Just as it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to visit France anytime soon, a package arrived containing what, in the B.C. (Before Covid) era, would have been French souvenirs. The parcel was shipped from the city of Dijon, home to the famous mustard.
The contents of the box were spreads for the human flesh – not to flavor that of animals: an assortment of skincare products that would normally cram my suitcase on the return from a French sojourn. There was cleansing gel made of evening primrose and white water lily; facial moisturizer with pomegranate; and body lotion that contained sweet almond and smelled faintly like marzipan.
During the past five autumns spent living in France, collecting such locally manufactured lotions and potions has become something of a pastime. I never dreamed that Nuxe rêve de miel body lotion, purchased in Paris in November, would, five months later, provide daily aromatherapy during the coronavirus quarantine. “You smell like France,” my husband has said lately, every time I use this blend of honey and botanical oils.
My affinity for these particular French liquids was born of practicality. On the outbound journey I am a light packer, wedging several seasons’ worth of clothing, footwear and electronic equipment into a 22-inch rollaboard bag and an under-the-seat tote. To save space, I don’t take toiletries, acquiring them instead on the other side of the Atlantic. By then we have a rental car to transport my expanding number of belongings, from one Airbnb to the next.
In the process, I have become an aficionado of French parapharmacies, which sell a wide range of non-prescription products. City Pharma, at 26 rue du Four, in Paris, might be the most well known among travelers. In the days before social distancing, elbowing crowds – speaking many languages – frenetically shopped there from an almost overwhelming array. One would have thought they were giving things away. (Contrary to popular misconception, not everything at City Pharma is even discounted.)
Perhaps the adrenaline-stoked consumers don’t realize that there are parapharmacies all over France. Though few have as much shelf space as City Pharma, their prices are at least as good, and, without the mobs, they are much more hospitable to browsers.
The fun of visiting these establishments is discovering new skincare products, which might unlock the secret to the glowing visage that all French women seem to have. Selections vary widely – I suspect (though have not been able to confirm) that companies pay for product placement. As you ponder the possibilities, a knowledgeable saleswoman wearing a white coat might approach you and offer to help. Among other things, she can be a great source of free samples. Another approach, for the commitment-phobic, is to look for the big bins, filled with travel sizes.
There are seasonal specials, too, like the twofer that induced me to buy Uriage Eau Thermale sunscreen in the waning days of summer, at a parapharmacie in Besançon, and the wine-scented Caudalie hand and nail cream in mid-autumn, in St. Jean-de-Luz. The latter was an especially good deal; a single tube costs about twice as much at Sephora.
Other French makes, including Avène, Bioderma and La Roche-Posay, are available in the United States, at prices that are comparable to what you would pay in France. Though I might use them overseas, they are not worth schlepping home.
With brands that aren’t sold here, or cost a lot more, I stock up – typically at the end of my journey, in Paris – ideally buying enough to last until the next trip. So when the pump dispenser on the Onagrine Visibly Pure cleanser gave up its last drop of primrose- and lily-scented soap last Sunday, it seemed like a bad omen. Sure enough, two days later, the European Union issued its list of 15 countries from which travelers can enter the Eurozone. The U.S. was not among them.
That same day a four-pound carton from Parapharmadirect, in Dijon, arrived on my doorstep in New York. I discovered this online store during a Google search for certain products that couldn’t be found on U.S. sites. Not all brands could be shipped outside the E.U.; Caudalie, for example, could not. But all the other French items I wanted were available, and some of them were on sale.
The shipping cost, via United Parcel and based on weight, was largely offset by the fact that, unlike Europeans, I didn’t need to pay tax. And though the site indicated that transit could take up to 15 days, my order arrived within 48 hours.
In European fashion, every item was wrapped like a gift – first in black tissue, and then in a layer of lacy white insulating paper. There was even a little sample size included, of a moisturizer that I hadn’t ever tried.
It wasn’t as much fun as going to the parapharmacies in person, and it didn’t make up for the fact that my autumn travel plans have all but vanished. But at a time of high anxiety and so few pleasures, it was a spectacular consolation prize.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.