Sunday, December 6, 2009

Un Mélange of Anecdotes

Several Sundays ago I was in the midst of a terrible hangover and trying desperately to lie still and sleep when from across the room I heard my mobile buzzing furiously on the table. Thinking it might be something important I wrenched myself out of bed and after much searching located my phone under a pile of bills. It was Deborah from Breakfast in America who explained that they were a man down and asked if I could go in at 4pm instead of 7pm. And so, with puffy eyes, a splitting headache and a stomach that felt as if it might make a bid for freedom one way or another, I fought for a place on the metro and arrived at work just before 4pm. Brunch was in full swing and there was a queue of around 25 people waiting outside, whilst, inside, there were plates stacked high on every available surface, pancakes with sticky containers of maple syrup at almost every table and a very frazzled looking staff doing their best to satisfy every demand. I surveyed the room with a feeling of despair and immediately popped two Doliprane in an attempt to ease my headache before I joined the fray and began taking orders and clearing tables. Whether it was a result of the Doliprane, the pace of work, the heat, or a mixture of all three I’m not sure but within an hour or so I realised I was feeling relatively normal. My headache had subsided, I no longer felt queasy and I was feeling rather energised by the atmosphere in the restaurant. Perhaps forcing your body to perform in such a situation induces your metabolism to speed up and purge itself of all the toxins left over from the night before, I was certainly feeling better, regardless.

Despite having a wealth of things to do in my spare time such as searching for a new apartment, writing this blog and, of course, learning French I have become so drained by the lack of long hot showers, central heating and pretty much any creature comforts that all I seem able to do is lie in bed and watch Brothers and Sisters and Spooks. However, I am off until 7pm tonight, which is unheard of, and, having just had a delicious and comforting meal in a warm delicious restaurant with my friend Camille, I feel rather energised so thought I would channel this energy into something productive.

Last Sunday I had enjoyed a lie in and was just getting through the daily obstacle of showering in a cupboard when I heard someone come up the stairs and knock, either on my door, or on Soraya’s (they’re so close together I couldn’t tell which). The last thing I felt like dealing with was anything that required speaking French so I stopped singing abruptly and listened for further developments. Presently Soraya answered her door and I heard an anguished cry from our neighbour below us who exclaimed ‘Il pleut dans ma maison!’ literally translated this means ‘it’s raining in my house’. I felt sure this was caused by my shower but I was in no mood to deal with this kind of problem on one of my precious mornings off so I quietly finished my shower and got dressed. All the while I could hear Soraya and the other woman murmuring outside trying to determine whether it was Soraya’s sink or the loo or something else entirely. Eventually Soraya went downstairs to see where the water was coming from and I snuck out to buy some lunch. As I passed the doorway to the apartment below mine I noticed that it was ajar and I could them still trying to determine the source of the leak.

When I returned with a fresh baguette, some smoked salmon and some cream cheese all was quiet so I made myself a sandwich and decided to Skype my parents who had just got back from an extended holiday, as such it was the first time I had spoken to them in around three weeks. About five minutes into the conversation there was a loud knocking at the door. I wearily answered it to find Soraya who anxiously explained to me about the leak. Despite my protests she ran off to get the neighbour below us silencing me with shrieks of ‘J’arrive toute de suite!’ I explained to Dad that I would call him back, sprayed some Febreeze around the place to get rid of the smell of fish and waited for the neighbour. She surveyed the shower and exclaimed ‘Oh la la, c’est sympa eh?!’ I studied the peeling paint, the mouldy skylight and the ancient tiles on the walls and shrugged before she explained that she wasn’t sure where the leak was coming from but would try and arrange for a plumber to carry out some tests. I agreed and she went home, Soraya returned to her apartment and I went back to my sandwich. I haven’t heard anything since so I’m hoping the cause of the problem was something entirely unrelated to my apartment.

Breakfast in America is as enjoyable as ever and we rotate duties regularly meaning that one day I am taking orders, the next I am on the door and the next I am on the bar. This creates a nice variety of tasks and regardless of what I’m doing I always have fun whilst I’m there. The staff are extremely easy to get along with and we all seem to have a similar sense of humour resulting in a great atmosphere.

When working on the door one is responsible for seating new customers and clearing tables. The restaurant is so popular and so small that there is nearly always a queue of at least twenty people in the evening and it is the job of the person on the door to explain to them how long the wait will be and to juggle tables to seat everyone as quickly as possible. There is a notice outside that asks customers to wait outside to be seated since there simply isn’t enough room for people to wait inside. Last week, when the restaurant was as full as it is possible to be, a group of four French girls came in, ignored the queue, and asked me if I had space for four. I looked at them for a moment trying to judge whether or not they were being serious and, deciding that they were, made a mock scan of the room as if to convey the fact that there wasn’t an empty seat in the place. They didn’t catch on. I explained that we didn’t have any seats at the moment but if they’d like to join the queue outside there’d be a wait of around 20 minutes. They smiled and explained that they only wanted to eat a couple of pieces of cheesecake. Rather than explaining that they should, in fact, wait longer than all the other people who were already in the queue and wanted proper meals, I explained again that we didn’t have any tables at the moment. They decided to order the cheesecake to take away but in the ten minutes they were waiting for their order insisted upon waiting at the bar, getting in everyone’s way and asking me continually if they could sit at every table for two that became vacant. We were all very glad to see the back of them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Neighbours

One of the many factors I dislike about flat living is the different smells that waft out from each flat as the inhabitant starts cooking their evening meal. In our building each floor is, naturally, linked by a staircase. However, there is an absence of any doors to seal off the floors and the result is a medley of odours from each floor amalgamating and hanging in the communal air until their go stale. Imagine, for example, floor one provides the fried onions, floor two provides steamed fish, floor three, roasted garlic and by the time you get to floor five with Soraya’s various curries and lamb dishes the air is so heavy with the various scents that it’s a huge relief to close the door on them all and breathe the relatively fresh, albeit slightly damp air, in my apartment. It seems that the patch of mould that is slowly moving its way across the ceiling is responsible for this but I have also noticed that the wall behind my bed is constantly wet so I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole apartment crumbled away to nothing before too long.

The inhabitants of my building are a varied bunch. On my floor there’s Soraya of course but there’s also the old man who lives directly opposite the staircase. We have a strange relationship – each morning I hear him shuffling past my apartment, unlocking the loo door and urinating loudly with the door wide open before shuffling back to his apartment without using the flush. This is followed by a bellow of range on my part when I visit the loo half an hour later to find a generous sprinkling of urine all over the stone floor and an unflushed bowl. I proceed to hammer loudly on the wall adjacent to his apartment whilst shouting obscenities before returning to my apartment and listening to some music at full volume to vent my anger. This is all played out anonymously and when we meet each other on the stairs we are, generally, perfectly amicable with one another and will discuss topics such as the weather and the state of the building. He’s a strange man, not least because he is in his sixties and living in a studio apartment, but he also has a lazy eye which always looks skyward and a slight limp. The thought of him shuffling past my door in his dressing gown and slippers at night is the stuff of nightmares.

On the floor above is a very cruel looking Iranian guy who is possibly one of the most unfriendly people I have ever met. He has a waxen complexion and is completely bald except for a thin sprinkling of black hair around the back and sides of his head. He wears dark, misshapen clothes and I have had the misfortune of coming out of my apartment just as he is going past and having to endure five flights of stairs looking at the back of his head. This has happened on several occasions and never has he made any attempt to smile or speak to me. Once he was eating a cream cheese sandwich and kept dropping pieces of cheese which he would scrape off the floor and wipe on his trousers.

On the third floor lives a rather large lady with a ruddy complexion and unkempt greying hair. She’s much more friendly than the Iranian man and will always stop to say hello no matter how short of breath she is from climbing the stairs (usually with an array of packages and boxes). She gives the impression of always being tremendously busy and I often see her stomping around in her hiking boots and cycle gear as if she’s just about to embark on an expedition to the Alps. The door to her apartment is surrounded with pot plants which I thought were hers until one day I saw the little old lady who lives next door to her tending to them.

The elderly lady who lives on the third floor inhabits the apartment on the left hand side and can usually be found either pruning, dead-heading, or watering her pot plants or else pottering about in the storage room which is full to bursting with old bed parts, microwaves, assorted pieces of broken furniture and paintings. She has fine, wispy white hair which she wears tied up in a loose bun and milky blue eyes. She reminds me very much of Kralefsky’s mother in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals although she certainly isn’t bed-ridden nor are her flowers exactly exquisite. She too is very friendly and always calls me ‘Monsieur’ which, although relatively normal, still makes me feel rather important.

Finally there’s the man who lives upstairs who I originally met at the laundrette and lent some washing powder to. He likes to practise his English when we meet in the stairwell and claims that his girlfriend (who also lives with him apparently) is English.

