Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Final Instalment

Paris, like anywhere else I have lived for an extended period of time, is filled with memories. Having now made the decision to leave the city these memories are more profound than ever. Walking to work the other day from Gare de l’Est I passed the Numericable shop at Republique where Soraya and I went to set up our shared internet connection in July 2009. This was only a couple of weeks after having arrived - I could hardly speak a work of French and was engaged in a constant battle against the cockroaches in my tiny studio apartment on Passage des Recollets.

Continuing along Rue du Turenne I looked up at the ivy covered walls of Katy and Emily’s old apartment where we spent many a summer’s evening drinking cocktails, listening to music and playing with their cat Mr Obama. To avoid the crowds on Rivoli I veered off on to a side street and found myself next to the restaurant where I first met Charles, with John, having a pizza and where Kaye and I had had a beer one evening after work and discussed our trip to Amsterdam with great excitement. Eventually, as I approached the restaurant, my thoughts wandered back to the days when I was teaching English and working only part time as a serveur. Josy, Ellie, Ian and I would work a variety of half shifts throughout the week with Bobby in the kitchen, my latest playlist on the stereo and a restaurant full of seemingly polite, courteous French customers. At that point everything was still rather novel and it wasn’t until a few months later that I began to develop a more realistic understanding of the average Parisian inhabitant.

Upon Darrin’s return I went to stay with my Aunt in her spacious, bright and modern apartment in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, perhaps 20 minutes from Chatelet by RER. Here I was to stay for my last month before moving to Cyprus to spend the summer working for a tour operator. This decision was not made lightly however, and before I accepted the position I spent many an afternoon apartment hunting in the spring sunshine. To give you an example of just how sought after property is in Paris and how important location is, I viewed a studio, very centrally located on Rue Rambuteau in the fourth arrondissement, priced at €750 per month. Our entrance into the apartment was a little strange to say the least. The owner knocked on the door and entered whilst asking me to wait outside. A few moments later the current occupant exited doing up his shirt and dripping water all over the landing. As I entered the apartment I was engulfed by a cloud of steam and as it cleared I realised I was, in fact, in the shower cubicle. I tip-toed carefully over the slippery tiles and walked down a narrow passage with a couple of cabinets and an electric hot plate against one side – the kitchen. This led to the living area which comprised a dark, cluttered room with a sofa bed in one corner, a desk and a table with a microwave and a kettle on it. That was the apartment in its entirety.

By contrast, for just an extra €100 a month, I viewed a beautifully light, modern apartment in the 20th. This apartment really was something special with soft luxurious carpet throughout, a balcony dappled with shade from the surrounding trees and a modern, well fitted kitchen and bathroom. The owner of the apartment showed me round with his wife and both were very amiable. Unfortunately they required a dossier which is something all house-hunters in Paris need if they intend to take out a lease on a property. This includes wage slips, references, details of a guarantor should you default on the rent and bank details. This is a tedious collection of documents to put together and, considering the apartment was right at the top end of my budget, I let it go. And so, with multiple unsuccessful viewings under my belt, the decision to leave Paris came about.

Sarcelles is rather a poor area but the apartment itself is bright, cheerful and homely. I slept very well during my time there. It is serviced by the infamous RER D which always has a strong police presence at night. The last two trains are at 12:15 and 12:45. Breakfast in America closes around midnight so there was always a mad rush to get from St Paul to Chatelet in an attempt to catch the 12:15. Line one, of course, closed at 10pm for the month of April so invariably I would miss it. As a result of these time restrictions my social life took somewhat of a nose-dive during my last month.

Nevertheless, Darrin kindly volunteered his apartment once again for a joint birthday party for Lucy and me at the end of March and, to mark my leaving, we all made a trip to a wonderful Ethiopian restaurant where Mike, a guy from Ethiopia who used to work at Breakfast in America, worked. Sam, Alex and Bamlak, all from Ethiopia and who worked in the kitchen, joined us and we enjoyed a lovely meal of injera with various accompaniments finished off with tea flavoured with cinnamon.

