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  • Ashleigh Ogilvie-Lee

Blog 9 - Life with the one and only Josette!

The week passes in a sort of daze. I am woken by someone in the bathroom at varying times very early every morning. I don’t know if it's Maria going to work or Basil coming home from work. I try to go back to sleep, but my sleeping is fitful. When I wake in the night, it is always just to run through an interminable inventory of all the sadness in my past, present, and, if things keep going like this, immediate future.


My days are beginning to have a cold and tiring routine. I slam the door every morning at 6.50 and walk down five flights of stairs and into the interminable grey drizzle. I pass the waking homeless who stare at me and sometimes give a little wave. Parisians are rude but polite at the same time. I arrive 15 stops later at Motte Picque Grenelle and try to find exit 5. There are many sorties (exits) of the metro, and if you go out the wrong one, you can be 500 meters further than if you exit the right one.


I see a friendly-looking woman who stands out by simply standing around, not striding purposefully with her eyes down and headphones in, as if off to a watering hole that is about to run out of water. I ask her in French how to find Sortie 5. She doesn’t understand me and looks confused, but I am very used to people looking confused at me. It transpires she is German, and she is even worse at French than I am, but she thinks I’m awfully good! In the most extraordinary case of divine intervention, I have found the one person in the metro who is at the same school as me. She is called Katia and she comes from Hamburg, where she is a doctor who only does the odd stint now as tending fevered brows for many years has burnt her out. We go for breakfast before school as we both leave home too early; she to escape the crowds on the metro that swell at about 7.45 and me to escape the oppressive dark silences behind curtains. I am pleased that I might have made a new friend, although it’s a bit of a blow that her husband is coming in two weeks. While I am pleased to be with her for the company, I really want to write my blog, but with all the drama chez Josette and the brain-numbing hours of French grammar, there is little time to write. Katia and I sit in a café, and I have a croissant and butter and jam and a piece of baguette and butter and jam, and we both have coffee, but Katia doesn’t eat anything because she says she wants to be the small one.


We go to school where we do French Grammar for the first four hours of the day. Our brains enthusiastically then dejectedly try to understand all the exceptions that make the rules. Our teacher, Agnes, always themes our grammar lessons, and we have moved from recycling which I failed miserably to benevolence. We all have to present our volunteer work to the class using tricky little joining words which the French invent to make sure no one can pretend to speak French. I say I give money to bears, and Agnes points at me accusingly and says I didn’t ask what you give in money but what you give of yourself to others. I tell her I walk dogs, which I did do a long time ago. She seems disappointed but is more disappointed with poor Heli without the copter. Heli can’t even invent a kind deed as it seems benevolence is not of much use when trying to survive the harsh, unforgiving winters of Finland.


We do oral French in the afternoons, which is a bit of a waste of time as French, spoken by relative beginners with German, Swiss, American, Norwegian, Russian accents, is not really that helpful and could actually be harmful and confusing to the naive ear, a bit like an untuned piano.


My teacher for oral French is called Victor, and he teaches us fun things about French culture. He says there is a fine of 68 Euros if you pee in public. Victor says French women are renowned for not being able to hold on and that he is often required to stand watch as they pee between a parked car and the pavement. The same fine applies to spitting, not picking up dog poo, and not picking up cigarette butts. It does seem that this fear of fines is working as everyone smokes, but there are very few butts, and the dog poo that famously lined the streets of Paris is gone.


A Russian called Noah says in French with his Russian accent, "I feel safer in Paris than in the USA as I might get stolen from here, but I'm not going to get shot."


My darling sister Simone sends me a text after I was so hurt when something I said on my blog offended some people. She says, "I've just taken another look at what you said, and I think it was lovely." She adds, "I thought the one beauty of travel is being free of social anxiety as you don't know anyone."


Josette has to make my dinner five times a week as per the contract. She never gets home till about 8, and I am very hungry by then and have usually had a wine or two. One night, Josette comes in the door with a friend who looks just like her, with cropped hair, blackened eyes, and bright lipstick. They are carrying lots of samples of faux tiles that Josette is proposing to put in the kitchen. They are huffing and puffing, and I am not of much interest to them. Her friend is nicknamed Carrotte after her old dog that died and has now been replaced by Oscar, who like all small dogs suffers from the anxiety of never knowing when he will be swept up and clasped to Carrotte's voluminous bosom.


Josette usually serves chicken she buys from across the road at one of the myriad of tiny street vendors that specialize in selling just one or two things, in this case, chickens and potatoes. French chickens are very tiny compared to ours and much tastier. Josette always serves green potatoes, even though she hangs them from a plastic bag on the balcony. The chicken is always followed by a salad with just leaves, bread, cheese, and a cake if I buy one. Maria sometimes joins us and shows me pictures of herself in her national costume, which is a short green skirt and apron and a peasant blouse.


