My first stay in Paris. Living on Boulevard St Jacques.
Firstly Paris is great. Any subsequent criticisms have to be seen in the light of this statement. There is so much to see that you walk into one architectural masterpiece while looking at another. While British PM’s seem determined to go down in the history books for having taken a penny off income tax, French presidents ensure they will be remembered by throwing grotesque sums of public money at the currently fashionable architect and telling them they don’t care what they build as long as it is big, impressive and has their name on it.
You’ve probably been told that Paris is the most romantic city in the world. I strongly suspect that to be true. It is after all completely designed for couples, all the tables in the cafes/restaurants are two person, the parks are laid out to dissuade anyone who doesn’t want to admire flowers, strictly a two person pastime.
I have settled into my flat,living room, bathroom (no bidet, honestly what is the point of being in France if you don’t have a bidet), kitchen. Well, if you can call it a kitchen, the only cooking facility is one hob. ONE HOB. Even a master chef like me cannot cook anything on one hob that doesn’t emerge as slop, so I live on salad, or bread and cheese. Except when I really pig out and have bread, cheese AND salad. Eating out is even more impossible, given that vegetarianism has not really caught on here (ie almost everyone is completely unaware of the concept). There are a few vegetarian restaurants around, but they seem to be veggie on health grounds rather than on people not wanting to eat ickle fluffy animals, so they are hardly gastronomic paradises. On the other hand, any city where it is more economical to drink wine rather than orange juice (and that’s proper wine, with flavour and everything) can’t be all bad.
The studio also has a black and white TV with atrocious reception. Most notable about French TV is that all the adverts look as if they were made in the 1950s (being in black and white only partly explains this) with the addition of gratuitous female semi-nudity. It’s a surreal mix and far more entertaining than the actual programmes (and no, that isn’t because of the semi-nudity, the regular programming has that as well).
I couldn’t cope without music, so I splashed out on a walkman. The only problem being that I hate earplugs, (I know this probably makes a walkman an unwise choice, but it was very cheap) so it spends most of the time with the headphones wrapped around my neck and the volume turned up to maximum, which seems to work pretty well. Then I remember that I am supposed to be exposing myself to the beauty of the French language and switch the radio on. The best of a bad lot of radio stations that I’ve found is Oui FM, which plays a strange selection of rock music that veers from Metallica and RATM to Cranberries and Dire Straits then back again without warning. Fortunately it plays Nirvana, dEUS and Radiohead as well. It also plays French “rock” which ranges in quality from Louise Attaque (good) to everything else (bad). Best of all are its pronunciations of acts. I think Billy Corgan’s band are forever Smeeshing Poumpkins in my mind now. And I know it’s not big or clever to laugh at foreign accents, but hell, they all do it to me. Actually my French is improving rapidly, but it’s still got a long way to go.
I bought some shampoo in the supermarket the other day, (stick with me, it gets better) and when I took it to the counter, the checkout attendant raised her eyebrows and asked if it was for me. Unwisely I said yes, at which she chuckled loudly, and made a couple of comments that I utterly failed to understand. After I got home, I examined the bottle closely to see whether I had in fact bought something to cure baldness, restore my hair to its former colour or something similarly ludicrous, but I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t even seem to be one designed for women. Nevertheless, I’m going to be examining my hair pretty closely for the next few days (yeah, yeah, plus ça change, no heckling from the back). I may also change supermarkets.
I have actually been inside the Bibliotheque Nationale on several occasions, once I remembered what my actual purpose here was. Another Presidential prestige project, it has the unique design feature (award winning no doubt) that the doors are completely indistinguishable from the walls, bar tiny signs saying poussez and tirez. I haven’t actually tried to open a wall yet, but I’m sure it won’t be long. Well I guess that’s it. Further bulletins if events warrant.
Hi, and welcome to part two. I am slightly drunk as I write this (and I have half a bottle left to drink, so it’s only going to get worse) so it may be a little incoherent, but i’ll try and keep it together. It’s feeling a lot less like a holiday now, as I have loads of work to do. Spending all day reading in French leaves me a little bit drained and not too keen on being a tourist. It’s also my excuse for this email being a little uninspired. The work is actually going very well, but I’m still some way behind with it all.
After describing how Paris is absolutely full of architectural masterpieces and things to see, I guess I should point out that the area where I actually live is rather unspectacular. It’s perfectly pleasant: wide, tree-lined streets and all, but there isn’t a great deal to do. Unless you are interested in death that is, in which case you are spoilt for choice. There’s Montparnasse Cemetery, where you can go and contemplate the tombs of Parisians including de Beauvoir, Sartre, Maupassant, Dreyfus, Baudelaire, Brancusi and Serge Gainsbourg. Apparently Gainsbourg fans show their devotion by leaving their metro tickets on his grave, though quite why littering his final resting place should be seen as appropriate is beyond me. Even more morbid are the catacombs, which were created to deal with overcrowding in the cemeteries. Basically they consist of rows and rows of neatly stacked skulls and bones, in semi-darkness (the guide book recommends taking a flashlight). The catacombs are considered a tourist attraction which is very disturbing. Still it is only 5 minutes walk from where I live so I might go and visit sometime. Maybe.
