Life before yoga: Was I petite Nicole? 3
It’s difficult to explain the extraordinary sense of vulnerability that I felt during my first few days as a girl alone in Paris. On the Metro, it seemed as though every set of male eyes was boring into me as if they stared down the sight of a gun; carefully lifting my hat, unbuttoning my coat and stealing away my blouse with their stares. I’d back away, pressing against the green and white tiles of the tunnel walls, trying to put space between me and them. It may have been my own paranoia, but regardless I became acutely aware of my foreign status: a young, attractive (grudgingly conceded) female, all alone. It took time to get used to the shouts of ‘ooh la la, très jolie’ and ‘bon chapeau.’ One Arabic-looking man actually grabbed me by the arm, pulling me towards him as I made my way through the throng at Pigalles and it made no difference how I was dressed – low cut top and high-necked pullover alike, the boys salivated with equal fervour after woman like boxer dogs slobbering over a bone. The language itself became in danger of losing its allure. As I scrambled away grimacing from those awful men, words such as ‘salope’ were thrown at me: the bitch who turned them down. I found it difficult to accept that it was ok for them to come to a new country and impose their own cultural values, making me feel as though I were doing something wrong. My negative view of French Arabians as a result of this behaviour, was later exacerbated by the ‘Mocine episode.’ Before I left London, a friend named Linda mentioned that she knew a guy living in Paris who’d stayed with her for a few months whilst on a placement in London. Apparently he was ‘very polite and well mannered’ so I agreed to take his number and look him up when I got to France. By my fourth week of hostel living, compulsion to talk to someone, anyone, connected with home, however tenuous, drove me to call him. As I listened to the European dial tone, I fantasised that the anticipated newfound friendship might lead to an invite round for an edible meal and the use of a decent bathroom with a roll-lipped bath and fluffy white towels. I to myself chanted under my breath ‘let him not think I’m a freak or a weirdo… let him not think I’m a freak or a weirdo,’ and hoped that Linda had warned him I might call.
“Allo?” was the response on the other end of the line. I took a deep breath.
“Oh, um, hi,” I said. “Mocine? This is Nicola, I’m a friend of Linda’s. You know, Linda in London? She said that she would tell you I’d be calling.” I waited nervously for a reaction. Silence.
“Ah, ouais! That’s right. How are you, Nicola?” I relaxed slightly. “Ok thanks.”
“How are you finding Paris?”
“A little bizarre, I guess. It’s crazy that I’m here. It’s a crazy place to be.”
“That is a good observation I think many Parisiens would agree with. Nicola, I have just opened a bar in Pigalles with some friends. One afternoon we will make you dinner… tell you a few secrets about the crazy place.”
His confidence and directness immediately put me at ease so I snatched at the invite, hungrily. “Tomorrow afternoon?”
“Parfait. We’ll be here all afternoon. Maybe afterwards we can see a film or something.”
“Super [to use a French expression]. See you tomorrow, Mocine.” I hung up smiling.
Awaking the following morning I pondered, could Mocine – this stranger – be my knight in shining armour? Good looking, dark (I’m never bothered about ‘tall’ only being 5ft2…), intelligent, funny, and (with any luck) a willingness to throw a life-ring to a young Brit adrift in Paris. Or failing that, tell me where I could find a job.
As the heavy glass door of the hostel slammed behind me and cold air bit any exposed skin, I looked up at the pewter sky. The hostel’s bright, cream-coloured edifices stood luminous against the cloud and the craggy gothic tiles of Parisien rooftops reminded me daily that I was in unfamiliar territory. I mentally crossed my fingers (and toes), took a deep breath and marched toward the Metro.
Several hours of unsuccessful job-hunting later, I emerged from the Metro at Blanche. Following Mocine’s directions took me past the glittering red windmill of the majestic Moulin Rouge; past the seedy windows of women selling their sweet nothings; along streets that seemed to snake on forever. Where the buildings disappeared into the distance, they looked like dolls houses – lined up along roads all creamy beige, punctuated by the odd tree and tiny, fenced-off square of green. Around this time of the evening, poodle owners let their pooches out of their respective handbags or matchbox-sized apartments for an hour of freedom, while they chatted over the day’s events, complaining about the cold just like the English.
