It’s been quiet this late summer here at Skirt! There are two reasons for that:
- I’ve been cramming in final edits for my essay collection [shameless plug], EATS OF EDEN, which comes out March 6! Who knew that writing a book is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and all-consuming?
- This September, I took my first-ever international vacation to Munich (for Oktoberfest) and Paris (for PARIS), and when I wasn’t working like mad on my book, I was working like mad on researching everything from the necessity of compression socks to the trick of calling the airline and asking for the Hindu Vegetarian meal that doesn’t suck, and how you need to ask for “une carafe de l’eau” and “l’addition s’il vous plait,” and which adapter plugs you have to bring along to not fry your curling iron, and so on and on until that surreal moment when we actually BOARDED A PLANE…for Houston. To connect to Munich.
As you may imagine, a hefty portion of that prepper effort was spent planning my outfits. There were sketches drawn, Excel spreadsheets tabbed, travel packing cubes purchased on Amazon. I read about How to Dress Like a Parisian on Pinterest, decided I couldn’t fake a normcore-simple style that has never been mine, and concentrated on picking the best (and most comfortable) pieces I owned. I had a Coat Crisis a week before and had to go emergency shopping with zero bargains.
Since neither Angela Merkel NOR Emmanuel Macron reached out to adopt me, I had to come back here two weeks ago, and I’ve been sifting through almost 2,000 pictures and a deluge of anecdotes doing the only thing I compulsively know how to do: shape a narrative. And although the Big, Serious Europe Lit-Rah-Chah essay(s) are still getting in formation, I have had enough time to put together the greatest style lessons I learned in the heartland of fashion.
Lesson One: A good fit is universal.
We landed in Munich the day before Oktoberfest kicked off, and the first thing we did after checking into our hotel and getting our pallet of luggage up to the room was to walk a few quiet city blocks to Angermeier, a two-story Trachten (traditional German clothing) store.
Now here’s the thing I wasn’t expecting about Munich. Even though it was Oktoberfest, shops exclusively selling dirndls and lederhosen were EV-ERY-WHERE. And not temporary, seasonal pop-ups, although those were there too (especially near the train stations, selling paper-thin facsimiles to fresh-off-the-track tourists). Even chain fashion retailers like H&M and United Colors of Benetton had lavish Oktoberfest-inspired window displays. You could go Amazon Prime cheap, like the study-abroad undergrads we sat with during Fest, on up to full couture dirndl LEWKS for thousands of Euro. Angermeier was renowned as a fantastic middle option: quality at an investment that would make your wallet whimper, but not howl.
Let me back up just a skoch to put this shopping experience into context. I have been wanting an authentic German dirndl MY ENTIRE LIFE. Ever since I was a kid and we’d visit Leavenworth, the Alpine-inspired village in Washington State, and I’d try to convince my mom to drop a hundred or so dollars on a dress, apron, and blouse combo I’d outgrow the next year. I was a perennial failure. Ten-ish years later I moved to Portland for college largely because I knew the waitresses at The Rheinlander restaurant were required to wear dirndls while serving, meaning I could (1) start a career in a schnitzel-related field and (2) cosplay as Heidi every single day. When, after orientation week at school, I drove over to The Rheinlander restaurant (up until this year on Sandy Boulevard), I was met by a hostess in standard cater-waiter white starch shirt and black trousers. “Oh yeah, they stopped making us wear dirndls a few years ago,” she explained all my dreams away. The rest of adulthood I spent with only the errant Halloween costume dirndl for local fests or whatever because I didn’t have a good enough reason to invest a few hundred dollars in The Clothes of the Blankenbillers. When Matt and I finalized our itinerary, Get The Real Deal was on the top of our must-list.
Although all the Germans we met spoke much better English than we could possibly reciprocate in their language, many of them still spoke very little. Which made finding my size in a wacky US to EU conversion system a little bit of a challenge. I ended up failing with a bunch of specimens off the wrong rack, while a woman gestured emphatically with me to understand where things weren’t fitting right and when I should lift up my boobs to get a better push-up. When I peeked out of the dressing room in my pink-and-green Winning Dirndl, she exclaimed the only English word we exchanged: “SUPER!” A group of girls trying on their own outfits burst into the universal language of giddy applause.
Lesson Two: Bring Novelty Purses
Why? Because they’re small and easy to pack, and they make the best pictures. Wherever you’re going to visit, Betsey Johnson has made a whimsical wristlet in their most famou cuisine. The lady I bought my Oktoberfest flower crown from was super excited about Das Pretzel Bag.
Lesson Three: No, You Can’t Do Heels
Matt warned me. My sister warned me. You probably warned me. YOU CAN’T DO HEELS WHEN YOU’RE ON A STRENUOUS, WALK-HEAVY EUROPEAN VACATION.
But you know what you didn’t know? You didn’t know that I found this chi-chi walking shoe store at Bridgeport Village, and they sold me two pairs of lovely low-heeled travel shoes handcrafted in Italy (and come on, Italians know a thing or two about cobblestones), and I wore them all day at work before we left and they felt like an absolute dream.
I did pretty good during Oktoberfest, where we spent much of the day camped at our precious not-reserved table. I did okay on our day exploring Munich, and definitely fine on our 6-hour train travel day to Paris. When we decided to museum-hop prior to Matt admitting foot defeat and learning the Metro system, I began to run into problems.
