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Plus: the cosy embrace of consumerism
I hope you had a lovely week. If you signed up since last week’s letter, thanks very much! I’m delighted to be writing to you.
Now, a disclaimer: today’s is unlikely to be my longest letter and that is because I am tired. One of my ambitions for La Rentrée was to go jogging more, and to put pressure on myself, I signed up for the Paris 20k. Well, that race was today. A few hours ago I jogged 20 kilometres and now my legs are very tired.
I didn’t really feel ready to run that far: the furthest I have run in recent weeks is half that amount—and so all the way up until pretty late last night I was unsure whether I would actually turn up, and even less sure if I would finish.
I have a chequered history with long-distance running. Notably, when I was in my first year of secondary school, I struggled so much doing the cross-country running in our Games class that I opportunistically cut diagonally across a large field when there were no teachers around. Unfortunately, I cheated much too effectively and ended up placing fourth of the girls in my year, landing me , to my dismay, a place in THE BOROUGH CROSS COUNTRY, i.e. the cross-country for the elite eleven-year-old athletes of West London.
I finished second last in the borough. Our Games teacher made a speech in the next Games class after the event referring not-so-obliquely to my disappointing performance: “Some of the finishing results for the Borough didn’t match up with our school cross-country,” she said scathingly. I tried not to make any eye contact. From then on, for every year I was at that school, the teacher systematically entered me into the 1500 metres event on Sports day (and each year I got lapped by all the other pre-teen athletes). The teacher was daring me to confess my crime, and I never did—it was like a strange game of chicken.
Much later on, I learned to actually enjoy longer-distance running, but always on my terms. I once heard/read something that said when it comes to sport there are basically two types of people: those who want to push themselves to their limits and benefit from a tough attitude, and those who respond better to easy, doable challenges and plenty of reward and encouragement. Between these stick and carrot tendencies, I am definitely in the carrot camp.
So in order to get myself to actually go to the race today, I had to bargain with and coax myself. Before the race began I said to myself: ‘I am going to go as slow as I possibly can while still technically running’—the speed of a power-walker with the gait of a runner, if you will. ‘I am not going to stop, but neither am I not going to push in any way’. To achieve this, I made a deal with myself to slow right down to as slow as I possibly could when either (a) I felt the desire to stop or (b) I felt the desire to speed up just to overtake someone in front of me. It worked in the sense that I did finish. I successfully cajoled myself to my modest goal.
It also helped that it was a beautiful sunny day and the route along the Seine and around the Bois de Boulogne was very lovely.
I would like to extrapolate a more general point from this parable of the adequate jogger, but I fear Aesop beat me to it some time ago.
Thirty-second book club
I finally finished In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. It’s a book that is virtuosically written and I am glad I have read it, but I was also glad to close it.
I am now reading Au Bonheur des Dames by famous 19-the century French writer, Emile Zola, who is possibly best known for “J’accuse”, his blistering essay against the antisemitism of the French establishment during the “Dreyfus Affair”.
He was also famous for his series of interconnected novels, collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart, following a network of fictional French families during the Second Empire. I may be shot by a French intellectual for saying this, but it sort of reminds me of a 19th-century Parisian Eastenders.
Earlier this year I read L’Assommoir, his novel that tragically describes the doomed lives of a family living in La Goutte d’Or, a working-class neighbourhood near to where I live in the 18th arrondissement. In a recent letter I wrote about Jacqueline Ngo Mpii, whose cultural agency Little Africa is in the heart of today’s Goutte d’Or. She refers to L’Assommoir on her tours of the area.
After that, I read Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris), which is set around the sights and pungent smells of Les Halles, the food market that for centuries stood in the centre of Paris in the area that still takes its name. In the late Sixties the huge wholesale market was moved out to a suburb called Rungis, and today there’s an underground shopping centre where it used to be in the heart of town.
Au Bonheur des Dames, my third dalliance with Zola this year, tells the story of a grand shop, based on early Parisian department stores, like Le Bon Marché on the Left Bank, one of the first modern department stores in the world, and Printemps on the Right Bank, a pioneer in selling off excess stock in les soldes (sales), and incentivising salespeople with bonuses and competitive targets.
Au Bonheur des Dames is very enjoyable so far, partially because I really have a special place in my heart for Paris’s department stores. In the Zola novel, he describes the abundant piles of accessories and beautiful window displays with such ecstasy, and I totally get it. On the whole, I find the department stores of Paris to be very pleasing spaces.
Now, I often talk about how much I appreciate how Paris is less all-consumingly capitalist than London, how there are still plenty of nooks and crannies and bits that haven’t been sold yet. There are high-streets full of independent cafés, in contrast to London where Pret, Subway and Tesco often dominate. And that is true, I do love all that about Paris. But I do also sometimes enjoy the warm hug of some cosy consumerism. This is particularly true when I’m feeling a bit despondent or homesick. There’s something supremely comforting about the well-organised sections of department stores, each type of good sorted off on its own floor and neatly signposted. I like how reliably gleaming these spaces are, how impersonal, how deliciously anonymous.
It is wonderful to independent visit cheese-vendors and boulangeries where you must punctuate your visit with a “bonjour” and “au revoir”, but sometimes it’s nice to just be another anonymous face slowly moving up an escalator.
For fun, here’s a rundown of Paris’s main department stores:
Le Bon Marché, 24 Rue de Sèvres, 75007 - The oldest one and probably now the most swanky. It’s in a beautiful spot on the elegant Left Bank and sells wonderful Christmas ornaments at that time of year. Its real USP is La Grande Epicerie, the huge food-hall where you can buy everything from fresh madeleines to a very expensive jar of Marmite.
Printemps, 64 Bd Haussmann, 75009 - One of the oldest, too, with domes built by Gustave Eiffel himself. I really like wandering around the stationary and books section. They recently had a big rebrand and added some new bells and whistles, like a top floor dedicated to vintage fashion and even some kind of NFT offering! At Christmas, the window display always features puppets, which according to the store’s lovely press officer Maki, have been made by the same family of marionette-makers for the last fifty years.
Galeries Lafayette, 40 Bd Haussmann, 75009 - Printemps’ slightly more showy neighbour featuring a sumptuous Art Nouveau dome. Lots of swanky designer brands and luxury-seeking tourists. The perfume/beauty hall sits under the dome and is very glamorous. I like to go in sale season for the reduced own-brand accessories.
BHV, 52 Rue de Rivoli, 75004. Managed by the same group as Galeries Lafayette. I have a very special place in my heart for this one, it’s the one I probably go to the most and that I find cosiest. It’s got a good range of everything and stocks some more affordable products. I also really like the location, right on the edge of the Marais. You can leave by one of the exits on the northern side and head straight into the narrow cobbled streets. Bonus: dogs are allowed!
La Samaritaine, 9 R. de la Monnaie, 75001 Paris. This vast emporium with its beautiful Art Nouveau facade reopened last year after being acquired and then entirely renovated by multi-billion-euro luxury conglomerate LVMH. Today it’s probably the most showy and hip of the lot and there’s an ultra-luxe Cheval Blanc hotel right at the top. The restoration was meticulous and it’s well worth visiting to see the beautiful original peacock mural on the top floor. The store was originally founded by Ernest Cognacq and Marie-Louise Jay. Today a grand mansion house is home to the Musée Cognacq-Jay (8 Rue Elzevir, 75003 Paris), displaying the couple’s art collection, which they bequeathed to the city of Paris.
That’s all for now! Thank you for reading.
I’ll write again next Sunday. Have a good week until then.