Thus, these are the residents who I interact with on a regular basis and who make up life in my building. There are others; the two guys who come home each night at 1:30am and thunder up the stairs, the girl on floor two who had the house party for her birthday and the Chinese man and his wife who live on the fourth floor. However, the ones previously mentioned are the most relevant and interesting characters in the building, and I portray them in order to give you an impression of the various personalities flourishing in a little side street, near Gare de l’Est, in the 10th arrondissement.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Tribute

I want to make a slight diversion from the normal route these musings take, although not entirely, to pay tribute to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. It’s been almost five months since his death and a day hasn’t gone by when I haven’t listened to at least a couple of his songs. Sunday evenings at Breakfast in America have become comfortably familiar. More often than not I work with Josy and Ellie (who has mellowed a great deal since her argument with Ian and is now much more likeable) and we spend an enjoyable time working hard but also having fun. Occasionally we’ll ask the kitchen to make us some French toast towards the end of the evening which is always devoured in minutes. The atmosphere is great and staff and customers alike are always laughing and having a good time. A couple of months ago I made a playlist which we tend to use on Sunday evenings and, naturally, Michael Jackson is featured heavily. There is a huge range on the playlist including everyone from Aretha Franklin to Brian Adams. However, no one is as pleasing to the customers as Michel Jackson and when he is playing I can cast my eye around the room to be met with a sea of bobbing heads, tapping feet and even some dancing. There have been many squeals of appreciation as customers hear their first MJ song of the evening and whole groups sway in motion in time to the music. It really is a testament to his unrivalled talent and skill – he is known and appreciated the world over by all generations and I feel sure that his style and longevity will never be equalled.

I went to see ‘This is It’ at the cinema at Les Halles yesterday evening and, as predicted, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. His dance moves and vocals were as impressive as ever and I’m sure the planned concerts would have been a huge success. I was also struck by his patience and gentle temper, something that seems to be a common trait amongst all his siblings the more I see of them on the television. Michael’s death really is a tragedy. Rest in Peace.

Monday, November 2, 2009

It couldn't have turned out better, really...

Towards the end of a recent shift at BIA I was standing behind the bar with Josy when a homeless man entered and shuffled his way towards us. He stood by the bar and asked Josy for a coffee or some food. Josy called through to the kitchen who put together some nachos and some leftover chilli and passed it through to us in a take-away box. Whilst he was waiting the man kept making these strange clicking noises with his tongue which were starting to drive me crazy so I was glad when the food finally arrived. He looked at it and asked how he was supposed to heat it up since he didn’t have a micro-wave. Now, it wasn’t entirely cold and did, in fact, look rather delicious – I would have been happy to eat it myself. Josy said that we weren’t going to heat it up for him and he began to argue for a minute or two before shuffling out clicking away to himself. We were just discussing his audacity (the phrase ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ perhaps more appropriate than ever before) when he marched back in with his take-away box, dumped it on the bar and said if we weren’t going to heat it up then he didn’t want it - then he stormed out. This whole episode made me especially angry because Josy had taken the time to prepare this food for him, it was perfectly acceptable food, delicious even, and he had effectively thrown this act of kindness back in her face. To make matters worse he came in again the following week to ask for something to eat and we all rounded on him and categorically said ‘no’. He smiled sheepishly, realised he’d lost a potentially reliable source of food for ever, and walked out with his tail between his legs.

During the last couple of weeks I have encountered two further personalities in my classes which are worthy of a mention. The first is a Cambodian lady of about 60 called Pom. She is in an absolute beginners’ class which is exactly the right place for her since she is one of the most challenging students I’ve had yet. She’s rather an intimidating lady with a shock of black hair, very small eyes emphasized by her black rimmed glasses and a mouth which is forever coated in a thick layer of peach lip gloss. Throughout the lesson she sits to attention with her legs apart and takes on the appearance of some sort of Eastern dictator. Despite her appearance she’s actually fairly friendly but, as mentioned before, her English skills require a lot of improvement. As I repeat the phrases over and over again for her she jettisons further and further from the original version until she has effectively created an entirely new sentence altogether. It takes every ounce of energy to rein her in and have her repeat something even vaguely similar to what I have said. Her dictations are an absolute minefield and I am sure to allow at least half an hour for a single dictation in her group because, more often than not, I will have to re-write hers entirely. She really does write what she hears and, considering she has a very limited knowledge of English words, together with a very poor ear for sounds, this results in catastrophe.

The second student is a quiet but very likeable guy called Lionel. He’s in an intermediate group with two other students. All three are of a fairly similar standard and, as a result, are a lot easier to teach than Pom’s group. I was teaching them the expression ‘to cheer someone up’ last week, a classic, which no-one ever seems to understand. In an attempt to make it clearer I explained to them that I had been teaching for six hours, it would take me an hour to get home (I was in the 16th for this class) and I hadn’t eaten yet, as such I was in a rather bad mood (I wasn’t, in fact, but it helped to demonstrate the point). Then I asked Lionel what he would say to me to cheer me up. He was silent for a moment whilst he thought of something appropriate before he tentatively replied ‘ are a very sympathetic teacher...?’ I beamed at him and congratulated him on his success in cheering me up – it had, actually, done just that. Then I asked him if he had meant ‘sympathetic’ or nice and he replied ‘oui, oui, les deux’ which just helped to boost my cheeriness even further. They understood the novel expression and I got a little pick me up for the rest of the class – I plan to use the same technique as soon as I have to teach ‘to cheer someone up’ again.

Last week I received an email from ‘A La Carte’, the rental agency I was unceremoniously fired from when the owner found someone with more experience than me four days into my trial period. I opened it with some trepidation expecting to find some claim that they had overpaid me or similar. In fact, the General Manager, Anne, had written to offer me a different job at weekends welcoming the new arrivals and showing them into their apartment. Although this would, no doubt, have been fairly easy money and something I would have quite enjoyed, I am already at capacity when it comes to working hours and, more importantly, I have too much pride to go back to work for that creep with the cruel blue eyes and orangey perma-tan. However, having said that, I am grateful to him because things couldn’t have turned out better. I have a varied and interesting schedule, have met a great deal of new and interesting people and don’t have to sit in an office bored to tears all day long. He has helped to reinforce my desire never to return to office work either in France, the UK or anywhere else in the world for that matter.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Parisian Personalities

Every one of my classes at Anglais Oral Accéléré contains different personalities and I have encountered a wide range of people. Some have an excellent sense of humour and are friendly and pleasant. Others are not so easy going and are so over confident in their own abilities that it takes a great deal of energy just to convey the necessary corrections. One of my favourite groups comprises Katie, Nadia and Hung. Hung is an extremely enthusiastic guy from Vietnam. He is fluent in French and in Vietnamese but has a great deal of difficulty pronouncing English words. Nevertheless, he tries hard, is very keen to learn and, the atmosphere in the group is such, that each member feels comfortable enough to laugh, either at their own mistakes or at those of others without any malice.

Nadia is an interesting character. She is, I suppose, in her late fifties and usually arrives late accompanied by a wave of expensive perfume, perfectly coiffeured hair and designer clothes. She apologises profusely for her lateness before settling herself into her chair and adopting a look of utter concentration which is only interrupted by fits of laughter at Hung’s mistakes. Last week we were discussing music and, when asked what kind of music she liked, she replied R and B. Interested as to whether or not she was just responding with the first thing that came into her head, I probed for a little more information. As it turns out Nadia is a fan of all the modern R and B artists including Chris Brown, Ne-Yo and Kanye West and listens to them on CD in her car. I have no doubt that this is, in fact, the case and I ca picture her cruising round the affluent 16th arrondissement in a brand new Mercedes sampling the newest tracks from her favourite artists.

One of my lessons yesterday was a new group and I could tell instantly that they were going to be an easy and rewarding group to teach. Firstly they were scheduled to complete the book in 15 hours as opposed to 30 - if people do very well in their original assessment, but not quite well enough to do the next level up, then this is what we recommend. Secondly they were friendly and adapted to the method very quickly. They seem to be a particularly studious group and when they were checking their dictation for mistakes it was highly amusing to listen to the low murmuring coming from each person interspersed with jubilant cries of ‘ahh oui!’, ‘J’ai oublié ca’ and ‘Ca s’ecrit comme ca!’. I had a big smile on my face by the time they had finished and I went round to each person to double check for errors they had missed.