My last month in Paris passed extremely quickly and, astonishingly, the weather was beautiful. I remember walking to the RER each morning in the sunlight and feeling ecstatic at the thought of spending a summer filled with endless days spent in the Mediterranean heat. My last shift came and went (Lucy brought in a bottle of Bailey’s and we toasted with Bailey’s milkshakes after all the customers had left). I shipped my belongings back to England and spent my final night at Rose’s in her quiet, peaceful apartment in Juivisy. The following morning we made our way to Gare du Nord and the Eurostar terminal. As I made my way through to check in I turned to wave to Rose who was standing faithfully, in her red coat, waiting for me to go through. She waved back and I scanned the rather impressive interior of Gare du Nord one last time before I turned my back on Paris and passed through the security barrier for the final time.

I spent almost seven months in Cyprus. It was a stressful summer and at some of the lowest moments I would have given a lot to have been in Paris sitting in Rose’s apartment eating a delicious Ghanaian meal, or even working a brunch shift at BIA. I returned to Paris for a few days in November and stayed with Katy and Emily. It was bitterly cold and, once again, I found myself walking the Parisian streets in the drizzle. However, I went back to BIA and saw many old friends, indeed, we had an excellent night out at Jenny Jones’ new bar next to Bastille. It felt comfortable and easy and I know Paris will always feel like a second home, despite the flaws!

Friday, March 4, 2011

From Chateau Rouge to Gare de l'Est

Life in Paris continues as normal with very little worthy of mention. Consequently, it has been several months since I posted anything on this blog. The majority of staff members at Breakfast in America have left Paris to return to their home countries and we have an almost entirely new team, of which, I have been made Assistant Manager – a small point, perhaps worth mentioning.

Upon returning to Paris after the Christmas break and finding my room black with mould and smelling heavily of damp I made the decision to, at any cost, get as far away from that disgusting apartment as possible. Meeting up with several friends in London whilst in the UK reminded me of how much I miss them. However I was still left with mixed feelings about once again moving to the capital and immersing myself in the corporate competitiveness that comes with working in an office in London. Getting out of Chateau Rouge is, however, my number one priority and, for the moment anyway, I have accomplished this. The General Manager at work, Darrin, has gone on holiday for a month to Mauritius and New Zealand and, during that month, I will be staying in his apartment at Gare de l’Est (my old quartier) looking after his sweet and enormously fat cat Fifi.

My feelings towards the apartment at Chateau Rouge quickly deteriorated as winter took hold and seeped cold into every corner of my room. My flatmate, who claimed to be completing his thesis whilst looking for a job was, in fact, doing neither and I’m not sure he left the apartment the entire time I lived there. Knowing that I would come home every day to find him ensconced in his room with breakfast and lunch dishes piled high in the kitchen accompanied by a sickly sweet smell of incense, of which he was a great fan, was hugely dispiriting. On the days he deigned to get up early I would be woken by the sound of him thudding down the corridor towards the bathroom, the whir of the fan and the sound of him hocking up the night’s phlegm into the bathroom sink – a habit I fail to understand and which I find absolutely disgusting. In the summer his parents came to stay in Paris. Rather than booking a hotel they stayed in our apartment and he stayed with a friend. For a month. I endured his non French, non English speaking parents for a month and I think this was the point at which I realised, in relation to my flatmate, I had not chosen well.

Darrin’s apartment is, by Parisian standards, pretty luxurious. There’s central heating, double glazing and a distinct lack of mouldy walls. There is also a multitude of gadgets and home cinema equipment. This ranges from a robot hoover to a giant projector screen enabling me to watch Supernatural on the equivalent of a 50 inch plasma screen together with a whole host of other quality dramas saved on the hard drive. I feel very relaxed here. There’s no conflict over the bathroom and kitchen (except when Fifi jumps in the sink for a quick drink just as I’m about to brush my teeth) and the apartment is warm and quiet.

Moving in Paris is a perpetual nightmare and this occasion was no different. Having packed my clothes into two enormous suitcases I proceeded to utilise a selection of carrier bags for my books, electronics, DVDs and toiletries. My ever-faithful friend Rose came over to help with the move and we ordered a taxi. The driver took one look at the array of possessions, closely resembling those of a bag lady, muttered that he didn’t do déménagements (moving) and left. The next half hour was spent fruitlessly searching for a taxi around Chateau Rouge. Eventually I found one and managed to convince the driver to take me, along with half of my more cumbersome belongings, whilst Rose waited for a second taxi she had ordered. She would then follow with the suitcases.

