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  • Ashleigh Ogilvie-Lee

Blog 8 - Life in Paris, not quite what I expected!

I wake up at 6 am and go to the bathroom. I'm not sure if anyone is in it, but the light is on. I give a little tap on the door, and a man's voice says something in a language I have never heard before. I wait in my room until I hear the door open and close, then I creep in and go into the shower. I hold the spout in one hand and the soap in another, and it is a little difficult. I go into my room and climb over the end of my bed a few times to get to the mirror and the hanging rack, and then I am ready to leave the house for my first day at school. I am wearing a coat and a scarf as it is very cold. I feel like I am 5 years old and about to go to a scary place, and mummy is busy in another country. It is only 6.30 am, but I have no idea how long it will take me to get to school. Two and a half hours should be okay, allowing for getting lost, which I know I will. The house is dark and quiet, and I don't like to turn the light on as I don't want to disturb the silence behind the curtain or the sleeping Josette on the canape, which is always a bed. I stumble a bit as I climb up the dark, thin, creaking, winding staircase. I have to unlock the heavily barred door with my key, and I can't do it. I think, "Oh no, I am going to have to wake Josette." Then, I manage to turn the key two and a half times to the left and pull the bar at the same time. At the last turn, the door releases, and I am free. I pull the door shut, but it is so heavy, and on the final pull, it makes such a racket that I know I will have woken my sleeping landlady. I imagine those great eyelids opening and shutting like an old woman who has watched the guillotine fall too many times. I find my train after asking a few people. One smart young woman simply walked right past without even seeing me, even though I said "excusez-moi Madame" with such a nice smile. I tell myself it is the manner of the French and not to take it personally, but I adjust my scarf uncertainly.

I take 15 stops to the station Motte Picquet Crenelle, and then when I am sure where the school is, I go into a café for my petit déjeuner as I am absurdly early. I am starving, as Josette sent me to bed on my night of arrival with not even a glass of water. The café is decorated all over with fading, drooping plastic leaves and flowers, cane chairs, and high chairs at the bar where it is cheaper to drink your coffee than at a table. I sit alone at my table. There is no other customer in the restaurant, so it’s just me and a waiter in his black trousers, white shirt, and apron running around putting up a sign for the plat du jour that keeps falling off, folding napkins, and putting jam in jars for the non-existent customers.

At last, after I have made a tentative wave and he is certain he has established that he is an important man, he huffs and puffs and sighs, "Oui Madame." He stands in front of me without making eye contact and asks, "Vous voulez?" (What do you want?) I try to speak French in a way that conveys, "Here I am in your fine city, and I am at your mercy, and I’m sorry to interrupt your job. I’m trying to speak your language. I’m not very good, but I’m sure you’ll find it in my favor that at least I’m trying." I ask for the petit déjeuner and could I have a café crème in a small cup not quite full.

He shakes his head sadly as if I don’t appreciate that the French have been around for a thousand odd years and know how to make coffee and that I will have my coffee exactly as the menu says. My petit déjeuner is canned pineapple with 2 raspberries on top, half a baguette with an inch of butter messily spread on it, a croissant, an orange juice, and an overflowing coffee with milk. It is impossibly unhealthy, and eating alone is sad, and the croissant flakes fall on my blue coat that has lost its button, and I brush them off, and somehow this was not quite what I had dreamed of.

I'm sure things will improve when I arrive at my school. I arrive at school and open the door to the left, as a black pen has been drawn on it to show how to turn the handle. The office is just on the left, where two girls and a large Indian man are present. They look at me briefly without saying a word, wanting to establish the ground rules from the first instant. The defense of 'Libertie egalite fraternite' is not an easy task. The descendants of revolutionaries are important people with important things to do, and disrupting them is not encouraged if it is not going to advance the cause. Smiles and politeness do not win revolutions, and when all is said and done, I was the one who chose to be here. My name is on a board, and I go to my class. There are boys and girls from all over the world sitting there, and I feel like the old woman in the shoe. They speak a sort of English to each other, but I don’t join in. I am determined to only speak French. For the first time in my life, I am the good student. We sit on those horrid chairs where you write to the right and your paper keeps falling off. Everyone is a bit awkward, but I can’t be bothered with breaking the ice. I am tired and fed up with everything, and I can’t help thinking of my evening ahead with something akin to terror.

The teacher arrives in a great flurry, as of course, she has many more important things to do than teach us. She is very pale and thin, in that "too many croissants and not enough fruit and vegetables" sort of way. She has thin legs in brightly coloured stockings and a multicoloured tent dress that shines brightly over her ballet shoes. Her heavy-lidded French eyes are thickly lined, and her hair is tied in a ponytail, which is then dragged back over her head to make a fringe for her to peer out at us under. She looks like a very badly groomed poodle. She opens her mouth, and out comes a barrage of words as fast as a horse galloping to the finishing line.

