Afterward when travelers to Paris talk – and they do – much is sometimes made of the city’s saleswomen. Polished to a gloss and presiding within the chic boutiques of Avenue Montaigne, or windswept, stoic and cold behind the winter apple display of an outdoor market, these women among all the sales pros of Paris are legend – even if they are merely a few out of dozens more helpful, smiley, polite. Such hauteur! Such condescension! With a chilly attitude or an air of disinterest, this breed of shop help is like a Paris police dog on duty. Maybe playful and sweet and eager to please after hours, this pup on the job is menacing, unfriendly, with a vicious bite beneath her growl of May I help you?
As much as I love dogs and dogs love me, I never once thought my handling of this breed of Parisian saleswoman would require special skills, skills I never learned in my weeks of obedience school. Before coming to Paris, I was not at all trained in the maneuvers best used to ensure a friendly encounter when I came upon her at the register or patrolling the boutique; I was inexpert in the voice commands that would signal I was no threat whatsoever, just an affable American with good but flawed French who simply would like to try the pink tee-shirt, size small, merci.
Yes, I am not proud to admit that, when shopping in Paris, there have been occasions I slunk from a shop in shame, my culottes between my legs. So shy was I, so easily intimidated, so uncomfortably inept at handling this saleswoman or that, that sometimes I cowered outside on the sidewalk after our encounter, all the while vowing, never, ever again would I cross into this woman’s territory. In boutique, bazaar or supermarché, it was the same: I simply could not stand my ground when the saleswoman made it obvious that she was alpha dog in our exchange.
Imagine my delight, then. Imagine my relief! Via my own method of obedience drills I have brought the saleswomen of Paris to heel. Today, I can enter any shop, head high and trotting with confidence. Today, no hauteur daunts me, no rudeness subdues me. Condescension, bring it on! Today, I love Paris shopping. Now, the saleswomen and I? We have become a pack of equals.
Want to know how I managed this miraculous circumstance?
It was a blustery April day in the City of Light when I entered a high-rent confiserie, or sweet shop in the swanky section of Saint-Germaine des Prés. Invited that night to a dinner party at the home of Paris friends, I hoped to buy something yummy to add to the feast. Like…oh, yes. My eyes alighted on a fancy display of cookies – chocolate chip, as it happened, American style and lumpy with nuts. Perfect. This was a rare find among typical confiserie fare – chocolates and other bonbons – and this shop knew the worth of its treasure: Each cookie was coddled in gold foil as if it were a gem of exceptional value. A spotlight was trained on the collection. Their price? Revoltingly expensive. Yes, here was my hostess gift. So impressive!
“Vous desirez, Madame?” The shop mistress saw me admiring the cookies, bounded over, and in a pleasant tone asked if she could help me. She was wiry, short-haired, and the frisky way she bounced up made me believe she was friendly. I could not know that her eagerness to please was really the behavior of a young saleswoman, or one not properly socialized.
“Yes, please, I’d like a dozen of the gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate, Madame. Merci.” I somehow missed the saleswoman’s small growl of warning when she next asked if I meant the gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate. But I did note the oh-so-slight stiffening of her stance when she heard my American accent. My shopper’s instincts sharpened. No sudden moves, I told myself. Smile big. Say little. Pretend to be as Parisian as possible despite the faux pas of exposing my most vulnerable areas – my faulty French grammar, blemished French verb tense, bad French accent.
“Yes, please, Madame,” the gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate.
The saleswoman romped off and returned with a set of silver-plate tongs in hand. I watched wide-eyed and silent – smiling – while she nabbed each gâteau avec des pépites de chocolate and slam-dunked the fragile cookies into a thin paper sack. Dunk one, dunk two, slam three four five. Her wrist of silver bracelets jangled violently with the power of each pitch. You want cookies, you? they seemed to suggest, with those 10 pounds too many on that laughably dressed body so obviously American…please. Then again, this might have been my insecurity speaking. Compared to Madame in her exquisite Chanel-ish suit, chic sling-back heels, and makeup impeccably applied (I do so admire the self-care typical of her pedigree), I in my dowdy outfit felt shabby, and in serious need of a visit to the groomer.
