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Friday 10 August 2012

How to Become Parisian in One Hour - A show by Olivier Giraud

How to Become Parisian in One Hour

A one-man show by Olivier Giraud


About two years ago, my friend Antoinette Azzurro of Paris Personalized started raving about a show—one of the most hilarious she had ever seen—called How to Become a Parisian in One Hour. Plans were made for a group outing, then spanners hit the works and the project came to nothing.

But I had not forgotten her enthusiasm and last week, taking advantage of the fact that the show has changed venues and that tickets can now be bought on-line, with a couple of friends we went. I do feel like the last person in Paris who had not seen it.

For the summer of 2012,  the show is housed at the Théâtre des Nouveautés on the Boulevard Poissonnière, very near the Hard Rock Café. And if you feel that you must choose between the two and are hesitating which one to select, then perhaps you should stop reading now : you probably are not yet ready for Olivier Giraud and his no-holds-barred humour. If you do settle on How to Become a Parisian in One Hour, in all humanity I must warn you I have one (and only one) brickbat : the seats at the Théâtre des Nouveautés obviously were designed by the same sadistic person who invented the pseudo-mediaeval torture instrument known as the iron maiden. If you wish to be able to get up and walk out of the theatre once the show is over, sit gingerly. The good news is that, at least for the duration of the show, you will be laughing so wholeheartedly that you will be totally unaware of any physical discomfort.

Olivier Giraud’s one-man show is a wonderful send-up of both the French and the Americans, satirised to their most ludicrous extremes. A few other nationalities get their come-uppance as well. It works because Mr. Giraud is fearless and clearly has no intention of sparing anyone, regardless of the national make-up of the audience. It is funny ; it is almost cruel ; it is not bowdlerised.

The show begins with the communal singing of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. No need to rise, because the French display their patriotism in other ways. (And please, whatever else you do, do not place your hand upon your heart as one would in the U.S. for the Star-Spangled Banner. I know you’re only trying to be polite, but the French would not understand. It is one of the most frequent questions I get asked here : why do Americans sing their national anthem with their hand in that odd position, as if they were trying to finger a non-existent pearl necklace or indicate an incipient heart attack? I’ve given up trying to explain : it passes French understanding.)

The real expression of French patriotism comes shortly thereafter, with the camembert.

In the course of his performance, Mr Giraud illustrates the differences in behaviour between the French and the Americans in seven different situations : 1) shopping ; 2) dining ; 3) taking a taxi ; 4) taking the métro ; 5) going to a night-club ; 6) faking an orgasm ; 7 ) finding a flat. These provide him with enough material to outrage and amuse each and everyone whilst at the same time brushing his caricatures in such broad strokes that they are far too exaggerated seriously to offend anyone. Yet they still do retain some resemblance to people one knows or has met : the over-emotive American who can’t distinguish between sexy moves and pole-dancing ; the obnoxiously rude Parisian with le scowl perpétuel. Yes they do exist. (Erratum : above I wrote that the performance could not seriously offend anyone : I fibbed a little because I did meet one couple who were offended by the sexual content of the performance. Oh, well... What were they expecting? This is PARIS! Of course there’s sex involved.)

Beyond his fearless wit and keen sense of observation, the two most striking tools Mr Giraud has to hand are 1) his incredibly mobile face and 2) his alertness to his audience, actually listening to what they shout out and picking up on details, not to mention bringing some spectators on-stage with him for lessons in applied Parisianism. That he is still fresh enough and interested enough to continue to play with and to his audience after three years of the show is nothing short of fascinating and explains his well-deserved success, amongst the French and the tourists. On the night I was there, I’m sure at least 40% of the audience were locals, even though the performance is in English. (Well, mostly in English, with the exception of a few earthy Parisianisms.) It is all the more surprising that he can pull this off because, at least according to his biography, Olivier Giraud is not at all a trained actor or comedian, but a chef and sommelier who worked for several years in the United States. No doubt, that is where he observed both the American clientele and the sort of dismissive and surly Frenchman they expected to encounter. The show is a delight.

