When we arrive in France’s Riviera this summer, Lolo doesn’t have a swimsuit. It’s not because she forgot to pack it. She simply doesn’t own one that fits.
My new teenager is growing like the queues of passengers waiting for the next French train that’s actually running. That’s to say, quickly. Nothing fits her anymore. Number one on my French shopping list – once we get the food in – is a swimsuit for Lolo. Probably three swimsuits, in fact, as she needs at least one one-piece for camp back in Canada.
Buying a few swimsuits in a French seaside town for a tall, willowy, 13-year old will be a piece of cake (or a slice of sumptuous millefeuille), I assure myself. It will be positively simple compared to my own expeditions into swimsuit stores. It will be a fun, joyful occasion. We will bring the poodle.
On the day of our outing, Antibes’ Kiwi shop (Lolo’s favourite for swimwear) is closed exceptionnellement. Not much is exceptional about this situation. It simply reminds us that we are back in France. We return to the old town a couple days later, this time without the dog.
“Bonjour!” I say to the shop attendant, because that’s what you say when you enter a French shop.
“Bonjour,” she chimes in return, fulfilling her part of the formula.
Lolo and I are her only customers, and she’s the only sales assistant, again a situation that is common in Antibes’ old town, and one that can make shopping experiences surprisingly intimate. Conversation could meander, say, to where my family lives for the majority of the year, the beauty of Canada, the fact that the clerk was snowmobiling somewhere in our vast country two winters ago – Oh, it was epic! – or how her uncle moved there 20 years ago so a visit remains high on her list. Or, our chit-chat could tread into the jurisdiction of the French language (how long I’ve studied, how tough it is) before merging into how long we’ve come to Antibes and where the attendant herself calls home. In the end, she wraps up the can opener or doormat, or whatever it is that I’ve purchased, and that can opener or doormat will carry memories of the saleswoman down at the quincaillerie whenever I call that object into service.
In any case, Lolo and I find ourselves alone in her favourite swimsuit shop with the sole attendant, a smiling blonde woman, presiding as official greeter and knowledgeable aid to all our shopping needs. I feel the need to explain.
“Nous cherchons un maillot de bain,” I say. We’re looking for a swimming suit. Maybe even two or three suits.
“Iz it for you?” The clerk replies with interest, in English.
“Non,” I begin, when Lolo finishes my thought in French that bears no trace of my Anglophone accent: “Oui, c’est pour moi, merci.”
The cheerful attendant does a double-take, like most people do. My teenager speaks beautiful French and I – the mother, the one who’s meant to be in charge – don’t. With Lolo’s tanned skin and extra-long hair, pushed as it is these days into the perfect messy bun, my kid also looks more local than I do. She thinks this juxtaposition is hilarious.
The three-way conversation between the clerk, Lolo and me continues mostly in French, as my daughter and I flick through a few dozen varieties of swimsuits hanging on Kiwi’s double-racked wall. Each model is displayed in a single size, while alternate sizing – the inventory you might try on and eventually purchase – is packed into drawers beneath a central display table.
The old part of Antibes was built for the 17th century. Most stores are, you could say, cozy, a state that lends itself to this shopping intimacy. The setting also creates a new challenge: Once you find an agreeable swimsuit in an acceptable colour, you must hope the hovering attendant can dig your size out of some hidden crevice.
Lolo avoids the array of girls’ swimsuits, having fully graduated to the women’s models – if in mind more than form. She makes a few selections, and the assistant rifles through the drawers. Voilà! We are in luck. It’s early in the season. Lolo takes the suits into a curtained change cabin.
The assistant keeps flicking through options. “Vhat about zhis?” she asks, insisting on English now that my daughter has disappeared from sight. “Or zhis one?” She holds a couple bikinis on their hangers.
I shake my head. Lolo began this excursion with an open mind – she’s an easygoing ado, as the French say, with the smallest obsession over fashion – but she does have her limits. Big busty cups obviously won’t work, but “less ample” models also can be challenging, even if I can’t put my finger on the problem.
Lolo calls me to her change cabin. She refuses to come out. I draw back the curtain to see my kid wearing a simple, teal, one-piece swimsuit. She looks beautiful.
“It’s awful,” she says. “It looks like your kind of swimsuit.”
That would be the problem I was trying to pinpoint. Are my swimsuits that, well, mumsie? I swallow hard and encourage my teenager to try the other swimsuits. What else can I do?
The attendant suggests a kids’ one-piece. “Vhat about zhis in zhe biggest size?”
The suit looks perfectly Lolo to me, light turquoise and simply cut with a contrasting lime green belt. I slot the suit with a couple others between the curtain and the side of Lolo’s cabin.
“Mom!” she calls. “Don’t come in!”
“I’m not!” I say to the curtain concealing the child to whom I gave birth. “What do you think of these suits?” My voice is still somehow upbeat.
“No and no” comes the resolution from the other side.
“But the turquoise one! It’s so you!”
“No it’s not! The colours are too happy.”
Of all the excuses I never would’ve guessed that one. Lolo loves turquoise. Of all the suits I slip inside, I get a single “maybe” for an all-black bikini.
Several minutes later a frustrated voice emerges from the cabin. “I can’t do the black bikini!” The curtain shimmies to the side. A black bikini top flops on its hanger, a tangle of silky material and cords. “It’s too complicated.”
Why does swimwear turn us females, younger and older alike, into our own worst enemies? The affable assistant and I never delve into personal matters – after all this time, I know nothing of the region of her birth nor does she comment on my French – because there is no bandwidth. Finding a swimsuit is a far more wretched business than all other shopping trips. Still the kind woman never appears to tire of Lolo and me, even as the discarded options mound on the table outside the change cabin.
Fortunately one bikini – a model that Lolo picked herself – fits the bill. The bandeau top is not complicated, and apparently its light pastel colours are not too happy. In fact, the peach-and-lilac pattern brings out my daughter’s tanned skin tones, and with her messy bun even messier after the swimsuit scuffles, she wears it like a stunning French teen.
I pay for the suit and, as you do when leaving a small French shop, whether or not a bag dangles in your hand, we wish the patient clerk “Au revoir.” To see again. You say it even if you don’t expect to.
Lolo’s new pastel bikini is perfect for the Côte d’Azur – but it won’t do in a murky Ontario lake. Our foray into the teenage swimsuit scene is not over, but a simple solution lies just over the hill.
Antibes is the elder sister to its amalgamated town of Juan-les-Pins, the younger sibling who parties a little too hard. Antibes is the one with the cathedral and archeology museum. Juan-les-Pins has the casino.
Both towns, though, have long, sandy beaches. The little sister will be an ideal place to shop for a teenager’s swimsuit. I am sure of it. Stay tuned . . . .