It wasn’t until later that evening, after we had enjoyed a delicious Indian meal at a restaurant a short walk from Gare de l’Est, that, upon surveying my belongings, I realised that a bag containing all manner of crucial items was missing. I frantically called Rose and my flatmate both of whom remembered the bag in question but not having seen it in a taxi. I had checked both taxis anyway and there was nothing left in either one. Nevertheless, I contacted several taxi companies over the course of the next few days as well as Les Objets Perdus office in the 15th but to no avail. I can only assume that someone stole it from the entrance to my old apartment building as we loaded up the first taxi which was parked a little way down the street. My flatmate had propped the door open and followed us down to the taxi as Rose and I were loading things into the boot thus leaving all my belongings unattended. Perhaps the most important item that was in that bag was my passport.

Having grown used to French bureaucracy and things being as difficult as possible in Paris, it was with some trepidation that I paid a visit to the British Embassy. Once past the surly French security I was led into a warm, modern office with a reassuring photo of the Queen smiling out from behind the desk – I smiled myself as I noticed the English plug sockets dotted around the walls. Rather than being faced with endless sighs and cries of ‘oh la la’ the girl behind the desk explained efficiently that I had only to complete one form and provide passport photos and a new passport would be issued within five days! They didn’t even need any original documents – a huge relief since my birth certificate is in the UK and, when I think about it, probably lost too. I’m now waiting for my new passport to arrive whilst searching for a new apartment – it won’t be long before Darrin is back and I will have to move again. I pray the next time will go smoothly.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do the Right Thing

Several months ago, somewhat predictably, I had my iPhone stolen on the metro at Chateau Rouge. Last week I acquired a new one through a friend of mine which I have now restored and synced with my computer so that it more or less resembles the old one almost exactly. However, I hadn’t backed the original up for several months before it was stolen and, as a result, a lot of the latest music saved dates back to almost a year ago. In a strange twist of fate the weather in Paris has suddenly turned bitterly cold, I have also been teaching some English classes again and, ironically, I find myself listening to the same songs I was listening to last winter when I was traipsing the icy streets of Paris doing exactly the same thing.

This time, however, the classes are slightly different. Gone are the small groups of attentive adults who were polite and keen to learn. They have been replaced with a minimum of ten children ranging in age from four up to eleven. They have no desire whatsoever to learn English, very poor manners and such severe attitudes they could give some of the finest Hollywood divas a run for their money. I had four hours with such a class this morning and spent my time separating fights, confiscating marbles and trying desperately to explain the various activities whilst attempting to detach the tiny four year old, the youngest in the group, from my right leg.

I had a 15 minute meeting at a language school that my Aunt had given my contact details to and before I knew where I was I had been given various activities, several lesson plans and a variety of classes each week. These were to take place at a Montessori style school in Montmartre. The manner of teaching at the school, it seems, is rather laid back and it is acceptable for students to wander off by themselves and do something else if they are not interested in the current project. After four hours of teaching these children, some of whom it must be said were very calm and interested, I was hoarse from shouting, disappointed that I had had to shout (I always fancied myself as one of those teachers who simply had the power naturally) and full of new found respect for those poor student teachers we put through their paces when I was at school. The children left the language centre of their own accord at 13:00 (fingers crossed none of them got run over) and I spent the next half an hour cleaning up the mess before making my way slowly home. The first thing I did was to send an email to the language school informing them I would not be continuing with these classes but if they still needed help with corporate clients I would be more than happy to assist.

Despite this strange repetition of my Parisian routine I had two friends staying with me at the weekend and we managed to do a variety of things I had not yet accomplished myself. We found ourselves in the queue for the Catacombes at 15:00 on Saturday. The last entry is at 16:00 and we were the last ones to make it in before they cut the queue. Everyone ahead of us was in a great rush to make it down into the depths of the underground tunnels and we found ourselves completely alone wandering down the dark, dripping passages in complete silence. This certainly added atmosphere to the occasion and before long we found ourselves walking slightly faster than normal with visions of being locked in over night or something equally as terrifying.

