Friday, October 7, 2011

Paris as Pygmalion

There’s woman in our neighborhood who looks like a birthday cake. The first time I saw her, she was sitting at an outside table at the corner brasserie with a double-decker platter of shellfish in front of her. She was all by herself, but appeared to be having a lovely time. I was running a routine errand at the local Monoprix (I take that back -- is any errand in Paris simply routine?), and as I rounded the corner of the brasserie’s terrace a splash of color caught my eye. Was I seeing straight? There, amidst the blacks and grays and browns of the café crowd, was a woman bedecked in Lilly Pulitzer frosting colors of candy pink and lime green and canary yellow. I turned back, retraced my steps and slowly came back around the corner a second time. I wanted to be sure to capture all the details so I could share every one of them with Joe. Was this confectionary vision really sitting at our corner café? Decades beyond “a certain age,” she sat straight and dignified and I could tell, even seated, that she carried herself regally. On her head was piled a multi-layered hat of no fewer than half a dozen floppy fabric brims, each just a bit smaller than the one underneath, giving the effect of a multi-tiered birthday cake. On the Mad Hatter’s arms were numerous wooden bracelets of varying thickness, and from her ears dangled intertwining loops, all painted with flowers in colors that matched her chapeau. The table concealed what she wore below the waist but around her shoulders was a satin cape-of-many-colors, and around her neck a scarf (what else?), all vivid and floral and dazzling. As if the candy colors were not brilliant enough, her hat and her cape were festooned with silk flowers and ribbons, all adding to the birthday cake effect. My gaze finally made it to her face, much of it hidden by the brims of her hat, but her infinite deep wrinkles were in full maquillage, including rouge on her cheeks and bright pink on her lips, which she was careful not to smudge as she delicately slurped back an oyster.

I continued my trip in search of yogurt and coffee but couldn’t get this woman out of my head. She was still in her seat, enjoying her seafood, as I made my way home that afternoon. I wondered if Joe would believe my description or would he think I was making it up, exaggerating what I’d seen for the sake of a story?

Two days later as we headed home from La Motte-Piquet metro stop, there she was, slowly crossing the street in multi-colored sartorial splendor. Her birthday cake hat was again what first caught my eye. “There she is!” I exclaimed. “You see, she really does exist!” This time I could see her fully upright, all the way down to her painfully thin legs in her bright pink tights and lace-up mauve shoes. She was maudlin and magnificent and melancholy – all at once. Who was this woman and what went through her mind as she prepared herself to go out into the world each morning? Did she see her confectionary costume the way others did and giggle just a little?

I’ve concluded that our colorful neighbor in pink and green loves what she sees in the mirror. If not, how would she move with such grace and carry herself so proudly? Despite the stares and whispers as she passes by, she believes she is beautiful and struts her stuff with aplomb. Perhaps Paris has a Pygmalion effect on all who are fortunate enough to visit her. She believes we’re beautiful, charming and confident and so we live up to her every expectation.

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