There is no escaping that slightly nasal drone, the one that makes my back teeth set and my body tense. It sounds the same no matter where I am: Rome, London, Berlin, or here in Paris. The phrase you can’t take the ___ out of the ___ neglects to mention the part that remains is like the remnants of a clinging headache, the smallest agitation bringing back familiar pain. I can hear it over the clink of glasses and noise of the open kitchen, the amplified murmur of a room full of tables all speaking French and the sound of the crowds in the street that rushes in with the chill February night air every time the door opens. You’re supposed to go out once a week with a man—you know, dress really sexy and not wear any panties. Let him know you’re not wearing any, but just tease, don’t go to bed with him. It increases your sexual power. For what purpose? I’d want to tease, then fuck like an animal. Maybe it’s similar to being a romantic predator—which Vanity Fair once called Carla Bruni, then the new Mrs. Sarkozy—knowing a combination of teasing and mysterious allure will get you almost anything, including a man with nuclear power. I go to this yoga group every Sunday, then see a life coach on Tuesdays and it’s like just so spiritual. The thing you have to do is build up your Instagram followers and your other social media platforms. I can get you hooked up with funding to increase your brand visibility. Does she have time to enjoy her power and spirituality, or maybe the point of it is to constantly be in the process as long as you’ve got the selfies. No pics, no enlightenment. These days it’s like the proverbial tree in the forest—if you aren’t announcing to the world what you spend and what you’re doing, that is, what other people should be doing, satori’s going to pass you by.
She looks de rigueur for the expat stereotype in Paris: blue-striped Breton shirt (Petit Bateau), jeans (H&M or Zara if you like to pretend your wardrobe is insouciantly high-low), and ballet flats (Lanvin), dark blond hair chopped into a long, deliberately undone bob, orange-red lipstick (Chanel Rouge Feu) and hardly any other makeup, or has faked it well enough, because the art of the Parisienne—according to every breathless magazine article—is that she looks effortless even if she secretly spends a lot of time achieving it. I don’t even need to question if she waxes, because anyone with that look and line of conversation is getting a landing-strip wax every month like clockwork. I feel like a nun in a simple slate-grey linen dress, but at least my heels are good (Tabitha Simmons) and I can laugh because my black lace panties barely cover a 70s porn bush. I’m guessing she’s my age, with some sort of fashion-new media-PR job that allows her to live in a photoshoot-perfect flat in one of the chic arrondissements (wrought-iron balcony, tall windows, daily fresh flowers, oversized gilt mirrors, and velvet sofa—some darling Clignancourt find she had re-upholstered) and eat at places like this a few times a week. I don’t know why my compatriots are so loud in other cities, but it always makes me speak even more quietly: barely above a whisper as if in order to balance things out; an apology to everyone and no one.
Her companion, who sounds like she might be Dutch, listens rapt, occasionally asking a question that sets her off into another nasal tailspin of money and spirituality. People seem to love to tell you all about the laundry list of activities they do in order to maintain their spiritual balance, although I’ve never been sure how or when you realise you’ve reached satori. My guess is that when paying enough for it you assume it turns up neatly at the end of a session and requires weekly maintenance, lest you slip back into being just another materialistic everywoman, Cinderella redux. I once told someone at a party who said they felt very spiritual, then asked if I was that I thought it was a word that people misused because they were afraid that their own thoughts weren’t enough to justify their existence—then he snorted a line of coke and the conversation disappeared along with the powder. The look on his face—elevated—told me he’d forgotten both me and what he said. Higher than you—I guess that’s what we’re all aiming for. Bored one day, I clicked through a Paris Vogue shopping article titled ‘16 pieces to help you tap into your spiritual side’. The first piece was a gemstone evil-eye talisman necklace priced at £7400. It struck me that this wasn’t so far removed from the long-ago French craze for magots, those porcelain Oriental figurines that I mainly knew as variations on the happy sitting Buddha, bringer of luck and good fortune. Something about us as a culture can’t seem to separate faith and money, but I suppose it’s nothing more than different kinds of investment. Maybe we’ve confused the rush of spending with something higher, in the same way I can’t look at Bernini’s Teresa or Ludovica without thinking they were coming. Ecstasy and enlightenment are just two sides of the same coin, but it’s probably easier to free your mind when you’re free of debt. The rest of us fuck to temporarily forget who we are.