Last weekend was particularly eventful and started with the Saturday night shift at Breakfast in America. Ian had been working since 11am and was to take an hour break at 6pm before coming back at 7pm. In the hour Ian was away Ellie worked behind the bar and I took care of the floor with Lucy who would be leaving for the evening at 7pm. The first point of contention arose when Ian returned. Ellie asked him to go behind the bar for the evening but, since he had already been behind the bar for seven hours that day he didn’t want to do it for the evening shift as well. I should point out that Ellie has no more authority than Ian, in fact, she doesn’t have any more authority than me either but does have the advantage of having been there longer. As I have mentioned before Ellie tends to flap and as a result loses her patience fairly soon into a busy shift. It didn’t help matters that almost every party were ordering milkshakes - something that vexes Ellie over anything else is making milkshakes – you have to ask the kitchen for the ice cream AND clean the blender afterwards, I mean, honestly!

As a result, Ellie was in a foul mood and snapped at Ian and me all evening, that was, until she needed stock from the cellar. She asked Ian who refused point blank and this was when things really came to a head. I was on the floor when I head Ellie scream something from the kitchen and Ian retaliate with a volley of abuse. Ellie banged down to the cellar and Ian returned to the floor looking a little sheepish. No one really spoke for the rest of the shift and when all the customers had left they really flew at each other. I went outside to sweep the pavement of discarded cigarette butts left my people waiting in line for a table and when I came back things had quietened down somewhat. By the time we left they seemed amiable enough to one another and we each went our separate ways to join our friends around the city who were taking advantage of ‘La Nuit Blanche’.

‘La Nuit Blanche’ involves artists displaying installations all around the city for one night only. The whole city comes out to view these attractions and there is a wonderful party atmosphere. By the time we had finished at Breakfast in America and had a couple of drinks after the shift it was nearly 1am and I went to meet the others in a pub. Needless to say I saw very little art that night which is inexcusable. Instead we moved from venue to venue before consuming a huge amount of food bought from a Greek take-away shop. The night ended with my struggling with the velibe system but eventually managing to release one and cycling home.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Schedules and Schemes

My classes at Anglais Oral Accéléré are mostly very enjoyable and the type of work affords a schedule that results in my having some time off during the day, either for lunch or a siesta, which is always nice. Since my working hours change each week it also doesn’t feel like a routine which prevents me from getting bored. There are two offices; one on Boulevard Voltaire near Oberkampft metro and the other in the prestigious 16th arrondissement on rue Paul Valery. I have to walk right past the Arc de Triomphe when at the Paul Valery office and it is then that I feel most like a true Paris resident as I’m casually listening to my iPod rather than snapping away at the arc or the Champs Elysees with a digital camera.

One day last week I had a two hour break between classes at the Paul Valery office so John and I decided to get something to eat. Most restaurants that we came across were very expensive and in the end we settled on a somewhat dubious looking Chinese in the next street along from the office. It was a tiny little place and all the food was pre-cooked and sitting in trays waiting to be micro-waved by the staff behind the counter. There were just two other guys inside sitting at the counter talking quietly. I strolled in feeling rather confident of my French at that point and, as a result of being so used to working at Breakfast in America, announced to the room ‘Bonjour, vous etes deux’, what I should have said was ‘nous sommes deux’ – there are two of us, instead of there are two of you. The people behind the counter looked at me, somewhat puzzled, whilst John burst out laughing and I hurriedly ordered my food and went to sit down with a very red face.

Yesterday I was, once again, given a demonstration of how much poverty there is in Paris and, as a result, the numerous scams people come up with in an attempt to save money. I was exiting Oberkampft metro on my way to teach a class and as the automatic barriers swung open to let me through a homeless man with filthy clothes, a wild mop of tangled hair and a stench unlike any other shoved me to one side in an attempt to get through the barriers before they closed. At first I naturally assumed I was in his way for some reason so made an attempt to move to one side before my brain caught up and I came to the conclusion that, for once, I wasn’t in the wrong. He was far too late anyway and the barriers had shut behind me long before he had a chance to get through. Nevertheless he kept on struggling to get past me and when faced with an unusual situation I usually switch back to English and so, in my best English accent, I asked him to ‘please get out of the way’. When I was clear of the barriers I looked back to see him struggling with the queue of people who were exiting after me, none of whom looked at all impressed with his efforts.

After this little episode my student who I was supposed to be teaching that afternoon was an hour late. It wasn’t worth going home again so I was getting some fresh air outside the office when a man walked past me and bent down to pick up a ring he had allegedly found on the pavement. In fact, he had had it in his hand all along and I had been warned of this scam before. He offered it to me and I said I didn’t want it but he kept on persisting and in the end I raised my voice and said that he should have it if it was such a nice ring. The scheme is such that when some unsuspecting individual accepts the ring, along with the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger, the scammer demands five euros for it. Since they have owned it all along it is probably made from a worthless metal and spray-painted gold. I wanted to explain that I didn’t want a great fat gold wedding band that he had ‘found’ on the pavement, that I knew he hadn’t found it at all and that I certainly wouldn’t pay him for something if he had found it on the street, but I don’t think my French would have been quite up to it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Art and History

The other day I was exploring Montparnasse and out of nowhere suddenly loomed the Montparnasse Tower – a huge, black, imposing skyscraper that, at night, is especially dark except for the red lights that shine out from every other floor giving it a demonic presence. The tower itself is very reminiscent of Centre Point in London but is newer and not nearly as friendly looking. It has, in fact, caused a lot of controversy and Parisians generally hate it for destroying the skyline of historic Paris. I took the metro home just past midnight and just as we had left the station the train lurched to a halt, the carriage was plunged into darkness and it suddenly became very hot. Whilst I quietly waited for the dementors to arrive another girl was not quite so calm and started screaming and jiggling around in her seat. Her friends consoled her in a half joking, half serious manner and within a couple of minutes we were on the move again. Nevertheless it was rather un-nerving especially since there was no explanation from the driver.

I paid a visit to The Louvre the other day. I have to say I was somewhat disappointed. It was too big, there were too many people and it was too hot. Despite my having timed my visit for a weekday afternoon it was still absolutely packed and rather than spending time looking at the works of art I seemed to spend more time dodging people who were taking photographs. Instead of wandering peacefully from room to room as one does in London galleries you can either fight against hoards of people surging through the various galleries or you can simply go with them, which, although might make for an easier visit, certainly doesn’t make for a more pleasurable one. Aside from all this, very few of the paintings seemed to have blurbs written about them and most just had a line or two giving the name of the artist, where they came from and the date. They say that if you spend just three seconds looking at every piece of art it will take you three months before you’ve seen everything.

Once I’d found my way out I decided to go and sit in the gardens just in front of the museum. It was a lovely sunny day and as the rats scampered back into the hedgerows I settled myself in a quiet spot in the shade. I was teaching in an hour so I set my alarm and dozed peacefully for 30 minutes. I woke up feeling refreshed and energised. I stood up to leave and caught sight of a used condom that had been lying just a couple of feet from where I had been sleeping. Needless to say it marred the experience somewhat and I hurried off to get the metro.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Living Conditions...

I have been here almost three months now and whilst my French has certainly improved, it hasn’t improved as much as I would have liked, and, moreover, I seem to have hit a wall in terms of my language development. I was in the laundrette last week when an old, dishevelled Frenchman with a big, questionable, yellow stain on his jeans came in and started chatting to me. He had grey hair, rheumy eyes and stank of alcohol but, nevertheless, seemed friendly enough and chattered away at me for a good half an hour. I understood very little but thanks to my ability to laugh at the right places in any language I don’t think he noticed. I’m not sure whether it was a result of his mumbling or my insufficient vocabulary, but it did make me realise that I need to re-launch my attack on actually learning French, that is, after all, the reason I’m here. I’m loathed to take anymore lessons because they’re usually boring and terribly expensive so I am considering looking for a house share with French people meaning I will be more immersed in the language and have more opportunity to practise. All my friends are either American or English so I rarely get the opportunity to actually speak much French, aside from taking orders for burgers and milkshakes of course.

Moving in with a French person could also, potentially, improve the quality of my living arrangements which, recently, have taken a bit of a nose dive. I came home from a shift at Breakfast in America last Saturday to find the whole staircase lit up and thronged with people. The resident of one of the apartments on the second floor was having a birthday party and I could hear the bass from the music as I approached the building. As I entered, two guys who were hanging out by the post boxes had the nerve to ask me who'd invited me! I explained that I lived here and they sheepishly went back to their drug deal or whatever they were doing that required such secrecy that they had to leave the party and converse in hushed tones in the entrance hall.

On top of this, the school just outside my building has become a hotspot for hip hop wannabes who come out at about midnight with their tinny phone speakers and play the worst kind of hip hop music whilst attempting to imitate the artists as well as holding loud, but poorly articulated conversations, interspersed with ‘cool’ hip hop lingo. This continues far into the night but usually I am forced to shut my windows to block out the noise so I don’t know when, exactly, they disperse. They clearly don’t have jobs but really ought to consider finding something because they’ll be waiting a long time if they’re holding out for a recording contract.