Eventually, I came across Mocine’s bar – a Morroccan styled café tucked snugly between a whore-house and another shisha bar in deepest Pigalles. He’s obviously spotted a gap in the market, I thought sarcastically. Paris’ only rival for tea-salons in my experience to date is Morocco, where they have actual tea ceremonies. I’d never seen so many, though I’d also never been down the Edgeware Road. The windows at Mocine’s were smudged white (rendering them useless as windows), the exterior recently painted. I knocked on the door and an overweight Arabic-looking man opened it to reveal (from the little I could make out behind his large silhouette) the rich red interior of the bar.
“Bonjour,” I squeaked, gazing up at his mountainous, dark form. “Je cherche Mocine.”
“Ah, Ouais. Viens, viens.” He ushered me inside. Everything was fresh. New cushions perched on wrought iron stools, crowded round mosaic-tiled tables, while cushion covered benches lined the walls. Intimacy was intimated by areas sectioned off with voile curtains, but never quite achieved. Due to the tiled floor, lack of heating, and glass front, it lacked the cosy warmth to which it aspired. It was after all, a style developed for Morrocco, which was a seriously hot country.
“Ah, petite Nicole! I am Mocine.” Called a tall, slight man with an almond shaped face and skin to match. He had dark, almost afro hair cut close to the scalp and deep, milk chocolate brown eyes. A wide smile greeted me as he stood up to kiss me on both cheeks with an air of confidence mingled with nonchalance, “How are you? Sit down! Can I get you a drink?” he asked, his hand, its spidery fingers, clasping my shoulder.
“Thank you. What do you have?” I asked, in my English way thinking that wine, beer or tea would be the options.
“Fresh mint tea? Morocco Special.”
“Perfect,” I said, thinking how exotic it sounded, unaware that, in Paris, Morroccan tea is equivalent to PG Tips.
I didn’t hear all that Mocine was saying as he shouted in the kitchen, but I caught a snatch of: “The English make me laugh… Alwight Geeza!” obviously unaware that he himself had all the mannerisms of an English wide-boy. With his cocky head shift, shoulder rolling movement and half-face grimace, he could easily have been mistaken for one from behind. However, I didn’t want to pigeon hole him just yet, as there was something rather attractive, mysterious even, about this man from Morrocco. Maybe his entrepreneurial passion and drive…? Maybe his foreignness? He placed the glass of tea on the table and I squeezed onto the end of the corner seat. One of the other men at the table passed me the Shisha pipe they’d all been sucking away on which I regarded non-plussed, having never smoked a hubbly bubbly. Mocine quickly explained, “It’s simple. Put the pipe in your mouth and take a long, slow drag. The water in the glass at the bottom should start to bubble. This one’s apple flavoured.”
“Got it,” I said, looking around at the 4 men who were chatting to each other in French. I felt suddenly self-conscious and ill-at–ease, not having a clue what they were saying. Farook, the large guy who’d opened the door, demonstrated through many inane questions, that his weight seemed to have been heavily distributed everywhere except his brain, “So, do you eat Roast Beef on Sundays?” he’d asked (a reference to the fact that the French refer to the English as les rosbifs. An hour or so later, Mocine and I were being driven across Paris to the cinema at Bercy where I savoured the plush seating, comfort and warmth, escaping myself for an hour and a half in the tepid film screened in front of me. Before I knew it, I was being efficiently dropped back to my hostel after the cinema so all delusions of steamy hot, bubble filled baths and white fluffy towels dispersed as quickly as water down the plug hole.
“Thanks Mocine,” I said. “I had fun. It was nice to do something that felt quite civilised for a change.”
“My pleasure Nicole,” he said. “In fact, we are going to have a few friends over at the weekend and have dinner together at the café. Why don’t you head over? You can stay at ours afterwards so you don’t have to worry about getting home.”
“Ok, that sounds cool.”
“It’s set then. Saturday, come over around 10pm.”
“Alright, I’ll see you then,” I said.
