By the time I decided that university probably was a good idea after all, I’d lived and worked in London for several years, back-packed round Europe for a few months, lived in Israel for a year working on a kibbutz and a couple of moshavs and spent a very frugal month in Egypt sleeping on the beaches in the Sinai. This was in the early 80s, just after the Israeli occupation of the Sinai had ended. There was no tourist infrastructure at all, literally a beach. We bought flatbread in the local village (often seemed to contain camel hair and dirt too, but probably because it was rolled on boards on the ground!) and trekked a mile or so into the desert to buy tomatoes from the bedouin, and that was it – I got very thin! Today Sharm-el-Sheikh, Dahab and Nuweiba are, of course, big tourist resorts and I feel privileged to have seen their previous incarnations.
By 1986 I’d completed my second year at the University of East Anglia studying French language, linguistics and literature with a teacher training module or two thrown in. A year abroad in Paris held no fears for me until I discovered that I’d been assigned a really rough secondary school in the banlieue in Villepinte. It wasn’t quite La Haine and there were some great kids in the school, but I was locked in a cupboard, pushed down the stairs and had my naughtiest boys driving mopeds straight at me as I tried to walk to the RER station. I later discovered that the most unpopular teacher who, coincidentally, had the most difficult class, had divided up her class in order to give me the most problematic elements of the whole school. I remember the Directeur (head teacher) telling one of these boys off and the older brother coming in after school and beating him so badly he ended up in hospital. I survived fairly unscathed and it helped me realise I probably wasn’t cut out for teaching children…
I gave a few private lessons as well – I had a man with no voicebox who wanted to perfect his English pronunciation and also the wonderful Nicole, a pied noir (French but born in the colonies). We met in the queue for free tickets for the Folies Bergères. She lived in a dreadful HLM (habitation à loyer modéré – sort of equivalent to our inner cities) in the suburbs with her four sons – Nicolas, three, Pascal, 13, Patrice, 15 and Jean-Paul 17. When I went round after work I was never quite sure which son I’d be teaching. It was good practice, a bit of pocket money and she always cooked me weird and wonderful food – wheat rissoles and calentica (an Algerian dish made with chick-pea flour) were my favourites!
I rented a flat in Rue de Lappe, just off Place Bastille. I had a few pots and pans, a mattress borrowed from a friend of a friend, an old school chair which I’d brought back on the metro from Villepinte, a folding table and a couple of boxes with scarves draped over as side tables. I’ve just been watching Chacun Cherche son Chat (1996 dir. Cedric Klapisch) – made a decade after I lived there but still recognisable as this very run-down working-class district. It was just beginning to gentrify when I arrived, artists’ studios and art galleries so I was constantly going to vernissages (first nights) for free wine and canapés (which is what the lads do in La Haine (1995 dir. Matthieu Kassovitz), although I was much more English and polite!).
I’m starting to write about this time as part of the Arts Council project. I’ve become very interested in creative geography, Lev Kuleshov’s (Russian film theorist in the early 20th century) idea of putting together different geographical locations, filmed at different times, as if they are all one seamless, unified geographic whole. A really good example of this is the new film version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender – his castle is Bamburgh Castle on the outside, all rugged and Northern, and Ely Cathedral on the inside, gothic, candlelit lines which don’t fit at all with the outside but the illusion is persistent…
When I think of Rue de Lappe and the surroundings I see my life as a series of geographical vignettes – the bakery, the corner café, the market, the local late-night cinema, Père Lachaise cemetery – but somehow in my mind they make one of those cute maps where everything takes a few minutes to walk to, all the boring bits and building sites (this was a the peak of Mitterand’s grands travaux, pretending to be Haussmann the Second with his President’s projects) are cut out. And poetry is like this too, it has to cut so much out to work its magic…
Psycho geography is both similar and different to creative geography, your own personal mood map of your local area… The place I feel most nostalgic about from this period in Paris is La Charlotte de l’Isle – a tiny café and chocolatier on the Isle St Louis where I spent much of my free time writing endless letters (Chris and I had just got together) and notes. Sadly, the café was taken over by new owners in 2010 after 38 years of pure magic and it’s now completely different and utterly unmagical… Sylvie Langlet, eccentric chocolatière and poetess ran the shop and the teashop which were full of treasures, carnival masks, witches on broomsticks, gnomes and marionettes. As well as proper hot chocolate, served in the front room and tiny parlour, she would also serve turkish coffee from an authentic shiny copper turkish coffee pot into tiny, delectable handleless cups. Going to the loo meant you got to see the magical kitchen where Madame would use her antique moulds to make sculptural chocolate concoctions as well as fabulous chocolate dipped florentines.
The Musee d’Orsay opened in 1986 while I was there and one of the perks of being a teacher was having a free Museum Pass. I wrote my year abroad dissertation on the Musee d’Orsay, which completely captured my imagination. A state of the art gallery in a disused railway station. One night I went to see a string quartet inthe cafe at the top of the building. They played silhouetted against the huge glass clock face -it seems like a dream memory now, so purely cinematic that it’s hard to believe you actually lived it.
And, of course, I was going to see endless films. The most memorable were Down by Law (1986 dir. Jim Jarmusch), Betty Blue (1986 dir. Jean-Jacques Beineix) and Blue Velvet (1986 dir. David Lynch). I was already a big David Lynch fan but Blue Velvet was something else… I was so sure I had misunderstood it (I went to the version dubbed in French rather than the original subtitled in English by mistake) that I went back a second time, accompanied by Lawrence Norfolk who was my best friend’s ex and happened to be in Paris too, just for reassurance that the story was as mad and bad as it seemed to be the first time around! (It was…)
So, it’s with these memories that I count down the days until my next Parisian adventure begins… Paris Part III will be coming in mid-May and I’ll have news of how I tackled five weeks dedicated to writing poetry!