Thursday 9 December 2010

Yuletide in Paris with Children

For a variety of reasons, many people seem to think that Paris is not a child-friendly city : too many museums and monuments, too many weird foods served at unusual hours, a lack of children's menus in restaurants, etc. Frequently I am reminded of Adam Gopnik's book Paris to the Moon in which he tells of a paediatrician's advice to feed his infant son Roquefort cheese. When asked why, the doctor replies, 'So that he will acquire a taste for it'. Travelling should be about broadening the horizons, pushing the limits, especially for children. After all, it is when one is young and one's teeth are strong and solidly attached to the jaw that one must savour the Négus for the first time (an exquisite delicacy from Nevers combining both hard and soft caramels).

Aside from such delights, the city also is well-equipped with playgrounds so the young'uns can work off some of their excess energy ; near the Victoria Palace Hotel there is quite an extensive one in the Luxembourg Gardens, for example. And parents should not underestimate their children : some really do enjoy museums ; I know I did as a child. Except for the Egyptian Antiquities section at the Louvre because I had lost my parents and it took me hours (or so it seemed) to find them again amidst the canopic jars, mummies and other frightening artefacts. I still hate Egyptian art.

The English-language website Ciao Bambino which is dedicated to travel for families with children has just posted on its blog a few suggestions to keep children occupied and entranced in Paris during the Christmas season ; they would not all be my choices, but certainly there is enough to do and to choose from!

Monday 29 November 2010

The Apo-Something of the Sixth Arrondissement : Hermès

It is a consecration ; of that, there can be little doubt. Is it a welcome one? That is another question. Within a few days of each other, an entire neighbourhood has reached two significant milestones:
  1. On 19 November, Hermès opened its new shop at 17 Rue de Sèvres
  2. On Friday 26 November, it was officially announced that the average price of residential property in the 6th Arrondissement had breached the 10,000 euro per square-metre mark ; this comes to approximately US dollars 1,204 per square foot

The Arrival of Hermès

Those of you who have read Dana Thomas’s book Deluxe : How Luxury Lost Its Lustre, will already know that in her razor-sharp study of marketing and so-called ‘luxury’ brands, the only one for which she seems to have anything kind to say is Hermès owing to its attachment to its traditional standards of craftsmanship and materials. (If you have not read this book and if you are at all interested in fashion or the concept of luxury, I urge you to get your hands on it as quickly as possible. It is both frightening and fascinating.

There was something slightly disconcerting for me when I entered this new temple of hyper-luxury, which also houses the florist Baptiste. The last time I walked through those doors it was to submit to the swimming exam for my Brevet d’Études du Premier Cycle a.k.a. B.E.P.C.( a comprehensive exam that every schoolchild used to take at age 13). You see, the Hermès flagship-store on the Left Bank has taken over what once was the Lutétia swimming-pool, where my class would go for our weekly outing when I was a pupil on Rue Cler. (There is no connection with the Lutetia Hotel other than the name and the proximity.) Because the building is on the registry of historic monuments, Hermès’s architect Denis Montel had to work out how to come to terms with such a large, rather glacial space—notwithstanding the art-déco ironwork railings—whilst not being allowed to alter the overall structure. He came up with a happy solution, in the form of enormous inverted, reticulated conic structures of honey-coloured  wood, putting one in mind of virtual blast-furnaces or perhaps intergalactic lobster-traps. The warm tone of these structures successfully breaks up the somewhat sterile space without hiding it. The swimming-pool itself has been covered with a mosaic floor to create a large shop-floor (1500 m² , i.e. 16,500 sq. ft !) My only reservation : the tiers of galleries overlooking the former swimming-pool no longer serve any purpose and are still awaiting some brilliant idea as to how to integrate them part-and-parcel into a decorative scheme of some sort.