Everyone makes a big fuss about my complaining about the volume of Josette’s TV at night. Carrotte tells me to get earplugs and then gets up and makes a fuss about showing me how to open and shut the front door without waking the sleeping Josette.


Over the course of our dinners, Josette tells me she was married to a Tunisian Jew called Bernard who didn’t like doing what he didn’t like, and he didn’t like being a vacuum cleaner salesman. He convinced Josette that what he really wanted to be was an audiologist, so she married him and worked at the Mayor’s office while he pursued his dream. Bernard gave up his studies after four years to write books about one particular ancient Tunisian Jewish symbol, which I can’t imagine was a bestseller.


Josette says their divorce was amicable, and when the magistrate asked why they were divorcing, Bernard said she doesn’t want to be married to me anymore, and she agreed because she was sick of Bernard chasing women and relics. They had bought three small apartments in their time together, and Bernard got two, and Josette got one with mold. Bernard was meant to split the rent he received from his second apartment with Josette, but he doesn’t. Josette just shrugs and says it’s okay because tranquility is the most important, and Maria nods her sad face in sage agreement.


Every night, I go to bed, but the house never really sleeps. I take sleeping pills to survive, and they make me tired all the next day, and I nod off in my grammar classes. I will contact Nathalie tomorrow. I will not tell on the Romanians for hiding behind the curtain. I will blame it on the 15 metro stops.


Blaming it on the metro stops didn't work...


Chère Nathalie,

I am hoping you can help me. I cannot stay where I am because it is too far from the school. I love Josette, she is super, but I need to be located much more in the centre of Paris, and commuting 1 and a half hours every day at my age while doing a full-time course is not ideal. Oh Nathalie, please help me. This is terrible. I want to cry.


I am sorry to contact you if you are on holiday, but this is really not at all what I had hoped for.

With my best wishes,

Ashleigh


Chère Ashleigh,

I am sorry I couldn't speak to you at the school, but I am currently in the UK. I am not sure I understand your request as you are not far from the school. You don't even have to change lines on the métro like most of our students and staff, and indeed, your commuting time is very short by Parisian standards. We have nothing but compliments about Madame Allali and the location of her apartment.


Unfortunately, we do not have any other families available who would be closer to the school. We cannot really tell Madame Allali that you do not wish to stay with her for the duration booked because she lives too far. She would be very upset and doesn't deserve this as it is not far and a direct métro line. I really can't see what else we can offer. You won't disagree that I always responded to your emails very quickly and tried to give you the best advice. I am sorry you are disappointed with your host family. Please let me know if you wish to leave Madame Allali. Have a lovely evening.


Kind regards,

Nathalie


I relent because Josette is nice in her fearsome way, and at times I feel ungrateful and privileged, and I am not good at recycling or benevolence. And I might be homeless. I email back...


Chère Nathalie,

But no, Nathalie, please don't say anything to Josette because she is wonderful. I didn't realize that 35 minutes was normal here as in NZ it is a long way to commute. I agree with everything you say so I will stay with Josette. I am just very tired at the moment xx. Please enjoy your time in the UK.


Dear Ashleigh,

Thank you for your email. Of course, we will not tell Madame Allali anything. She is such a lovely lady. I am sorry you are tired. Paris is a tiring city, so many things to see, you don't want to miss anything. You must watch the Parisians go by at one of our famous cafés or brasseries (I love the Vaudeville myself). You must treat your friends there for dinner or lunch - the best croque-monsieur in Paris, even though I am partial to their huitres and plateau de fruits de mer in the evening.


I am in Paris next week, and I would love to meet you then. I have quite a few appointments and must visit my mother, but it would be lovely to have a quick chat at the school. Please try to have a rest. Paris is a busy city ;-)


Bonne soirée.

Kind regards,

Nathalie


Besides, I can’t move yet as I want to go to the party...


Enjoy the photos:


Carotte and Oscar:


Potatoes on the balcony:


Dinner with Josette and Maria:


The Jews of Tunisia by Bernard Allai:


Little French chickens:


Anges makes us put our ideals in order of priority:


My cake:


My new friend Katia:


Anges disappointed in my efforts at benevolence:


Victor:


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2 Comments


Margaret Alldred
Margaret Alldred
May 26, 2023

It sounds like a concentration camp by day and night

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adswin
May 25, 2023

Gosh that is so hard to try and change while singing praises. I'm not sure how you achieved the change...no doubt all will be revealed. Lovely blog sweetie, and looking forward to the next one. Mum said your French is very good - and we know that is quite a compliment. Best love darl xxx

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