Still, I was a little taken aback when Madame abruptly stopped slamming to snarl, “How many cookies is that again?” She was bearing a bicuspid in her tight smile and I swear, her taut derriere looked poised for a lunge or a leap, I couldn’t tell which. All I knew was I needed to handle her challenging stare with calm and confidence. Should I flub the French word for “dozen” or forget the correct tense of “desire,” I feared I would become so submissive under her gaze as to whimper “never mind,” turn tail and run for my life.
“A dozen, please, Madame,” I dared to say and willed myself to refrain from shaking.
As if in response to the heat of the tension between us, the cookie sack in the saleswoman’s hand suddenly started to ooze. Under the shop’s hot lights, dots of slick butter and blobs of melting chocolate spotted the sack. Madame, however, was oblivious. She slam-dunked eight, nine, ten into the poor, weakening sack growing greasier. At the bottom seam, an ominous bulge appeared.
I then happened to glance beyond Madame to an artful tableaux of golden boxes arranged on the wall, each wrapped in beautiful, flowered ribbon.
“Madame, s’il vous plait,” I said as polite as you please. “The gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate are a gift. Please, may I have them wrapped in a box?” I pointed to the tableaux as clearly and cleanly as one who had won Best in Show. Deferential and sweet, I hoped my nonaggressive temperament would earn me Madame’s favor. But no.
“Ah, non!” she snapped. “Impossible.” She walked the slick cookie sack to the cash register and, as her final word, taped it closed. “Candy comes in a box. Cookies come in a sack.”
“Really, Madame,” I ventured. My voice, unfortunately, was trembling. “I am happy to pay extra. I’d like the cookies in a box. Please.” I sensed the sack sitting on the counter between us was like a greasy squeak toy she wanted nothing more to do with. She was done playing with me and I could not tempt or tease my way back into her good graces.
“Ah, non! Impossible,” Madame snapped again. “Candy comes in a box. Cookies come in a sack.” She ran my card, dropped the sack into my hands, and, with barely a Merci, Madame, loped off to busy herself arranging chocolates in a distant corner of the shop. At this point the confrontation reached a dangerous impasse. Was I simply going to slink away, defeated before there was even a fight, my buttery, chocolatey sack sticky in my hands? Or would I reprimand the saleswoman for unacceptable behavior and meet her on her own turf, rudeness to rudeness?
Unwisely, I chose the latter.
“Sil vous plait, Madame.” I used my indoor voice but was pleased by how stern it sounded, how in control – my USA twang out there and proud. “I am prepared to pay more to put my gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate in a box.” I held aloft the increasingly soggy sack so the saleswoman could see the disaster waiting to happen. I did not say please again – an incivility that conveyed the seriousness of my command. Madame glared at me from her place before a tray of gingered peels of orange, and said not a word, made not a move.
I, too, would not be first to roll over in surrender to the other’s dominance, so I dared to glare back.
“Impossible,” she barked.
Clearly, the saleswoman expected me to accept our transaction as finished – fini – and leave the confiserie happy with my oozing gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate. Should I linger any longer in her territory, causing a problem…well, I felt Madame’s attack might be imminent. How vicious would it be? Would she rip out my dignity by ignoring me completely? Maul my self-esteem by chewing me out before a crowd of other confiserie shoppers?
I did not want to be left for dead for the petty sake of some gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate, so I tried a different obedience technique in an effort to charm the saleswoman into liking me enough to want to give me a box.
“Madame, you’ve been very kind,” I lied. “As a fun and delightful person who no doubt gets invited to lots of parties, you must know how much your hosts are tickled to receive a beautiful gold box filled with gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate.” Here the saleswoman shoved the tray of orange peels into place, snorted in exasperation, and click-clicked her sling-backs to the register, where I stood in fierce refusal to budge.
“Madame,” she said in a tone to wither the very soul of my gâteaux in their disintegrating sack. “I, moi-même, would not dream of giving gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate to my hosts.” She placed her palms on the counter to position herself, I felt, closer to my jugular, and leaned in to finish her sentence in the most rudimentary French-for-dummies she could muster. She spoke slowly, simply and with exaggerated enunciation. “These gateaux, Madame, are considered cheap – an insult.”
