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  • Ashleigh Ogilvie-Lee

Blog 7 - Paris, guess who's arrived!

This morning, I leave for Paris, and I have not slept a wink as the prospect of getting from Berlin to Paris on my own with a three-legged suitcase is not unlike a goldfish trying to work out how to swim through plastic oxygen weed at the bottom of its tank. Fortunately, I have coerced a friend of Damaris, my sister, to help me. His name is Peter Mackay, and he has restored an old train station in the village of Halbe, an hour or so south of Berlin, where the King used to spend the night when he went hunting once every 5 years.

Peter is very elegant and once sang in a choir with the new King of England, but this does not stop him from lugging my three-legged suitcase round a train station in Berlin that has more routes than an octopus has arms. Peter is very proud of this station, and I think he wishes he had built this one. He is now interviewing Ukrainians about their life in a war-ravaged country while I write blogs about people like him who are genuinely trying to do good things and people like me who genuinely don't know what on earth to do with the precious years left to tie the bow on the gift of life.

I arrived safely in Frankfurt after passing fields of yellow flowers, which are called rapeseed. These fields of gold are used to make biodiesel, which 2 percent of German cars use, and also make canola oil. But it seems strange to cook with an oil that fuels cars! I am currently sitting at platform 19 in Frankfurt, my one and only stopover en route from Berlin to Paris. I have been sitting here for 2 hours before a woman with a chic grey plaid coat and sun-kissed skin gently sits down close to me. "I ask her if we are on the right platform for Paris, and she responds, 'I am not the best person to ask as I have trouble finding things, but I think so.' We smile at each other. About one minute before our train is due to arrive, a large, portly man comes running. The woman with the sun-kissed skin and plaid coat gets up hurriedly and says, 'We must go to platform 2!'"

I follow her, pulling one bag with each arm and saying things like, 'What would I do without you?' and 'Thank you for telling me.' I feel like a leech about to pounce on Humphrey Bogart when he is pulling the African Queen up a river with Katherine Hepburn egging him on. Miraculously, we are both in the same carriage, and my new best friend and I sit across from each other, smiling. I feel like a smug cat.

My new friend Sophie takes my trip to France seriously and shows me a book called 'A Year in the Merde' (A year in the Shit), which I can buy in English or French from a shop called Fnac. She says if I read this, I will understand why the French do what they do. She also suggests I watch French comedy in English about France by Sebastian Marx. She explains that the French are not known for their humor, but Belgians are. I told my new friend Sophie that my mother has always said that if you can't speak French properly, you shouldn't speak it at all. But my new friend says it's alright to faire les erreurs (make mistakes), so I will let Mum know.

Sophie is 38, has two boys, and has been with her partner for 15 years. They are not married but have a PACS, which is a financial and symbolic partnership that you can have with a person of any gender for the purpose of organizing your life. It was introduced 40 years ago to protect homosexuals and allow them to have children by law.

In France, children start school in their third year. If they turn 3 in the middle of a term, they start at 2 at the beginning of the term. School runs from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., but there is no school on Wednesday afternoons. For 1 Euro, "les gardiens de soir" look after children after school until 6 p.m., so every child has the same advantage. In France, mothers stay at home for 10 weeks after the birth of their baby.

Teachers in France earn 1400 Euros per month and are not highly regarded. However, they are paid much more and are more respected in Germany. Sophie knows all this because her dad was a German teacher, and her mom is French.

Sophie likes to live in France because she thinks people are too judgmental in Germany, and she sees herself as having a Latin character. She says I must go to Bistronomie Gare au Grille and say "cous from Sophie" to the owner, Storch. I put my head on my arms and nap, and when I wake, my new friend Sophie is holding a coffee out for me. She asks if I am okay finding my way to where I am going, and I have just heard from my little friend from my days in Sete that she is waiting for me at the station. I kiss Sophie on both cheeks, and she says, "You are a nice woman. I would like to have you as a mother." I want to cry for a moment as I so want to be a good mother and for my children to be pleased I was their mother, but sometimes I doubt myself.

Nana, my little friend from Sete, is at the train station waiting for me. I clasp her and never want to let her go, but she puts me in a taxi and doesn't come with me, and I want to cry. My taxi driver drives me sullenly for a long time to the 12th arrondissement when I thought I was going to be in Montmartre. This area does not look very Parisian and does not look very nice. I get out of the taxi with my three-legged bag and another bag and wait for Djo to come down after promising me she would be looking out the window for me after dropping her friend at the airport. There is no sign of her. I try calling Djo up to the 5th floor of a very ugly and new apartment block beside a laundry called Pressing, but there is no answer. I try Djo’s phone number, but there is no reply, only an automatic reply saying the number is not contactable in that French voice which sounds cross and annoyed because whoever it is has many more important things to be doing. It is getting dark as it is 10 pm, and I start to feel a vague sense of terror. This is not an area one feels safe in. People are setting up to sleep outside the covered areas of cafes that are closed at night.

I ring Nana and ask her to try to call Djo, but she can't get through either. A man walks by with a small dog, and I ask him if he speaks English. He says, "Are you looking for Djo? Do you know her?" I am incredulous but wondering if this is a set-up. I've had a couple of wines on the long train journey and am now transplanted in quite a threatening environment, and my mind is all over the place. He pushes a gate open and presses a button, speaking into an intercom. Five minutes later, a very short, stout woman with cropped red hair, large hoop earrings, thick glasses, dark deep red smudgy lips, and a long shiny shirt with red swirls swirling all over it comes to the foyer door. She glances at me dismissively with her very large and remarkably smooth eyelided eyes that close and open like periwinkles. Then she chats away with this man who has brown, thickish, badly dyed, not professionally cut hair and very stained teeth. They chat for ages, and I think she is flirting as she bats these heavy eyes slowly with a coy smile, just like my French grandmother used to do when conversing with men.

