I hope you have had a good week. If you are new here, welcome!
I realised that you may not have read my first ever letter, back in August, so I thought I would just re-introduce you to the Pen Friend raison d’être.
I’m Hannah Meltzer, a British journalist who has been living in Paris for the last five years. In these letters, I share my reflections, anecdotes and recommendations related to Paris. And/but I also aim to go a bit deeper than macarons and the Eiffel Tower. I hope to avoid clichés, or unpack them, and to help explain the societal, structural, dare I say it, philosophical, reasons why French culture is how it is.
Doesn’t that sound great? If you think so, please consider sharing Pen Friend on your social networks or in a message to another friend. I’d love that!
The luxuries we have left
This week I have been thinking about luxury, or le luxe as the French people call it. ‘Le luxe’ is a word I hear here more often, but it doesn’t always mean/designate the same thing.
It is a major industry here, that’s true. France dominates the world’s luxury market, exporting the notion that you can bottle and buy the intangible notion of French chic, from champagne to perfume.
France’s multi-billion dollar luxury industry is dominated by two companies. LVMH and Kering, each one founded by a self-made multi-billionaire, Bernard Arnault and Francois Pinault. The brands that they own, like Louis Vuitton, Gucci etc. make up about a third of the global luxury fashion market. The turnover is measured in the tens of billions. Hermès, which has not been bought by one of the two conglomerates, sells Birkin bags whose value is now rising faster than gold.
The French Tourist Board created a designation of ‘Palace’ for ultra-luxury hotels that offer exceptional service beyond five stars, and only French hotels have been rewarded the designation, with 13 of these in the capital. Thanks to my work as a travel correspondent, I have stayed in seven of these. At their best, they basically recreate the feeling that Belle must have had in Beauty and the Beast when the candlesticks and teapots sing her “be our guest”. It’s like you’re the star of an elaborate theatrical production, where all the set and décor is exquisite. (I wrote and edited this article about the best luxury hotels in Paris for The Telegraph).
What I have noticed from staying in these places, is that the guests tend to split into two groups. Those, maybe more like me, who are enjoying it, drinking it all in, because for them it’s really a rare or once-in-a-lifetime experience to be surrounded by such meticulously executed pomp. And then there’s the second group, of people for whom this level of comfort is clearly the base line they are used to when they travel, and so it has become quite mundane for them. Often you see teenage kids scrolling through their phones while a waistcoated waiter is contorting to serve them exquisite pastries from a silver plate.
So that’s one kind of luxury that comes up in Paris life and the French are particularly expert at it.
But the idea of ‘le luxe’ also comes up in more everyday conversation. Recently, a friend with whom I share my office described the extra space we have in there as “le luxe”, and then another time recently my local optician described daily disposable contact lenses (my constant friend since the age of 12) as “le luxe”. And I really like this attitude of recognising life’s perhaps less showy luxuries, without which the quality of our lives would nonetheless be a lot less comfortable.
In life in general, I try if and when I can to out-run the hedonic treadmill. Wikipedia describes the hedonic treadmill like this:
The hedonic treadmill is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
I guess it’s the hedonic treadmill at work when I consider the attitude of the guests who are habituated to ultra-luxury hotels. In last week’s letter I wrote about looking for a bigger apartment, which is really the focus of so much of my energy and attention right now. Yet, as I detailed in the last letter, I have also lived in apartments much smaller and less comfortable than the one I’m in now, so as I search, I try and remind myself that the studio I am in now already represents the wildest dreams of me a few years ago.
And I think there is actually a relationship between the two kinds of luxury: the first kind, more expensive and showy, and the second kind, the more quotidian which is quite interesting. Sometimes I think we crave more of the first kind when we lack the second. I was always kind of faintly aware of this when I was commuting in London, that I was spending the money I earned in my job to compensate for a lack of luxurious little pockets of self-indulgence, connection or just time.
Today I was leafing through some of my old notebooks and I came across this rather self-involved journal entry from 2018, when I had only recently moved from London:
“In Paris it’s hard to exist without being a consumer, in London it is impossible. To not consume is to not be in society. The work life without the little joys of consumption — a katsu curry on a Wednesday lunchtime, a pack of hair clips from Accessorize — is unbearable. You need your little treat before enduring the horror of the commute, which can’t be avoided unless you live close to where you work, and that is more likely if you have a lot of money—or you don lyrcas and become a daredevil cyclist.”
I’m not sure I entirely agree with this rather damning appraisal of London life now, and I also don’t know if it still applies after the pandemic and having not lived there for a long time.
What do you think? Was I being a bit hyperbolic?
J’ai mon dimanche qui est à moi
I was actually rooting through my notebooks to find some notes I took from a Question and Answer session that Zadie Smith did at Médiateque Francoise Sagan, a beautiful library in Paris, again back in 2018 (big journalling year for me, clearly).
The note I was looking for was on the subject of social media. Zadie Smith famously gave up her smart phone and is not on social media, opting instead to soak up as much of this short life as possible. (I may add that a writer with the success and talent of Zadie Smith has absolutely zero practical need to be on social media). Back in 2018, she said (according to my scrawled notes):
‘People make versions of themselves, like politicians. I wouldn’t survive for five seconds in such an environment.”
In my musings on luxury, it strikes me that one of the biggest luxuries we have left is the luxury of not being connected to our phones, of experiencing our lives as a first-person subject, rather than an object.
I am playing with the idea of instating a smartphone-free sabbath on Fridays and Saturdays, as a spiritual nods to both my Jewish roots and my reverence for Zadie Smith.