Finally, the loo is becoming more and more filthy as everyone who uses it is disgusting, except for me. It is so bad that I wouldn’t even let a guest of mine in there, I’d be too ashamed. There are also two guys who live on the floor above me and come home regularly at around 1:30am. They clomp up the stairs, talking at the top of their voices and seem to have no respect for anyone who might be sleeping. In fact, I am usually still awake at that time, just, but it’s not the point. Once they have passed my door they will continue up to their apartment where I will hear the slam of their door before peace is restored once more. Well, except for the hip hop blasting up from the street of course.

Yesterday was Eid in Paris and, in classic timing, Soraya knocked on my door just as I’d got in the shower. I thought I’d ignore it at first but she kept on knocking so in the end I got out, threw a towel round myself, flung on a t-shirt and opened the door. I was glad I did because she presented me with a huge plate of cous cous, lamb, vegetables and chick peas. I thanked her profusely, wished her ‘Eid Mubarack’ and withdrew to my bed where I devoured the tasty, tender lamb and slightly sweet, buttery cous cous. I have booked my Eurostar tickets home for Christmas well in advance and am now, more than ever, looking forward to some home-cooking.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Since I last wrote there have been several changes to life in Paris: I am now employed and will be working as an English teacher for most of my time whilst also, with luck, working a couple of shifts a week at Breakfast in America. As well as my new found employment, the weather has finally broken and Paris has been cold and wet for the last week. Lastly, either as a result of the change in weather or just bad luck I have been ill.

I will be working for a company called Anglais Oral Accéléré teaching English for between 25 and 30 hours each week. The company is run by an American called Eva and a Frenchman, Phillipe, who, ironically, doesn’t speak any English himself. I went for a final interview last week before commencing training last Thursday. It’s going well and I’m looking forward to teaching my first class on Wednesday. There are never any more than four in a group and 95% of the lesson is oral work, in fact, in each level students are introduced to over 1000 expressions which, due to the nature of the system, they ought to remember and go on to use in everyday life.

Breakfast in America is also (surprisingly) going well and I enjoy the atmosphere and pace of the work. Dodging round tables with plates and cutlery whilst classic Michael Jackson plays over the sound system is more enjoyable and rewarding than I imagined. I have worked at both restaurants over the course of the last couple of weeks and have encountered a range of different personalities. Verity, who works at the bigger of the two, is from London and very easy going, friendly and fun to work with. On my first night she was explaining that Craig, the owner, would be in at some point and she would warn me when he arrived. This she did by just dropping the phrase ‘Craig’s here’ into the middle of one of her sentences whilst asking me to go and take an order. It was refreshing to be working with another English person and the camaraderie was great. Next there was Jen or ‘Texas’ as everyone referred to her. She was, unsurprisingly, from Texas and had a very strong mid-western accent. This proved highly amusing for me and we spent the evening trying to imitate each other. I happened to mention my cockroach problem to her and whether it’s her idea of a joke, an attempt at flirting or something else entirely I’m not sure but she has text me about 25 times since our last shift with various facts about the cockroach interspersed with invitations to dinner or drinks.

Verity and Texas both work at ‘B1’ as everyone refers to it. Debora works at 'B2' and is a skinny, anaemic looking American who asked me, after I had spent ten minutes of my eight hour shift gulping down a burger, if I was ‘wrapping up’. She then began flapping like all people who think they are in a position of authority tend to do when they are stressed, and started ordering me about and explaining things that I had heard a hundred times before. Ellie, who also works at B2, is rather unpleasant to work with, not least because she is of the opinion that she has been given the most wondrous singing voice and resonates, entirely off key, for the entire shift, but also because she tends to flap too and, as a result, deteriorates into rather a rude character. It’s strange because after the shift, when she has calmed down, she is perfectly nice and easy to talk to. Nevertheless, generally the atmosphere at both restaurants is good, the majority of the staff are nice and the work is easy enough – the tips are also good and this is going to help a great deal over the coming months.

Also at ‘B2’ are Ian and Josy, both of whom are down to earth and a pleasure to work with. The atmosphere is jovial when we work a shift together and, regardless of whether there is a queue of 25 people outside or not, they are constant and manage to keep a cool head. After all, there’s only so much one can do in the middle of a busy shift and getting uptight and stressed will certainly not result in a speedier service.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Just a quick snippet...

Lucy, the girl who arranged the original gathering under the Eiffel Tower when I first arrived, decided to organise another to welcome all the new arrivals to Paris and to catch up with those who had attended last time. This took place yesterday evening. I had spent the day with Darshi exploring the canal and was late on account of an extended siesta which caught me unawares. Nevertheless, I eventually met Charles and we made our way to the little park, just to the right hand side of the Tower, where there was a group of around 40 people sitting and chatting. The majority were Americans but there were one or two English, a couple of French and a few Norwegians. As per usual as 1am approached we all decided to make our way to Grands Boulevards for another Corcoran’s experience. Cat got waylaid en route flirting with the Gendarmerie and by the time we arrived at Corcoran’s she was on the phone to us explaining that she had managed to end up at Charles de Gaulle as a result of taking the wrong metro but would be making her way swiftly across town to join us as soon as possible. As 5am approached our numbers were reduced and it was just myself, Laura, an English nanny, Sophie, an English au pair and Camille, an American au pair. It felt very different from my visit two months ago and I realised, as I was explaining where we could get food and which metros everyone would need to take, that I have settled rather nicely into life in Paris and am starting to really feel comfortable in the city.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The return...

Signalling the end of the summer holiday, the majority of Parisians are returning to the city. Unfortunately the cockroaches have returned with them and I arrived home the night before last to find one of the largest I have ever seen sitting on one of the shelves, just at eye level, waving her antennae menacingly. I feel sure this one must have been female because, although unfamiliar with the anatomy of a cockroach, she seemed to have a big pouch on the end of her body, presumably where she was storing her eggs. They say that cockroaches would be the only animals to survive a nuclear explosion. This certainly seems to hold some truth since one can spray directly on to their shell for however long a period of time with absolutely no effect. In order to finish them off completely one must spray to the side so the spray can come into contact with their body.

In a cruel twist of fate my electricity was cut off yesterday. Emily had asked EDF to transfer the account into my name but, instead, they had closed it altogether. I called them and arranged for it to be reconnected but I had to go a day (and a night) without. Yesterday evening I was working a trial shift at an American diner called ‘Breakfast in America’ so, fortunately, was able to have some hot food there. However, I returned home, just before midnight, and spent an uncomfortable hour or so examining every piece of lint and every crack in the floor with my phone checking for cockroaches. Surprisingly I didn’t find any but this was of little comfort since I felt sure they were there somewhere. It would almost have been reassuring to have found one or two so I could give them a good spray before lulling myself into a false sense of security and falling into a peaceful sleep.

I felt the shift at ‘Breakfast in America’ went well. It’s a tiny little place in the Marais, (although there are two – there’s a bigger one on Rue des Ecoles). This one seats around 35 people I would say and is decorated with typical ‘American Diner’ decor – red leather booths, a tiled floor and vintage art deco clocks on the walls. The staff were friendly as were the customers and although it was busy – at times there was a queue outside – it didn’t feel frantic like it used to at Corcoran’s. I was taking orders, serving food and clearing tables whilst Ian, another guy who I working with, was behind the bar preparing the drinks orders. This system resulted in an efficient operation and a relatively stress free evening. According to Jenny, the Shift Manager, I am to do another two trial shifts, for which I will get paid upon completion of all three, and then they will make a decision. I have yet to hear back as to when my next one will be and I am hoping they haven’t already made their decision. We shall see.

A lot of the restaurants and bars seem to have their kitchens below ground level in the cellar. As a result there are great industrial vents which blow air on to the street. Some of these are particularly powerful and as they blow on to one’s feet it feels as though some sort of small animal has just run between one’s legs. I have passed a couple of these vents recently and each time I have leapt to the side in surprise to avoid standing on whatever creature was stupid enough to try and squeeze between my legs. Both occasions have been extremely embarrassing and have attracted many a strange glance from passers-by.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Squalor, interrupted

One of the things I miss most about the UK is not being able to cook properly. Minimal surface space, two tiny electric rings and no oven means I am limited to rather simple dishes which, although tasty, don’t provide a sense of achievement at all. I used to love cooking in London and would forever be making new recipes and trying them out on my flatmates. As such, when Darshi, a friend of Katy’s, announced that she would be house-sitting for a lady with an amazing apartment in the 19th we decided to make full use of the place. Last Sunday I bought three enormous pizzas and some beer and we spent, possibly, the most relaxing evening since my arrival, eating far too much and watching Friends videos slumped on the luxurious white leather sofa. We have since had a proper home-cooked meal and we’re planning a roast next week which I am very much looking forward to.