The whole experience was extremely interesting and once we had completed the catacombs we made our way to the Grand Palais to the extensive Monet exhibition currently in place. This, too, proved fascinating and charted his whole life from early childhood in Le Havre to his final home in Giverny where one can find the famous water-lily pond.

The day was marred only by one occurrence and this took place whilst we were waiting to enter the Catacombes. The queue was formed just next to a little park comprised of several trees, a couple of benches and a wide, sweeping path that cut through the middle. Sitting on one of these benches was an elderly homeless lady in her late 50s or perhaps early 60s. She was dressed warmly in a thick padded jacket and was sitting, swigging occasionally from a can of beer. Presently, a homeless man dressed in jeans and wellington boots with a thick, grey beard approached her and began shouting at her. Things escalated and before long he had punched her in the face, hard, several times. The lady continued to sit benignly whilst the man continued to storm off and come back for another attack several minutes later. In between these assaults she would spit blood on to her palm and take another swig from her can. When the man returned for the final time he didn’t hold back and cracked her with the palm of his hand full force across the face. The sound of this slap echoed around the park. Presently, two policemen happened to be walking by and would have continued had they not been alerted to the situation by a passer-by who, by that point, was crouched next to the lady asking if she was alright. The Croix Rouge arrived soon after and we went into the Catacombes and didn’t see the conclusion.

Throughout this entire incident the whole queue was watching the events unfold with interest but at no point did anyone (myself included) make any effort to intervene. I felt terrible afterwards and recounted the story to a couple of friends who were quick to point out that it only takes one knife or one gun, used by such a man in a fit of rage, for things to end badly. Does this justify allowing oneself to be merely an observer? In a society where aggression and violence are rife how much must one be subjected to before they do the right thing? And what, precisely, is ‘the right thing’?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Chateau Rouge

I’ve lived in Chateau Rouge, a rather infamous area in the 18th arrondissement, for a little over six months. As such, it seems fitting to give an account of the area, its inhabitants and the general atmosphere of the place. It is commonly regarded as rather a poor neighbourhood with a lot of crime. However, it borders Lamarck and is just behind the Sacre Coeur so, if you live on this side of the metro, as I do, you will find leafy, tree lined streets, reasonably priced accommodation and a selection of excellent restaurants.

It is true, however, that when one descends down to Chateau Rouge metro one will find a seething mass of residents camped out on the street selling pirate DVDs, counterfeit wallets and cheap sunglasses. Others make their living by selling corn on the cob, popcorn and a curious vegetable which looks rather like a small, bright purple aubergine. These they lay out meticulously on a cloth and buff to a radiant shine. On descending into the metro there will generally be two queues: one for those who have legitimate tickets and wish to pass through legally, the other for those who are intent on barging through the exit gates as they open for an unsuspecting passenger who has just got off the train. Either way one can expect cramped conditions, no manners and a multitude of imbeciles who stop just in front of the gates to search, endlessly, for their Navigo card or to simply chat with their friends. Enormously fat women waddle, painfully slowly, on their swollen feet along the concourse weighed down by bags of meat and vegetables purchased from the market as new mothers jostle for position with their pushchairs or, even their babies who, sometimes, are arranged on their back tied with swathes of cloth. It is a constant battle when one hears the metro approaching not to make a bolt for it but don’t expect for a second you’ll make it, you won’t. You may not even make the second one for no one will quicken their pace or get out of your way.

It takes energy and commitment to face the market but, if you are suitably en forme, it is worth making the effort as you will find a decent selection of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as a wide variety of meat and chicken all at very reasonable prices. The quality is generally good although the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. Enormous vats of tripe are displayed in glass compartments with the various furry pieces all smushed against the glass, whole chickens are stacked unceremoniously together in similar compartments and vast supplies of oxtail and goat pieces are scattered liberally in the spaces in between. Red meat is really the best bet since all the chickens are scrawny with hardly any meat and are really only any use for using in soups or stews.

