Saturday, 5 July 2008

The Devil wears Prada, or is that Pampers?

What a difference a weekend makes. Last week I was working as an assistant at a fashion magazine during Paris Couture Fashion Week. It was all uncomfortable shoes and mad dashes for Starbucks soya lattes. Slightly stressful, but fascinating nonetheless. Fast forward to this week, and my latest temp-job, minding a one-year-old boy in Belleville. It's all uncomfortable soggy jeans and mad dashes for easy-wipes in the park. As it turns out, I'm as much a fish out of water in both worlds.
Last week I was tottering to work in, for me, high heels, only to be congratulated on my "comfy shoes" by a towering amazon on Louboutin stilts. As well as the mandatory Starbucks runs, I learnt a lot about the dos and don'ts of high fashion, including the following scathing appraisal of a fashion party : "It was a wash 'n wear crowd." Take note: fashionistas don't wash their clothes. And even if they did, they would never think of washing their clothes, only to go and wear them again; the horror!
My wash and wear wardrobe and I moved seamlessly into this week where it has been exactly like Three Men and a Baby without the moustaches.
My only previous babysitting experience was an evening spent hovering over my goddaughter's crib, checking she was still breathing roughly every two minutes. So I was in at the deep end this time with a full 6 hours a day with a real live toddler to entertain and keep clean.
Again, the learning curve has been steep. I was genuinely wondering whether I was "allowed" into the supermarket with the baby in the pushchair- I somehow thought it might be like a dog and you'd have to tie it up outside. 
The park was also a new one on me. It's so hazardous! All that concrete to fall onto, sand to eat and get into your clothes, and nasty "big boys" running full pelt into you all the time. Don't even get me started on the swings. And all the parents and nannies sit there happily watching their fragile charges risk life and limb. I was petrified.  
Just keeping my eyes on both the baby and the pushchair was a Herculean task that was almost beyond me. But even that was better than sitting back at home watching him endlessly pointing his (admittedly adorable) finger at every single object in the room, shouting his one word of French: "là-bas?" 
I only both experiences are going to be good training for my future life as an impossibly chic mother. 

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Freewheeling Paris Style

The proper way to go about things
Working in an actual office really does do wonders for your motivation. My energy levels last week were twice as much as the week before, when I was seemingly incapable of completing even the one task I had for any given day. Nowadays, I hop out of bed with alacrity before my alarm has even made a peep, and pass-by the post office to pay bills and send letters before I've even got to the office. I'm a full-on multi-tasker, storming through conference calls in French nd being the general go-to girl for the office.

And then I got a little cocky. Today I decided it was high-time I included some exercise in my regime, and took out a "Vélib" bike on my way back from work. Velibs are the free bikes stationed in every quartier that you can pick up and drop back at your destination. After some jolly chats with the business-types at the stop by the Assemblée National, I selected my bike and pressed my thumb to the metal pad to release it. As simple as that! I powered down Boulevard Raspail, feeling the wind in my hair and the evening sun on my legs, a happy worker on her way home, nature's way.
Then came the traffic-lights. And I noticed my skirt had ridden up and was impossible to tug down to a modest level unless I rode side-saddle. And people were looking! On a bike at the lights you are effectively a side-show for anyone waiting to cross, or sitting in a cafe enjoying an apéro and people-watching. Not to mention the fact that the people in cars next to you have a direct pants-level view up your skirt while they hang out their window getting a van-tan and an eyeful of the amateur velibist's legs. Perhaps I was especially conspicuous being the only person in Paris wearing a neon-day-glo vest over my clothes, I'm not sure. Safety first!

A quick getaway was what was needed, but that's a lot harder when you're pedalling on an incline in the sizzling heat, with a slightly flat tyre and weak chicken legs. I think a moped is the only answer. One rev and whoosh! You're gone, leaving onlookers with smut in their eye and only the fading memory of your knickers. Now, a scheme with free Piaggios on every corner is one I could really get on board with. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Rear Window

Paris is known for its high density population, and our flat, with its inside windows a matter of feet away from the facing building across the cour is no exception. Now that "summer" is here, the open windows provide an even greater degree of intimacy between the two builings, something which has not escaped my Gemini curiosity.

