The Secret To Success Living Anywhere In The World
This month in Paris, we’re giving our little apartment a face-lift. Plastering, painting, new furniture, and new curtains. Ready-made curtains don’t work for our 300-year-old windows, so I set out, last weekend, for Sacre-Coeur, home to the city’s best selection of fabric shops.
I found the sheer white cotton fabric I was after in the third shop I visited. I approached the counter to ask, in my best-accented French, both the cost of the fabric and the cost of sewing it into curtain panels to fit my windows.
“Eighteen euro per meter for the fabric,” replied the clerk in English.
That’s always a bad sign, when the Frenchman on the other end of your conversation replies to your French in English. This guy wasn’t fooled. He figured straight off that I’m not of this city. I’m the Paris equivalent of a gringo.
“Plus 50 euro per panel to make the curtains,” he continued.
I’m the Paris equivalent of a gringo, and I was being quoted, I realized, gringo pricing.
I bought the fabric, because I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to look further or to bargain harder. But 50 euro per panel for the couture? Yikes. I figured I’d take the fabric home and ask friends to recommend a more reasonably priced seamstress.
Alas, it turns out, none of my friends knows a seamstress. Plus, Lief pointed out when he reviewed my purchase, I hadn’t bought enough fabric anyway.
So, this morning, back I went to Sacre-Coeur, resigned to the idea that I was going to have to pay handsomely for my simple little window sheers.
Then, stepping out from the Metro, I looked up to see a sign that promised, in French, “Curtains In An Hour.”
To my delight, the young man inside this shop responded to my opening French in French. And he seemed interested in chatting. Where was I from originally, he wondered? Do I know Arizona? In fact, I replied, my husband hails from Phoenix. Ah, he exclaimed, my girlfriend lives in Sedona!
All this chit-chat in French, my new friend politely indulging my slow and careful remarks.
Finally, time to get to the point. The young man reviewed my measurements and assured me that, yes, he could carry out the work straightaway. Plus, he stocks the same fabric as I’d purchased elsewhere last weekend, so I could buy the additional I need from him.
The moment of truth. “How much?” I asked.
“Ten euro per meter for the fabric…and 9 euro per panel for the sewing.”
My fears were confirmed. I’d been a victim of gringo pricing in my original encounter.
Of course, this wasn’t the first time. For more than 25 years, I’ve been spending most of my time in places where I’m obviously the outsider. And I’ve learned that the secret to success anywhere is breaking through to the local market. Do this, and your entire experience of a place changes. Not only does your life become fuller, richer, and more interesting…but it becomes a whole lot cheaper, too.
This month in Paris, carrying out our apartment makeover, I’ve been shopping for everything from paint to shower curtains, from trash cans to juice glasses, from curtain rods to kitchen rugs, and, as with the curtain fabric, I’ve been reminded that it pays, in every case, to be able to shop on the local market. A plastic kitchen trash can in one of Paris’grands magasins (big department stores) can cost 50 euro or more. The same-size bin bought at the out-of-the-way sundries shop we discovered by accident a few years ago costs 12 euro. A single juice glass can cost 4 or 5 euro in central Paris…or you can buy a set of three for 2.50 euro from the discount store in the 18th arrondissement we discovered the other day.
It helps to speak the language. Though, in practice, being able to articulate what you want to say in the local lingo may not be enough.
Alas, as my recent encounter reminded me, my Baltimore-accented French doesn’t always cut it.