The entire boulevard leading from Barbes (an even more infamous area) up to Chateau Rouge is lined with only two kinds of shops. Those selling mobile phones and those selling outdated, poorly fitting, cheap bridal wear displayed on chipped, rather sinister looking mannequins. Despite the ubiquity of these bridal shops it is impossible to find a wedding card anywhere on this street – I have learnt from experience. Just across from the metro, at the top of this boulevard is my local boulanger. Mercifully, he stays open all night and I have enjoyed many a delicious baguette or pastry from him at 4, 5 or 6am.

My friend Lisa and I were in search of a local flea market several months ago and we decided to ask for directions in a restaurant a few hundred yards up the road from my apartment. We were informed that there was no such market that they knew of. It was a cold, miserable day and the staff were so friendly and helpful that we decided to stay for some lunch. For €8.50 (insanely cheap by Parisian standards) we each had a delicious steak, pommes de terre sautées and a salad. Lisa also had an espresso which cost an additional 70 centimes. The atmosphere in the restaurant was like that of a student pub but with vastly superior food, a more mature clientele and excellent service. I have been back several times since and have always been equally impressed.

Rose and I see each other regularly but, as a result of always having little or no money, rarely do anything other than eat together which suits us fine since we both love to cook and, indeed, to eat. At the end of last month, with almost no money left, we decided to try one of the African restaurants in the quartier which advertised a formule for just €5. We entered the tiny restaurant through a beaded curtain and took a seat at one of the trestle tables with rickety wicker chairs. Unfamiliar with the African dishes on the menu it was up to Rose to explain to me what they were. I settled for a groundnut beef stew which was served with what, at first, appeared to be cous cous but turned out to be a lot more substantial. This arrived, fresh from the microwave, and piping hot. However, the meet was tender and flavoursome, the sauce tasty with just the right level of piquancy and the portion size generous. The atmosphere was somewhat lacking with a constant stream of people stomping through the restaurant shouting into their mobile phones together with an extremely powerful stereo system that pumped out the latest in African pop music. However, we had dined relatively well for €5 so we had no complaints.

There are many different personalities living in Chateau Rouge. There is the rather severe looking African prostitute who begins her night in the metro drinking beer before grinding up against passengers on the platform and eventually, when her luck is in, going home with someone. I have seen her accompanying many a different man through the streets of the quartier. With her closely cropped hair, extensive eye makeup, stiletto heels and, of course, her reputation she is not the most prepossessing person to see coming towards you on a dark night.

There is also the man with an enormous grey beard and wild hair who stands at the top of the metro exit distributing flyers, the man who stands quietly at the entrance of the metro with an enormous muzzled German Shepherd surveying everyone but with no apparent authority and the poor homeless man with no feet who sits on the platform.

These are the various elements that contribute to life in Chateau Rouge. Depending on my frame of mind I sometimes feel grateful for living in such a multi-cultural, bustling neighbourhood. Sometimes I long for the quiet, clean streets of a more respectable neighbourhood like the 16th. Nevertheless, this is Paris – a huge amalgamation of classes, cultures and ethnicities. Each makes a valid contribution to the overall atmosphere of the city and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

It's Paris, isn't it?

Paris breeds bitterness. It’s not just me who feels it either. Many friends of mine who I have spoken to are in complete agreement. Having spent an extended period of time in the city one is constantly reminded of the ridiculousness of Parisian life. All too often a horrific story of French bureaucracy, unhelpful employees and appalling manners is shrugged off with a simple ‘it’s Paris, isn’t it?’ Paris is by no means an inconsequential city. In fact, more often than not it is listed alongside London and New York as one of the great cities for culture, fashion and art amongst others things. Be that as it may, having lived in London and visited New York, I can say categorically that Paris trails dismally in the wake of these two clean, efficient and modern cities.

Jessie, a friend of mine who works at Breakfast in America, was negotiating the metro recently. Of course, no one could say that the underground or the subway are particularly clean, but the metro is home to hundreds of homeless people, ripe with the fetid stench of excrement, a breeding ground for thousands of cockroaches and lined with gutters filled with questionable sludge and muck. One homeless man approached Jessie and asked her for some change. She apologised and attempted to pass along the platform at which point he pinched her, hard, on the thigh. Shocking as this may seem, it’s Paris, isn’t it?