I have to admit to absent mindedly taking a passing interest in our neighbours, especially at night, when the glare of lights turns the flats opposite into veritable theatre-sets. This is what happens when you don't have a TV. The guy in the studio diagonally below always seems to be having a great time, with a constant stream of friends sitting round his table, eating take-away suppers or in full-on party mode. We like him, he has actually engaged in casual banter whilst leaning out the window for a cigarette. The hotel on the other side has a constant stream of unsavvy residents, little realising we've all got ringside views into their bedroom. The poor sods. It's like, "Get a room! Oh, right. Sorry, carry on!"

Then there is the duplex above the party guy, with a puzzling mixture of inhabitants ranging from a bearded forty-something man to a teenage girl via a mixture of twenty-something female students (from the looks of their folders out on the table etc.) They never do anything interesting; as far as I can make out they seem to have a cosy cooking rosta going and each sticks to their own room. All this information has been gathered over the last 6 months mind you, I rarely turn the lights off in my bedroom and settle down at the windowsill for a proper gawp.

This morning I got more than I bargained for, when bearded-houseshare-guy decided to spend a full four minutes airing his behind, perfectly framed by the green shuttered windows. It was a Photo Opportunity if ever I saw one, but I drew the line at actually photographing my subjects and posting them on the internet. That would be an entirely different blog

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Getting Fruity at the Grocers

If there's anything I hate, it's a cliché. I don't like to make assumptions about people, and I don't like other people to pigeonhole me.

It bothers me that my very obvious Englishness has been highlighted now that I'm an ex-pat. I've been bored to tears by foreigners harping on about terrible English food, and how it always rains in London, we are terrible at languages and so on, and I've tried not to make the same mistake and judge Parisians too quickly.

However. The time has come to admit that one cliché about Paris is true: it must be, because I have been hit by it almost each and every single time I set foot in a shop or a restaurant. The times it hasn't been the case have stood out in my memory as glorious exceptions to the ghastly rule.

Perhaps it's only in Paris, I've yet to discover the attitude outside the périférique, but customer service is not what it could be. Shopkeepers don't seem to care for your custom. Waiters don't often go out of their way to make you feel welcome. As an English speaker, your French is often corrected or even ignored and answered in (not great) English.

Oui: I've said it, the French are not into service as we know it. Just one example:

Yesterday in the fruit shop, I asked the fruit-monger if he might be able to make up a basket of assorted fruit for me, for my office. Yes, that's right, I asked a shopkeeper if I might be able to purchase some of the things he keeps in his shop. Honestly, what can I have been thinking?!

Fruiterer: "Oh, I don't think so." He said, indignantly. "I'm alone in the shop today."

Me, incredulous, but still hoping for the best (and speaking comprehensible French throughout this exchange): "Oh, I see. But could you not just... put some fruit into a basket?" I said - indicating the numerous baskets directly behind the belligerent fruiterer. "Hopefully it wouldn't take too long, a small selection?"

Fruit-Man, looking like he was sucking on one of his own lemons: "Well, if I do that, I will have to stop whenever another customer comes in, and serve them first. I'm alone in the shop today."

Me (thinking, yes, yes that's right, you are alone in the shop today. Alone, with no other customers and yet strangely unwilling to put some FRUIT, aka your WARES into a basket, in exchange for some money...) but nevertheless smiling encouragingly: "D'accord, merci beaucoup."

Fruitmonger, petulantly picking out some apples and pears and placing them into the basket: "It's not that easy to make up a basket when you don't know what you're going to put in it you know!"

Me: !*???%!!

Fruit-Cake, pouting and huffing like a character from 'Allo 'Allo: "If another customer comes in, I'll be obliged to take their order first, and then it could take up to an HOUR..."

Me, smiling like a cheshire cat: ?!!?%?*?%

Fruit and Nut Case, reluctantly returning to the till with the completed basket, still furtively on the look-out for any prospective customers he could possibly try and serve before me: "That'll be 24 euros."

Me, handing over the cash sweetly, my glazed smile starting to hurt my cheeks, "Thank you so much, and do you have a bag at all?"

