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.

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