Cheap! At a price per dozen so high I choked to even speak of it. The saleswoman had me cornered. I could no more argue, cajole or persuade my way into a gold box as get Madame to lick my hand, so to speak, in affection. She detests me. Still, in spite of the way she then scampered off, her fine French snout held proudly aloft, I would not be so easily dismissed. The sack of gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate in my hand was fast becoming a gloppy mess and was desperate for aid.
“Oh, Madame?” At the sound of my command Madame picked up the pace of her trot toward the farthest corner of the shop and her ears did not so much as perk. In fact, when she arrived at the far-flung display case of caramels wrapped in pretty flowered foil and fashioned into a pyramid, she ignored me truly, madly, deeply. So be it. I had one more trick to try.
“Madame,” I said. “I would like to speak with the manager, please.” The saleswoman turned toward me with a face full of evil glee. I had her now. Now, she would let me pay extra for a gold box, if only to save her job.
“Madame,” said Madame, with bright, burning eyes. “I am Madame, le propriétaire. What seems to be the difficulty about which you wish to address me?”
I held up the slick, soggy sack so the saleswoman – no, the shop owner – could see for herself why only a beribboned gold box would do this wretched afternoon.
“Madame,” I whined. It was pitiful to hear, my whimper of begging, pleading, beseeching. “A box….”
“…for my gift….”
“Impossible. Candy comes in a box. Cookies come in a sack.”
There and then I gave up. All the training techniques I knew had failed. This saleswoman had me subdued, and all I could do was head for the door, my slick, sticky sack and I, while my skirt of static cling stuck between my thighs. Shame! Allowing a mere saleswoman to do as she pleased with me. Who even knew it was possible to flunk obedience school, yet I felt I had. Here was a bitch I could do nothing with.
I rubbed my nose in my failing a few moments and then remembered. There was yet one maneuver I could use on Madame. If only I had thought of it sooner!
Rather than make my escape from the confiserie while I still could with courage intact, I bravely, boldly, tried one more time.
“Madame,” I called to Madame, who now was perched on a low ladder, adding more rows of gold boxes to the tableaux.
“Oui, Madame,” said the saleswoman without turning even her head in my direction.
“Would you possibly consider….” I addressed the back of her Chanel-ish suit jacket.
“Ah, non! Impossible.”
And here is where I employed the technique that forever changed my relationship with this troublesome breed of Paris sales professionals.
Impossible, you say? No gold box for me today?
Well, then, okay!
Giving my command all the strength and enthusiasm of one totally confident in her authority, I spoke with cheer to the saleswoman’s nubby-wool buttocks.
“Merci, beaucoup, Madame!” Gratitude oozed from my tone as thick as the melting chocolate chips of my cookies. I clutched my sticky sack in one hand and with the other gave a little wave to indicate no hard feelings. My gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate and I, we were just fine. “Thank you for your help, Madame. Merci again and have a wonderful day!”
Once outside the shop the sack, as expected, burst at the bulging seam and sent my costly gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate crashing to the sidewalk. Before I could gather the crumbs a light rain turned the mess to mush. But don’t cry for me, people who have met this saleswoman of Paris and found her to be precisely as described. My encounter with Madame taught me everything I needed to know to make shopping in Paris fun, even wonderful.
That evening I attended my friends’ dinner without the gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate, but instead with an armload of lush, pink roses. During dessert I thought to charm the party with a witty vignette – I was sure – about the ill-fated gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate and the saleswoman so snarling, so snarky, so smug. Certainly everyone would giggle knowingly.
“And then she said, yet again, that cookies don’t come in a box.” At this high point in the story the other guests looked at me, incredulous.
“I know!” I replied to their encouraging expressions, which told me they, too, had had run-ins with the most vicious breed of Paris sales professional.
“But Mademoiselle!” An older gentleman at the table, as French as his dapper silk cravat, spoke up. “It is true! Candy comes in a box. And the gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate, did you say?” All gathered at the table nodded in sober agreement. “The gâteaux avec des pépites de chocolate, Mademoiselle, they come in a sack.”
I knew that. Didn’t I always know that?
So now, whenever I cross into the territory of she who knows best, this shopper’s best friend, I am quick to remember: Who is top dog in any Paris shop? Don’t look at me.