Let Them Buy Shoes
The joys of the well shod foot - a new dispatch from pandemic France
My name is Wendy, and I am a shoe addict. There, I said it.
And France is your best dealer if you are jonesing for a fix. Here, shoe stores are as plentiful as gas stations back in the States: every corner has a couple. (Every other corner has a lingerie store, but we’ll postpone that fraught topic to another day.) Besides how bewitchingly lovely shoes are here, there are two reasons to succumb to their siren song:
The French sell fabulous shoes you can really walk in, and
Your ego doesn’t get thrashed buying shoes the way it does buying actual clothes.
Let’s get the hard stuff out of the way first: the French are plus petit(e). When I tried to figure out clothing sizes, it came as a paralyzing shock that a US size 6 – which translates to a French 38—is considered a medium. In the interests of full disclosure….I am not a size 6. My size—which doesn’t cause most Americans to avert their eyes in pity and disgust—translates to XL here. If it can be found at all. In one store I tentatively ventured into in my naïve early days, the clerk patiently explained—as though to a halfwit—that of course, non, I was not looking in the wrong area of the store, they simply didn’t carry any sizes over 40.
Anything larger than a size 8 is insupportable?
Which brings me to buying shoes. You never go into a shoe store and think “damn, I really need to lose a little pudge off this middle toe.” My shoe size is smack in the middle of the French array of sizes, so trying on footwear brings unalloyed joy.
And ah, the choices! Personally, I love teetering high heels. They, however, have mostly dumped me. When I was recently tempted by a pair of butter-soft black leather booties with sweet little suede bows at the ankles and three-inch suede-wrapped heels….one look at the treacherous cobblestones directly outside the store and I regretfully returned the booties to their shelf. It would take me about one block to shred the leather of the heels….and very possibly break my ankle as collateral damage. I asked the saleswoman how anyone walks in shoes like this on Montpellier’s stone streets, and she said cryptically “you wear them to be appreciated indoors.” (At least….I think that’s what she said. It might have been less Zen koan-y if I understood French better.)
But pas de soucis as we say here a lot. There are LOADS of gorgeous shoes made for walking, in all price ranges and all colors. I have actually purchased not one but two pairs of yellow shoes (both tending towards mustard) since I’ve gotten here. And burgundy shoes. And blue shoes with little seafoam tassels. And brown leather tennis shoes. And a pair of off-white shoes which are worryingly medical-adjacent….but which I’ve seen on other women who don’t seem to be nurses. And, in the hope that someday I may actually go back to work again….a fab pair of brown pumps. Because in the US, brown shoes are last year’s black.
Lest my son resent me for spending his inheritance on footwear….all these were bought during the recently-completed round of winter soldes (sales). France regulates sales discounting, which helps to keep small stores in business. There are two big month-long sales every year, varying a bit according to region. This year, the government extended the sales periods by a few weeks to accommodate owners’ complaints that the curfew had reduced foot traffic into their stores.
The result of this protective regulation is that when you go into a new city or town or even village, while you likely will find some chain stores (mostly but not exclusively French-based, at least outside Paris), you will also find dozens of unique little shops. And I do mean unique. There must be 10 or more “concept stores” (say it with a heavy French accent) in Montpellier, and truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve parsed what any of the concepts are. Each store seems to offer a curated collection of stuff—clothes; home goods; sometimes food and wine—that the owner just happens to like. I haven’t actually bought anything in a concept store, but I’ve passed happy minutes being entertained by them. Retail theatre substitutes for films and plays and concerts which are, of course, fermés.
Here in Montpellier, stores are—as I write this—almost all open (only the gianormous ones and malls, “les grands surfaces,” are closed). Which means that the rituals of shopping remain intact: the Escher-like endless loops of greetings, thanks, and leave-taking.
“Bonjour, Madame” tinkles out from the deep recesses of a store I have just barely entered. With growing confidence, I have learned to call out “Bonjour, Madame” to the unseen clerk. I have been instructed by my French friends to err the side of conferring more authority—calling the masked individual of indeterminate age “Madame”—over complimentarily implying more youth than is perhaps evident by addressing the clerk as “Mademoiselle.”
Whether a transaction has been successfully completed or not, profuse gratitude on both our parts is exchanged: “ Merci, Madame.” “Merci à vous, Madame.”
And now that I am getting ready to abandon the shop, the effusions kick into high gear: Bonne journées are traded, unless it’s 3:00-5:00ish, in which case it’s Bonne fin de la journée, or, if it’s closer to closing time, Bonne soirée. Let’s not even talk about what happens on Friday afternoon when the weekend looms and one must quickly decide whether to wish a good end of the current week or a promising start to the weekend. In any case, regardless of who leads the other responds Bonne journée à vous, Madame.
We close with a dizzying round of Au revoirs. The first is uttered by the clerk, typically as I am fumbling to put my purchase into a bag. I respond, of course, with Au revoir. She ups the ante: repeating Bonne soirée, although I was pretty sure we had already passed through that stage of the relationship. Outmaneuvered, I just smile…and then realize she can’t see it because of the mask. (Advantage: clerk.)
“Merci”, I offer feebly (falling back to a reliable one-word answer), followed by a second Au revoir (so she doesn’t think I’m a lout).
"Au revoir," she responds quickly. I move towards the door. By now, she is busy with the next customer, so I’m feeling pretty good about where we are leaving our liaison. Ah, but non—even as she is helping another woman to choose a pair of socks, I hear my clerk call out a final Au revoir to me, as I open the door and step out into the street.
You perform this antiphony whether you are buying a pair of Louboutins or a tube of toothpaste. That is, in masked pandemic France, you still engage with the humans around you. And since this is, not infrequently, the only contact I have during the day IRL with anyone other than D….I treasure these elaborate rituals.
And I am beginning reconnaissance for when the July sales start.
About the author: I'm Wendy, and I've been given the incredible gift of accompanying my husband on his university sabbatical in Montpellier, France. After 35 years in higher education print and digital publishing, I have no deadlines to meet, no "stakeholders" to satisfy, no "deliverables" to, well, deliver. Some days, my most pressing problem is whether to spread salted or unsalted fresh butter on my baguette. At the end of August 2021, I turn back into a pumpkin. Join me until then to see what we can make of this altered France!