Life before yoga: Was I petite Nicole? 4
The American Geordie
Despite the setbacks I’d encountered, I trudged on in my search for a life in Paris, with Alex’s words of encouragement ringing in my ears, “You’ll be ok Nic!” However, given the number of times I’d heard an ex-boyfriend or friend say the same, and given the fact that, yet again, I was not ok, I began to doubt I’d ever be ok. What did ok mean anyway? That we’ll survive? That we’ll find a way to keep a roof over our heads, pay the bills and keep food in our stomachs? Yes. So in that sense, for the moment, I was ok. It’s true that I was not a starving child in Africa. Nor had I any true disadvantage to speak of. I won that battle years ago when I left home fleeing my alcoholic mother at the age of 16 to move in with my dad, continued to prove himself to be the selfish bastard I’d always suspected. I should have known then not to bother with him. As kids, he kept returning me, my brother and sister to my mother’s wine stained hands, where weekends were spent cowering on the stairs waiting to hear the crash of a fist hitting her cheekbone or a golf club going through the windscreen of the car.
I’d started working at 16 because at that age, if you wanted to keep studying, you needed money from your parents or you had to find a way to support yourself. Working full time and doing sixth from at school just wasn’t possible so, after a number of terrible jobs I’d decided I had to find some way to get myself out of the cycle. To get myself to university, I studied my A-levels in the evenings and worked full time during the day for two years but after leaving university, I found myself now facing a whole different set of battles – finding a way into a career without the finance I needed to do some of the entry level or internship roles. I was intelligent, young and uneducated in the way of the world and I’d spurned London for what I believed would be a period of escape.
Right then, in Paris, I had some cash in the bank but what I didn’t have, was a permanent residence or any sort of security or stability. These were luxuries I’d never been afforded in London either but the difference now was that I was surviving on: MacDonald’s breakfasts (they were cheaper than anything else on offer and better than the hostel breakfasts), ready meals, take-away Japanese and rotisserie chicken. I was washing my knickers in the sink and curling up at night under a blanket which god knows how many people had slept beneath before me. My grotty period knickers could be seen by all, drying on the rail on the edge of my bed and having a shower was a test on the triceps.
I didn’t have a job and there was no sign of any stunning Frenchman saving my English back bacon. To be honest though, if I were him, I wouldn’t have bothered either – French back bacon is much nicer. Besides, bar the 2-day-old-pain-au-chocolat I had saved in my suitcase, I felt I had very little going for me. I found myself bouncing between one hostel and another and back again as the month I was allowed to stay at the Auberge flew past and I was forced to find another place to stay. This was how I came to share a room with Alex and whichever two other waifs and strays happened to pass through our room at the time, one of whom stuck out in my mind for the sheer comedy of his arrogance. You see he’d only ended up in the hostel at all because the nearby Ibis had been full. He was only about 19 and he had a body that looked as though it had been deprived of nourishment for a good month or two and probably spent more time doing his hair every morning than I spent brushing mine in a week.
“So, Nic. Why don’t you come and get into bed with me?” He asked.
“Sorry mate, crap as it is (my bed that is) I’d rather stick to it, alone.” I said, the gale from my exhalation as I laughed at the suggestion making his hairsprayed locks quiver. It was around the same time that I was to make my first acquaintance with Robbie. I was sitting in McDonalds, in the usual spot with Alex who, by this point, I’d become fairly close to. We shared the same woes, and sleeping space (not bed). Plus we were often both on the hunt for a cheap breakfast around the same time. Having grown tired of the not-so-fresh bread and watery coffee provided by the restaurant, we’d taken to the 3-euro special in McDonald’s where we could get luxuries like, a pain-au-chocolat, coffee and an orange juice. Just as I was tucking into my pancakes, a rather tall, good looking, angular featured, red-haired guy walked in and slid into the seat in front of us. He had clear, piercing blue eyes and wore a black, mid-length, square shaped leather jacket (slightly Gestapo style).
“Hi,” he said to Alex, shooting a glance at me but avoiding direct eye contact.
“Hey Robbie,” drawled Alex in his Canadian accent, “This is Nic. The girl I was telling you about before. Nic, this is Robbie. He’s English. He’s been trying to make it here in Paris too.”
“Oh, right, yeah, hello,” he said, finally looking at me, his square jaw set in a protective barrier. “So, how are things? Have you found anywhere to live yet?” Duncan asked, turning to Robbie.
“Actually, yeah. I should be moving in this weekend.” He replied in a pseudo American/Anglo accent.
“It’s great. The only problem is I’m still waiting to find out what is happening with this bloody job. They keep messing me around.”
“So, what’s the place like?” I asked, trying to be friendly.
He gave another sideways glance at me before turning to Alex to respond, “It’s in Villiers. It belongs to the aunt of the guy I’ll be sharing with. The great thing is he’s French so I’ll be speaking French at work and at home. It’s pretty basic. In the lounge there’s a desk with a computer that we can both use for the internet etc. There’s a dining table and a few chairs and a wooden sofa, which has a mattress on that will be my bed at night. There’s a little bath come shower which is inside Pierre’s bedroom but it should work ok as we’ll be on different schedules.”