John and I are continuing our walks of Paris. An attraction of one such walk was a clock mounted on the side of a building surrounded by ornate figurines depicting a fight scene between a giant serpent, a man and a phoenix. The guide book advised us that every hour, as the clock strikes, this scene comes to life and a battle is waged until one side is defeated. Happy that we had been fortunate enough to arrive at five minutes to nine we positioned ourselves in a perfect vantage point. Presently, however, we noticed a sign affixed beneath the clock informing viewers that the mechanism used to power the figurines was, in fact, en panne i.e. broken. Rather than repairing the mechanism, in their infinite wisdom, the Marie had decided it made more sense to affix a permanent sign to the building and leave the clock broken indefinitely. Hey, this is Paris, remember?

The Auld Alliance, a Scottish pub near St Paul, is a favourite of ours and we often frequent the terrace at the front and take advantage of the shaded aspect and relatively cheap drinks. We were enjoying a particularly relaxing afternoon recently when we spotted one of the many clinically insane homeless people living in Paris shambling up to our table. He hobbled along on his bare, deformed feet and proceeded to lean over the table and screech violently for several minutes all the while dribbling thick strands of brown saliva from his toothless gums onto our table. I was struck by how little effect this episode had on all of us. We continued our conversation as though nothing had changed and even after he had shambled off no one felt it necessary to discuss the matter further. I once saw another man raging at his poor dog who, loyally, was following with his tail between his legs occasionally letting out frightened yelps of distress. I would be interested to ascertain what, precisely, the protocol is in the UK for dealing with homeless people who have mental problems since it is rare that one finds any roaming the streets. There is clearly no such protocol in this city but it is Paris after all.

Liz and I were chatting the other day about how, regardless of nationality, Paris will create a propensity in you to instantly dislike anyone outside of, or linked in some way, to your friendship group. The Parisians, of course, are the first to come under fire. With their tendency to repeat everything you say to them and their thick, gungey accent they are incapable of remaining quiet when thinking of what to say next but instead develop an assortment of noises which can be slipped into conversation where necessary simply to avoid a moment’s silence.

Walking towards a park in the suburbs the other day, Rose and I found ourselves in the unfortunate position of being in between two French chavs one of whom had walked slightly ahead of her friend. The one behind us called to her friend who refused to turn her head when she responded and as a result the conversation went like this:
‘Il y a quoi la?’
‘Il y a un parc’
‘Un quoi?’
‘Un parc’
‘Un QUOI?’
‘Un PARC!’
At this point Rose and I were so sick of listening to the two of them that we picked up our pace and didn’t stop until we were well ahead of both of them. It isn’t just the Parisians who irritate those of us who have lived in the city for an extended period of time however. Upon hearing an English or Irish accent the natural assumption the city imposes upon you is that they are typical tourists who want nothing more than to climb the Eiffel tower, get spectacularly lost, eat a full English breakfast and get annihilated in one of the expat bars. Americans face a similar fate with the exception that they are generally louder. ‘Tyler’ and ‘Dwaine’ or whatever other unfortunate names the parents have chosen for their children will be the subject of a longer ridicule simply because their parents have chosen to announce their presence so forcefully thus providing more time for mockery.

After work yesterday evening we went for a drink and then played a game of Beer Pong. I needed to be up early today so I left at 2:00 with the intention of getting a velibe and being home by 2:30. I passed, perhaps, eight different velibe stations, the majority of which were empty. Two or three, however, were full of fully functional bikes but, of course, the station itself was broken and would not release any. I attempted to get a taxi after this process continued to repeat itself but naturally there wasn’t a single one available. After an hour and a half of walking I arrived at Gare de l’Est and finally found a taxi. The driver was reluctant to take me since Chateau Rouge was such a short ride (five minutes by car, fifteen on foot) but eventually he agreed. He wacked his meter up to the highest tariff possible and off we went. As I watched the figures soaring I reminisced about the days in London when I would walk from the West End down to Trafalgar Square, buzzing with people, and await the friendly glow of the N155 back to Clapham. That was, of course, towards the end of the month, at the beginning I would have taken one of the thousands of vacant taxis cruising through the streets until all hours.