The owner of the apartment has two animals that Darshi is also looking after – Lola a little Pekinese cross, and Koshka, a beautiful Siamese cat with enormous bright blue eyes. Koshka seemed to take a liking to me and would stroll across the sofa and settle herself right on my stomach staring lovingly up at me. As she got more comfortable she would lay her head in the little groove of my breastbone and fall into a deep sleep and start twitching in her dreams. Most of the time though she would lie on my stomach with her arms draped either side of my chest staring up at me – this was rather disconcerting and, uncomfortable in fact, since she was rather overweight and I had generally eaten more than was necessary wishing to take full advantage of decent food.

There is certainly a great deal of poverty in Paris and it is rare for a day to pass without my being asked for ‘des petites pieces’ – some change, or a cigarette. The metro is riddled with beggars ranging from those who get on the train itself and launch into a spiel about the hardships of their lives to the burkha clad women who sit on the walkways like statues, palms outstretched. There are also those who busk and one of my favourites is an elderly Chinese man who is usually to be found, in the evening, at the Chatelet metro stop. He settles himself on the platform with an array of instruments and proceeds to play various Asian songs that fill the station with somewhat melancholy sounds. Every now and then he will put down his instrument of choice and burst into song. Despite being, at a guess, around 60 years old, he has an amazingly strong voice and fills the tunnels with a strange wailing. It is certainly impressive though and I always look forward to seeing him perform.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


There has been a severe heat wave in Paris this last week with temperatures soaring to 37 degrees. Similarly to London, Paris is rather landlocked and so, unlike a Mediterranean island for instance, there is very little breeze to take the edge off. During the day I have been taking full advantage of this and have read a great deal in various parks around the city. One in particular is worthy of a mention and that is Buttes Charmont. This is a huge man-made park designed by Baron Haussmann who was a civic planner in Paris in the 1800s. He is widely held accountable for the way Paris appears today and was responsible for introducing the wide, sweeping boulevards that are so common across the city. He also laid out the Bois de Boulogne and made several improvements to the other, smaller parks within the city.

Buttes Charmont is just four metro stops from my apartment. The park is a traditional piece of English countryside located right in the heart of the city – almost like a New York Central Park for Paris. There is a lake at its centre and a huge island in the middle which provides superb views of the city. Emily and I had a picnic here on Tuesday and spent a relaxing day reading, eating baguettes with camembert and aubergine caviar and soaking up the sun from one of the many grassy slopes. I returned, by myself, on Thursday and spent the afternoon reading quietly appreciating once more the distinct lack of screaming children and city noise.

Although the heat was bearable during the day it was another matter altogether at night, especially when ensconced in my 12m squared studio on the fifth floor. I returned home, from a night out with Katy and Emily, at around 5am, and was hit with a wave of hot air as I opened my door. I staggered to the window and threw it open as wide as it would go but there was not a breath of air. I took the duvet from my bed and lay down on the mattress, desperately trying to get cool, but my heart was hammering and my face felt flushed so in the end I got up and had a cold shower. Despite the effect being only very temporary it did allow me to get some sleep that night. However, I woke up frequently and needed another two showers throughout the night in order to get my body temperature back to a bearable level.

I want to, for a moment, return to the topic of Soraya, who lives opposite me. She’s a strange character, I’d say she’s in her 30s and yet she lives alone in an apartment that is even smaller than mine and, in fact, makes mine look like a palace. The walls of her studio are covered in mould and the place is always stiflingly hot with a damp smell about it. She has a huge, imposing, wardrobe made from a dark wood against one wall and a sofa bed against the other. She has a little kitchenette in the alcove where, in my apartment, the shower is located and, presumably, has to use the sink to wash in since there is no shower in the apartment. There are various pieces of mismatched material hanging over the windows making the room rather dark and depressing and a microwave resting on an office chair in the corner. Behind the front door is an electric heater attached to the wall meaning that she can never open the door more than a few inches and, until I discovered that this was the reason, I always assumed she was rather afraid of who might be visiting.

Soraya is an avid fan of DIY and is always changing things round and replacing items with other things she has found on the street. Last week I was coming home from the supermarket and found her on the second floor of the building struggling with a chest of drawers she had found outside. I helped her up to our floor and somehow managed to get it through the minuscule gap in her front door. I have also helped her take her old refrigerator down to the street and carry some carpet tiles up to her apartment. She’s certainly rather quirky, but is friendly enough, and we always have a chat before she bursts into gales of laughter when I don’t understand something she’s said.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Minor inconveniences

My current living arrangements are, most certainly, only suitable for the summer season. A lack of any real cooking facilities and a shower which has hot water for a maximum of four minutes at a time are just about bearable whilst it is warm and sunny outside but when the weather turns cold and the nights get longer I’m sure I will be craving some creature comforts. Another downside to this setup is, as I mentioned before, the loo being located outside the apartment. Before I moved in Soraya arranged with Emily and the other residents on the floor to have a lock fitted to the outside of the door and provided everyone with a key because, apparently, a homeless man had been spending the night in there. This will no doubt come as a shock to you but I am in some doubt about the truth of this story as the building isn’t in a bad area, is perfectly safe as far as I can see and, truthfully, the street is probably preferable to being cramped up in the tiny, dirty little loo.

The room is approximately one metre squared, is finished with rough cement that was once painted a salmon pink colour and has a long funnel in the ceiling leading up to a skylight where no doubt all manner of bugs and insects live. The chain has broken off so in order to flush it one has to stand on the loo itself and reach blindly inside the cistern and grope about for a little tube which, when pulled, releases the mechanism and starts the flush. The walls are filthy and smeared with all kinds of questionable dirt and there is always a strong smell of rubber as a result of the big mat Soraya put down a couple of weeks ago. One of the biggest inconveniences is the lighting. The light is on the same timer as the lights on the stairs and this lasts a maximum of 45 seconds. Too many beers and too much rich, French food meant I had to pay an unexpected visit to the loo one night last week when I got home after a night out. I unlocked the door, ran back to the stairs to re-activate the timer on the lights and ran back to the loo. Despite my best efforts I was still plunged into darkness before long with the knowledge that anything might drop on to me from the skylight above or crawl over my feet. Reaching my hand into the cistern was particularly harrowing, being unable to see anything, and I was glad to get back to the bright lights of my cheerful little apartment.

It is, generally, a cheerful little apartment and I could have done a lot worse. However, in the first month or so I had a big problem with cockroaches. I had never experienced these creatures before and would come home after an evening out to find four or five adults and several babies running around the floor and the surfaces. As a rule I don’t mind creepy crawlies, except spiders, obviously, but these would suddenly appear from nowhere and skitter past me before running for cover under the sink and I was certainly not a fan of their speed or intelligence. As soon as I would get in it was as though an alarm signal would go off and I could imagine the leader of the pack calling to the others ‘alright lads, he’s back! Scarper!’ (although, come to think of it they’re French cockroaches so they would probably have been communicating in French). This would be followed by a mad dash as they all ran, full pelt, for the nearest crevice of safety. They are so fast it is almost impossible to catch them under a glass, for instance, and on several occasions I squashed a couple with the rim which made me feel rather guilty. However, my guilt lessened as the infestation worsened and in the end I had to invest in same traps together with a powerful spray which I would blast round the apartment before going out for the evening. Whether this, or the increasing heat in August has deterred them, I’m not sure but they are certainly under control now and I rarely see any.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Last week, finally, Numericable, our internet provider of choice, came and installed the wireless router. Luckily the Muslim woman, whose name I have now discovered to be Soraya, came home whilst the installation was taking place and was able to ask a few questions of the technician. We were under the impression that we would receive a cable that would stretch from my apartment, where the phone socket is located, to her apartment, enabling her to receive the additional television channels. This was not the case and, although the technician explained this was against their rules and that he would be unable to install such a cable, he had no qualms about telling us exactly what we needed to do in order to achieve the result we desired.

We set off that afternoon to Castorama which is, I suppose, the French equivalent of Homebase. We were in search of a cable which would connect to the wireless router one end and into the back of the satellite box they had provided at the other. We found the cable easily enough but then began an arduous window shopping extravaganza with Soraya who wanted to look at kitchens, bathrooms and curtain rails. It reminded me of being at home and embarking upon a Sunday morning trip to Homebase with Mum in search of paint samples or shower doors. Once we had finally finished at Castorama we journeyed home and began the laborious task of running the cable between the apartments.