A Changing Neighbourhood

Hermès’s arrival strikes me as the fruition of a process, the beginning of which I symbolically place at the arrival of Dior in 1997, taking over the book-shop Le Divan at the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue de l’Abbaye. Admittedly, Cartier already had displaced the Raoul Vidal record shop and Armani had taken over the space where Le Drugstore had been... But to witness a venerable book-shop such as Le Divan, so intimately linked to the identity of a place, turn into the nth Dior shop was somehow disturbing, shocking even : the sense of a world that is passing, of a place that is forgetting itself, of a universe the priorities of which are calling out for re-ordering... (I remember a similar feeling when Scribner’s closed on New York’s Fifth Avenue : a sense of the irrevocable. That space now is occupied by a Sephora cosmetics shop.)

In the case of the new Hermès shop—perhaps because I am at best an indifferent swimmer—I must confess that I have no such regrets. Indeed, it is odd that the company waited so long to come scope out this side of the river. Although officially this is their 235th shop in the world, it is only their third shop in Paris, counting the Motsch shop on Avenue George V and not counting the temporary shop on the Rue de Grenelle. (Said shop, to put it bluntly, was about as well stocked as an Hermès duty-free shop in a regional airport : not much on offer other than the silk scarves, some wallets and all those belts with the ‘H’ buckle. (Who would have thought that there could be so many men named Hasdrupal, Hieronymus or Heliogabalus to buy all those belts ???)

The Highest Average Price for Property in Paris

For some time now the Sixth Arrondissment has had the highest average price per square-metre of residential property in Paris and one cannot but wonder that the heavy-hitters of ‘luxury’ marketing took so long to realise this. Could it be that they still thought they could detect a whiff of louche-ness about the area? It is true that for a very long time the Sixth Arrondissement thought of itself as a neighbourhood for artists and intellectuals, as opposed to the more ‘bourgeois’ 8th and 16th arrondissements. Still, back when there were three Le Drugstore in Paris (these were the forerunners of twenty-noughties bling), already one of them was on the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés (the other two were at either end of the Champs-Élysées). This just goes to show that already in 1965 the purchasing-power of the Left Bank was obvious to some. Except that during the 70s the Saint-Germain-des-Prés Drugstore was rumoured to be a meeting place for rent-boys and their clients. Be that as it may, the Sixth Arrondissement is now firmly settled in its ‘bourgeois’ mode : not only does it have the most expensive average price for residential property, but according to the manager of one shop located next to the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, it also has the highest average revenue per square-metre of commercial property. Which explains the unending influx of prestigious brands looking for their chance to turn a profit on a street which is more and more coming to resemble an open-air shopping mall. At least Hermès has had the good taste to set itself apart from the crowd by settling on the Rue de Sèvres rather than on the Boulevard Saint-Germain itself. This may be owing to the difficulties of finding a large enough space to accommodate their shop, but it does lend the whole business an air of distinction and singularity which do it honour.

Apotheosis or Apocoloquintosis ?

Which leaves the fundamental question still unanswered : has the neighbourhood lost its soul ? Fortunately, there still are the little streets which are full of independent boutiques and designers or quirky multi-brand shops. For the moment at least, we enjoy the best of both worlds : the notoriety which the prestigious brands carry all the while sharing the urban fabric with other, more creative outlets for confirmed talents or some that have yet to be discovered. In this respect, one cannot forget to mention that directly across the street from the new Hermès shop is one of the Sixth Arrondissements truly grand institutions : the tailor Arnys. With a speciality in slightly dandified bespoke tailoring, and an almost secretive distribution network, the shop has been there since 1933 ; in a word, it was there even before the Lutetia swimming-pool which it has outlived. And that simple fact conjures up an entire world.

So, in answer to my question, ‘Apotheosis or apocoloquintosis ?’ I answer, a bit of both. The neighbourhood remains delightful to live in, especially its southern half, the part the estate-agents call the ‘family’ Sixth, with its food shops and markets. In a word, with its so very Parisien way of life.