I watched him drive away thinking cool, it’ll be nice to meet some of his friends. In fact, it’ll be nice just to meet some Parisiens. It was funny. I had been in Paris for two months and I still hadn’t met any true Parisiens. There certainly wasn’t a lack of them but it was still a breed I had yet to figure out. Standing in the street looking up at the apartments opposite the hostel, stacked on top of the restaurants at ground level, I wondered whether I would ever glimpse the inside of one of them or just end up back in a big house share in London. Would I see what lay behind those ornate iron railings and the immaculate white shutters concealing those dramatic French windows?
A few more days passed with my discomfort growing with each. The trek to the shower along the cold, hard tiled floor and having to push the tap to keep the water flowing. The mission to the launderette to have my clothes washed, no packhorse in sight. Worrying about; the cost of having it dried; watching my euros disappear in the internet cafés (my only connection to home not being able to phone) and the struggle to stay occupied in the evening without going to the pub or generally spend money. There was nothing to do in the evenings but sit around on the plastic chairs in the communal room, swapping anecdotes and tall tales with the other travellers supping beer and wine until they kicked us out at 11pm. It was all becoming really hard work and I was beginning to wonder how much longer it would go on for. Saturday came and I made my way to Mocine’s café – winding through the streets like an old-hand, ignoring the women, scantily dressed, hanging in doorways and the windows adorned with pornographic paraphernalia. Eventually I found myself in front of Mocine’s Salon de Thé and this time, when the door opened I smelt a faint whiff of marijuana. Promising, I thought to myself.
“Aaaah. Nicole! Bienvenue, bienvenue… assieds-toi,” said Mocine. I seated myself on his direction amongst the group of mostly Arabic-French. There was a girl sat across from me, evaluating me safely from underneath her long, dark wavy hair. In the half-light I could still make out the sharp beauty of her perfectly formed features, and her slight frame – smaller even, than my own petite form.
“Alors, tu veux fumer Nicole?”
“Mais oui, pourquoi-pas?” I said, taking the joint from him. I continued to observe the group. Being unable to partake in the conversation, I could only imagine what they might be discussing, aided by the drug.
“Do you think if we put frogs’ legs on the menu we might get some more customers?” I imagined Mocine asking. “No. That’s a bad idea. Frogs’ legs are a liability. They might just hop off and then we’d have complaining customers!” I giggled to myself as I imagined a pair of frogs’ legs coming to life and hopping off someone’s plate to ‘leg-it’ down the streets of Pigalles in a bid for freedom.
A few hours later and the images around me began to seep into each other to form a dark, blurry mess as I struggled to keep my eyes open, tiredness getting the better of me.
“Nicole!” I heard through the haze. “Tu veux y-aller dormir?”
“Oui!” I responded thinking finally, music to my ears. Sleep!
We left the Salon de Thé heading for Mocine’s apartment around 2am. All four of us (me, Mocine and his two cousins) filed up the dusty wooden spiral staircase the 5 or 6 flights to Mocine’s apartment. Have the Parisiens never heard of the elevator? I asked myself yet again. It seemed that unless you were rich, you were doomed to climb the staircases forever. On entering his apartment, it was quickly clear that the word apartment was a rather grand term for what was actually, a shoe box of a studio flat. The kitchen was bigger than the living area and the living area was defined by the Clic-Clac sofabed and a load of bookshelves. I watched open-mouthed as the boys pulled the bed out and dragged Morroccan style pouffes alongside it to make it bigger with easy routine.
“Er, so, where is the bedroom?” I asked, hopefully.
“Ah, this is the bedroom. Don’t worry, there’s space for everyone,” he said. As though that would reassure me (!). I wondered what I’d done in a previous life – not for the first time – as I realised that my hopes of hot frothy baths and white fluffy towels had been smashed as I watched the boys take up their respective places on the communal bed which once extended, took up the entire apartment. Mocine passed me a t-shirt and I changed and brushed my teeth, getting in beside him on the very end of the ‘bed’. At least it meant I wouldn’t have to worry about him trying anything on, I’d thought as I settled down, trying to block out the sound of snoring coming from the other end. Eventually, thoughts of the tawdriness of the situation were overcome by fatigue and I slept, only to be woken by the feeling of a hand making its way round my waist and slowly downwards. I wriggled out of the way, shocked that Mocine was obviously deluded into thinking that this would be the ideal, romantic scenario to make a sexual advance. Eventually, after much wriggling and slapping of hands, he gave in and went back to sleep.
