While many travelers to Paris come home with designer clothing and fabulous antiques, I'm always on a shoestring budget and my suitcase is overstuffed, so I have to be sensible. Plus, I can't imagine shopping for clothing in a chic store in Paris. Store clerks would fuss over me; I'd hate it. I'd feel expected to buy something, whether or not there was pressure. But I'd be ambivalent, hesitant, and reeling from the prices. I've already had the pleasure of buying an Hermès scarf in Paris, and would love to do it again someday. But nowadays I only like their vintage designs, so that's out, too.
I fell in love with the elegant pumps our hôtelière was wearing on our second-last day. They had sculptural, wearable heels, maybe 3" high. Soft black leather, a very high vamp, a few covered buttons, a perfectly rounded toe. They are hard to describe but I will never forget them. She told me they were from a designer shop on the Rue St. Honoré, and were about 10 years old. I'd seen nothing like them on my travels and no other shoes in Paris would do.
As far as antiques, they are way too expensive even at the flea market. And I can't bring taxidermy home, because I hear it's not allowed into the US. I also heard that my husband would move out if I bought so much as a set of deer antlers for the bathroom wall. (But I wouldn't have to buy them; we have 28 racks on my grandmother's dining room wall currently looking for a new home.) If I wanted the stuffed polar bear on all fours at Deyrolle, it would set me back 40,000 Euros. The Larry Bird–sized standing one on the Rue Jacob was probably even more. For such losses, I console myself very effectively with pastry and chocolate.
Here's what I did bring home instead:
There's nothing worse than kicking yourself for years after passing up some marvelous thing that was only to be found in that faraway city where you hesitated and walked away, not realizing that you wouldn't be able to live quite happily without it. I went through this after my first trip to Prague in 1994, where I found a shop selling hand-carved, one-of-a-kind marionettes, dressed in vintage fabrics and jewelry — kings, queens, noblemen, peasants — made by a local artist (who was also a scuba diver). They were about $80 and too big to fit in a suitcase, so I passed. And never forgot them. Seven years later, we returned to Prague and I found that shop, and bought one, at a much higher price. Two years later, we went back and I got a second one. I love them. There are thousands of mass-produced marionettes in Prague, but mine have their own personalities and are beautiful and amazing. There are only about six available at any time (scuba diving must be more lucrative.) Whew.
On our last trip to Paris, I was too embarrassed by dreadful French to negotiate the purchase of a copper gratin pan at Dehillerin, so I was careful to get that out of the way on my first day. Naturally, when I arrived there and saw their many choices, I couldn't remember the size of the Williams-Sonoma gratin I have. So I hemmed, hawed, and kept walking around, and decided to get a round pan instead. I bought their biggest, heaviest, steel-lined model. It's gorgeous:
You make your choice, then they dig one out of their ancient cellar for you. Then you go to a tall wooden counter with your credit card, and they take it away. As they do their calculating, you fill out a form with your name and address, and then you sign the receipt. They give you a slip and send you to another table, where your pan is wrapped and waiting, and is politely handed to you. Very civilized. I can't wait to make a tart tatin, as soon as we lose a few pounds (all that pastry).
On our last trip, I spotted lovely Gerson combs, made of animal horn, in a pharmacy window. They seemed very expensive for combs, and I was feeling poor so I didn't buy, but continued to covet. Feeling a bit less poor on this trip, I checked out about a dozen pharmacies until I found one that carried them, and bought a pretty, marbled one. I will use it every day and remember Paris:
While I was at it, I bought a couple of sleek French toothbrushes. Since I was about 14, I've always used only transparent, colorless toothbrushes. I have no idea why I insist on them, but why change after all these years? They are so simple. And hard to find; toothbrushes, like running shoes, get ever more complicated all the time. French toothbrushes are still old-fashioned.
We love tea from Mariage Freres. It's hard to find most of their teas in the states, and there are scores, if not hundreds, of varieties. Whenever friends from Paris come here, they know to bring us a packet of butterscotch tea. Sometimes they get it wrong and bring us caramel or bourbon, but we manage. On our last trip, we were introduced to Imperial Wedding, which is like butterscotch mixed with chocolate. Wonderful. They also make the best holiday spice tea, Esprit de Noël, which is delicious all year.
I bought a few small loaves of walnut bread from Poilâne, the best bread bakery in Paris for hearty, country-style bread, as opposed to baguettes (for those, go to Kayser). This bread would be wonderful with a smelly, runny French cheese, but I've been too lazy to get some, so I eat it with butter, peanut butter, or whatever is around.
On the Ile St.-Louis, we found linen tea towels printed with colorful Metro maps. And at the flea market in St-Ouen, I found this little art-nouveau tin (I collect tins) for mint throat lozenges. A closer look after I bought it revealed cocaine among the ingredients. My husband bought too many vintage postcards and was very pleased about it.
And we finally caved and bought ourselves a bronze-colored Eiffel Tower, hunting to find the only one that didn't have "PARIS" and "FRANCE" blazing in large print down two sides of it. Do you really need to mention on an Eiffel Tower replica that it's from Paris, which happens to be in France? (Apparently, you do. Our friend, who traveled with us, presented a small, vintage-style print of the Eiffel Tower to his landlady as a souvenir. She looked at it for awhile and said, "What's that?" He had to explain, in detail.) Anyway, we must have gone to 15 souvenir shops before we found a single tower with a discreet "Paris" draped across one arch. We picked up little ones as gifts, too.
As we were finally boarding our flight home, I realized at the very last minute that I needed a larger Longchamp tote bag after all. Many hours earlier, when we arrived in the terminal, I'd decided against it, even though I frequently stuff the four smaller ones I use daily (in seasonal colors) to the gills. But after more than eight hours in the airport, everything seemed different. So I chose a chocolate-colored one that turned out to be about half the price I'd pay on Newbury Street. It immediately swallowed all our excess gear, food, and reading matter for the plane. No regrets.