Two others now turn up to their table: a man and a woman—not a couple, because he slides into the seat next to the Expat and kisses her familiarly, but not quite on the lips because of the lipstick. He’s French: as evidenced when he says hello, with dark hair and a short beard, well-groomed, but not overly so, and has multiple nicotine patches—did he forget they were on before applying another or was he just desperate to continue feeling the mild euphoria—on his upper arm under his well-fitting short-sleeved grey t-shirt. He sets a vape pen on the table, the duality of trying to quit with such intensity but still smoking strikes me as an apt metaphor for the money-spirituality conversation. The woman, more high fashion than the others with extra-long straight black hair and monochrome outfit, sets her new-season Dior bag in my space on the banquette and I silently shift my years-old Longchamp clutch to the other side. Price difference: at least £3000. It could be a version of territorial pissing, or she is one of those people who is used to being accommodated without a word. It hardly matters which, because I am one of those quiet women who always accommodates. It hardly matters because in a world that always recognises the importance and presence of a woman like her, I hardly matter.
I know I’m a voyeur, pretending to eat but all the while equally fascinated and repulsed by the Expat: her loudness, dirty-blondness (probably courtesy of the David Mallett salon, where all the current Parisian It-girls go), confidence, the complete belief that she is the centre of attention and everyone wants to know what she knows. Still chattering, everyone takes up their menus. The decisions are quick: the women all order fish, only fish or seafood-based starters and main courses. It occurs to me no matter what big city I am in, women like the Expat and her friends only ever order fish and white wine. I look at my plate, with its glossy, almost obscene sweetbread and layers of dauphinoise potatoes, the glass of rich red next to it. The difference is like high fashion editorial to porn, or at least what high fashion is now. There’s a fragment from a book or movie stuck in my head about some model from the late 70s or early 80s, I think Gia Carangi, who became famous when an editor unhappily looking at shots of the usual models exclaimed something like I want meat (meaning a woman who looked like she would devour you, reflected in her flesh)—and then she saw this model’s photo. I remember a line in The Bell Jar about Esther being taken out in NYC on expense-covered fashion lunches, where everyone else ate grapefruit and salads, while she chose butter and cream-rich dishes. Plus ça change. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the partner-husband look longingly at my plate. But he dutifully orders fish too. Behind him a couple sit at another table: both have ordered steak frites, and the man is absorbed in his plate but that doesn't stop him from talking nonstop, seemingly to his food. She glares at him, food untouched, drinking quickly from her wine glass. Occasionally she glances over at the Expat’s table with a look of bare jealousy; not of the women, but of a man at least pretending to be interested in his partner.
I have a theory about eating fish at restaurants and the women next to me—that it represents purity; the closest thing to if not sublime denial, then control of one’s appetite(s). Fish and seafood are often shades of white, and as their plates and bowls reveal, even the accompaniments are clean: seaweed or fresh young green vegetables, barely treated, the entirety sitting in the clearest and lightest of broths, or highlighted with just a touch of espuma and powdered coral. They feel superior, and that becomes a kind of competition amongst tablemates, a transcendental act compared to the mere consumption of other diners. I look like a nun in my plain grey dress, but I am sinning in the eyes of these women: the sins of gluttony and lust entwined, appetite exposed. I desire food and sex in the same way: I want to eat, whether it takes the form of steak, cock, or cunt. Up the street a bit there is an art gallery—a lot of places around here are—where a small bronze sculpture of a hippopotamus hangs from two leather support straps, charmingly grotesque. Magot also referred to the often-grotesque look of the figurines. Otherness on display. Isn’t it funny how that kind of excess must be extreme and contradictory: fat, or rather, not thin—because not is key to how we define the world—is control and its lack, abundance but often not the right kind. That’s me, I think. And these women? Well, they’re Parisiennes, naturellement—the fashionable, elegant ladies of Balzac’s Faubourg Saint-Germain to my culinary and sexually debauched courtesan. Is real appetite hidden here? Reading a profile of Sabbia Rosa, a famous lingerie shop, the owner told a tale about one of the customers—a wealthy gentleman who came in and purchased numerous pairs of silk mousseline panties, declining a bag, instead stuffing them into his suit pockets. I often fantasised about this: if on arriving at his lover’s apartment, he removed handful after handful like a magician pulling out those endless handkerchiefs, or if she dove into his pockets with delight, somehow scenting the treats of sex upon him, a thing to only be delighted over in secret.
