Life before yoga: Was I petite Nicole? 8. Getting back from Barca
Getting back from Barca
“Yeah. Last Christmas was a nightmare,” said Alison as we stood in the queue to check in at the Ryan air desk for the Barcelona to Paris flight: 4am. “We were at my parents’ house in Bath on Christmas Day when I looked in my bag to check that I’d packed my passport and saw it wasn’t there,” she continued casually.
“My poor dad had to drive me all the way back to London on Christmas Day to pick it up from our old house in London. A five-hour drive on Christmas Day. But it was that or we wouldn’t be flying to Oz, or anywhere in fact on Boxing Day.”
My stomach twisted and dropped to the floor, and my blood drained to my feet like water down a plug-hole. Panicking, I rummaged through my handbag for my passport. As I feared – there was no sign of it there. As Alison, her boyfriend and I began frantically searching my suitcase, I silently apologised for laughing at all those other people who were too stupid to check whether they had their passport before they left for the airport. 20 minutes of frantic searching later and no sign of the passport, just me and a slightly enraged couple as they realised that we’d got out of bed at 3am to drive all the way out to the airport unnecessarily
With a dry mouth, I said, “I think it must have been stolen when I was taking the bus from the airport to your apartment Ali. My bag was on the seat next to me and I fell asleep. It would have been fairly easy for someone to take it but I assumed since it was a coach and there were hardly any stops, it would be ok.”
“Well, we’ll have to look into another way of getting you back to Paris as they’ll only let you on a flight if you’re going to go back to the UK. They won’t allow you in at the Paris end without one,” said Alison, slightly exasperatedly.
“I know,” I said, looking down at my feet.
Almost 12 hours later and I was rocking around on one of the sleeper beds on the overnight train from Barcelona-Santz (just around the corner from Alison’s apartment) to Paris. I never have been able to get used to those sleeper trains. I’m sure it’s entirely different in first class but having six people crammed into a space too small to swing a rat, each with their own weirdisms like waking up in the middle of the night to munch on a tortilla sandwich, loudly; snoring and farting. Trying to get out of bed to go to the loo felt like taking on a climbing frame in the dark – not pleasant. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was worse than living in a hostel. A hostel which thankfully, I would never have to live in again – or at least so I hoped. I drifted off to sleep to romantic images of a quaint Paris apartment me, parked on the balcony with the sound of jazz floating in the window from the cafés of Saint-Germain. Stepping off the train onto French soil again, groggy from little sleep, the enormous dome of Gare-de-Lyon rose above me. I took a deep breath and smiled. I felt strangely exhilarated and ready for round two. Welcome back to Paris! Seeing my phone back on the Paris network, I called Robbie.
“I made it back in one piece, or at least I think so!”
“Well that makes a change. You consider having your passport stolen getting back in one piece? I’m not sure I should be hanging around with you Shortie! Have you got all your arms and legs at least?”
“Alright alright. Look, I might need to take you up on your offer of assistance later though as I’ve got to pick up my suitcases from Lauren’s place and I need to drag them over to my new apartment but I’ve got to meet Gussy to pick up the keys first.”
“Well, that probably works out well actually as I’m finishing work in about two hours which gives you time to go meet her and get to Lauren’s place where I can meet you.”
“Brilliant. Thanks Robbie. I really, really appreciate it. I’ll cook you and Pierre dinner!”
A couple of hours later and I was well installed (to use Parisien terminology) at my new premises. The apartment itself was fairly accommodating – for a midget – which considering my petite frame, wasn’t so bad. However, there were occasions when I would have appreciated being able to get out of the shower without banging my hip on the sink every time. Anyone particularly tall would have found their knees brushing against the bathroom wall opposite if they were sitting on the toilet which was a bit dicey anyway as the seat was broken. Though at least – unlike some poor Parisien souls – I had the luxury of my own salle de bains. I had been warned by Sophie not to let anything drop down the toilet as it had a special flush which required a plumber to come along and fix at great cost should anything do so: no tampons, toiletries, hairbands or condoms. Toilet roll only or disaster would strike. Exactly what kind of disaster I would find out later when someone (not me) forgot and I ended up flooding half the flat with toilet water and costing Sophie 600 euros to fix it.
“Not bad,” said Robbie, inspecting one of the cupboards. “Looks like you’ve got everything you need. Good thing you’re a midget really.” Carpeted in something that must have once been a pale green, it was ‘cosy’ like almost all Paris apartments. Its saving grace was a proper fireplace (no longer in use) with a gorgeous black wrought iron, tiled surround. The walls were furnished with wallpaper that resembled fine bamboo running horizontally around the walls – the likes of which I would come to know as intimately as a ‘friend’ as many an hour was whiled away within its arms. I would pose soul searching questions such as: ‘What do you think I should do with my life?’ or ‘is Romain truly a bastard for leaving?’ Without getting any sort of meaningful response.
