Wanna Know a Secret?
From Elaine’s Lumière column for T Magazine’s The Moment.
Conde Nast Archive/Corbis
Despite the economic crisis gripping Europe, there is one industry in France that is still going strong: the discovery, telling and selling of secrets. I confess to being a sucker for books about secrets, of which I have dozens, organized in three subject areas.
First come the current events’ secrets, with titles like, “Secret Notebooks of a Presidency” and “The Secret Stories of Miss France.” At the moment, the No. 1 nonfiction book in France is “La République des Mallettes” (The Briefcase Republic), an exposé by Pierre Péan about the suitcases of money delivered by African leaders to top French politicians.
Second are the volumes of travel secrets, most of them about Paris. I have books about the city’s secret churches, small museums, night life, gardens, places to kiss, reduce stress, drink tea. “Unexplored Paris” tells me where to find country streets, a beehive, a windmill, the last outdoor public urinal, a 17th-century Metro station. “The Hidden Side of Buttocks” shows me more backsides in French art than I will ever want to see.
Finally, there are the chick-lit secrets — guides to how to look, walk, eat, drink, smell and make love like “une Parisienne.” With titles like “Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl” and “The Art of Striptease,” they lure you in with promises that if you follow their rules, you too can discover the secret to discovering good sex and even better coffee with a brooding, sophisticated, narrow-waisted, velvet-voiced French man. I have learned from Mireille Guiliano (“French Women Don’t Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure”) that leek soup, in addition to acting as a purge, smells up your apartment for two days. I have learned from Inès de la Fressange, the ex-model and author of “In Parisian Chic: A Style Guide,” to avoid counterfeit handbags, white fringed boots, leather suits and fishnet T-shirts
So imagine my delight upon receiving “My Little Paris: The Best Kept Parisian Secrets,” a new book by a team of young Francophiles. Three years ago, these gals created a blog on the subject that has soared to success. “Parisian ladies will never reveal their favorite addresses,” the authors explain. “Our team of insiders infiltrates the city from morning till dusk, spying on these ladies to unveil secret boutiques, inventive new restaurants and hidden treasures. In this book, we reveal everything.”
The book cover, by the talented illustrator Kanako Kuno, is the sort of cliché I hate myself for loving: a tall, thin woman in black spiky heels; black leggings and gloves; a tightly cinched trench coat and sunglasses. Her hair, under a print kerchief, blows in the wind as she fearlessly strides across a narrow Paris rooftop.
And how secret are the secrets?
Well, there are remedies to get out of “a Paris rut,” like, “Walk down Avenue Montaigne wearing nothing but your trench.” No, no, I want to say. Parts of Avenue Montaigne’s sidewalks are polished to make them look prettier. I once slipped and fell and severed my hamstring there, right near the Plaza Athenée.
Trust me. It is not advisable to arrive at a French emergency room wearing no underwear.
Then the authors recommend a pedicure with live fish. You plunge your feet into an aquarium and “Garra rufa” (fish doctors) nibble away at your dead skin and soften your feet. Much better to turn to Page 57 and learn how to have a Chinese massage at home.
I was most intrigued about the recommendation on how to have one orgasm per week. Alas, it was a recipe for a pepper-and-ginger-infused fondant au chocolat. “The ginger arouses your desire and excites your taste buds, while the pepper sets off an internal fire.”
The value of keeping secrets in France goes well beyond live-fish pedicures and chocolate. In fact, “My Little Paris” doesn’t know the half of it. Secrets here are used to to please, to titillate, to destroy. Without the revelation of secrets, Paris dinner parties would flounder; magazines would not be sold; television documentaries would not be made; daily life would be less exciting; politicians would be less potent against their rivals; more couples would stay together.
For some, keeping secrets is an essential component of being chic. As one French women’s magazine put it, “Snob-inclined people hate to read an article in the press revealing the existence of their neighborhood restaurant, their hairdresser or their Chinese reflexologist.” The author goes on to say that the “top” secret is the secret address, unmarked.
One master manipulator of secrets is Alain Paul Ruzé, who owns what at first appears to be an upscale gift shop in the sedate 16th Arrondissement. In the olive-walled front room of Talmaris there is a pair of ceramic eggplant salt-and-pepper shakers for 55 euros; a handmade bottle opener with a horn handle for 345 euros; a Murano goblet for 69 euros. It is only when Ruzé opens a sliding door that you share his secret — objects worthy of a decorative arts museum piled randomly on tables and shelves. The disarray makes it look as if it should be a room of bargains. Instead, he shows you items like a handcrafted silver 3,850-euro cockroach.
He tells you he makes his living not from street traffic but from clients who want service for 40 “to create a table in harmony with her decorator’s vision.” Of course, he will never tell you who that client is. “People pass by and have no idea what really goes on inside,” he said. “I love it.”
The dark side to trading in secrets comes into view when the private and the public collide. In politics, secrets are more than a game; they are part of a national survival strategy that can manipulate rumors to cover up or reveal ugly truths. Often the appeal of the rumors is more important than their veracity.
Rumors can be cruel and damaging, even if there is no hard evidence: former President Jacques Chirac has a child by a Japanese mistress; a certain former minister is a homosexual pedophile; a certain party leader may have a drinking problem; the father of another former minister’s child is the former prime minister of a European country; the wife of yet another former minister caught him in flagrante delicto in a Morocco hotel suite.
As the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal unfolded, there was a rush to reveal other “secrets.” Luc Ferry, a former education minister, suggested in a television interview that he had firsthand information that a former minister had been arrested during a pedophile orgy with boys in Morocco. The government at the time covered up the mess, he claimed.
“All of us here probably know who I’m talking about,” he said. He was summoned quickly to a prosecutor’s office in Paris, where he admitted he had no proof. Worse than that, Le Canard enchaîné, the sartirical and investigative weekly newspaper, revealed that Ferry had received 4,500 euros a month as a faculty member of the University of Paris-VII in the 2010-2011 school year without ever teaching a course. He ended the controversy by retiring. Secrets, sometimes, backfire.