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December 24th, 1997, almost 2 months living with Paris and set to move into my first Parisian apartment, my own home away from the homeland. When I first arrived from Dublin on a rainy Thursday night, I’d gatecrashed into an Irish home abroad; Jeannie, a 40ish Irish woman with wild red hair, an estranged husband, a son in the shadows of another land and a beautiful daughter, looking set for a photo shoot with Vogue, perfect to fall in love with (if were I straight). I crashed on their couch for a week till I found a place at the Irish College, basically a fancy hostile the 5th arrondissement, once dedicated to the Irish fellows who aided the cause of the liberation of France and now witness to the raging hormones of a plethora of Irish boys and girls who missed the smell of the cow shite and their mother’s overcooked steaks, but I had my own room and that was all I needed. Breakfast was served every morning in the huge hall which was freezing cold so we all huddled together to stop from shivering to death before the morning ritual of rushing to see who got post from home and who got simply forgotten, the Irish can be a tough lot!
I wanted to be a fashion designer, to be discovered, to be found, but I didn’t speak a word of French (slight oversight) so ended up trolling Irish bars, American bars and English bars hoping one of them was looking for a totally inexperienced bar tender with no French or pint pulling skills! Who could pass that up? Everyone, it seemed! 1 month later, I fell upon the last Irish bar (there were over 55 Irish bars in Paris at the time, I kid you not!), tucked away in the, as yet, undiscovered 13th arrondissement, (it’s a paradise now in comparison to the dead rats and half dead dragueres who once populated it) a stop too far from the tourist trail which unfortunately had a job to offer me and I had barely a French franc to my name to refuse!
By Christmas eve, I’d been working for 1 month, had learned to pull a pint, change a keg and minimally converse in French with the local clientele. Decided it was too soon to go home for Christmas, I stayed behind to run the bar, find a flat, build a life and maybe even put up a tree. On the 22nd, I dragged Mary, a comrade in arms from the College, off with me to view an apartment. We arrived at the address with an immediate double take. The building was magnificent. On a side street, just off a bustling boulevard, sat a 6-storey mansion. The entrance had a courtyard where a mermaid perched on a fountain, behind which glass doors showcased freshly polished gold banisters and thick pile burgundy carpeted stairs. Could it be true? It was within my price range, which barely exceeded living in a bin, and yet there it was. Chuckling to myself and hugging Mary, we eagerly skipped up the 1st floor and on to the 2nd. By the 3rd floor, our skip slowed when we noticed the maid had stopped polishing the banister. On the 4th, the carpet disappeared. On the 5th, the gold banister became a wobbly unloved one. On the 6th and final floor, my hopes for a palatial dwelling dissolved as viewers came running down the hallway towards us. Behind them a narrow doorway lay in wait but what lay inside was not a lavish apartment as suggested by the building’s façade, nor did it resemble the description in the advert. The reality was a space no more than 6 x 10 feet where you could stand in the centre and touch each wall. It held a skylight partially covered by a water tank, beneath which was a sink, next to which was a fridge, on top of which was a hot plate, next to which was a closet that turned out to be a shower cabinet standing next to the front door and that was it. There wasn’t a bed. There was no room for a bed! There were 3 of us crammed into the room and you couldn’t see the floor for lack of space. The shared toilet down the hall was a little closer to hell in terms of condition. The walls were a musty shade of brown that hadn‘t come from a paint can! I took a deep breath and looked at Mary. “I could do great things with this place, don’t you think?” Her response was to fill up with tears, a reaction to my positive outlook when faced with a hellhole.
On the night of the 23rd, I thankfully found a decent, clean, safe place. A small studio, with no room for windows, but certainly a bed and I was able to move in on the 24th (just like Mary and Joseph). The Irish College closed on the morning of the 24th so my Irish inmates dumped me and my belongings into a taxi before they escaped to the airport and families and festive food while I headed to work. That afternoon, after a phone call to my landlord, I discovered that my new landlord was now my old landlord as he’d decided to give the studio, that was supposed to be my new home, to someone else; someone with a better job, more papers, more experience, more French, basically! So I was homeless on Christmas Eve, again like Mary and Joseph (no room at the inn). Laurel and Hardy, the comical and continuously drunk duo who owned the bar, found it hilarious and offered me the attic of the bar to stay in over Christmas, (I was being offered a stable on Christmas Eve by the Turkish owner, who looked like Danny de Vito but less intentionally funny). It didn’t have a floor or proper door and you had to climb a ladder outside the building to get into it!
I had a meltdown on front of them, a minor meltdown, well, not really minor but it scared the owners away and gave me time to think. By 5pm I’d phoned every hotel in town and managed to find a room in a hotel on rue des Mauvais Garçons; street of the Bad Boys, (I know!). Of course it was in Le Marais, the gay centre of Gay Paris! I slammed the doors shut at 8pm, grabbed a complimentary bottle of champagne, a bottle of whiskey, (Tullamore Dew) and all my belongings and jumped into a taxi which whisked me, once again, through the streets of Paris, not to my new apartment but to my new hotel with a tiny balcony that, if you leaned out far enough, you could see the very top tip of Notre Dame. I left the champagne to chill on the balcony, pulled on my best pair of pants and took off into Le Marais to find merry men to kiss away my disaster of a day. It turned out to be one very merry man dressed as Santa, but it was Christmas, after all!
I woke on Christmas morning with a creak in my neck from the stupid roll pillow which looked more like a draft excluder, but, determined not to be downhearted, I popped the cork on the champagne and toasted myself, Notre Dame and my little life in this foreign land! Lapsed Irish Catholic or not, there was no missing mass at the Irish College, manly for the promise of hot mince pies and mulled wine afterwards even if it meant having to mingle with my other Irish boss! After a quick escape from being invited to an awkward dinner with a possible closeted homosexual and his family, I took off for ice skating at Hotel du Ville, Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant (of course) and drinks at the Open Cafe where I found a very attractive man who I choose as my very own christmas gift; a blonde and buoyant architect who was only too happy to have me unwrap him under the sparkle of the city of light! And so passed my first Christmas in Paris, far from typical, barely festive, but utterly magical and completely unforgettable!