For years I have worn a beret because I consider it the most sensible of all men's hats. Occasionally, I've received odd looks from acquaintances who either smile or roll their eyes at what they consider a blatant attempt to cultivate a cosmopolitan air. But I have turned the other cheek to this mild criticism, preferring simply to grin and beret it.
Recently, when my wife and I were to spend a week in the fair city of Paris, I made sure to pack my beret, which is a little threadbare but still carries on the inside label the notice that it is a Vrai Beret Basque. I planned to purchase a new one in Paris, for I felt sure that there, of all places, it would be readily available and commonly worn.
In making our way around the City of Light, I should have noticed sooner than I did that very few were wearing what I had assumed was part of the uniform-of-the-day for French men: a couple of chaps speaking English to their wives as they emerged from Mc-You-Know-Who's on the Champs Elysees, and a man with mud on his shoes in the line waiting (with us) to get into the Musee d'Orsay. Well, it didn't strike me as all that odd, and I went ahead with my planned purchase of a new beret.
I knew that the shops on Rue de Rivoli were a little pricey, so off we went to the well-known department store Bon Marche. When I asked where the berets were, the first clerk looked a little uncertain, but he directed us to the far side of the store. No luck: It was women's hats. Ach! Then another clerk sent us halfway back in another direction to men's clothing, but still no luck. A third clerk ventured that they might be up one floor.
Eventually, a clerk asked us if she could help us, but to my inquiry about berets she became a tad diffident. Nevertheless, she said she did have them and led us to a remote corner of the floor where she opened a huge drawer that creaked as if it might not have been opened recently. There they were, maybe 50 of them.
At this point, my wife found it hard to suppress a giggle, while the clerk tended to look away. But I had an idee fixe about a new beret. So after translating my head size (7-1/4) into a continental 57 by first trying on a 55 and then a 59, I said, "D'accord!" - though I secretly flinched at the price: 175 francs (about 30 bucks!). But even 175 F cuts no mustard with your ordinary idee fixe, so the wad in my wallet declined accordingly, and we went off with my new beret.
Now I began to notice that natives sitting on the same bench waiting for the Metro to arrive appeared to regard me with some curiosity. Then, in the crowded Metro, a young lady, exhibiting French valliance, stood up and offered me her seat. Not to my wife, mind you, but to me!
"Might be your beret," said my wife, always ahead of the game, and mouthing the words to me silently, as I self-consciously slipped into the seat.
By now, the Parisian beret picture was coming into clearer focus, but then I am nothing if not determined in my sartorial ways.
So I must confess that the penultimate coup de grace, beret-wise, was administered to me at a restaurant in the Place Pereire. The waitress who took my beret (my old Basque one, as it chanced) before seating us, had apparently glanced at the label inside, for she asked me, with a trace of testiness: "Vous etes un Basque, Monsieur?" giving us the impression that if so, she'd just as soon have us dine elsewhere - an understandable desideratum, considering the current liveliness of Basques. Just for fun, I was tempted to allow that I was from Pays Basque and appear disruptive, but we were hungry....
When we returned to our hotel that evening, then, I decided it was time to get professional beret advice, so I asked the proprietor.
"Oui, Monsieur," he said, looking down and replying to my question with true Gallic deference, "I have noticed your beret.... In Paris, only ... uh ... les paysans [rustics] wear them, nowadays. [Long pause] Bon nuit, Monsieur."
"Merci bien," I replied.
"Well, touche!" I thought, as I headed for the stairs.