We are instructed to take turns sitting in a chair at the front of the classroom and introduce ourselves. The "pauvre" student (poor one) pointed at by Agnes (our teacher who hasn't introduced herself) to go first is from Sweden, and her name is Carolina. She sits in the chair and comes out with some very basic French, and she is shaking a bit and looking around nervously like a little cornered mouse. Agnes asks her a couple of things so quickly in French, poor Carolina seems as dazed as if she had been spun around in a washing machine a few times. I think she might cry. Agnes, of course, couldn't care less that Carolina might cry.

She puts her head in her hands in disbelief that Carolina has been put in her class. She then humphs and spits a bit, telling Carolina that she has been placed in the wrong class and must go to the office. She keeps repeating this in French, but Carolina doesn’t understand. Finally, after more sighing, spitting, and wild gesticulating, Agnes writes a note on a piece of paper, points to the door, saying "bureau" and "descendez" a few times, which translates to "go to the office so you can descend to a lower class." I am surprised she doesn’t give poor Carolina a quick spank for being so bad at French and for trying to come to her class under false pretenses.

When it is my turn, I sit in the chair looking at all the children and say, "I am from New Zealand, and I am very unhappy where I am staying, and I want to cry." I really don’t know why I say all this, but everything that has happened over the last 40 hours just overwhelms me, and it is all I can think about. Anyway, everyone is very impressed with my story, which is a variation of where I come from and why I want to learn French. The sweet young things stare at me intently with their multinational eyes, and I feel they are amused at my plight, and I am not a boring old lady who lives in a shoe, although I feel I might rather be in a nice shoe alone. There is Livio, a TV presenter from Switzerland, Ariagna, a Brazilian living in Portugal but moving to France, Bruna, a Brazilian pediatrician who looks about 13 and is obviously a genius in that way of not really getting the nonsense of those on the other end of the spectrum, Chiara from Germany, who looks as glossy as her native pigeons, and Heli from Switzerland, who says her name is pronounced Heli without the copter, and the Finnish language is like Hungarian, and she spends six weeks in December in the dark for 20 hours a day, suggesting she might as well let us know as a group that yes, it is dark in Finland, as she is sick of everyone asking.

My teacher says as her ponytail bounces over her forehead that it’s natural for the French to sleep on sofas when they can get money for their beds, and I suspect she suspects me of not being a true defender of the great principles for which the French king lost his head. If I were a true defender of the faith, she implies with a huff, I would be pleased to be helping those who are less fortunate than myself, who can afford to fly across the world for no reason other than some expensive search for a meaning for my life.

Our first lesson is on recycling in France and all the different bins we must use. We have to link pictures of broken dolls, plastic bottles, and razor blades, etc. to green, white, and blue bins. I have no idea and no interest at all, so I just look at the little bin beside me with banana peels, apple cores, dirty tissues, bottles, and cans.

During the Pause, which is like an intermission every two hours, Livio, the Swiss TV presenter, shows me himself on TV before inviting me to go to the boulangerie. I look at the ham and cheese baguettes. I know if I dared ask if the ham is free-range, I would be laughed out of the shop. The French have many more important things to do than to worry about the plight of pigs. The boulangerie offers baguettes filled with tomato and cheese or tuna and lettuce or ham and cheese, pizzas, sausage rolls, and every kind of custard tart you can imagine with shiny glazed fresh fruit on top.

We go back to school to eat our lunch, but there is nowhere to sit. There is no communal area. No effort is made to provide any comforts. The excesses of the old world and the new world have no place in modern France. To justify their behavior during the revolution, the French must continue to abhor excess, even though it produced the most beautiful city on earth. It is this inheritance that gives a veneer of sophistication and elegance to everyday things and the people themselves, but they use it to assume a dismissive, superior, intolerant manner, which frankly, they haven’t earned and don’t deserve. The French, in fact, remind me a lot of the Chinese with their brusque manner, simple small apartments, lack of humor, shabby, not clean spaces, plastic flowers. Both the Chinese and the French don’t waste time smiling at people they will never see again. Indeed, the French have a beautiful language which they, of course, didn’t write, nice almond eyes with much bigger eyelids than the Chinese, and they do tie their scarves with flair. But, I think I am falling out of love with the French, although I see myself, my mother, and grandmother in them. I am understanding how we all just try and get through our lives as different characters on different stages with different scripts but with the same plot: living.

I find it hard to concentrate on Agnes’ lesson, which has moved from planete verte to the subjunctive, and I say, "I would like to move from my house if I can" in French, and she says I have confused the conditional and the subjunctive, which I have done all my life and which is why I failed French 1 at university despite my mother doing all my assignments.

On my train home, I talk to a nice man from Sri Lanka. I am telling him how he is so friendly he is not, and I can’t find the word, and there is a beautiful old lady sitting across from me, and she is listening. She says, "pretentious?" and I say yes, and she says, "yes, the French are pretentious." I ask her if that’s a good thing, and she says no and doesn’t laugh. And they both concentrate on making sure I get off my train at the right station. I get off and look back to wave at them, and they are pointing in the direction I should be going, which is the opposite of where I was heading.

