I found myself walking along the rue Notre Dame des Champs one Sunday. It’s a meandering street, heading south through the sixth arrondissement from the rue de Rennes, tripping across the Boulevard Raspail, and winding down to where the Closerie des Lilas meets the Boulevard Montparnasse meets Boulevard Saint Michel. Pastoral name aside, the street itself isn’t all that much to look at. Architecture-wise, it is heavy with institutional-looking institutions (odd, because in Paris many of the places that ought to be the most institutional-looking in fact could be mistaken for four-star hotels or museums.) It has a deplorable lack of trees. And yet, despite its plainness, and the outright ugliness of some of the buildings, it does cut right along what is, for my money, one of the most chic parts of the sixth arrondissement (and therefore one of the most chic parts of Paris.).
Plenty will argue with this assessment. Saint Germain and Saint Sulpice, both, are beautiful. And super-chic. Of course. No contest. But they also happen to announce their fabulousness with authority, and rather loudly: the buildings; the very fancy stores; the warrens of pretty little streets; the landmark cafés. And as if all that didn’t make it obvious enough, certainly the ubiquity of silver money clips, big sunglasses, and valet parking stands bring it home.
In contrast, tucked along this western edge of the Luxembourg Gardens, are a handful of residential streets, and though there are some pretty buildings, there’s not an excess of architectural flash or grandeur. It’s just solid. The streets are quiet, which is to say profoundly wealthy; the wealth of a sort that has no need to announce itself. There is an equally unassuming quality to the boutiques in the neighborhood. Even the ones that sell the fanciest things. (Aren’t the most breath-takingly expensive things the most stealthy? The sharp inhale, for example, as you stand in the tiny shop and calculate the price in dollars of the cute little cashmere cardigan, size 6-months.)
These streets keep their secrets. Trying to peek into lighted windows at night is almost impossible. Apart from the sixties building on the rue Guynemer with the fishbowl-like view onto each living room, they are private; whatever’s there is meant only for those already inside. They are anonymous, and anonymous in a way that makes you feel straight-up tacky for wanting to read the names on the mailboxes in the first place. Parts of London, or of Litchfield, CT, or of Pasadena exhale just as discreetly and can inspire identical embarrassment.
But there are indications, or perhaps intimations, over in this little corner of the sixth. First of course, the proximity of the Luxembourg Gardens themselves: adjacent to (and maintained by) the Senate; immaculate; tranquil; discreet. Any guidebook will tell you that Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived nearby on the rue Fleurus. The Agnès B. shops for men, women, and children are right there the rue d’Assas, hiding in plain sight. You could walk past them several times without even noticing them. (And they are on a corner.) The restaurants are quiet, their lighting subdued, their signage often hard to spot. The small boutiques of the rues Vavin and Brea furnish and feed families of well-shod children, expensively turned-out babies, and alarmingly sophisticated teenagers.
Altogether, it’s very pleasant.
I spotted the dog first: a big, bosomy Golden Retriever, pale blonde, straight out of central casting. Perhaps straight from a Ralph Lauren shoot. Gigantic and luscious. At the other end of the leash was a tall woman: no, strike that. Not just any tall woman. At the other end of the leash was Inès de la Fressange,
Yes, that Inès: former Chanel icon; Roger Vivier president; designer; parisienne nec plus ultra. So that should put to rest any arguments about the degree of chic at play in the neighborhood. I stand by my assessment.
She was tanned, slim, angular, her glossy black hair cut short. A perfect foil for the dog, actually. Or vice versa. She wasn’t dressed up in the least -- taupe jeans and a deep-brown leather jacket. A very striking necklace with some large pendant. She looked amazing, of course. And totally normal, of course. The photographs show it, but seeing her in person brought it home: her beauty is a kind of dynamic tension between cheekbones and impeccable taste and playful charm.
You might be tempted to conclude that even her shadow is made out of a similarly superior material.
I did flash on a similar moment I had years earlier in Central Park. On a cold March Sunday afternoon, near the Metropolitan Museum, I spotted a woman coming towards me, walking a Dachshund. She had short, dark hair, her narrow silhouette draped in a beautiful long camel coat. She floated along, wholly unencumbered by the icy wind that sliced across Manhattan.
And as I watched her approach, I wondered why I couldn’t be like her. In part, it was because I was in a red plaid jacket, and because my own silhouette is so broad in the haunch, and because the wind was getting the best of me. But more because even from 100 yards, she had a self-containment, a stillness, a kind of aloofness, that I longed to have.
I felt too fleshy, bouncy, and noisy. I felt encumbered. Very much so. I have never been one to float. My center of gravity is too low. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten it into my head that as a tall brunette, I might be impervious. To self-doubt. To perturbation. To pain.
The woman in the park came closer, and I realized why, at least for the moment, I couldn’t be like her: because she was Isabella Rossellini, and I was not.
By all rights, seeing Inès de la Fressange on the street should have set off the same shame spiral. Nothing of the sort. After the nanosecond it took to register that it was her, and that she was indeed lovely, I quickly moved on to my next thought, which was “I hope she’s doing okay.”
Because I knew that she had been widowed this year. Her husband died very suddenly, leaving her and their two daughters behind. And their beautiful dog.
And because I knew -- know -- better, i.e., that there’s nothing to protect any of us from pain. Not beauty, not anything. Loss is a terrible common denominator.
So here’s what I did: I crossed the street. Because I was hoping that she would get a good look at my shoes. I was wearing my red patent-leather loafers that afternoon. They are dynamite, really: shiny; playful; beyond reproach.
I was sure she would like them. I hope she did.