A table stood in the corner – typically French with kitchen wall tiles covering its surface (as you’d expect on a table!). There was a single electric powered hot ring, a grille-pain which is a kind of mini horizontal grill (more conducive to French bread than your average English toaster) and a kettle squatted on its corner. The almost floor to ceiling windows looked onto the bare courtyard which wasn’t much bigger than my apartment. There was no view as my room looked straight onto the backs of the other tiny apartments like mine in a kind of hexagon shape so the only light came in from hexagon shaped opening at the top where the last apartments ended. This quickly put paid to my dream of sitting on a balcony watching the Paris world go by. A fridge was my only true luxury; a luxury I didn’t appreciate until much later when I would accidentally destroy it in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record.
After living in a hostel for two and a bit months, the thought of my own space, my own bathroom and the means to make my own meals was pure bliss. Standing Monika’s print of Mademoiselle Guillotine on the mantelpiece and putting the last of my clothes in the built-in cupboard, I felt I was finally beginning to see another side to Paris. Whether it was a side I would want to see I would have to wait to find out but I got a glimpse of it when I said to Robbie, “So, shall we go out and celebrate?”
“I’m really sorry shortie but I’ve kind of got a date tonight. How about Alex? What’s he up to? Maybe we could all catch up tomorrow night?”
“Sure,” I said, “No problem,” as I suddenly realised that the only people I knew in Paris numbered exactly three as by this point, Monika had returned to Poland, Lauren was married with a son and rarely free, Robbie was otherwise engaged for the evening and Alex had a crush on me. I resolved I would need to come up with some other means for keeping myself occupied on those evenings when the people on this list were otherwise engaged.
“Cheers Nic,” said Alex, raising his glass to me, later that evening when I’d eventually conceded to calling him.
“Cheers,” I said, looking around me at the typical milieu of the Bottle Shop.
The following morning, as I didn’t have to collect Delphine until 4.30pm, I took myself off to Le Fnac and purchased a set of speakers so that I could listen to the music I had sensibly downloaded onto it before I’d left the UK, and some DVDs. Apparently, there is no point in getting a TV in one of the smaller Paris apartments as it is impossible to get reception unless you’ve got Sky and that was a luxury I couldn’t afford. I also furnished myself with a Siemens card for my laptop so that I could access the internet using one of the various wifi spots across Paris. Wifi (pronounced whiffy in France), I came to discover, was not some kind of bad smell but a way of linking up to the internet without a cable. What I didn’t understand when I bought the card was that most of them would be locked. Sat on the Metro on the way back to my Parisien rabbit hole, I rubbed the new, smooth exterior of the box that housed my new speakers with anticipation as I imagined some of my favourite tunes blasting from them, vibrating against the walls as I tapped out emails to my friends. One hour later I rubbed the sweat of frustration from my brow as I realised that there would be no tapping of emails in my apartment as all of the hotspots in my building were, bloqué. I consoled myself with the music emanating from my new speakers and resolved to make use of the free hotspot in the McDonalds over by Avenue Emile Zola, just next to Delphine’s school.
Henceforth my Paris days commenced with a 10am alarm which would invariably be turned off until 11am when I would rub the sleep from my eyes and turn myself onto my back before ejecting myself from my sleep rack, (you could hardly call it a bed). Getting out was impossible any other way as my body was virtually in rigor mortis from being moulded into its cracks and crevices all night. I looked down to make sure that none of the springs in it had actually impailed themselves on me and got up to fill the kettle. Feeling slightly Parisien for the first time, I waited for its whistle before pouring the contents into my cafetiére. I sat tracing the lines of the various stains on the light moss coloured carpet whilst the coffee brewed and wondered how many pairs of feet had crossed this carpet; what liaisons dangereuses may have taken place in this room. Pierre had mentioned that the place had been in the family for decades and traditionally, was used as student digs. His father and his father before him had lived in it whilst studying their degrees. So for a while, my mornings began by smothering President butter and Bonne Maman’s black cherry jam onto the baguette I’d usually sneaked away from the family’s apartment (Delphine had warned me that after I left in the evenings, it would end up in the bin), which I would refresh with a blast under the grille-pain. I would sit and savour the flavours, wondering how best I could make use of the time I had free before collecting Delphine at 4.00pm and usually waste at least an hour trying to decide what to do with myself. Sitting on the floor of the apartment procrastinating, I would finger the wallpaper where it came away from the wall while the only sound that floated in through the windows was the flutter of the odd passing pigeon and other people’s toilets flushing.