They rule the evening’s conversation, which mainly revolves around more money and spirituality. He mostly listens—toying with his vape pen although he doesn’t use it, self-consciously touching his patches, looking at everyone else’s food and the relish with which it is eaten, sipping his wine, the first to suggest another bottle once it is finished. I feel a wetness on my leg and I am embarrassed at what I assume is my unconscious desire for him, wondering if when they have date nights she sometimes follows the no-panties rule, teasing him to distraction but withholding sex because it makes her feel invincible, if they still have passionate sex or simply fuck—something Charlotte Gainsbourg said in an interview once, that after being with one’s partner for so long, you just fuck, which I understood to mean that it was still intimate, but lacked the dizzying fervour of the beginning of a relationship or the illicit thrill of an affair. Imagine the luxury of settling for only fucking and thinking it ennui. Suddenly I realise if I am that kind of wet it must be a disaster, because it’s near my knee. I look down in a panic to see a small whippet, the same grey as my dress, curiously nosing me. Her friendly exploration is a recognition of a fellow animal’s signal—but at least in this moment it’s oblivious to other humans. Her owner, a casually but impeccably dressed older man on his own is reading and eating, lost in his plate and his book the way people who are comfortable dining alone are. He smells of patchouli, the expensive kind: dry but earthy, refined. While I stroke the dog’s sleek head I try to think of all the costly French patch scents I know, and decide he is wearing either Serge Lutens Bornéo 1834 or Chanel Coromandel.
When my dessert arrives—a crème fraiche foam with candied walnuts, pumpkin confit, passionfruit custard, and micro-greens that taste of anise, the partner looks over again after catching my eye—embarrassed at my thoughts, I meet his gaze hesitantly then look away to stare at my plate, feigning concentration—whispering something in a low voice to the Expat. She laughs like he’s told a brilliant joke and says you shouldn’t order that, loud enough for other diners besides us to hear. To the rest of the table: he would eat two desserts at a time if he could. I am unclear as to why he shouldn’t: he is slim and muscular—I can’t imagine diabetic, otherwise he wouldn’t be drinking that much wine. Of course shouldn't isn’t the same as can’t, but regardless, he doesn’t order anything else. His response hardly matters, because he hardly matters. He and I, alone in our place of visible invisibility. Strange, the things that make us temporarily seen. Sometimes it feels like it’s a negative spotlight more than anything else—that the best we can hope for is to remain as we are, unseen but content in the shadows; out of range of bright scrutiny. Rarely have I experienced what classics refer to as a wave of pity: it always struck me as wildly melodramatic, appropriate for a story like Madame Bovary but not much else. But I feel something very close to it now, and want to take him by the hand, run off down the street to the nearby Gérard Mulot patisserie, buy a box of their caramelised orange tarts and crème brûlées, then lead him to the nearest hotel to fuck and eat and smoke real cigarettes—damn purity and restraint. Satori must be in fucking and messiness and spontaneous guilty pleasures, too. Instead I continue to eat: too-aware with each mouthful that I am thinking of him inside of me and he is thinking of the sensations he could have enjoyed if he had only dared order—that somewhere in the space between us our thoughts are devouring each other; in a place where they matter, enlightened in their longings.
Image: Tomoé Hill