We went away like proper young women: matched sets of luggage neatly stowed in the Air France cargo bay, nothing more than trench coats and tote bags over our arms.
We came back 10 days later like ugly Americans: bulging shopping bags in each hand, rolled-up water colors and oil paintings balanced precariously under our arms and a new leather jacket and our coats, too bulky for the suitcases, stuffed wherever they would fit.
What had happened in between was Paris: the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore' with its Herme s scarves and Piaget watches; the Left Bank crammed with charming gift shops and fashionable boutiques; the Rue Royale, with its crystal, china and silver, and Montmartre with its paintings.
Even in the lobby of the elegant Ho tel de Crillon, where we stopped for tea on a Sunday afternoon, we were lured into what the manager billed as Paris' only hotel boutique with custom-made merchandise -- perfect if your initial happens to be "C." Everything, from the Porthault terry jogging suits and lace-trimmed towels to the crystal Saint Louis decanters, sports the Crillon's "C" trademark.
Despite our intentions to visit museums, sip wine on the Champs-E'lyse'es and tour cha teaus, we found shopping as irresistible as the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. In fact, this summer it seems almost impossible not to shop -- or at least window-shop -- in Paris. The temptations are everywhere.
And don't expect the French deep-freeze you've heard so much about. Paris is thawing. This may be due less to the love of Americans than to the strength of the dollar. But expect to be well received whether you buy or browse.
Our first stop was the Parisian department stores, the grand magasins on Boulevard Haussmann near the Ope'ra, a good place to get a broad sweep of what Paris has to offer in the way of shopping.
Printemps, at 64 Boulevard Haussmann, turned out to be three separate stores connected by enclosed bridge walkways. In the women's store, the fourth-floor Rue de la Mode had 26 designer boutiques -- everything from Kenzo's splashy magenta-and-emerald-green prints to refined white linen suits and silk blouses by Dior. Yves Saint Laurent, Burberry's of London, Guy Laroche and Christian Aujard -- one right after the other.
It was the same for china and crystal, across the Pont de Cristal walkway into Printemps de la Maison -- not just French Baccarat and Limoges but beautiful offerings from all over the world, some very affordable.
Down the street, at Galeries Lafayette, 40 Boulevard Haussmann, the show stopper was the architecture of the store itself -- a soaring stained-glass rotunda, with each floor built balcony-style around an atrium.
We expected to be intimidated and confused by the European sizes and the language; neither of us speaks much French. Instead, we found hostess-interpreters on the main floor in each store, sales help so abundant it puts Washington-area stores to shame and, in Printemps, a directory in English of everything in the store.
Practically across the street from Galeries Lafayette, American Express at 11 Rue Scribe is a convenient stop to exchange money. With the fluctuating dollar-to-franc ratio, the decision on where you change your money -- American Express, a bank, a store or your hotel -- may be more important than in the past. The rates can all be different on the same day.
(For those into currency-watching, shopping around for rates may be the answer. But you may want to evaluate the impact on your pocketbook versus the value of your leisure time in Paris. We decided to lock in a good exchange rate -- nearly 9.4 francs to the dollar -- at home and bought French traveler's checks -- in francs -- at the National Bank of Washington. That left us more time to spend them in Paris.)
Still on the Right Bank and a short walk from the Ope'ra was the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore', Paris' Fifth Avenue. It has all the names, and all with their own boutiques -- Saint Laurent, Cardin, Lanvin, Gucci. And, yes, there were bargains, if what you mean by bargains is luxury items that can be had for far less than at home. The exchange rate, which fluctuated between about 9 and 9.5 francs to the dollar while we were there, worked wonders on Parisian prices.
That was true whether we had our eye on an expensive Baccarat crystal paperweight, which sells for $195 at Mazza Gallerie but was 825 francs (about $88) in Paris, or a bottle of French perfume, which was selling for almost half its American price.
The stores on the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore' were crawling with Americans, including one Chicago woman, on a three-hour stopover between planes, who announced in Herme s, "My God, these scarves are over $100 back home," and then proceeded to buy what looked like the entire stock for about $65 each. The dollar had struck again.
Exhausted, we took a break for a light lunch topped off by tea and pastries at Angelina's, at 226 Rue de Rivoli. Another good spot is W.H. Smith's, 248 Rivoli, an English bookstore with its own tea room.
Just off the Rue de Rivoli is Rue Royale and in the space of two blocks there are four fabulous stores with silver, china and crystal. Lalique, 11 Rue Royale, looked like a museum of crystal masterpieces, with prices to match (though less than the same items would be at home).
We liked the wide selection across the street at Delvaux, where one of us ended up buying a small crystal bowl -- German not French -- at a great saving. We found it cost about 100 francs to mail the gift back home, a modest price that would also have covered a larger, even heavier package, according to the helpful sales clerk.
But we didn't limit ourselves to the better known shopping areas. We explored some of the neighborhoods that made us feel we were really in Paris. Avenue Victor Hugo, one of the spokes off the Arc de Triomphe, offered major-league shopping like the Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore'. Here, we were told, is where the upper-crust Parisians -- who make this neighborhood their home -- spend their money. No, some sales clerks could not speak much English, and yes, there was much hand signaling -- wider, narrower, taller, shorter -- and exchanging of notes on prices. Thank God, numbers are the same in French and English.
As we made our way toward the Arc de Triomphe, tucked among the full array of clothing boutiques were other enticing stores: Armorial, 26 Avenue Victor Hugo, with embossed leather desk sets and antique crystal ink wells; Un Jardin . . . en Plus, a few doors away, with china, linens and table settings that looked like they came out of a garden; and Savignac, 11 Avenue Victor Hugo, with beautiful suede and tweed coats for men.
Every block or so, there was a bakery to tempt us with a walk-away lunch of ham-and-cheese on a crispy baguette and tarts of pears, strawberries and apricots, all of which we sampled.
We spent hours, too, poking around on the Left Bank, where the designer boutiques now have branches, but where the real finds are the lesser known shops.
At Maison de la Petite Gaminerie, 32 Rue du Four, owner Leo Bergere had a distinctive selection of infant items -- custom-made cribs, handmade music boxes and unusual baby announcements. He owns two more shops in the block, one for tots and one for the 8-to-12-year-old set. Nearby, a boutique called Go managed to cram handmade antique lace dresses and blouses, antique picture frames, crystal atomizers and even huge brass headboards into its tiny, cluttered quarters.
At Galerie X, slightly off the beaten path on the Rue des E'coles near Rue St. Jacques, we bought tiny lamps (about $30 each) with bases made of plump pillows covered in pastel prints with shades to match -- compact and lightweight when stuffed into a shopping bag. At Garreau, 18 Rue de l'Ancienne Come'die, we succumbed to serving trays and place mats painted with pastel landscapes in the style of Monet -- pretty enough to make us think of Paris every time we look at them.
Don't expect the long hours and Sunday openings you're used to at the malls back home. With few exceptions, this is still a city of small shops. While many Parisian proprietors no longer close for leisurely lunch hours, most close up promptly between 5:30 and 7 p.m., and many are closed Mondays.
Our last stops in Paris, in those all-too-brief final hours, were at a bakery for a croissant, an art gallery for a glimpse of a longed-for painting and at Pont-Neuf for one last look at the Seine. There are some things you just can't take home in a shopping bag.