She finally turns her heavy eyes to me and gestures to enter the small elevator. As we ascend, she tells me that she used to look after this man's son who has autism. She is very insistent that she can't speak a word of English. We get to the 5th floor, and she opens a door. There, in front of me, is the tiniest little apartment I have ever seen. It smells of a sort of upmarket toilet cleaner. There is a high table with little green tiles on it and a packet of plain cake with chocolate swirls on it. Beside the high table is a low long thin table and beside this a glass cabinet with wine glasses in it. To the side of this room is a couch against the wall with a white cover with black swirls and a monstrous television. Djo says she will sleep on this couch, which turns into a bed behind drawn curtains, as she doesn't get up till 10 as she watches TV till 3. I will sleep in her room, which is downstairs. She grabs my big bag and drags it down a rickety winding two-story staircase. I am so worried another wheel will come off. The staircase barely fits us all, and we descend into this very cramped dark downstairs area.

My future bedroom for the next 5 weeks is a very sorry sight, and I am overwhelmed with disappointment. Djo says all her stuff is behind a curtain that hangs on hooks, and there is a television on some drawers which are so bulky I have to climb over the bed to get to my hanging rack, which has 2 plastic containers under it for me to unpack into. This is so different from what I had imagined, which was walking down a leafy rue (street) and hearing Djo singing hello out a high window as she drifted down to kiss me on both cheeks and lead me up to her ancient apartment with high ceilings and a little terrace with a sprig of lavender on a small table just for me, and the two of us sitting with a glass of wine and a little dinner, laughing.

I am not offered any refreshments. Djo marches me down to show me where the metro is so she can make sure I am gone in the morning. She says I need to take a photo for my carte d'identité. She is so hopeless at helping me use the photo machine that I have to work it out myself. I actually feel more capable than she is, which is an unusual but not unpleasant feeling. All around the station are gypsies sleeping with velour blankets, and some of them wave at me. Djo says it is not safe and to watch my money.

We come back to the house, and before I go downstairs, Djo says Parisiennes only have coffee for breakfast, but she will put out cake for my breakfast. She asks if that is alright in that perfunctory way the French have, and I suggest perhaps a little baguette, not cake. So she produces a half-stale baguette and puts it by the swirly cake and tells me Parisiennes don't have bread on their baguettes. She shows me the little coffee machine like I had in my room in Berlin, which I never could quite get to work. There is a washing of the tiny kitchen overflowing with towels, brooms, and bottles. I think Djo might be a hoarder.

Before I go downstairs, she mentions coyly that there is a mother and son sleeping behind a curtain in a little cupboard-like space on the other side of the bathroom, which we will all be sharing but which is too small to be called a room. My bed backs onto the loo, which means when someone uses it, my ears are alerted to every unpleasant sound. Djo says these new flatmates whom I knew nothing about are not Romans, which I think means gypsies, but are Romanians. She says the son has just arrived to stay with his mother. I go to bed in my very sad room and wonder what the Romanians will do during the night, whether they might creep around or sing softly. It is unnerving and not quite right as I had been told it would just be me and Djo. They seem to be being very quiet as if hiding from me behind their curtain.

I have a shower where the faucet is at belly button height and only goes to warm and then doesn’t fit back into the holder, so to use soap, you have to put the faucet on the floor and when you do, it coils around like a snake and wets the whole bathroom, including the thin grey towel Djo has given me. The toilet brush is a different model than modern-day ones, and empty ancient perfume bottles sit forlornly on top of thin cupboards covered in dust.

I go to bed saying to myself, "this too shall pass." I am quite hungry. I lie there, and the television above my head is so loud it is impossible to sleep. I creep up the stairs past the Romanians behind the curtains and ask Djo very politely if she could possibly turn the television down. I go back to bed and lie down, and the television is still so loud. I go back up and whisper to Djo, and she snaps at me, "oui, Ashlee," and I ask again and peep my head around the curtain. She is sitting in her huge roll-out couch bed, and she gets quite snarky and waves her remote at me, and I creep back down the rickety stairs.

I try to sleep, and when I wake in the morning and go to the bathroom, there is someone in it, and a big man’s voice booms out something that must be the Romanian gypsy language. I scuttle back to my horrid room to wait until he is finished so I can run away to school far away from DjoDjo and the gypsies.

Enjoy the photos:

My Station:

My friend Sophie in the same carriage as me!

The one and only Djo.

My breakfast.

My breakfast when Djo is not responsible for it...

Terrace at apartment.

The apartment.


My room.

Artwork at the top of the stairs.

219 views7 comments

7 comentarios

24 may 2023

What an adventure! Remember- without the trials and tribulations, it isn't one.

Djo looks remarkably like Jabba the Hutt!

Matt S xx

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21 may 2023

No blog for a day or two, trust tout est tres jolie, WG

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17 may 2023

A recent thought I had as a first time traveller staying in an upmarket toilet cleaner home in Paris- ‘I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t like this.’ Well done for facing your fears and ending up on the dark street at 10pm anyways. Whatever you do I can’t wait to hear about it next.

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16 may 2023

Jesus Ash, what a fuck up. Admittedly it will be good reading if you stay but methinks greener pastures are elsewhere - Margaret

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16 may 2023

A very tres belle kiwi wench

Did penser a affaires en French

But ended up in un pension

too squalid to mention

and now needs un chaise longue park bench

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