Since there was not an inch of space under either door and Soraya wanted the wire to be as inconspicuous as possible in order to avoid angering the ‘proprietor’, the only option was to drill a small hole through to top of my door frame and feed the cable through. Soraya produced an ancient, green Bosch drill which I looked at dubiously before reluctantly attempting to drill through the wall. I had only a plastic fold away chair to stand on and this provided very little support and almost flipped over every time I tried to exert a little more pressure on the drill. Trying to block out my Gran’s reaction if she could have seen me drilling blindly through a wall that no doubt contained all manner of live electric cables with a drill that was continually sparking in my hands I made a little headway. However, it was thirsty work and it transpired that, after having misjudged the hole on each side a couple of times, the current drill bit simply wasn’t long enough. We went in search of another and eventually managed to locate a longer one which, ultimately, allowed me to drill through the wall completely in one smooth motion. For the duration of this process Soraya was comfortably installed in my apartment for some reason and was making herself at home examining my hair gel and vitamin pills as though they were valuable antiques.

In an attempt to make the wire as inconspicuous as possible we began an arduous process of wrapping it painstakingly around the various wires and pipes that already ran across the ceiling of the hallway. These were black with grime and my hands were soon filthy. Eventually it reached Soraya’s door where I had to drill another hole before feeding the cable through and connecting it to the set top box. After a couple of false starts we successfully installed the new television channels and Soraya was thrilled. She offered me a drink of some revolting supermarket own brand cola light which I didn’t want but accepted eventually after having it virtually poured down my throat. When I did take a sip, either as a result of all the dust that I had swallowed or because I took too big a gulp, it went down entirely the wrong way and I proceeded to have a choking fit which lasted for at least five minutes.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Social life

Last night John, Charles (a friend of John’s), Oliver and I decided to visit the Sacre Coeur in Monmartre. I had been once before with Emily during the day but I was keen to see it, together with the spectacular views, at dusk. We arranged to meet at Barbés metro at 8:15. Within five minutes of having left the metro station I had been offered hashish, coke and almost had my wallet stolen. As I exited a large, sweaty looking man started saying something to me in French which I didn’t understand. I explained that I didn’t speak French hoping this would discourage him but no such luck - he and three or four other guys surrounded me and asked, in English, if I wanted any hashish. Despite my clear lack of interest they kept persisting so in the end I just had to push my way past them and keep walking hoping they wouldn’t follow me. I walked over to an area which looked less riddled with potential drug dealers and texted John to let him know where I was. At that point a guy put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I wanted any coke. He was holding me with quite a grip and it was a couple of seconds before I felt a hand reaching inside my back pocket where I had my wallet. I spun round and the accomplice withdrew his hand, thankfully, before he had got a proper grip on my wallet. Rather than reacting aggressively I kept my English poise (code for passive aggressiveness) and said something like ‘okay, game over, no I don’t want any coke and no, you’re not having my wallet’. They walked off after that, laughing to themselves, and I moved my wallet to my front pocket, took my iPod headphones out of my ears and put them in my pocket and moved my sunglasses from my head to the neck of my t-shirt. I must have looked like a veritable gold mine to the numerous pickpockets around that area.

The atmosphere in Paris is entirely different from London. Whereas London is fast paced, difficult to navigate and swarming with people, Paris is relaxed, quieter and much easier to explore, either on foot, or on the metro. The result of this is an atmosphere that breeds spontaneity. Last Thursday I went round to Emily’s (a 10 minute metro journey) for a few drinks and, before we knew what had happened, it was nearly 5am and we were leaving a club, still packed with people, and heading home. There now seems to be a discrepancy between my earlier depictions of Parisian nightlife and this latest account. However, it does seem that, although predominantly, there is a very strong bar culture in the city, one can find little pockets of activity that continue into the early hours if one looks hard enough. Presumably being unemployed helps this notion of spontaneity since one doesn’t have to worry about getting up in the morning but Katy, who lives with Emily, works at 10am every morning and thinks nothing of it.

The production involved with having a similar night out in London is greatly increased as a result of having to navigate the tube (whose distances between stops are far greater in London than in Paris), choose a venue that is to everyone’s liking and then fight with crowds of people at the bar to get a drink. Undoubtedly London has a buzz and can feel like it really is the place to be, in fact, this was one of the main factors I thought I would miss most. However, having been here for over a month now I am starting to appreciate the more relaxed environment, the lazy summer evenings and the ease at which things can be done.

Yesterday John and I decided to do one of the walks from his ’24 great walks in Paris’ book and arranged to meet at 1pm by the Luxembourg RER stop. I was 25 minutes late on account of it being a bank holiday and every RER B stop that I found seemed to be shut – the above paragraphs no longer ring quite as true for me. However, it was a beautiful day and once we had met up and I had bought a sandwich from Brioche Dorée (a delicious sandwich chain), we embarked upon our walk which took us through all the little back streets lined with quintessentially Parisian restaurants, cafés and shops. We also saw the Pantheon, the Sorbonne and several spectacular fountains. One of the most interesting parts of the walk was when we came across the street that George Orwell lived on when he was writing ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. Although still narrow, it showed no signs of once having been a dank and squalid backstreet inhabited by tramps. It is now lined with pretty restaurants and the building that he lived in is, in fact, one of the nicest on the street with attractive window boxes and a pleasant facade. However, it was nice to imagine him living there, in a room similar to mine perhaps, writing about his experiences in Paris.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Second time lucky?

A week or so after having been fired from Corcoran’s I applied for a job with a company called ‘A La Carte Paris’ which rents luxury apartments to tourists coming to the city. I had worked in a similar field before and, so, was offered an interview. The company was very small with only about ten employees and was operating from an apartment just a five minute walk from my studio. It was a large, open plan space with one wall made up almost entirely of windows looking out on to a courtyard. The opposite wall had shelving units housing all manner of books, ornaments, photos and plants. This level had several desks, a lounge area and a kitchen towards the far end. In the middle of the floor was a steel spiral staircase going up to a mezzanine level where Alex, the owner, had his office.

It transpired that Alex was one of these guys who appears to have it all. A relatively successful business, an attractive girlfriend and several luxury apartments dotted around the most affluent areas of Paris. He was a tall man with blonde hair and very strikingly pale blue eyes making him look rather cruel. He had a sly smile and came across as rather affected. He also had a strange habit of doing a little condescending neck movement each time I responded to one of his questions. Nevertheless, the interview went well and I was set a test to see how I would respond to a potential enquiry from a holidaymaker. The following Tuesday I was offered the job and started on the Wednesday.

I spent most of my time with Richard who had been doing my role before me but would now be moving on to a more logistical position within the company. Richard was friendly and helpful and we got on very well. I sat at the computer to the side of him and, since mine was the only one to be connected to a speaker, I was in control of the music – we had music playing into the office throughout the day.

Any contact that either myself or Richard had with a client had to be approved by Alex first which meant that when responding to enquiries I had to write my response and then open a new tab before going on to the next one. All these tabs had to be kept open until such a time as Alex decided to come and read through my responses. Not only did this make things painfully slow but on several occasions my computer crashed completely and I lost 10-12 responses each time. It was hugely frustrating.

The following Monday Alex called me up to his office just before lunchtime and went through various things that he was pleased with and that I was doing well. Then he mentioned a few areas that he would like to see improved. He reminded me that I was on a trial period (of four months) and that he was continuing to accept CVs. I though this slightly odd but went downstairs to have my lunch and then made a mental note of the things he wanted improved and tried to work on them that afternoon. At the end of the day Alex asked me to go up to his office again and explained that he had been scheduled to go on holiday the week before but had stayed an extra week as there was so much work to do and he had wanted to train me. He went on to say that although I hadn’t done anything wrong and he’d been pleased with my work, he had interviewed someone that afternoon (whilst I was in the office, the bastard) who had more sales experience than me and who would be replacing me as of Tuesday (because he was keen to get away now). Then he asked me if I understood. Resisting the urge to thump him in his smug, smarmy face I said yes I did understand and became rather more business like. All week I had been making an effort, as any new employee does, to be extra friendly and as likeable as possible. This ended here and, although I was still polite, I was no longer trying to please him so I asked him if he would act as a reference, to which he agreed, wished him a pleasant holiday, and left. Back to square one and I am, once again, job hunting.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Everyday life

One Sunday I met my friend Ashley and we decided to visit the Paris Plage - the beach that is constructed along the banks of the Seine during the summer. We met at Chatelet, one of the most central metro stops, and walked down to the river. Monoprix, one of the French supermarkets, had set up a temporary kiosk where we bought some lunch before walking along the beach to find somewhere to sit. We spent rather an uncomfortable hour or so sitting, crushed into a tiny piece of free space, with children throwing sand all around us and parents shouting at said children. We left and got the metro to the Louvre where there are acres of lush green grass with very few people. We spent the rest of the afternoon basking in the sunlight before the others came to join us and we went for dinner at a Cuban restaurant.