Yesterday I watched Louis Theroux interview Stormzy (on television, not in a library in Paris, sadly) and I really liked something he (Stormzy) said too about digital fasting:
“When I came off social media I could hear God speak, I could hear myself speak and I had clarity”.
Having a day of designated, real, rest, if you are lucky enough to be able to, is I think one really legitimate definition of luxury. This, in turn, made me think of the song Je m’en fous pas mal, sung by Edith Piaf, where she talks about the sacredness of the Sunday sabbath day off work.
FR: J'm'en fous pas mal
Y peut m'arriver n'importe quoi
J'm'en fous pas mal
J'ai mon dimanche qui est à moi
EN: I just don’t care, Whatever might come my way, I just don’t care, I have my Sunday which is all mine
I’m going to add this song to a playlist a little later in the book club section.
Thirty-second book club
I did it, Joe! I finished Au Bonheur des Dames, by Emile Zola. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Another adopted Parisian, Seb Emina, wrote this about it in an edition of The Happy Reader, his charming ‘bookish magazine for avid readers’.
“Zola’s real subject isn’t any particular character or storyline, but a building. Few novels are more evocative of the grandeur of a pile of handkerchiefs. Few are as convincing when it comes to the backstabbing politics of the shop floor, or as canny about the workings of desire — not of man for woman, but woman for cloth.”
Je suis d’accord !
I recently discovered a Nina Simone album of songs I had mostly never heard: Nina Simone and Piano (Expanded Edition). The whole album is beautiful. Some refrains/lyrics I can’t get out my head.
I particularly love the song Another Spring, about a curmudgeonly elder woman who begins to see hope in her life again when spring comes. I love this line:
When it's warm and the sun is out
It's like my heart's restored
But you’ll feel it more if you actually listen to it, so I’ve put it on a playlist, along with the Piaf song I mentioned earlier, our very first shared mixtape! Here you go.
Thank you for reading my thoughts on luxury and leisure and sabbath days.
To finish, here is a list of some of my top luxuries. Some you can’t buy and some you can:
My lovely dog, Babbet. I still think what a mad privilege to be able to share your life with a friendly wolf with whom you share an unbreakable bond of understanding. I can sit down in a chair and my soft, silky little dog will perch on the arm and curl up so that she fits right in with me like a puzzle piece. There’s hardly anything more comforting than the sure weight of her little head on my arm, her peaceful sleeping face and gentle rise and fall of her little wolf form as she sleeps. What magic!
Buying new notebooks from Muji.
Buying new slippers from Muji.
Listening to music loudly in my earphones while walking fast around a city.
Cycling around Paris on a sunny day, especially across the river or along Rue de Rivoli.
Pottering! Around the house (Americans — I believe you call it ‘puttering’)
I recently joined my local gym, quite ordinary and not expensive, but found out it has a sauna. I discovered the joy of a sauna in Malmö, Sweden when I went to visit my friend Franny who has moved there. It’s one of those things that I think in the UK we tend to associate with luxury, but the Swedes just think it’s a normal, nice thing to do for your health. So now I can’t believe I have access to a sauna in my local gym!
A Starbucks cinnamon roll and cappuccino as a pre-travel breakfast
Turning my phone off
What do you consider to be your luxuries? Please tell me in the comments. The most unexpected will be lavished in praise!
Thank you for reading! I’ll write next Sunday. Until then, Happy All Hallows! May your winter be filled with witchiness, and whatever le luxe means to you.
My son was born at the start of the pandemic. I thought I was ready. I really did. But these 2 simultaneous events were the most difficult times I've passed through. We were isolated from family, friends and a helpful nanny to watch him so that I could sleep. That is all my wife and I wanted to do. We couldn't risk him/us getting sick. So we shut ourselves in. If time is money, having some 'personal time' was a luxury I wanted to afford. Things are more or less back to normal now. He is a happy 2 year old. Spending time with him, the important moments I might have missed (first words, first steps) I was here for everything. I work from home and his daycare is a quick 10 mins walk away. Sharing as much memories with him is the lil luxuries that I didn't know I needed but now can't imagine my life without.
Thanks Hannah – always thought-provoking, and now I'm listening to the playlist too, though it can't compare to being serenaded by a Londoner singing Barbra Streisand songs in a Paris office...
We have talked about this before, but I do think too much luxury is a bad and disempowering thing, allowing a person to a) be infantilised and b) dehumanise the workers around them – you see that clearly if your work takes you into the world of the uber-wealthy, as you have in those hotels and I did in the fashion industry. Best to be a tourist in luxury, not a resident.
I was interested in your thoughts about the London commute. I used to quite enjoy it, sometimes – the feeling of being in the lifeblood of the city, and listening to music or reading a book surrounded by strangers who were also just living their London lives. I didn't like it quite so much when I couldn't get a seat on the tube though. When I stopped doing it, I also realised how physically exhausting it is; my big luxury now that I work from home is that I sleep well and rarely rush anywhere.
I love that quote from Stormzy. Here are some more of my luxuries: time spent doing nothing much with my parents, just watching TV, or sitting in the big chair in their kitchen while my mum kneads bread dough and my dad is out in his office shed frowning at his laptop. (This makes my parents sound very traditional, but my mum is actually a retired judge who just happens to like baking bread.) Steak (sorry): I buy and cook a steak once a month on my period, because that gives me a nutritional excuse to cook red meat, and it makes me so happy, even though I can't afford the best cuts. The dishwasher: possibly the most life-enhancing thing I've ever spent money on, except perhaps a good bed and bedding. And the bath. I have a bath every day, not with bubbles or candles or whatever, but just literally 15 minutes submerged in warm water. I know that's a wild and bad luxury, climate-wise. It really makes me happy and calm though.