PARIS - This particular street corner does not, to put it simply, seem too romantic. A drunk with a dirty knapsack is taking a leak on the side of a newspaper kiosk, swaying and stumbling on his untied shoelaces. A pale woman stops to glance at her reflection in the window of the closed Monoprix, and a man clutching a squash racket rushes by, late to his Tuesday night game at the club. It's drizzling.
Suddenly, a shiny white stretch limo glides up and comes to a stop. The chauffeur gets out, opens the back door of the vehicle and steps away discreetly. A young couple in jeans and winter coats emerge. He: holding a little green box. She: nervous and looking as if she might burst into tears any second.
"Look up," he tells her softly. "Look up there."
And indeed, "up there," right above the bright lights of the KFC sign, is an electric billboard spelling out a message, in Romani, just for her: "I love you more than anything, and forever. Will you marry me?" it flashes, before the image changes into a pulsing red heart, and then changes again, to "Marry me, Nicoleta." He kneels as planned, rain and wet ground be damned. Out comes the ring. Down come Nicoleta's tears. Up he gets to embrace her. They kiss. They gaze up at the pulsing billboard, and snap some photos with an iPhone. The chauffeur goes off to the side to have a smoke. A group of punks passing by take in the limo.
"Class," one whistles. "Cool."
Paris: the city of love, and, most probably, the most popular marriage-proposal destination in the world. If it's good enough for Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, as people say, it's good enough for us all.
And Nicolas Garreau, professional marriage-proposal planner, is cashing in.
Think about it," says the 33 year-old, sitting in a cafe near Gare du Nord, dressed in his signature trendy black shirt and black jacket, leaning forward to make his point. "There is a major dating industry, right? Right. And there is a massive wedding planning industry - right? Right. But what about marriage proposals? There is, or rather, there was, no one really dealing with that niche."
According to Garreau's calculations, about 3 million couples come to Paris every year specifically to get engaged. Many of these are non-French speakers who have come from afar and who don't know their droit from their gauche, not to mention how to organize a twilight serenade at Montmartre or get someone to throw 1,000 red roses off the Pont des Arts onto a boat passing below, just as the question is popped.
"For many, the day of the proposal is the most magic day of their lives - better than the wedding day, which can be filled with stress like in-laws and seating arrangements," Garreau points out. "So whatever you do, you want to get that proposal just right."
"If someone has a good idea for how to propose, they don't need me," he continues. "But mainly people have bad ideas. Stupid ones, like having Brad Pitt show up with the ring. Or, undoable ones, like getting the entire Eiffel Tower lit up with their names." After a moment, Garreau concedes that having Brad show up falls into both categories - both undoable and stupid.
"The truth is," he says, "if you really want to make 100 percent sure to amaze a women when you ask for her hand - you have to call in the professionals."
Garreau says he was always a romantic. As a kid, he would draw hearts with chalk on the sidewalk outside his home. In junior high school, if he liked a girl, he would find a way to sneak a long-stemmed rose into her locker. And, right when puberty struck, his parents moved the family to Venice - a city that gives Paris a run for the money in the romantic department.
In recent years, Garreau has been living in Val d'Europe, the Walt Disney Company town outside Euro Disney, east of Paris, where he can see the nightly firework displays at the Disney Palace from his balcony, and where it's not unusual to bump into Cinderellas and Snow Whites on their way back from work.
Nonetheless, it took Garreau some time, and some rather random detours, before he found his current romantic calling. An aeronautical engineering student who dreamed of being a Formula One driver, he started his professional life by trying to launch a dot.com lottery startup, which failed miserably but led to the writing of a popular satirical book, and then seven others like it. After that, Garreau headed to America to delve into another obsession of his, horror films; he made a documentary film about George Romero's movies. Finally, he returned to France, recorded a pop album and, looking for a new challenge, returned to the marriage-proposal idea he had been toying with for years.
"I began working with psychologists, and going to every romantic bar and restaurant, and to every supplier of fireworks, red roses and laser [equipment] in town - all so as to learn the best way to orchestrate scenarios with an emotional peak, where a guy says: 'Will you marry me?' - and the woman breaks down in tears and says 'yes.'"
With the help of his then-girlfriend, Garreau came up with and personally tested 35 "proposal scenarios" in and around Paris, ranging from the ever simple but most popular limo and flashing billboard surprise (490 euros ), to the most extravagant scenario, involving lunch at a mansion served by a butler - just as four jets blaze through the sky and create a white heart-shaped smoke ring in their wake (a whopping 15,900 euros ). Incidentally, after all those years of practicing, Garreau decided to break up with the poor woman. But that's a whole other, rather less romantic story.
In any case, there are proposal scenarios with flowers, scenarios with poems, scenarios with blindfolds, scenarios with castles and helicopters, and scenarios with hot-air balloons. And while one might argue that many of these would make people cringe - or maybe worse (like, perhaps the Cinderella scenario, which comes complete with a white horse-drawn carriage and a glass shoe in the right size ) - Garreau is banking on the idea that if you are going to make a fool of yourself for love once in your life, this might just be the right time.
Garreau's company - Propose in Paris - was the first of its kind here, and remains the biggest, employing today a veritable army of free-lance chauffeurs, firework engineers, magicians, musicians, singing waiters, faux bellboys, hostesses who throw roses off bridges, and more. They organize three to five proposals on average a week, says Garreau, with even more during the September-December "high season."
Ordering a proposal is simple: Clients - of which about 90 percent are men - go to the company website, chose their favorite scenario from a pop-up menu, fill in some basic details, arrange the payment - and can then relax, with nothing more to do than show up in at the appointed spot and not change their minds.
Satisfaction is all but guaranteed. With over 1,000 proposals to his company's name since the launch in 2006, Garreau has never had a woman say no.
"Arabs. Asians, Europeans, Americans. We men are all similar when it comes to romance: We all dream of making our girl happy," he explains.
"And the truth is, if a man takes this kind of time and effort to organize his proposal and is willing to spend the money - chances are he has thought it all out well, and is sure of the answer already," concludes Garreau, who has been invited to hundreds of weddings, and received endless photos of babies born of marriages in which he feels he played a small part.
It's 7 A.M. on Friday over at the swank George V hotel off the Champs Elysees, and a big van is circling the block, patiently waiting for the parking space directly in front to open up. When it finally does, the driver eases the van in, puts money in the meter to last the rest of the morning, locks up and goes off for an espresso. It will be a long wait, he expects, as the client who ordered the "advertising scenario" (1,490 euros ) has indicated he will bring his girlfriend out the front door at 10.
10 A.M. comes around. 10:30. A group of gulf Arabs emerge from the hotel and raise their eyebrows. "What is that van saying?" they ask the doormen. Some Russian Jews passing by try to make out the words. An Israeli couple, she in a faux mink coat, comes through the revolving doors of the hotel. She grins - but the message is not for her.
The actual lady-of-the-moment, for whom all the commotion is being made, is still asleep, it seems. Or maybe having a croissant and chatting away, unawares. There is no rush, really. 10:45. 11 A.M. Finally, she comes out, holding his hand. He stops. She stops. She notices. She reads the words slowly, confused. She looks at her man. She reads the display again.
"Yaffa sheli, metoraf aliyech, ve mevakesh et yadech l'olamiim. Mono." ("My beautiful one, I am crazy about you and ask for your hand forever. Mono." )
The doormen nod, encouragingly. Mono, in a blue jacket, looks shy, hoping she is pleased. And she smiles, a glimmer of a tear in her eye.
Another yes for Garreau.
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