My breaking point was across from the beautiful Shangri-La Hotel on the way to Champs-Elysees to check out the Arc de Triomphe. We’d already clocked about 7 miles that day, and that was with a cruise down the Seine dropping us off on the other side of the city. I slumped onto a bench on the steps of Palais de Tokyo and unwrapped my mummied feet, wrapped in every quick fix I picked up from three separate Pharmacies. On cantankerous wifi I found the Champs Nike store, and said, “emergency stop.” An hour later, after way more confusion than you could ever imagine involved in getting one pair of running shoes and two puffy athletic sock sets, I was free…to only kind of limp around for the rest of our trip.
Sharp ensembles are important. The ability to move in your final destination is more so. I will forever more be the dorky tourist in tennies.
Lesson Four: Buy All The Scarves. Wear All The Scarves.
When we first arrived in Paris and checked into our hotel, we went around the corner to the first cafe and sat outside, where I breathed in many patrons’ cigarettes and didn’t even care because I WAS IN PARIS and somehow they didn’t stink like American ones and steak frites were on their way and not ordering wine at 2 in the afternoon would be straight up rude. We sat there in a kind of train-lagged daze watching the early afternoon traffic of professional men and women, mothers, and their smartly dressed toddlers dodge cars to cross Saint-Germain. The tailoring! The coats! The subtle eyewear! And most flamboyantly, the scarves.
I brought one scarf with me to Paris, one that I’ve barely worn since buying it on MyHabit five or six years ago (RIP, MyHabit). It was indispensable our first rainy day stumbling around the city, when the humidity turned my mild case of bedhead into a full-scale disaster.
As the days went on I kept reaching for it morning after morning, since temperatures in and around the city are weird. It’s crisp in the mornings, rises and dips throughout the day, gets chilly at night. The museums are various degrees of sauna, and by September, they’ve all nixed the possibility of air conditioning. The true Parisian men and women wore them with all the effortless grace the legends foretold. They were living fall goals.
I added a few authentic versions to my collection as souvenirs, to bring my level up from Charming Charlie clearance items. One higher end, thick and warm one from a fancy Saint Germain boutique, a cheapie in Montmartre where I was able to utilize my shaky French to “combien ca coute?” confirm that it was “douze” euros, and a lovely light cherry print from the Pylones store in the Louvre carousel. My only regret? Not buying the expensive one with hot chiles I found around the corner from Le Grand Epicurie, or douze more from those other places where I figured “just one” was fine. I mean, who cares if we were just staying in budget and already had to pay an excess baggage fee to Lufthansa? The last two weeks have been a futile exercise in trying to track down the things I didn’t buy on the spot from badly designed European websites and, in the case of a macaron-topped Laduree pen, the eBay black market.
Lesson Five: Wear Stripes
When I was packing I wondered, am I choosing too many striped patterns? Will this be bad? Am I in a rut?
No. You can never have enough striped tops.
They look French! They go with scarves AND Australian brooches! They’re long enough to cover your butt in leggings! Consistency in your travel wardrobe is a good thing. It makes it easier to mix, match, and save valuable packing space for things like, oh, I don’t know. Novelty purses and clutches.
Lesson Six: You Will Not Wear All the Dresses You Pack
As hard as you may try not to pack an excessive number of outfits, it will be excessive, because you’re going to skip out on backtracking to the hotel to change. You’re going to miss dinner reservations. You’re going to be on a postcard street corner eating some cheese the café just had laying around like whatever that changes your just-opening life, and think back to that girl in your house five thousand miles away thinking she was going to mastermind these nights with the rules and rhythms of her world. The Spanx don’t leave the travel cube and you do not miss them.
Lesson Seven: Parisians Recognize Game
We traveled from Portland to Munich to Paris prepared to face the wrath of the French. They wouldn’t like us, we were warned all the way up to our last night in Germany, where a Brit outside the hotel bar tried to steer us toward visiting Greece instead.
Why is the world hell-bent on smearing the French?
They were, with only one exception (a waiter who looked like the villain Duke in Moulin Rouge!), kind and helpful and friendly far beyond what we normally encounter in our Pacific Northwest lives. They were reserved and generally softer spoken than, well, me, but willing to get excited when the occasion called for it.
Take, for example, our wait for an elevator to take us back to the bottom of the Eiffel Tower. We’d done all the dream things: got to the top, bought the way overpriced champagne goblets, and kissed above the most beautiful city in the world. And I did it all in the Eiffel Tower dress I couldn’t not order from Unique Vintage a couple of months before departure.
While we waited, one of the lift operators on break came up to us. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to Matt, “but would you mind if I take a picture with your beautiful wife in her incredible dress?”
I felt, for a moment, like the Princess of Paris. A moment I’ll never forget of feeling accepted by a city that, for so many years, I’ve only dreamed of dreaming of having a way to visit. The eventual, hopeful destination I had in mind when I signed up for high school French as my language elective. A city I took hundreds of pictures of at every turn, because I didn’t want to forget a single geranium box. And a moment like that, where all your love and ridiculous planning turns into “oui girl, ouiiiii?” That’s worth coming halfway around the world for.