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Feature: A Charming Historical Re-connection at a Paris Boutique

The Eiffel Tower in Paris France

The Eiffel Tower in Paris France


Paris, France – ‘Terre de nos aïeux’ (‘Our home and native land’)


By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada


In a boutique specializing in wool trends, I reconnect with La Parisienne and Le Parisien, who believe me to be one of France’s prodigal daughters, returned from the pages of history.


All shimmers in the City of Lights.  An aura of decadent sensuality reigns in Paris, where women are effortlessly cool in their high heels and unwashed hair, all of them looking as though they have only just spent a lazy afternoon making love.


The French have a better expression for ‘window-shopping’ – ‘lèche-vitrine’ – which literally means ‘to lick the window.’  And in the city home to some of the world’s greatest designers, I dared not enter the grand meccas of Dior and Chanel, opting instead to ‘lèche’ their warmly lit ‘vitrines.’  I was returning from Senegal, where I had overspent on tapestries, wood-carved jewellery, and a stunning baobab-dyed boubou, and could not even aspire to own a Chanel keychain.  I wandered the high-fashion district, stopping to stare enviously at Paris’ elite making its way into a special event at Sonia Rykiel.  I even made a date with Le Petit Caporale, Napoléon, making my way to Les Invalides to gaze on his grey felt coat and tricorne with horrified reverence.


No, my fate in Paris was not lavish decadence, but rather to become the prodigal child returned to the land of her ancestors after centuries of exile.


A French Canadian born in northern Ontario, I have always been fiercely protective and shy of my distinct accent with its crushed vowels and rolling ‘Rs.’  My hesitation at engaging in long conversations in French initially marked me as an American.  Disabused of this notion, Parisians then dubbed me ‘la Québecoise.’  After elaborating on the politics of French Canadian identity, I was rebaptized ‘la petite Canadienne.’


And so it was done – through little effort, Parisians were delighted with me.  I was a novelty.  A historical curiosity.  Mignonne, adorable.


And only a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, la Canadienne would find herself drawn into the boutique of a French couple eager to behold their little sister.


I cannot remember the name of the boutique, nor the street where it operated, only that they specialized in wool.  But they were warm and charming, immediately delighted that I was ‘Canadienne.’   La Parisienne filled my arms with soft, sheer wools and cashmere, artful scarves, trendy French fashions as she peppered with me questions.  Had I come to see my French brothers?  Was I happy to be ‘back’ in France?



Ceinture Fléchée a traditional French Canadian scarf/belt

Ceinture Fléchée a traditional French Canadian scarf/belt



As I pulled cashmere sweaters over my head, I explained that I was a descendant of the Filles du Roi, or ‘Daughters of the King,’ brides imported from France to colonize and populate New France, and men from the Régiment de Carignan, a military unit sent to defend France’s interests in the colony.  I hesitated, told them that I loved Paris and recognized myself in the pleasures of the table, fashion, and beauty… but now, over four hundred years of history, religion and politics separated French Canada from France.


La Parisienne and le Parisien listened intently, peering into my face, eager to find themselves in my own traits.  They pronounced me ‘mignonne.’


In honour of my courageous ancestors, who had somehow survived the brutality of Canadian winters, I could not leave la Parisienne and le Parisien’s boutique without woolens that would help me return to my snowy country.


Imagining that Euros were not real money and that my recent, self-inflicted poverty would therefore not be aggravated, I purchased a delicate, sheer cashmere sweater with a deep V, sleeves opening like bells, and the grey colour of a cold winter sky.  I pick up another trendy sweater, a loose-fitting black shirt with grey crotched lace.  And the pièce-de-résistance – a lovely fuschia scarf, bordered with white crocheted ribbon longer than the scarf itself.


Le patriote (famous painting of the 1837 rebellion) wearing the Ceinture Fléchée, the traditional French-Canadian belt/scarf

'Le Patriote' (famous painting of the 1837 rebellion) wearing the Ceinture Fléchée, the traditional French-Canadian belt/scarf


Nelson Mandela wearing the Ceinture Fléchée during visit to Canada

Nelson Mandela wearing the Ceinture Fléchée during visit to Canada


As I say goodbye, la Parisienne gazes at me.  “Petite Canadienne,” she says, “vous êtes mignone.”  She pushes a small rack laden with mobile phone trinkets towards me.  “Take one of these jewels.  It’s our gift to you.”  I smile, and choose a small pink and white heart, a rose at its centre.


Although their heart was their gift to me, I would remember la Parisienne and le Parisien by the fuschia scarf I would wear almost daily for the next year.  A few months later, while visiting a group of women in Layibi Techo in rural northern Uganda, an old woman would gesture to me, wanting to trade her headscarf for the fuschia scarf I had bought in Paris.  Thought tempted to set the scarf free to wander northern Uganda atop the head of a Luo woman, I could not bear to separate myself from a fushia scarf purchased in the land that my ancestors had one abandoned for a better life.


I had not returned home to Paris.  But I had brought back a piece with me.


 ’Le Patriote’ courtesy of Creative Commons, Nelson Mandela courtesy of Telefilm.ca, wool photography courtesy of Flickr/Creative Commons


Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is an aspiring writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at atelier.tumblr.com.


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