I bought a bottle of red wine and rosé for Josette and sat sadly on a bench. It was drizzling and the pigeons were sad, thin, and a bit bald. I felt very depressed. My blog had offended some people who had been very kind to me. I had no internet. I had a nightmare last night. I was sharing a bathroom with people who pretended not to be there. I was far from the center of Paris. I was in the wrong class at school. I couldn’t call New Zealand as it was 5 am there. My fellow pupils had all their lives ahead of them, and I felt old and a bit of a failure to be living in this sort of student accommodation. Then, I felt ashamed of myself for not valiantly sticking up for fraternity and the rights of Romanians to live behind curtains. What was I really doing here? It was a question I kept getting asked. Perhaps I was lost and lonely, but this adventure was just affirming and aggravating my condition, not alleviating it.

I opened the door with my key and went down to my room. There was a weird noise in the bathroom, and I couldn't go in. I waited and waited, and a young man came out and said "ça va" in a weird, not very polite way. It was 7.45 pm. I went upstairs and had a good look around the house where I was going to stay for the next 5 weeks. There was a book about Turkish Jews in front of a picture of Marilyn Monroe with her dress blowing up and a wooden statue of a Hindu god. Josette's bed had not been put back into a couch, so there was nowhere to sit but at the table.

A thick woman with coarse features and a heavy presence came in the door. She said she was Maria and she didn’t make enough school to go to the lycée, so all she could do was clean other people’s houses. She continued, "I left school at 14 because my parents had no money, but when I was at school, I worked hard. I’m not French, I’m Romanian. I’ve been in France for 15 years, but I go back to Romania every 2 and a half years to see my family. I am 45." She disappeared downstairs.

Josette came in at 8.20. She gave me a chocolate Eiffel tower and a chocolate plant which had fallen out of its chocolate pot. She said she gave presents to all her students. She talked to her daughter Amandine on the phone and explained that Amandine was named after a cake made with almonds. Over a very nice green soup, we talked about food, the universal subject. Josette said that all cuisine in France depended on which part of France you were from, and if I wanted to be a real Parisienne, I should only have coffee for breakfast, which conveniently got her out of having to make my petit déjeuner. Maria said in her deep, not very good French that in Romania, they mixed sugar and salt but not milk and coffee. She said that in Romania, they drank the milk before the coffee but not with the coffee. Josette was sitting there being very attentive and encouraging to Maria and said that was good, Maria. If you didn’t mix coffee and milk, you would stay slim, which was crazy as Maria was not by any stretch of the imagination a slight Romanian. We had an omelette after our soup with old penne from the night before. It took 5 minutes to cook. Josette said she threw all her leftovers in her omelettes.

Maria said her husband had stayed in Romania to look after his 93-year-old uncle who said he would give her and her husband his house when he died, but he refused to die and marched 433 steps up the church staircase to ring the bell every day. Her tone suggested he was keeping fit just to spite them. Josette said a man was a hunter and a predator. Maria nodded slowly and sadly in agreement, saying in Romanian French it was not difficult: a woman carried the world on her back and must make everything calm while the husband slept. A man wanted to sleep alone with his wife, and one must make this possible, and it was a catastrophe to leave a man alone with his children. Josette said she had a boyfriend who drank alcohol every 2nd day and smoked hashish every other day, so he was disciplined in this way. He was 20 years younger than her. This boyfriend was a secret, and I must not tell her girls who were coming for a party on Sunday that I was invited to.

I went to bed, but I didn’t know where the boy-man in the bathroom went as I had not seen him again. I was not sure if he was behind the curtain with Maria. I knew his name was Basil after his father, and he was her son. He didn’t speak English or French, just Romanian. I didn’t know what time he would be in the bathroom in the morning, and I didn’t know why he hid in his room. I slept a suspended sleep all night and woke at 5 to someone having a shower in the bathroom and using the loo, which was just behind my head.

When I woke, the first thought was that I must tell the school that my living arrangements were unsatisfactory and that my landlady slept on the only couch and that there were 4 people using the bathroom, not 2 as promised. But I didn’t want to cause problems for Josette or the Romanians, but 5 weeks was a long time. My fellow students were all smugly in their own little apartments, but I consoled myself that they were not practicing their French like I was and were certainly not learning to speak French with a Romanian accent.

Les vrais Parisiennes.

Livio, Ariange


Bruno the paediatrician.


Anges and la pauvre Carolina.

This man gets a better sleep then I do.

Chez Josette

163 views2 comments


May 22, 2023

FFS move on buy a G Adventure trip to Morocco and go have fun


May 22, 2023

Wow your writing is magnificent. Thank you for the colourful but unexpectedly awful account of a world where many people are living from hand to mouth - it seems they have no space in their lives to be nice - certainly not to a foreigner. On the other hand it is a marvellous insight into the reality of life and it must be as bad if not worse in many other parts of the world. In no way did Mum think it would be like this. We loved your stories but they make us a little sad, sad for you being a bit disappointed and uncomfortable. Thank heavens that we know that you have safely moved. Your fellow student…

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