Wednesday, December 13, 2006

A Seductive One Day Christmas Shopping Spree

London’s Daily Telegraph recently published some scary statistics stating that the average mother (always the mother) spends 315 hours preparing for Christmas broken down into:

288 hours shopping
4.19 hours wrapping presents
3.03 hours decorating the house
4.27 hours preparing Christmas lunch
4.38 hours cooking Christmas lunch
11 hours cleaning up the mess

Just the thought of spending 288 hours shopping would send anyone, except my Aunt Gail and Mama Beuna, right around the bend, so here’s an idea that can help you desperate mothers out there cut down the time and increase the pleasure of the annual Christmas shop – abandon your family and head quickly for the Left Bank of Paris.

I can almost hear the intake of breath. Isn’t Paris expensive? Crowded? Aren’t the French difficult? What could you possibly buy in Paris that you couldn’t find in London or anywhere else? Well, here’s the thing. In Paris, it is the “experience” which makes the difference. In Paris at Christmas, women don’t look harassed. In the 6th District, at least, they look like Catherine Deneuve and the stores look like something out of the recent Sofia Coppola movie about Marie Antoinette and the food, don’t get me started on the food. Best of all, in the same amount of time the Telegraph’s survey was allocating for Christmas clean-up, you will be able to get most of your shopping done and eat a great meal. Et voila, your Joyeux Noel is ready to go.

Having been Christmas shopping in Paris every year for the past decade, I now have it down to a fine science and the key learning can be summed up in the names of two stores, Le Bon Marche and Monoprix. The first is a temple to what is chic and luxurious, while the second is the master of value for money. I love them both. Here’s why.

At Bon Marche, you can find something fabulous for everyone on your list. Back in 1870, Aristide Boucicaut, the founder of the world's first department store, stated that his aim was to “seduce the clientele” by presenting the newest products in the most stylish surroundings. Over one hundred years later, the store continues to deliver on that grand promise. The architecture, once described by Emile Zola as a “cathedral to commerce” is large enough to absorb the Christmas crowds but not so large that one feels overwhelmed. Yes, it is expensive, but no more so than you would pay for the same branded goods elsewhere.

From the excellent luggage, travel and ‘clothing for sport’ departments on the top floor to stationary, toys and glamorous children’s clothes in the basement, everything in Bon Marche seduces. In Housewares, even pots and pans look like art work and the area devoted to cleaning products and dustbins feels drop dead elegant. The Lingerie Department has everything from armament for buxom grannies to the flimsiest and most beautiful “what nots”. Throughout the store, people who serve you are, for Parisians, rather nice and decent linguists. Best of all, Bon Marche will wrap everything for you and the presentation is very smart.

After spending a morning in Bon Marche, I recommend that you head for Monoprix for food, stocking stuffers and lots of great inexpensive stuff. With outlets throughout Paris, the nearest Monoprix to Bon Marche is near St Germain des Pres at 50, rue de Rennes. Don’t let the tiny woman’s accessories area upstairs fool you. All the action is in the basement below.

If Le Bon Marche is all about luxury then Monoprix is about value for money and even though the food halls at Bon Marche, called La Grande Epicerie de Paris, are the finest I know and you shouldn’t miss taking a look, I always buy my Christmas food items at Monoprix. Over the years, financial constraints have taught me that you can purchase excellent quality Foie Gras, Marron Glace, Pain d’Epices, Pates de Fruit and all the elements for an elegant Christmas Eve dinner at Monoprix for considerably less than Bon Marche and I don’t think anyone has ever spotted the difference. Monoprix is also great for cheap but chic children’s clothes, socks and stockings and all kinds of “mess” that you need for Christmas. If Walmart were a manageable size and had some style, it would be Monoprix.

Having raided these two dramatically different stores, or perhaps in between raiding, it is time for a reward. There are lots of first class places to go for a drink and something to eat, but I always head for the Nemrod. It may look like just another brasserie, but the food, service and atmosphere are, as Patricia Wells wrote in the IHT “well above par”. Just around the corner from Bon Marche at 51 Rue du Cherche-Midi, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, the atmosphere is bustling and very Left Bank. Everything is good, but the salads exceptional, especially the Salade Auvergnate. Lunch should set you back about €60 for two.

So there you have it, a one day Christmas shopping spree where at least you will enjoy your financial demise. If there is one thing the French understand better than anyone else, it is luxury goods and the one department store that has more luxury than all others is Le Bon Marche. If you fill in the gaps with goodies from Monoprix, Christmas, to paraphrase Marie Antoinette, is a piece of cake.

Le Bon Marche
24, rue de Sevres
Tel: 01 44 39 80 00
Customer Service: 01 44 39 82 80
Metro: Sevres Babylone
Hours: 0930-1900 Monday through Wednesday and Friday. Open until 2100 on Thursday and 2000 on Saturday
50, rue de Rennes
Metro: St Germain des Pres

Hours: Mon – Sat from 9:00 to 22:00

Le Nemrod
51, rue du Cherche-Midi
Tel: 01 45 48 17 05
Open Mon – Sat from 6:30 to 23:00
Reservations at lunch and dinner recommended

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