Cities change those who aren’t used to them. Even gentle winds, once exposed to their influence, start to get funny ideas. A gentle breeze, wandering alone through narrow streets and tall buildings, begins to turn cynical; this is the just the beginning. Before long it falls in with the wrong crowd, delinquent air currents with too much time on their hands, and finally it takes to spontaneous assaults on the skirted segment of the populace.
I was never a hat-wearing person before coming to Paris. I used to love the feel of a cool gust of air as it swished through my hair, patterning it into playful curls before excusing itself with a friendly miniature leaf whirlwind. That view changed, though, in the face of Paris’ pre-meditative gusts, which lie in wait for unsuspecting passers-by like some dark and foreboding character in an alleyway, then jump out and rob them of the precious time they spent combing their hair that morning. It seems that Parisians must resign themselves to belonging to one of two categories: those with hats, and those with unfortunate hairstyles.
There are exceptions, of course, but I was not one of them. Considering that I’m a foreigner that shouldn’t be surprising; I suppose it takes a lifetime of practice to endure streets like wind-tunnels and still emerge from them with a self-satisfied -and photogenic- air. Nevertheless, after a couple weeks of averting my eyes every time I passed a mirror, I finally decided that if I were going to “go native”, it would be better to settle for a hat than a head full of tangles.
That was where I came upon a slight snag: where could I go to find suitable headgear? It isn’t easy changing a lifetime of habit at the drop a cliché, and up to now, I had never visited or even seen a hat shop in my life.
It doesn’t help, of course, that I’m completely inept when it comes to the art of shopping. If I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, I become like some hopeless yet endlessly intrepid explorer. I walk around looking for the one perfect item that matches some vague image in my head. As I browse past things that almost -but don’t quite- meet my expectations, the image adopts elements of them until it becomes some chimeric amalgam that no earthly creature has ever seen.
Of course, even if I’d known what to look for, the large department stores of Paris -where I was assured, by friends, would be the best place to look- didn’t make life any easier. Every one I visited seemed determined only to tease me. I would see signs pointing to floors containing “accessories” only to arrive there and find row upon row of dress-shirts. Now and again I’d be greeted by the tantalizing sight of a trio of hats on a shelf but, like a fly to a promising brown lump on the pavement that turns out to be a damp cigar, I’d arrive beneath them to find still more shirts individually wrapped in plastic bags. The actual hat sections were often hidden well out of the way and offered little selection.
All this begs the question: where in the world are Parisians buying hats? I methodically checked every one of the “Grands Magasins”, and only came across a half dozen or so different styles: a mere fraction of the styles I saw on the heads of people in the streets.
I still don’t know where Parisians manage to find their impressive range of head-wear, but I finally found something right under the nose of the “Galeries Lafayette”; it was a small stand selling touristy T-shirts and a small assortment of hats. One of them caught my eye, not a fancy or elegant hat by any means, but perhaps that’s why it drew my attention. Much like me, it was awkward, slightly out of touch with the times, and attracting little attention from the fashion-savvy locals. I purchased it for a mere 10 without even trying it on and dashed home.
Thankfully, it fit, and although I bought it partly out of convenience and despair of finding anything better, I have to admit that I rather like it. At the very least, I learned a little bit about how to shop in Paris, and I can once again walk its windy streets without fear. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind owning a dress-hat…