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.