The boys left around 8.30am and I was up and dressed within half an hour. I came back into the living room after brushing my teeth to find Mocine sat on what was now a sofa. “Nicole,” he said. “I am sorry that I was trying it on with you last night a little but I couldn’t help it. Your body felt so good next to me.”
“Ok.” I said, sitting down next to him. “I’ll let you off this time.”
“Good,” he said, putting his arm around me and running his fingernails down my neck, kissing the line that he’d just drawn. His hands felt so good that I felt myself melting underneath them. It had been two months since I’d had any physical contact with a man and it felt like years given the amount that had happened in that time. For the moment, he filled a burning need for comfort as I realised how lonely I’d been. I didn’t exactly put up a fight and you’re probably thinking, ‘how bizarre!’ This woman is a pushover. Yes. I was. Before I really knew what was happening it was over and we were replacing our clothes. I sat in a warm yet slightly seedy afterglow and realised that we hadn’t even kissed on the mouth. Relating it now I find it difficult to know what actually happened but I knew there wouldn’t be a second time.
“I’ve got to get to the salon but come down and have some breakfast, I’m going to pick up some croissants on the way,” he said.
“Cool. I will do,” I said, thinking it would be good to get some caffeine and food before heading back to the other side of Paris, still slightly dazed. He handed me the keys to the apartment. “I’ll see you there shortly,” and placed a kiss on my cheek. After he’d left, I wandered into the kitchen and the pieces kind of clicked into place. There was a muslim calendar on the wall and I wondered whether the no kissing had something to do with some kind of pretence: that if there was no kissing on the mouth, he wasn’t truly involved, hadn’t truly strayed. That in fact, in his world, nothing had actually happened. Perhaps he was promised to another? Perhaps somewhere, the wife chosen by his parents was waiting for him, stealing glances at the photograph her parents had given her, hid snugly in her well-thumbed Qu’ran. Or maybe he subscribed to polygamy and just didn’t care. Who knew? Certainly not me.
Minutes later and I was dunking croissants in a bowl of coffee, gearing myself up for the trek back to the hostel and grappling with the reality that something bizarre had happened. Something which required zero sentimentality but to which applying 100% apathy wasn’t quite going to work either.
“Right. I’ll be off then.” I said.
Looking back, I guess the point here really was, that to some extent, my move to Paris was inspired by the fairytale ideal that I, like many women, nourished myself on as I was growing up. No matter how much I wanted independence, my own salary, equal pay for women and not to be treated as a sex object, somewhere, lying just below the surface of my actions, were the gilt-edged pages of that storybook where princesses slept on peas and frogs turned into princes. I’d somehow imagined that eventually, my prince would emerge, mounted on a fabulous black steed, underneath the Arc de Triomphe, scoop me up and sit me behind him and we’d belt off into the sunset. Except, I thought, knowing my luck, I’d slip right off and land in a pile of Parisien dog poo. Merde! I’m sure Emily Davison of the suffragettes way back in 1913 didn’t throw herself under a racehorse in protest just so that I, almost a hundred years later would want nothing more than a man to support me, but in absence of a job or money myself, it seemed sensible to set limits and hope for a man with both. The world is a harsh place and even harsher for a woman, especially one of my working class family background. In order to thrive, I felt I could do with a bit of a leg up. But don’t get me wrong. For this, I would never sacrifice love nor deny who I was. When I was standing in that 2 metre squared apartment in Pigalles watching Mocine pull footstools and cushions together, even though I knew that the stories belonged only in books, I couldn’t help but believe that somewhere, my prince was waiting and it obviously wasn’t him. My Prince may not be rich. He may not be able to save me from the hostels of Paris but the romantic core of me drove me on to the next possibility and after all, I was in Paris to live. Either way, I knew I was better than a Paris wide-boy, no matter what I’d let happen between us so I left him to preen himself after his ‘conquest’ and closed the door on him. The incongruity of the Islamic and Western cultures in which we were both steeped was clear. Was our brush representative of the incompatibility of those cultures? I can’t say for anyone else but we were two pieces of a jigsaw whose jagged, scalloped edges could never truly meet. It was an experience unlike any other I’d ever had.