More deserving of the term “attraction” in my area is Montsouris park, which despite its unprepossessing name (roughly translating as Hill of Mice) is actually very pleasant, and one of the few parks in Paris where you can actually sit on the grass. The park attendants, who resemble the Securitate in both attitude and appearance seem to resent this strongly, and have arbitrarily designated some sections as forbidden – which particular sections changes on a weekly basis – but other than that it’s great. This week has been very sunny, so I’ve spent a couple of days working there. I tried to strike a balance between lying on my front, studying, and lying on my back, sunbathing, but due to one of the peculiar defects in my brain found World War One more interesting than sun worship and thus have a somewhat sunburnt back. So I guess its back to the Archives tomorrow (pretty much ideal for those recovering from sunburn, as the windows block out all natural sunlight, to protect the documents).
Although I am missing not having friends around, I’m really enjoying having a flat (the spellchecker noted I’d spelled this as falt … as if I’d ever admit to having a fault) of my own. It has a nice view on to a courtyard, and it’s pretty quiet. The only problem is the ludicrous size of the bath. It is both exceptionally narrow, and spectacularly shallow. To wash my legs, I have to lever my back halfway up the wall, while to submerge my head I have to stick my legs up in the air in the manner of a synchronised swimmer. It’s not a particularly relaxing experience, and makes me feel like Nadia Comaneci.
My spoken French remains annoyingly basic. It’s very frustrating to read complicated French for hours each day, and then as soon as I am in a conversation regressing to a vocabulary that would embarass a 5 year old. Still, I’ve become very proficient at saying bonjour and au revoir, and the woman in the bakery smiles indulgently at my utter inability to distinguish between the masculine and feminine article while buying a loaf of bread. Of course as my thesis (available in all good bookshops in 2003, I hope) will demonstrate, masculine and feminine are only cultural constructs anyway. So I don’t have to go to the trouble of learning them.
Well, this is it, the last installment from Paris. Yes, I know I should have broken it to you more gently, but time heals all wounds, and I’m sure you’ll come to terms with it eventually.
I was listening to the radio the other night, and there was a programme about writing home, and how you should use the opportunity to analyse your relationships, and consider some of the great questions of the universe. Fuck that, I thought, so here is another collection of dull anecdotes, lame puns, juvenile jokes about the French language and outright falsehoods.
I am back in the UK soon, and to indulge a slight case of homesickness, I am going to list some of the things I have missed about living in Britain.
Houmous You can’t get it anywhere, not even in Greek shops. I’m not sure that chick peas are strictly an addictive substance, but I’m not managing well without them.
Friends. I know y’all think I’m bitter and cynical, but I have feelings too. (although not too many obviously, or I wouldn’t have put you after houmous)
Sleep. I only vaguely remember this concept, but I seem to recollect that it was a very pleasant way of spending the time. Hopefully I’ll remember how to do it again soon. I’m (almost) contemplating taking pills.
Cheddar Cheese. OK, I’m a barbaric savage, whom civilization is wasted on, but I don’t like Camembert, Brie and Rocquefort. I like cheddar. Actually, you can get it in some places, but they contrive to label and price it as a gourmet cheese, while looking down on everyone who buys it. So I haven’t.
The absence of nose bleeds. Well, only the one actually, but it did happen in the Archives, while I was reading “priceless, irreplaceable documents”. In fact they were pretty much just letters from people complaining that France being involved in the most costly, bloody war in the world’s existence had pushed up the price of bread. Nevertheless, in a place where they won’t even let you take a pen in, to avoid harming the documents, I don’t think they would take kindly to me bleeding all over them. I’m not sure exactly what the penalty would have been, something along the lines of deportation, most likely, with TV news footage bemoaning that once again hooligans had tarnished Britain’s image abroad. Fortunately I managed to get to the bathroom safely.
But just to reassure you that my life is not a deep pit of despair and misery, here are some good things about France.
In the metro, they have fold down seats in the standing area, a good thing in itself. Even better is the sign saying “in case of affluence, don’t use the fold down seats.” Now I know that I should have translated affluence as crowding, but I really like the idea of staff coming up to well dressed people using the seats and saying “Sorry sir, you are too rich to use the seats, they are reserved for the plebs”.
Suicidal road crossing. Yeah, I’m sure that people everywhere cross the road without waiting for the lights to change, but pushing a pram? Even better is that most people seem to place the pram between them and the direction of the traffic–you gotta protect yourself don’tcha. Of course given the predilection for motorcyclists to ride down the pavements, it could just be that the parents are making a rational assessment of risk, and think the pavements are more dangerous.