The day after I wrote my last exam in Angers, I made a quick trip to Paris to find a place to stay. I had been accepted by the Cours de Civilisation Française de la Sorbonne, and I made a beeline for the housing office. It was a sunny day in January, and I walked from the Gare Montparnasse to the Latin Quarter by way of the Jardin du Luxembourg, feeling giddy at what I was about to do.
I found a listing for a room that I thought I could afford, just. However, when I went to see it, even I could tell that the route from the Metro stop to the apartment lay through a red-light district. Ah, non. Back to the housing office.
The other affordable option was a room in exchange for work. The lady in the housing office sized me up, made a phone call, and gave me an address in the 16th arrondissement: 28 rue du Ranelagh. I was expected for an interview as soon as I could get across town.
When I arrived, I was impressed by the large building near Radio France.
Madame L. was cordial and explained her terms: 10 hours of light housework a week for a room, no board. Deal.
Back in Angers, I packed my bags, made my farewells, and went to a couple of final choir practices. During the spring university break, the choir was to travel to Kassel, Germany, for a short all-expenses-paid(!) tour to accompany the signing of a twinning agreement between Angers and Kassel. The choir director had agreed that the bus would pick me up in Paris on the way. This was not entirely because of my singing, but because she needed me to accompany two of our songs on a guitar.
The night before I left, Anne-Marie and I celebrated her having passed the first part of her driving test. We demolished a half-bottle of white wine and a box of After Eights and told silly jokes. Oh, I was going to miss her.
I arrived back at the Gare Montparnasse with two suitcases and three bulging plastic bags and took a taxi (the last one for a while) to get to rue du Ranelagh. Madame L. showed me to my chambre de bonne on the 7th floor. The good news: there was an elevator serving the back stairs. The bad news: my sink had only one tap (cold) and the facilities consisted of a grimy shower room and a toilette à la Turque down the hall. I learned to use these without coming into direct contact with any surface – I used a bath mitt to handle everything and wore flip-flops in the shower.
My bedroom window looked into the courtyard, but just above the roofline I could see the very tip of the Eiffel Tower. I got into the habit of looking at it first thing every morning, just to remind myself I was really here.
On my first day, Madame L. told me that she was about to accompany her son’s scout group on a trip to Brittany and that my duties during her time away would consist of checking on a neighbour every evening. Dada, as she was known, was the aged servant of M. St-Hilaire, who lived two floors below Madame L. Dada was so frail that she could barely push the trolley on which M. St-Hilaire’s dinner was laid out. So I did it for her.
Albert St-Hilaire was in his eighties and had recently broken his leg. When I arrived that first evening pushing the dinner trolley, followed by Madame L., he took an immediate interest in a new face, sat us down and plied us with 1961 port and petit-fours. He said he hoped I could chat with him on occasion. Indeed I could, and over the course of the next few months, we got into the habit of spending Sunday nights together. Dinner consisted of cold meat and salad, followed by fruit and cheese (prepared by an able-bodied woman who came in every day and did most of the actual work in the apartment), and then we watched the Sunday night movie – anything from Tarzan dubbed in French to classic French films. I also spent plenty of time with Dada, who was kind; I helped her with various tasks, she lent me magazines and gave me leftover food. Both inhabitants of that apartment were starved for company, but given French social boundaries, they could not be company for each other.
As for Madame L., we got on well enough, but she turned out to be fanatically parsimonious. She was the sort of woman who turns lights off when she enters a room. She watered down cleaning products (I would just add more when her back was turned). And she refused to consider replacing her ancient, feeble vacuum cleaner – the only attachment that could actually pick up a thread from the carpet was the crevice tool. Imagine, if you will, cleaning a four-bedroom apartment with a crevice tool. It took some time, believe me.
Light housework included ironing and dusting, but also washing the car (to be fair, she and I did that together), walls, windows, and floors. I became well acquainted with the serpière – a vile, thick grey cloth that one pushes around with a short-bristled broom to scour the kitchen floor. What would I have given for a sponge mop!
But hey, it was only ten hours a week – she never asked for more than that. My hours were scheduled in advance, and I could do mental French practice while ironing or vacuuming. A few times I spent an hour or so talking English with the younger two of her four sons (she also had a young daughter) and I am pleased to report that one son improved his oral comprehension to the point that he stopped failing his English tests.
At times it felt a little odd to be a domestique in one apartment and an honoured invitée two floors below. Add to that my roles as a student and a chorister.
The arrangement at the Sorbonne was very different from that in Angers. I attended four two-hour lectures a week – Études stylistiques (my favourite), Évolution historique de la France (enjoyable), Littérature française du XXe siècle (not bad), and Histoire des idées dans la France moderne (irredeemably dull). On Friday mornings, two back-to-back lectures were held in the École de medecine, in an amphitheatre of hard wooden seats with high backs and narrow ledges in front that made an awkward surface for writing notes. After four hours of taking notes in a book propped on my knees, I would stagger out feeling like the retreat from Moscow. This picture of the amphitheatre from the Internet is not the best quality, but you get the idea.
We also had classroom time in a building on the rue de Raspail with Mr. Cordier, a former high-school teacher who had been pulled out of retirement to deal with a larger-than-usual group of foreign students. He was hilarious, knew all our names by the second class, and gave us a thorough grounding in language and literature (not to mention French jokes). Our text was a bright green book containing poems and excerpts from novels. I still have it, the text surrounded by my pencilled notes.
I joined two choirs: that of the Anglican church of St. George’s as well as the Jeunesses Musicales de France. The church was a wonderfully welcoming place, since nearly all members of the congregation were expats. The choir director was Canadian. (Norman and I still attend this church when we are in Paris and the friendliness we find there always makes us feel at home.) The church was in the basement of a modern apartment building – there had been a conventional 19th-century church building on the site, but it had been damaged during the war. The decision was made to sell the site to developers and reserve the ground floor and basement for St. George’s. The new sanctuary had only recently reopened and I was there for the inauguration of the new organ.
The Jeunesses Musicales de France was rather different, and the choristers were not as jeune as the name suggests. The middle-aged wife of the conductor, M. Martini, sat in the front row and had a tendency to argue with him over points of interpretation. Brought up as I was to respect choir directors’ every whim, I found this startling. And rehearsals never started on time. But we did sing in some impressive venues and even made a recording of the Mozart Requiem, so I saw the inside of a French recording studio in Boulogne-Billancourt.
I had left my moped with Anne-Marie in Angers, so I took to the Metro and the bus system. When I ran out of money at the end of each month, I could amuse myself by taking a new and unfamiliar bus route. And I always ran out of money, because at the beginning of the month, after renewing my Carte Orange, I would buy tickets for an opera, a ballet, or the theatre. Or all three. I would get the cheapest seats available, but it was still an indulgence that skewed the budget. I had promised my parents that I would get by on the same monthly amount I had had in Angers, and not having to pay rent certainly helped. But it was, after all, Paris. I went to museums and art galleries at times when they were free or cheaper than usual, I bought nothing that was not strictly necessary (basic food and school supplies mostly), but I could not resist the lure of the Opera House.
And that reminds me… but I have gone on long enough. I will finish my tale in the next blog.
Text by Philippa Campsie