Elf Lyons, a student at L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris, takes a wry look back at her first few months of living in the City of Light.
So there it is, my first term as a student at L’Ecole Philippe Gaulier has come to an end and thus my sanity as an English-Girl-In-Paris is starting to slowly be restored to normal pre-Paris levels.
Back on English soil my macaron intake has decreased to a reasonable non-diabetic level, I am no longer swigging Cote-du-Rhone from the bottle and crucially I am no longer shouting “Dégueulasse!” when I see a poster of National Front leader Le Pen plastered across the streets. Also, back in England, shops are open, which makes a huge change to living in the city of light. The French are known for not being huge consumers with a slow economy, but I think this is mainly down to their dislike of opening times. As a tourist it can be frustrating. It is very common to see a sign outside a restaurant in Paris saying something like: “Open 24/7 – except on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays after 3pm and Sundays”.
I returned to the land of efficient queuing last week, after L’Ecole Phillippe Gaulier, the small theatre school in the suburb of Etampes Paris which I study at, closed its doors for the Christmas holidays. Hordes of past-students and present-clowns spilt out onto the quiet streets of Etampes after the final-year-clown show. The Greek tragedy costumes were packed away and all the clowns were evicted from the school and forced to drink their woes in the only bar open in the small suburb… the station bar. As the hangovers kicked in the next morning, all of us started to slowly make our movements back home. For some, this meant Australia, Poland, Germany, Ireland, Canada and many other places. For me, this meant a trip on the empty slumbering RER to Gare du Nord.. The RER, if you’ve ever been on it, is a giant worm of a train that makes the noises of a long-suffering Darth Vadar with asmtha.
One drawback from returning to London for Christmas is that I have less chance to practise my French… not that this was a regular occurance in Paris, as no matter how often you attempt to speak French to a Parisian, the Parisians refuse to speak back to you in French. It’s frustrating to say the least, and goes a long way to explaining the “French are rude” stereotype, and the unanswered question of why the English are so bad at speaking foreign languages… Answer: the French won’t let you learn.
However, nothing beats chilly Paris in its seasonal decorations. Unlike London which one would argue is almost corporate in its advertising and street decorations at Christmas time Paris goes for a more paired back, classical, low-tech approach. There are few crazy blue-led lights to be spotted. Instead, in the suburb of Etampes they chose to decorate every street corner with lone-christmas trees, tied up and hanged off every available lamppost and lead piping. The objective was to make the streets look festive… however on first impressions it did look more like a “walk of shame” for every naughty christmas tree in the area – hanging miserably like prisoners in the stocks. Undecorated and cold. Sad, but also oddly comical.
On top of that, the streets of Etampes for the whole of December were blasted with music for 24 hours of the day – from speakers stealthily hidden in the rooftops. Rumour has it the music is selected by the mayor – and if so, he has a pretty diverse festive choice, from the 007 Bond soundtrack, Queen, David Bowie, Disney’s Pocahontas and at one weird point in the day the soundtrack of Schindlers List.
What I learned
Having now spent nearly four months living in Paris, I’ve learnt some clear does and do nots. Keyly, don’t visit Shakespeare&Co on a Saturday at lunchtime unless you want to die from a ton of copies of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway falling on your head. Visit at 10pm instead before it closes, or early morning mid-week.
Secondly, there is no such thing as a nice toilet in Paris. No matter how nice a restaurant or cafe may look from the outside… step in, walk downstairs and you will discover toilets that look like they’ve been time-travelled back from a sex-dungeon in the 80s. You have hit jackpot if you come across a toilet with a seat.
Thirdly, if you, like me, choose to dress, as what my mum calls “eccentrically”, be prepared for French people to comment on it. They will do so eloquently with phrases such as “I think your clothes are ugly, but they work on you” or “Are you German?”
I love the cool, haughty confidence of the French and everything about their malovently beguiling city. It’s easy to understand why so many Chinese couples flock to Paris to get their wedding photos taken there. (You will see these photo shoots take place at least five times a day if you walk around Paris on a weekend.) The confidence of the French and their attitude to food, music and wine is something I adore the most. They have an absolute passion for good food and will fight you over it if they have to. The most typically French thing I have witnessed was in a restaurant in the 11th… a tourist asked the waiter for a “Large glass of the house white wine with lemonade in it.” The waiter refused. The tourist asked “Why not?” “Because we don’t do that to good wine here” the waiter said, before sashaying off to the kitchen.
Life must go on
After the attacks in November it was a tragedy to see the confidence and attitude of the city be so greatly distorted and bruised. A mellowness fell over Paris. With each loud noise you heard, heads would turn and people would move faster out of anxiety. On the metro everyone looked and gazed intently at one another, nervous smiles on their faces, searching each other inquisitively. However, like after 7/7 in London – there was a strong attitude of embracing the day to day and to “keep calm and carry on”. In one of my favorite haunts, the owners of the small independent bar La Rochelle, (a bar 40 yards from where the attacks took place in the 11th which hid many people from the gunmen on the night of the attacks), held a raucous rock gig in their tiny bar at the end of November – performed by local performers – as a small “fuck you” against those who had terrorised the area the weeks before. It was a fantastic night and rammed with people. As I prepare to return back to Paris I look forward to the new year in the City of Light and embracing this rage and sense of rebellion that the French are so good at. Paris is a beautifully cocky city, and in the face of all the atrocities its faced this year, I hope it stays that way.