I wear a beret . . . frequently. In addition to it being somewhat stylish (in a Euro/Boho way), it’s more than a vain affectation or silly gimmick for me. Years ago, I realized that it enables friends to spot me in a crowded room, imprints on new acquaintances (extremely helpful in the shallows of the entertainment business when you want to be remembered), and keeps my head warm, even though I have some hair up there to protect me from the elements. It also suggests something about me that I willingly admit. I am a Francophile.
Generally, berets are the province of a certain type of artsy or — Zut alors! — diffident Frenchman. I come by this observation after numerous trips to France and hours spent at sidewalk cafés in Paris, Nice, and other parts of le beau pays. If France could be said to have a national headgear, it would be the beret. Of course, the distinctive caps can be part of military uniforms, as in the U.S. Special Forces unit known as the Green Berets, and on the flip side, they can denote a revolutionary or rebellious fervor as when they were worn by the Black Panthers. Certain hat-fancying fashionistas have long considered them chic to don while on the go. But you’d need to have a lot of gall to say they aren’t emblematically Gallic.
In my case, I began wearing a beret at the behest of a girlfriend after I experienced a head injury that required stitches. I continued to sport a beret after the healing was complete, because I liked the look and, again, it proved to be a handy social tool. And it gave off that French vibe, which is why I think my partner came up with that particular style of cap. She knew I embraced all things French, including the movies of director Jean-Pierre Melville (especially the glimpse of Montmartre gangster life in 1956’s Bob le Flambeur), the sweet treat of a freshly-baked chausson aux pommes (I’m still pissed that La Boulange at Polk and Green closed its doors a few years ago), and the bounce and sophistication of ’60s French yé-yé pop (an absolute joy to hear those sounds at the semi-annual Bardot a Go-Go dance parties, most recently at the Rickshaw Stop on Fell Street).
ROOTS AND SPRING BLOOMS
One might say it started when I was a kid and read the swashbuckling adventure novel The Three Musketeers by French author Alexandre Dumas. It swept me away to the extent that I considered fencing lessons, although my parents laughed at the idea that a middle-class kid would want to learn such an antiquated skill. Instead, when the time came to pick a second language to learn in high school and the consensus among my friends was to take Spanish (“because it was easier”), I opted for French. It proved to be a good thing when it came to expanding my world-view — in more than one way.
At the age of 16, I joined fellow members of the school’s Alliance Française chapter on a chaperoned spring-break excursion to Paris, chock full of local sights (the Eiffel Tower, bien sur), gustatory delights, and day-trips to surrounding regions that introduced us to the magnificence of the palace at Versailles, the holy glory of the cathedral in Chartres, the gardens of the impressionist artist Monet in Giverny, and more. So much history. So much beauty. Plus, our public school did the expedition in conjunction with an area Catholic school, which resulted in my first real taste of teenage romance.
Her name was Emily. (That’s right, Emily in Paris. No joke.) Like most of her classmates, she was thrilled to get away from martinet nuns and school uniforms and visit a foreign land. Speaking of foreign, she didn’t mind the exotica of holding hands and making out with a Jewish boy for the first time. As we walked along the Seine at twilight then crossed a bridge to the Île de la Cité to get ice cream cones from a street vendor, we talked about our relatively pedestrian lives back home, how the trip had opened our eyes and hearts, and how we would return to Paris together at some point in the future. After a couple of furtive, post-vacation phone calls, we lost touch.
I don’t know about that nonfictional Emily, but once I graduated college and commenced my career in San Francisco, I definitely returned to Paris many times. I usually go in April — like the song — and often include a second destination on the continent or in the U.K. to expand my knowledge and appreciation of Europe’s diversity. Still, I always find myself happiest wandering the Bastille in search of a bookstore specializing in bande dessinée, grabbing a baguette and brie for a quick snack, dining on succulent roast chicken and a side of pommes frites after a perfectly prepared soupe à l’oignon at Brasserie Balzar on the Left Bank near the Sorbonne, taking the funicular up to Sacré-Coeur, and catching a set at the legendary jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette. And you’d best believe I’m wearing my beret.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on “The Mark Thompson Show,” via YouTube, and on “Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast,” via GABNet.net, Roku, and iTunes. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster