In her second column for E&M, Elf Lyons gives us an insight into an absurd second term at clown school. 

A rat in the arrondissements

In January I felt like Harry Potter returning to Hogwarts when I jumped on the Eurostar to Paris. Henry Miller said that ‘when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise’ and he’s right. Paris is Paradise. You cannot be bored whilst living here. Whenever I wander around the different arrondissements, I encounter something beautiful or exciting. For example, last week I saw a rat. A huge rat. Not a pathetic little one like those dithering mice we find on the London Underground, this rat was over nine inches long. It scuttled confidently across the road as if it were Serge Gainsbourg. A small child saw and shouted delightedly ‘Ratatouille!’ before his mother hurried him away. You’d never have the chance to see a live rat outside of your rented apartment in London.

Photo courtesy of Elf Lyons.

As well as immersing myself in Parisian streets I am trying harder to properly infiltrate the community by learning French. Languages have always been my downfall. Before returning to Paris I was advised that the best way to learn the French language was by listening to the radio each morning. I have been doing this everyday and have made great progress. So far I have become fluent in understanding sentences with phrases ‘young black male’, ‘ISIS’, ‘Arabs’, ‘migrants’, ‘Hollande’, ‘disappointment’, and ‘mistress’ in them. Also, I’ve downloaded Tinder, (a more exciting version of Duolingo), which is less a dating site and more a fashion flip book of the most beautiful shortsighted chainsmokers you’ve ever seen in turtle necks. 

The tormentor

Weirdly, you don’t really need Tinder when you study at an international clown school. According to the writer George Mikes, ‘Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot-water bottles.’ Not at clown school — we’ve really let our hair down. The best way to describe the love lives of the students at the school is ‘immersive’. So immersive that almost all fifty students at the school have seemingly caught Glandular fever. If you find this hard to believe, I flippantly joked that I was hosting an orgy at my apartment on Wednesday night. Not flippantly enough. People actually turned up. They were rather disappointed to find only me, in my dungarees, attempting to make a mask for our Commedia dell’arte module.

Second term at Gaulier is about to finish and it has sped past in intense fashion. Many graduates argue that it’s the hardest term and they are right. Almost all first years are going through a crisis on stage. There isn’t a day when someone isn’t crying and Monsieur Gaulier isn’t pouring water over someones head.

Photo courtesy of Elf Lyons. Cropped by E&M. |
The author as God gives birth to Adam. Clown school is nothing if not heretical.

Learning to be french

This explains why he is often nicknamed The Tormentor. A typical Gaulier response to a group of female performers: ‘Before I watched these two women on stage I was a classic heterosexual man. Now, I am not so sure.’ One area of constant debate and discussion at the school is his relationship with gender and sexuality. Gaulier uses the subject of gender as a tool to provoke and enrage — pushing performers out of their comfort zones. With jokes about rape, homosexuality, religion and race all part of his repertoire, Gaulier is a perfect example of the French sense of humour that respects nothing and no one — summed up by their word ‘gouaille’. Everything is for the taking, to be satirised and pulled apart. The school is not for the sensitive and not for the politically correct. Last week, for example, I was dressed up as a transvestite God whilst giving birth to a dwarf Adam through my backside (this involved a lot of red paint and lubricant). For the first time, Gaulier paid me a compliment telling me that I was ‘beautiful’ and that I ‘existed onstage’. Finally.

Whilst the school is slowly turning me insane, the French way of life is slowly relaxing my British timidity and making me more assertive, or, ‘ruder’. I’ve now started to dress more french, or in other words, melancholically, I’m now an incredibly relaxed passive smoker and every time I see a busker walk onto the metro with an accordion, I join in with everyone else as we make a collective ‘pff’ sound. The French hate clichés. They also hate rules. Charles de Gaulle said, ‘How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?’ The answer is that you can’t. Telling the French what to do is a fool’s errand. The most evident example of this is in the act of buying Metro tickets — which is more a metaphorical act. The French see a single metro ticket as a ‘group saver ticket’, using it to push multiple people through the barriers at once. 

Trying to get to the cloak room was tough: the queue resembled a riot scene from Les Miserables, only with more men wearing leather trousers.

Furthermore, the French cannot, or will not, queue. This was experienced more clearly than ever at La Tango — a gay club in the Marais that resembles an 80s Northern Bingo hall, except for being filled with gays of all shapes and sizes, all line dancing to Wham.The Gaulier students were in their element, and passing around Glandular fever avidly. However, trying to get to the cloak room was tough: the queue resembled a riot scene in Les Miserables, only with more men wearing leather trousers. This is the norm in Paris (except for the leather trousers).

An important lesson is that you shouldn’t even dream of breaking rules when it comes to food. This is an area where you can spot the Frenchman from the everyman — my attempt to ask for sugar with my coffee last weekend did not end well. The smoking brunette to the right of me turned and stared appalled. The waiter gathered himself, looked down at me sympathetically and in perfect English stated, slowly, “No madame. We don’t offer sugar here. It ruins the coffee. You should be able to taste it on its own”. He sashayed away left me feeling like a heathen. A British heathen, coughing on cigarette smoke, with rubbish coffee and glandular fever.

That’s when I saw the rat.

April 24th sees Elf performing ‘Pelican’ at the Theatre du Gymnase in Paris. Within 100 miles of Paris in a few weeks? Go and see her. Tickets available here.

Cover Photo: Shockwave FESTIVAL (Flickr); Credit: CC BY-NC 2.0

  • retro

    Elf Lyons is a comedian, comedy writer and live-artist. She creates work that is political, exciting and explores modern day feminism and issues surrounding it. She blogs, writes letters and performs work around Europe and internationally. She's currently studying at L'Ecole Phillippe Gaulier in Paris. Keep up to date with her blogs and gigs at and Twitter at @elf_lyons

You May Also Like

Pitch this: The next European blockbuster

Howdie movie enthusiasts. We know you are fond of European cinema. After all the ...


Eutopia: Europe Without Christmas

When December rolled around, nobody went crazy, which was very unusual. The reason was ...

Study Like Lord Byron

There are not too many ways of which we can think to reach mastery ...