“It sounds a bit small? Odd but cool? Though from what I can gather from an experience with a guy called Mocine, it’s the Paris way.” I said to Robbie, daring to interrupt. I waited for a response. Tumbleweed. “I can’t help feeling a bit envious though,” I finished, filling the silence as I looked down at my fifth McDonald’s breakfast for that week and the accompanying expanding waistline – a result of living in a hostel without a kitchen.
I had proved my culinary prowess and resourcefulness in some of the meals I’d managed to concoct with no cooking involved. You see, in addition to the lack of cooking equipment, there was very little in the way of cutlery and crockery to speak of: actually none. For example, a salad with avocado, cashews, tomatoes, sweetcorn, rocket and mozzarella was served with the bag the salad was sold in doubling as a salad bowl and I would buy one of the rotisserie chicken specials from the many street butchers and tear open the waxy paper sack to form a plate. Cross-legged, Alex and I would sit on the carpet of our hostel bedroom to feast. As the French have an aversion to convenience food and anything too ‘different’ (ever seen an Indian takeaway in France? The likelihood is not as they are few and far between). The best I could often hope for from the supermarket was a packet of beef carpaccio or some smoked salmon. There was no sign of the ‘curry counter’ that you might find in a branch of Sainsbury’s in the City of London and the doors to such French culinary heights as Le Lutetia or Chez Marie Edith were as elusive to me as a rabbit in a field on speed.
I was jolted from my interior monologue by Robbie standing up from the table, hastening a, “See you later,” to Alex and disappearing in a flash of ginger and beaten up leather jacket.
“So, yeah, that was Robbie,” said Alex. I decided to put some of his abrupt manner down to the uncertainty of Paris and ignored the rest in my usual blinkered, water off a duck’s back/naïve way.
That night, I remember pulling the rough blanket over the top of me, while images from my experiences over the first few weeks in Paris flickered across the inside of my eyelids like a film on a cinema screen. Almost two months since I’d left London and I was still distinctly jobless and significantly homeless with a fast diminishing bank balance despite all attempts to be frugal. I was struggling to see how it would all end. At the time, Alex and I had a schizophrenic roommate at the time who was too short and full of himself to take seriously. Medically speaking, he could have been a dwarf. That might have been the source of his problems actually – small man syndrome. One evening Dwarf-boy invited me and some other people to a café for a live music performance and since I wasn’t exactly tripping over my numerous friends and acquaintances in Paris, I thought I should maximise every opportunity to connect with the locals. It turned out to be a tiny café on the other side of Paris with some woman dressed in the kind of get-up you might see a whore in a western film wearing, wailing to the sound of some wiry Frenchman strumming his guitar. Coloured pens and pencils sat in pots on the tables with blank paper laid out in front of us. The ‘artistes’ amongst us commenced with their rainbow coloured stick men drawings, an air of desperate wanting lingering around their dreadlock covered shoulders. The evening finished abruptly, in time with our last sip of coffee. We shuffled our separate ways but were accosted on the way out by a couple of tramps drinking booze out of brown paper bags and the ‘artistes’ took up a deep, clearly philosophical conversation with them whilst I silently floated on past.
Dwarf-man made his move on me on the Metro on the way home. Though I was clearly taken with his browning teeth, eccentric ‘tics’ and manly stature, I was forced to brush off his advance in the hard, fluorescent light of the Metro train. Immediately, the small amount of English he’d made an effort to speak to me turned to zero. He gabbled away half under his breath in weird French (he was from Algeria) and generally made me feel extremely uncomfortable. He began to make life in our communal abode somewhat more unbearable too, taking extra long showers in our en-suite bathroom, playing his little clock radio listening to news reports in Arabic at seven o’clock in the morning and once freaked out when Alex trod on his bed cover trying to get out of the bunk above him shrieking, “Qu’est-ce-que tu fais lá? Eh?” gesticulating wildly whilst steam emanated from his dwarf-like ears. Poor Alex leapt off the bed in shock, hitting the floor with a thud.
My joy at communal living with boys was further heightened when one morning, I’d woken with my bottom bunk shaking like there’d been an earthquake. I lay there in the half-light, praying that what I thought might be happening, actually wasn’t happening though the understanding dug its way in eventually. Christian who was sleeping on the top bunk above me was obviously having a go at the five-knuckle shuffle. Seriously, like there wasn’t a bathroom he could have used? Mixed-dorms: ugh.
A couple of nights later, Alex and I were sitting in the Bottle Shop, talking over a pint with Christian and Robbie when I hinted at what had happened that morning. “So,” I said, turning to Christian, “You’re obviously an early riser?’ When Alex shot me a look and mouthed “I was awake.” We were both reduced to hysterics. Tears of laughter dripped into our beer as everyone around us stared, wondering what the hell had reduced us to such blithering wrecks. I’m still not sure if we’ll ever get over the trauma of such a violation. I felt I’d reached my limit, even if Alex and I did have a good laugh at Christian’s expense. Alex had had the added joy of being on the top bunk, right opposite him. Lucky Alex.