There is a distinct holiday feel about living in Paris and before long I found that I was haemorrhaging money. No internet and the fact that it is so easy to traverse the city meant we were meeting up almost every night either for dinner, cocktails or an ice cream by the river. This, coupled with the extortionate price of food and the cost of going out properly at the weekend, meant that before long my new French Carte Bleue had been well and truly blocked. It transpired that there is a limit of 150€ that can be withdrawn from a cash point in any given week. Exceed that limit and the card will be refused. However, one can still make purchases with it in shops provided there are funds available. I have managed to get my limit increased to 300€ which surely must be enough for the moment.

When I moved into my apartment my computer picked up as many as 15 available Wi-Fi networks. Every last one was security protected so I went about the task of leaving notes for my neighbours to ask if anyone wanted to share their password – ‘mot de passe’ – in exchange for some money each month. The Muslim woman who lives opposite me explained that she didn’t have the internet but that she would like some extra channels for her television so we could do a deal where we set up a package and she took the television channels and I took the internet. I explained that would be perfect but that she would have to set it up and I pay her each month. After a visit to the internet shop, several conversations I barely understood and an extortionate bill on my English iPhone for data charges, there is a direct debit set up in my name, no internet as yet and no money from the Muslim woman. Perfect. It is rescheduled to be installed this week but I’m not holding out much hope.

After a month or so of living in Paris I was in need of a haircut so I tentatively paid a visit to the hairdresser just down the road from my apartment. The place was empty except for the proprietor and one customer whose hair he was blow drying. The owner was a large man who looked rather Italian if anything. He had long grey hair which looked as though it had been styled carefully that morning and was wearing a long white shirt, reminiscent of an artist’s smock, black trousers and little French loafers. I asked him if he spoke English because the thought of describing a hair style in French was simply too much of a challenge at that point. He said he didn’t but explained that it wouldn’t be necessary and immediately swept me over to the sink where he started to violently wash my hair with his sausage like fingers. Next, we had a brief interaction at the mirror, where I did my best to explain to him what I wanted and he half listened before proceeding to chop away feverishly. He knocked my head about, shaved the back and sides, snipped furiously at the top and was finished within around five minutes. I had another neck breaking rinse by the sink, parted with 18 euros and was outside, blinking in the sunlight, before I’d even had time to assess the damage. I went home and reluctantly looked in the mirror but was relieved to find that, really, it wasn’t too terrible and after a bit of tweaking and a few snips of my own here and there, I was relatively happy with the result.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Corcoran's St Michel

When I moved to the St Michel branch of Corcoran’s it was much better. The staff members were nicer, generally, and the bar was better organised and less frantic. Each night a bar crawl would come in at around 10:30 and for the next hour or two whoever was working behind the miniscule bar downstairs would be bombarded with orders for cocktails and pints, mostly from Americans and Australians. However, on the one occasion that I did the bar crawl, I was working with an Irish girl called Sheilan who was very funny and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

During my first few days I worked a variety of shifts. The Shift Manager during the day was an Australian guy called Matt. It seems to me that the service industry is mostly a pretence and generally there’s a lot of time when there’s very little to do, especially during the day, after lunch. As such, the one who is able to make himself look busy the most successfully will get on well in this sort of environment. However, I should admit that I am terribly lazy, particularly when I am not motivated. Despite this Matt had me cleaning every spec of brass in the entire pub. I didn’t mind this because it meant I could relax with my thoughts whilst I went about something that didn’t require any brain power. Along one side of the pub were French windows, each of these had a ledge between the inside window and the outside window that was made of brass and decorated with faux Irish ornaments. These hadn’t been cleaned in years and were black with grime. The windows themselves swung inwards and the first time I opened one with Matt watching I almost smashed one of the glass lamp shades hanging just next to the top of the window frame. Fortunately he was tall and caught it before it swung back and smashed to pieces. He left to run some errands and said to be careful of the lamps. Naturally I forgot all about it and 45 minutes later the annoying Irish girl who worked during the day came running over like a leprechaun to see what had happened after she had heard the glass raining down all over the bar and the terrace. She said we would tell Matt later but I think she forgot. The next day the shade was replaced and no more was said about it.

On one day shift I was cleaning the metal frames of the ‘fridges behind the bar. Matt came to give me a hand after an hour or so and we were chatting idly. He asked me what had bought me to Paris and I explained how difficult it was to find a job in London at the moment. He seemed oblivious to the world-wide recession and seemed surprised before asking me why. I stared at him for a moment to see if he was joking before, realising he wasn’t, I mumbled something about the credit crunch. He looked vague, said ‘oh’ and returned to his cleaning.

That evening an English couple came in. I served the man who wanted a pint of 1664 and a Gin Fizz for his wife. I was halfway through pouring his pint when he asked for a special, frosted glass he had caught sight of behind the bar. I duly transferred the beer over and continued pouring. Next I made his cocktail. As I handed it to him he looked down at it in amazement and explained that he couldn’t possibly have ice in it as his wife had just had an operation. I felt like saying that surely the 4cl of gin would prove more of a problem than four ice cubes but instead I removed them, topped up the cocktail and returned it to him.

I lasted a week here before being fired for being too slow. In France, once an employee has passed a month in employment it is very difficult for an employer to fire them – I like to think that they just didn’t want to take the risk with me, although, having said that, I probably was pretty shit. Anyway, I got paid for all my shifts and then left, happily, in the knowledge that never again would I have to sacrifice my Friday and Saturday nights, breathe the mushroomy smell of stale beer or make another Irish car bomb (Guinness with a shot of whiskey and Bailey’s dropped into it).

I do just want to mention my Manager though before I leave the topic of Corcoran’s altogether. The St Michel branch was run by Antoine and Sean. Antoine was a proactive, amiable, French guy who spoke good English. Sean was a fat, blistered, Irish guy who didn’t speak a word of French, did nothing behind the bar (even less than me in fact!) and constantly looked as though he were in the midst of a serious heart attack due to the pained expression he always wore. Sean was the manager and Antoine was the Assistant Manager. Antoine chatted away to me as any normal person would but, for the entirety of my time at St Michel, Sean did not say a word to me. We worked behind the same bar and passed each other a hundred times a night but he would not speak. How he ever got to be Manager of the place is a mystery. As you can imagine I left without saying goodbye to him.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Extra curricular activities

Oliver had mentioned that he was taking some French classes near the Pompidou Centre and I decided to go along and sign up as I felt I could use the practice, especially since, according to Oliver, they focused specifically on conversation and oral exercises. Having taken the entrance test I was placed in the intermediate group and signed up for nine hours of lessons each week for two weeks. My first lesson was so reminiscent of my GCSE French classes at school that I could hardly bring myself to go back. Everyone sitting to attention with their dictionaries at the ready, a wealth of tedious listening exercises centred around outdated ‘current’ affairs and D-list French celebrities who no one had ever heard of. And, of course, hot shots who loved the sound of their own voice so much they would talk for 15 minutes and give a detailed account of all the activities they had undertaken when asked what they had done at the weekend.

I knew I would certainly not perform well in this sort of environment and got so frustrated that after my third lesson I went to ask the receptionist if I could have a refund for my remaining three lessons. When she asked why I explained (as best I could in French) that there were too many people in the class, not enough oral exercises and that I couldn’t really understand the majority of my classmates who were Spanish and had extremely thick Spanish accents. Unfortunately, at this point, the owner of the school happened to hear me and immediately directed a torrent of abuse at me in French to which I could only respond ‘ce n’est pas grave, ce n’est pas grave!’ before she went to get my teacher whom I had made sure was well and truly occupied before saying anything to the receptionist. I felt myself getting redder and redder and no doubt I wouldn’t have had the vocabulary anyway but when placed under such pressure (with the receptionist, the owner of the school, my teacher and another teacher all watching me intently) my French almost completely deserted me and all I could mutter was ‘Je suis desolé’ and ‘Ce n’est pas grave’. It was ultimately arranged that I would switch classes and attend those run by the other teacher who happened to be there. These, as it turned out, were much more successful but whether they were worth the embarrassment of the interaction described above I am not sure.

Within my first couple of weeks Emily and I decided to set aside a day to try and get all the irritating but necessary admin tasks completed such as opening a French bank account and getting a Navigo card. Emily is my friend whose apartment I am renting and has been living in Paris for almost two years. As such, she speaks almost perfect French and would act as my translator for the day. We made the mistake of going out the night before for a few drinks and, as a result, didn’t manage to meet until around 2pm the following day. We started with lunch, sushi in fact, which may not have been the most appropriate choice considering we were both feeling rather delicate, and then proceeded to search for a bank.