Carmen Miranda, affronted and yet triumphant: "Not at all, Mademoiselle! Pas. Du. TOUT!"

Me, still smiling sweetly as I clasped the cumbersome basket to me: "Merci beaucoup Monsieur, vous avez été très...parisien."

And you know what, I really meant it.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Hearth of Darkness

Today some nice men came and knocked on our door. They were a double act in overalls, like a French version of the Chuckle Brothers, and as they presented some officious-looking pieces of paper, I could think of no excuse (in French) not to let them in. It turns out they were here for the annual chimney and gas pipe inspection, which, they explained, is legally required of all tenants. "It’s very important Madame," said the fat chatty one. "If not … BOOM!!!" he shouted, smiling broadly as he mimed a fatal gas explosion. Convinced, I let them in and pointed out the fireplace whilst frantically trying the Maitre's work number on my mobile. I hoped he might know whether this really was necessary, or at least be able to talk to them on the phone and put them off until he could be here.

I watched the silent-sidekick as he levered pole after pole up into the chimney shaft, while the Maitre's number rang and rang to no avail. As I hung up, a rush of air brought a tonne of soot down and out into the sitting room, coating every surface and the face of the fat sweep. Thank god we haven’t got any furniture. "You see Madame!" he said, blinking, " It hasn’t been done in a very long time." After cups of tea all round and much gesturing and hoovering (and emptying of the carbon monoxide filter in the kitchen) Laurel and Hardy have left me to finish mopping up. I just hope I can do a convincing enough impression of that "Boom!!!" when the Maitre comes home to find I've given away 150 euros and turned our flat into the set of Mary Poppins.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Chez Louisette at the marché aux puces

The Maître's sister and I were making our way round Les Puces, the St. Ouen fleamarkets just to the North of Paris, keen for some tat browsing, and on the M's orders, perhaps even a chaise longue  so we could have something to sit on after three months of cardboard boxes. It was a beautifully clear, cold, sunny day (it would later snow) and we had spent hours dipping in and out of the hundreds of stalls and shops full of buttons, dolls, taxidermy, jewellery, lace, hats, paintings, and of course, all manner of furniture.

Rounding the corner in the depths of the Vernaison market, I saw the sign for Chez Louisette, a restaurant famed for its all day Edith Piaf cabaret, and persuaded Brandon's sister it was the place for lunch.

It may be old hat for some, but nothing could have prepared me for the wonder of what lay inside Chez Louisette. Stepping in from the bright midday sunlight, we blinked as we adjusted our eyes to the gloom, and slowly registered the Christmas lights, the mirrored walls, the disco ball. Every surface, including the ceiling, was covered in red or silver foil, and there, as promised, was the band: an accordion, a keyboard and the singer, belting out a Piaf song in a sparkly top and floorlength skirt.

At one point during our lunch of steak in a lacustrine pepper sauce, I began to feel a bit crazed, driven to the edge by the incessant crooning and crazy lighting, but I recovered and went back to being delighted by everything and clapping enthusiastically after every number. The food was good simple fare, and the staff, charming.

The waitress had clearly been rendered crazed by her work environment, and waved back at us whenever we tried to attract her attention. "Coucou! We're having fun over there in the corner aren't we!" she cried, as we sat helpless, frantically miming signing the bill.

An hour or so later, we reluctantly returned to the real world, and the wintry daylight, regretting nothing.

Friday, 4 January 2008


The first thing I realised when I arrived in Paris, is that it's important to be able to survive without much sleep. It doesn't help that we're both insomniacs and spent our first few nights listening to the myriad different noises we can hear from our room, which is on a courtyard above two restaurants. You know you're not in West London any more when you can here gutteral french expletives in the early hours of the morning, as the plongeurs meet for a cigarette break by the bins. 

The old french floorboards mean that we are also on intimate terms with our upstairs neighbour -we’re talking audible peeing (male- we suspect there is a female in residence too but she must pee silently), intermittent scraping and trotting across the floorboards, squeaking in the bathtub and worst of all: incessant snooze alarm in the mornings. Still, when you're alone in a foreign city it can be reassuring to hear normal life going on around you- even if you're not quite part of it yet.