“I’ll have that one,” said Delphine, pressing her ivory, freckled, perfectly upturned nose against the glass of the Patisserie, eyeing the sweet treasures, which lay in their beds beneath, on one of our regular visits. Turning her huge, liquid cocoa eyes to me, she pouted and pointed at a chocolate dream with a little swirl of cream. A filigree chocolate butterfly kissed a fresh raspberry, perched on its crown and I wondered where the patience had come from to create such a thing of beauty which would in seconds be devoured and digested inside the stomach of one of the 20 odd French children amongst whom we were queued.
“Oui madame, celui-là – le chocolat si’l vous plaît,” shouted Delphine above the din. And the round, smiley French woman carefully removed the cake from it’s snug bed and placed it carefully into a box tying a neat ribbon around it to keep it safe while the other school children clamoured to the counter, nudging and pushing each other in shrill, French accents. Each day I would stand outside Delphine’s school, waiting for a glimpse of her small frame – smaller than the other children of her age. Her beautiful, pixie-like face framed with the tendrils of hair that had escaped from the rough ponytail it had been pulled back into in that relaxed-yet-chic French way. Often, she would be the last to emerge with her school bag weighing somewhere near the same as her bodyweight, her head just visible from behind it. She reminded me of myself at her age. Full of wonder but obsessed with books; reading and writing and always late, before it all went frog-shaped.
We would daily rush to the Patisserie on the corner before clambering onto the Metro with the hundreds of other bustling school-children, chattering in the French I still couldn’t understand, being chivvyed by au-pairs and the occasional mother. Jumping off at Duroc, we would hurry up to the apartment and get Delphine her snack in time to leave for her swimming class, or art or whatever she happened to have booked for that day. Though early March by now, the weather was still very cold and as we walked down the boulevard Montparnasse on our way back from swimming class, the sharp wind would snatch at our faces and the skeletons of long-dead leaves scurried around our feet. Ramshackle old men sat, solitarily at circular tables outside the cafés that lined it – indifferent to the cold – sucking in smoke from their cigarettes. Occasionally one would fix Delphine with an unnerving stare in that same predatory way I had experienced and I would protectively pull her closer to my side, rushing past to get back to the apartment as quickly as possible. Running up the spiral stairs, too impatient to wait for the elevator, Delphine would chatter relentlessly as she tapped down the long hallway ahead of me in her black patent school shoes. Running to the kitchen she would throw off her coat, drag the kitchen chair in front of the larder cupboard, climb up and reach for the tin containing her favourite 95% cocoa chocolate. “Would you like some?” she would ask and for the first few weeks, I declined – my palette used to the much sweeter sensation of Cadbury’s.
It was following one of these outings during the week of half-term that I first felt the wrath of Pierre hit me. We returned hot and puffing from running back from the Metro station, Delphine’s coat over my arm as she had removed it a few minutes earlier, all hot and sweaty. As we walked in, Pierre took one look at Delphine before his deep voice boomed down the hallway, perforating my eardrum, “What do you think you are doing taking her out without a coat?” The core of me reverberated with the shock as I turned to face his rage as he shot darts into me with his eyes. Fending them off I said, “She literally took it off minutes ago. We were running so she got hot. Of course I wouldn’t allow her to go without one.” I said. Slowly, the steam dissipated from his ear holes and his face was restored to its usual haughty air as he said, “Please ensure that she wears an overcoat outside at this time of year.”
And so it was in this most unglamorous way Jeune-fille au-pair de la famille Poulain that I found myself rubbing shoulders with the rich, famous and decidedly snobby in Paris. I wondered where one had acquired one’s stiff upper lip and one’s rod up one’s bum and one was informed later that one had studied at Cambridge and one was quite well acquainted with the English culture and language despite being of French origin and up-bringing. I was surprised that Cambridge University had clearly offered transplant services to the French bourgeoisie. I had an image of him being wheeled in on a hospital bed whilst a surgeon at Cambridge called, “I need the English equivalent of this with a dash of snobbery. ” Two years later, Pierre emerged, compassionless and uptight. It seemed that this species of Toff was far from diminishing in Paris (unlike London) whose hobbies included; driving the femme de ménage mental with requests for sock darning which were already more darn than sock (normal human beings would just buy new ones), inspecting the bin to see if there was any evidence of the children having eaten a banned substance, and dust spotting or rather, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. All of this was missing however, from the biography I later found on him via google.