends. We're in high style this year!

This is the counter with the €24000 phones. Shhhh. 

The Place Vendome - the wooden structure at the top is temporary art.

Beautiful perfect pearls at Mikado.




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