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.