Presently we arrived at Chateau Rouge. I wanted to give the driver a tip since he HAD agreed to take me after all. I asked him for three euros change giving him a generous tip. This he handed me without a word. I paused for a second before getting out and slamming the door as hard as I could and making my way, furiously, back home. There was no friendly chatter as one can expect from the London taxi drivers, nor was there any cockney good wishes of goodnight. It’s Paris, isn’t it?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What next?

On the 4th of July it will be exactly a year since I arrived in Paris and it is looking increasingly likely that at the end of July my flatmate and I will have to move out of our apartment. This calls for all sorts of potentially life changing decisions to be made. Moving to another apartment in Paris, in July as well, would be so hellish due to the heat, the multiple flights of stairs and the organisation it would probably be less stressful to move back to the UK. However, this alone is not a good enough reason to do so.

I certainly don’t dread going to work in Paris like I used to in London but, having said that, it doesn’t take long for my mood to plummet proportionally according to the number of fresh orange juices, café au laits and milkshakes I have to make. On top of this I’m not exactly furthering my career but I’m not prepared to justify my career choices to some starched collared executive at a big corporate firm in London so I’m not too concerned about that. The thought of returning to a stifled office and career obsessed colleagues from 9am – 5pm is terrifying. Sunday nights would, once again, be accompanied by the ‘Sunday horrors’ at the prospect of another week in the office and my time would be spent ironing five work shirts and polishing my shoes. No thank you very much. I’d much rather be where I am for the moment.

The colleagues at Breakfast in America continue to be among some of the nicest I have ever worked with. The atmosphere is open, relaxed and friendly and I am continually amazed at how fast the days go by. Ian, who I have written about before, together with his girlfriend Lisa and Bobby, one of the chefs, have become good friends of mine and we regularly go to Ian’s pub quiz on Sunday nights. Ian is the kind of person who will get steaming drunk and shave all his hair off but is, in fact, hugely intelligent. We have spent many an evening discussing all manner of philosophical topics such as religion, politics and literature. He and Lisa make the perfect couple – I never know any of the answers to his quiz questions but she gets lots and claims it is not a result of her general knowledge but her knowledge of Ian himself that allows her to divine the answer. These kinds of personalities are so far removed from those I encountered at my office job in London that, together with the type of work and lifestyle on offer in the UK, they provide a solid argument for staying in Paris. On top of this my French continues to improve.

Learning a language is a funny business. I’ll go through plateaus of struggling with simple phrases, verb conjugations and tenses and then, suddenly, I’ll notice a vast improvement and find myself having a perfectly normal conversation, using all the correct tenses, as I would in English. I joke with the customers in the restaurant, speak naturally on the phone and give updates en masse to the people standing in the queue as to how long the wait will be.

So, really, I’m no closer now to deciding what I should do in July than I was at the start of this entry. Any advice would be very much appreciated. In the meantime, perhaps I’ll do a pro and con list.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A rather French affair...

Paris is not a nice place to be during the winter. In fact, due to various circumstances such as my appalling apartment and anti-social working hours, this last winter was one of the most unpleasant and miserable of my life. Perhaps I am exaggerating slightly – there was, of course, always the option of returning to the UK for good, but, since I chose to stay in Paris, this suggests I couldn’t have been too unhappy. In hindsight however, the living conditions and lifestyle in general, I would certainly not be prepared to repeat.

Finally the bitter cold is being replaced with balmy spring air, the drab, soulless cafes are alive once more with people spilling out on to the streets and the long dismal nights are slowly but surely being encroached upon by the longer, more relaxing days. Paris in spring, on the other hand, is a wonderful place to be. As I write this I am sitting beneath a cherry blossom tree in full bloom in Buttes Chaumont. The sunlight is filtering down through the leaves and I can hear the birds singing, the children playing and an elderly French couple chatting quietly behind me. This vast turn around in my opinions toward Parisian life has been aided, not only by the improvement in the weather, but also by my working hours. I now work mostly day shifts meaning I am free from as early as 4:15 to have a siesta, a shower and recuperate in a pub with some friends or go out for dinner. A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening in an especially French fashion at a dinner party.

