As I write, it is 7.02am. I know this for precisely three reasons: the first and most significant indication is the building works which for the last week of my sleep-deprived Parisian existence have begun every morning, come rain or shine, at 7am on the dot. There are two further reasons that, considering I am already well aware of the ungodly hour in which I have been unmercifully plucked from a deep and peaceful slumber, only serve to amplify my chagrin.
As my precariously balanced clock strikes 7 and the cacophonous orchestra tune their instruments, said clock tumbles to the ground. Frenzy-like I leap out of bed, suspecting an intruder but to be greeted only by a clock that, as it has done for the past four days, has assumed a supine position and gawks at me mockingly. 7am? That can’t be right, I think to myself (and this is where a third timepiece confirms the hour), so I reach for my watch with a furrowed brow, gaze back at the clock and accept with a stoic endurance that it is indeed 7am. The building shakes and the caterwauls emit from whatever instrument of torture these workmen are using.
Down and out in Paris
In George Orwell’s excellent Down and out in Paris in London, published in 1933, Orwell astutely remarks that unlike in London, you can always find somewhere to sit in Paris no matter your social class. It’s an observation that still rings true today and underpins the poverty that blights Paris and pervades its many streets. Homelessness is everywhere: it sprawls out at the station, stalks the metro and plants itself on your doorstep. Articles and novels concerning Paris are often bowdlerised and ignore this seedy underbelly but it’s unavoidable. Grubby men and women litter the streets and become landmarks in their own right, as immutable as the Arc de Triomphe or the Eiffel Tower.
Placards adorned with the words ‘J’ai faim. Aidez-moi svp’ (I’m hungry. Please help me) are the staple paraphernalia of the Parisian tramp. “It is easier to be homeless in Paris than any other city in the European Union,” Julien Damon, a sociologist at Sciences Po, recently told the Economist. What’s even more concerning is the homeless of Paris, far from the mythologized untermensch that we are warned to avoid, are for the most part civil and literate; I’ve even seen a handful clasping their own copies of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal. Many are north African or Roma and live cheek by jowl with Paris’ petit bourgeoisie who laze in cafes and sip espressos.
That’s so French
I’ve been saying these words with alarming frequency. It started when the coordinator for the Sorbonne’s Spanish department informed me that the department had not yet had its financial meeting and hence the modules for the current academic year could not be confirmed. The phrase next reared its ugly head when attempting to buy a sandwich and I was sent from desk to desk, first with a receipt, next with a tray, then my money was accepted but not before I was sent back to the first desk to receive another receipt which looked more like the Bayeux Tapestry.
You wonder how anything gets done. And essentially, it doesn’t. The working day often doesn’t start until 10am, in true Gallic style lunch breaks last hours, and come 5pm it’s home time. If only the workmen outside my window exhibited such inefficiency,I might be able to catch some desperately needed 40 winks.