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.