French schools are closed on Wednesdays and, each week, my friend Rose looks after two boys, Dimitri and Guillaume, for the day. They are nice children and sometimes I go for lunch or to play table tennis with them. They seem to have taken a shine to me and often report back to their Mother what we got up to during the day. It is because of this that when Rose, in her infinite wisdom, decided to cook for almost the entire family, the boys and their parents, insisted I come.

It was with some trepidation that I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of their rather pleasant apartment near the Pantheon. Upon entering I was relieved to find that no one had arrived yet. However, I did find Rose and her sister Aba huddled over the stove in the kitchen engulfed by a cloud of smoke. Presumably, not being used to the induction hob, Rose had misjudged the temperature and burnt the first lot of tatale: a delicious combination of mashed plantain, deep friend until slightly crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Not wanting to add to Rose’s problems I settled myself at the breakfast bar – having a solid barrier between myself and the tension in the kitchen felt rather reassuring. Presently the others began to arrive. First it was the boys’ Aunt and Uncle who came with their two children and then the parents arrived home too with the boys. This made a total of 11, of which, only two spoke any English.

Thankfully, the Father, Frederic brought out the alcohol and provided me with a beer with a dash of Picon – an orange flavoured addition that made it taste rather like marmalade. I sat quietly making kebabs and chatting with the boys’ Uncle whilst Rose and Aba pottered about in the kitchen, the boys played with my iPhone and the little girl spilled her juice, fussed and generally irritated everyone, except, of course, for her doting parents.

I had, without really thinking, brought a bottle of wine which, although wasn’t the cheapest in the ‘Alimentation Generale’ wasn’t anything special either. Frederic opened this and we eventually sat down to dinner. Rose made a toast which induced the boys into fits of giggles and resulted in them taking it upon themselves to try and extract a toast from me as well. Within minutes the entire table was chanting ‘Allez, James! James!’ Naturally I went puce in the face with embarrassment before making my rather forceful excuses. Not being a connoisseur of wine I thought my bottle was rather delicious. Frederic was also very complimentary although I can’t imagine that a €6 bottle of red from the corner shop compared particularly favourably to the expensive looking bottles of Chianti and Merlot that were lined up in the kitchen.

The meal was wonderful and, before long, I was more relaxed and chatting fairly comfortably to Frederic and Celine, the boys’ Mother. Throughout the meal the boys’ cousin, the little girl of about three or four, was a constant nuisance. Sweet, in a clichéd sense, with blonde hair and blue eyes she was constantly seeking attention either by whining or crying. Once we had all finished eating her father offered her a chocolate mousse. Before opening it he checked with her that she was sure she was going to eat it to which she replied with a withering look and a Gaelic shrug ‘Bein oui’. This caused the parents to visibly swoon with affection whilst I did my best to keep my food from making a bid for freedom.

After we had cleared the table we moved into the living room for champagne and dessert. Celine had made some delicious cookies which she sandwiched together with a thick, creamy strawberry sauce and summer fruits. The little girl insisted upon meandering around the coffee table upon which were perched everyone’s champagne glasses. Celine and Frederic were somewhat wary about this but didn’t say anything - her parents were oblivious to their precious little girl’s stupidity. Inevitably, before long, she knocked one off the table (luckily for her it wasn’t mine) which caused everyone to wince, draw breath or cry out. This caused the little girl to burst into tears. Rather than giving her a good smack and making her sit down finally, the father swept her into his arms and cooed softly in her ear for the next 15 minutes whilst Celine went about clearing up the spilt champagne.

Eventually, tired, full and relaxed, Rose, Aba and I bid our farewells. We left the warm glow of the apartment and went down the narrow stairs to the wide, Parisian boulevard outside. I was wheeling Rose’s shopping trolley, the kind popular with elderly Grandmothers. The wheel of this contraption kept spinning off causing Rose to chase after it down the street. It was a warm evening and the cafes were still busy, couples walked slowly, arm in arm bathed in the soft moonlight and the imposing outline of the Pantheon stood behind us as we made our way down to the RER and home.