Aside from acting as my translator, Emily also had to vouch for the fact that I had a permanent residence in Paris – a stipulation of all the banks in France. The French banking system works in such a way that, although you may have an account with a bank that has branches all over the city, should you want to do anything, such as transfer money or pay a bill, you have to do it at the branch you belong to; where you set up your account. Emily and I traipsed round several branches, standing in queues for 15 minutes, before being told we had to make an appointment or didn’t have the necessary documentation. Eventually we got lucky and were shown into the office of the Account Manager at Credit d’Agricole. He was rather a large man, in his early 30s, with a blonde comb over. He was wearing several gold rings on each finger and had a short sleeved yellow shirt on that matched the colour of what hair he had left. He seemed very friendly though and proceeded to open an account for me.

By this point in the afternoon I was feeling very tired and rather jangly. I was still quite hungover, had eaten sushi for lunch and had been waiting in several banks for a total of about an hour and a half. I remember how gentle and finicky the man was with everything, making sure all his pieces of paper were perfectly ordered, making absolutely sure the envelope was properly sealed and methodically signing each document with precision and care. I was surprised this didn’t make me furious but it actually had the opposite effect and seemed to calm me somewhat.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The first couple of weeks...

I shuddered as I took my first sip of Magners at 5:30 on a Saturday morning. I had just finished my first shift working in an Irish bar on Grands Boulevards close to Place de la Republique and felt obliged to participate in the strange tradition of ‘staff drinks’ that seems to be commonplace when working in the Parisian service industry. Despite the fact that the sun is well and truly up by this time, the metro is open and we’ve all worked for well over 12 hours, rather than going home to bed, everyone would much rather sit for a further hour or so smoking and drinking in the dark and dinghy pub.

I do think of myself as a fairly heavy drinker but, without the promise of a few hours in a club with some excellent music, a good atmosphere and a group of friends I don’t see the point. Chances are that those couple of pints will affect my sleep and, considering I would usually have to work again at 7 the following night, I’d rather have a peaceful few hours as opposed to a disturbed sleep filled with crazy dreams and three or four trips to the bathroom.

In truth I had had a pretty awful shift really. I hadn’t understood as much as I would have liked and, although I may have known the words, just hearing them amongst what sounded like a torrent of nonsense was almost impossible.

I moved to Paris nearly two weeks ago having been a victim of the credit crunch in London and not having been able to find a decent job for six months or so. I had been working at Hugo Boss in Sloane Square for the past four months and, although the people were a lot nicer than those at my previous office job, the work was rather dull and repetitive. As such, if the state of the economy resulted in my having to work in a similar position until things improved, I thought I may as well do it in Paris and perfect my French - something I had been hoping to do ever since school.

I am living in the 10th arrondissement in a little studio flat on the fifth floor that a friend of mine was originally renting before moving in with a friend of hers. In order to rent an apartment independently in Paris you need to show the Estate Agent three months of previous French wage slips to prove that you can, in fact, afford to pay the rent. My friend offered to sublet the apartment to me which seemed like a golden opportunity.

It’s a bright and cheerful little flat with two windows, a little kitchenette and a shower room. The loo is just outside in the corridor and is shared with a couple of other people on the floor – not ideal but it never seems to get used very much and is fairly private. The building looks out over an ‘ecole maternelle’ which is like a nursery. These children never seem to have any lessons and are constantly outside playing in the playground. This makes for a rather restless day’s sleep after having worked a night shift but is a more friendly and comforting sound than drunks arguing for instance, which, I am sure, could have been a very likely alternative.

Conscious of making sure I didn’t live in my friend’s pocket I made a big effort to make new friends and made full use of the various ‘English Speakers in Paris’ groups on Facebook. I happened to message one girl who turned out to be a very organised sort and she invited me along for her birthday drinks under the Eiffel Tower. It was a strange gathering. I met her and a couple of friends at the beginning of the evening but throughout the night people kept arriving and before long there was a crowd of around 30 people, the majority of whom had never met anyone else before. However strange a situation this may sound, since everyone was in the same boat, it didn’t actually feel awkward at all and before long everyone was chatting away and singing along with one guy who had bought his guitar and was performing excellent renditions of various Michael Jackson hits.

I was chatting to an American guy who was staying in Paris for a month or so on an extended holiday and two girls, one from Manchester and one from London, one of whom was working as an au pair and one as a nanny. Their plan was to go to Corcoran’s – the bar I worked at – and I decided to go with them since, despite there being a crappy atmosphere behind the bar, as a customer it was a pretty good venue.

We had an excellent night. I am all for absorbing local culture and immersing myself in the lifestyle of any given country. However, what I had noticed about Paris, that differed significantly from London, was how much quieter the city was. Go out in London, to the West End for instance, on any night of the week, and it’ll always be thronged with people and busy well into the early hours. Paris, for the most part, seems to adopt much more of a bar culture, and from 2am onwards seems, generally, very quiet. There is also a distinct lack of places where one can buy food from after a night out - something that I find essential if I am to expect any kind of normality from my body the following day. Despite this, the two girls, Ashley and Cat, showed me and Oliver (the American guy who had joined us later) a fantastic place that was still open once we had finished at Corcoran’s. I am loathed to use the expression Kebab shop (although they did sell kebabs) as it was rather more upmarket. I had a tasty chicken fillet ciabata, which was freshly cooked and served with chips and (deliciously French) dijonnaise.

A brief interlude follows due to my having worked a Friday and Saturday night at the bar. I was positioned in the back bar which, although slightly quieter than the front bar, is still, essentially, very busy and, unfortunately, much narrower. I was working with a French guy called Nikki who was a great fat slob of a man with a shock of greasy curls tamed somewhat with some kind of Alice band. He wore cut off jeans and ancient trainers with holes in where his laces, which he never did up but tucked into his shoes, trailed out of. I am of a much slimmer build and also like to think I have fairly decent manners. As such, I would always make an effort to turn to the side as we passed each other behind the bar. He made no such effort and I found I was squeezing myself into as little space as possible to avoid any contact with his sweaty bulk whilst he thundered past oblivious. The two nights were both fairly horrific, although Saturday was certainly busier. I remember as the orders for drinks started to flood in Nikki caught sight of me making several cocktails and turned to me and screamed ‘faster, faster, faster!’ I felt like explaining to him that this would most certainly have the opposite effect, not least because it made me all the more nervous, but also because it irritated me beyond belief and I was certainly not inspired to work hard for someone who talks to me like that.

The weekend passed in a sweaty blur and I didn’t get home until 7am on Sunday morning. I slept most of the day and woke around 4pm, just two hours before I had to start again. Sunday evening was as different from Saturday as it could have been. It was quieter, the clientele were nicer and everyone was generally less frantic. Rather than working behind the bar I was on the terrace, waiting on tables which gave me more opportunity to practice my French. There were not many customers and I spent three relatively pleasant hours serving food and chatting discreetly to the other members of staff. That was until Nabeel, the manager, called me over for a ‘little chat’. He explained that he hadn’t put me on the rota for the following week because I was to work at the branch near St Michel where it is quieter, smaller and generally attracts more tourists. He also gave me my new hours which were much improved on those I had on Grands Boulevards. He even mentioned that there might be potential for me to work during the day. So, although, undoubtedly, I was being moved on account of my being pretty poor at the job I am hoping it will turn out better for me anyway. St Michel is further from my apartment but I plan to get to grips with the Velibe system which should help.

Velibes are bicycles which are stationed all over the city in racks with magnetic plates to secure them to the station. When one wants to make use of them one has to either use one’s bank card or one’s Navigo pass (the cheap pass used for the metro) and just swipe it across the sensor which then releases the bicycle. The thought of a similar system in London just doesn’t translate. I can picture saddles being ripped off, graffiti sprayed across each and every bicycle and wheels stolen left, right and centre. I suppose this is testament to the somewhat different culture in Paris - all the Velibes I have seen have looked in excellent condition.

A couple of days after the night out at Corcoran’s was Bastille Day. I had worked the previous night and, as a result, slept until around midday. Once I was ready I got the metro to Clemenceau and met the others who were at the Tuilleries Gardens near the Champs Elysees. Oliver had bought along a couple of people he had met called John and Allison. They were both American - Allison was doing an internship at a gallery in the Marais and John was working as a Director at St John’s University. We had a very relaxing afternoon lying in the sun and chatting before the others decided to go to Longchamps and I went home to get ready as I was going out for dinner that evening with Emily (whose apartment I was staying in) and a couple of her friends.

After a delicious meal at a restaurant called Pramil, close to the Marais, we made our way down to the Louvre to watch the fireworks. There were great crowds of people but, funnily enough, it didn’t feel uncomfortably busy. There was plenty of space for everyone and groups of friends were sitting on the grass drinking wine and watching as increasingly spectacular displays shot out from all over the Eiffel Tower itself. I remember thinking how relaxing it was sitting there in the balmy summer air with the other Paris inhabitants whilst the city hummed quietly behind us.