There are a lot of stores in Paris, France. I didn’t even really realize this until recently, because when stores are closed here – which they do, for instance, most of August – they pull down metal shutters over their entire faces and disappear. The street is dead. And yet even when the street was dead there was so much going on there – a scattering of stores open, people walking, people walking dogs, dogs peeing, men peeing, honking cars stuck behind delivery trucks that have parked in the only lane, scooters and bicycles and pedestrians weaving around the parked cars – that only when it came back to life did I know it was dead.
Stores in Paris are super into their window displays. They have turned them into an art form. Beautiful things are laid out in beautiful ways in every window. Even the locksmith on my grimy street has his display of interesting old tools artfully arranged below his tiny window. When the displays are in progress, stores will put out a sign that says Vitrine en cours – window in progress – so nobody judges their (still beautiful) display in the making.
The phrase for window shopping in French translates to “window licking.” This is a main activity of mine. Walking around and looking in windows. I’ve done a fair amount of actual shopping, too, which I tend to do when I spend big chunks of time alone. A few days ago, I was walking around with one of my Paris friends at the Marche de Puces, the ginormous flea market. We were looking at all the 18th century gilt glitz and the plastic baby dolls and talking about good taste, which we both felt, in the most modest way possible, that we had. We felt we could pick out the well-made and beautifully designed from the flimsy-but-trendily-expensive, regardless of the actual style. Give us a bunch of midcentury chairs, or Louis the 14th candlesticks, and we’ll pick out the quality ones. We will beeline towards them, unfortunately for our wallets.
“What if there is an actual quality in well-made things?” he suggested. “What if it’s like umami, the sixth taste. That thing soy sauce does. Most people can easily discern between sour and salty and sweet, but umami is more subtle. What if it’s like that?”
Which I think it is.
This is, I think, a big part of what makes Paris such a great city – aesthetic quality has been built right into the most mundane things, like lampposts and bollards. Just walking down the street can feed a person’s sense of taste. Things’ forms are pleasing beyond their utility, in a way that is all too rare in mass-produced objects. On the other hand, parts of the city, like many of the streets in my neighborhood, are also a parade of tacky, tacky things. For instance, the tiger-stripe dress in a sidewalk display I saw this morning, where the bust of the dress is a snarling head of a tiger. Even most of the trendy clothing stores have this feel of cheapness and glitz.
But regardless, the window displays catch me. I can’t stop licking their glass.