petite anglaise

May 13, 2005


Filed under: working girl — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:30 pm

W, the IT manager from the London mothership calls just as I arrive at my desk, almost on time. I still have my mac on, and fumble to switch off the ipod, still attached to one ear, while cradling the phone between my head and shoulder. Male readers: this is called multi-tasking. Women are very good at this, especially secretaries like myself. If you don’t believe me, ask Paris Hilton.

“I’ve got a problem [petite], there’s a videoconference scheduled to start in five minutes and there’s no-one around at your end to set up the kit. Can you do it for me?”

“Yep, sure, if you can talk me through it. I’ll transfer you to the meeting room phone, hang on a tick…”

Coat hastily deposited on chair, bag hurled under desk, I race through the office to the meeting room to intercept the call. Not quite the start to the day I had in mind. My version involved a double espresso, a wedge of brioche and a leisurely trawl through the online Guardian. But it was not to be.

The person taking part in the meeting from Paris enters the room just as I am heaving the large, flat screen monitor onto the table.

“Ah, [petite], so you’re setting this up for me, are you?” he says, somehow managing to convey in those few words that he doesn’t believe for a second that I’ll be able to do it. Which is preposterous, but makes me flustered all the same.

He and my boss are like chalk and cheese. My boss gets rather stressed and is occasionally moody, but I get on well with him because he treats me like an equal. He knows full well that I am hopelessly overqualified to type his dictations, but I think at the end of the day he just wants someone around that he respects and can hold an intelligent conversation with. That’s my theory anyway.

This other boss is very old school. He wears braces and sock suspenders (although I don’t have any firsthand experience of those), stays in gentlemen’s clubs when in London, and calls secretaries ‘typists’. When I speak to him, I can’t prevent myself from mirroring his plummy Oxbridge accent. His presence at this precise moment is both unhelpful and potentially embarrassing. Not least because W is on the speakerphone, and is an outrageous flirt. I pray that he has heard Old School Boss arriving and busy myself with connecting cables.

“Right love, see the white cable with the socket like a telephone? Is that connected?”

I roll my eyes. “The RJ45 is in, yes.”

“Lovely. You’re not just a pretty face, are you?”

Now I’m blushing. Webcam in place, remote control in hand, I press the buttons on the front of the monitor, somewhat randomly, until it fires up. The menu comes into focus on the screen, a large, empty square where the London boardroom will appear. There is a smaller inset box where Paris will show up, so that we know what image is being transmitted to London. So far so good.

I press the button to “connect”, as instructed, and an image appears.

“Holy shit!” I yelp, before I can censor myself.

On the monitor, I can clearly see W in London, hair receding, looking quite like Minty from Eastenders. I’ve never seen his face before. I missed the office party held in London a couple of years ago – as I was in labour at the time – so I mostly have to make do with imagining the person I am talking to.

But seeing W’s face is not the reason for my outburst.

The image of Paris, which is simultaneously being broadcast onto a large screen in our London boardroom, is of me. Or, to be precise, is of my cleavage. Clearly I hadn’t got the webcam angle quite right, and there I am, in my full glory, leaning across the table with the remote, my V-necked jumper revealing a little more than I would have liked.

So, a full five minutes after arriving at work, I have managed not only to show my breasts to “Minty”, but also to swear in front of Old School Boss. I can’t imagine how things could get any worse. Except they can and do. Because as W adjusts the position of the London webcam and twiddles with the focus, a sea of smurking faces swim into view. It would appear that their meeting room was already occupied too, with a full complement of London board members. I flee, face an attractive beetroot colour, unable to look Old School Boss in the eye.

I think I may have just become superstitious. I won’t be working on Friday 13th again in a hurry.

May 12, 2005


Filed under: good time girl — petiteanglaiseparis @ 2:38 pm

I went to see ‘I am Kloot’ at the Nouveau Casino last night, as promised. The choice of venue was perfect, the sound crystal clear so that every single poignant word of every song hung shimmering in the smoky air before us, the relatively small size of the salle adding to the intimacy of the performance. I’m only sorry that due to my overindulgence after the concert, my words are not flowing as they should and fail to do ‘Kloot’ justice.

I couldn’t help but wonder, as I listened to the melancholy acoustic ballad Astray, how it must feel to know that you are the subject of a song, the muse at the source of the songwriter’s inspiration. I sneaked a peek at the singer’s girlfriend as he sang “and still the bold raging flame of your heart is making me stay” and felt a lump in my throat.

Thank you guys. I loved every minute of it.

May 10, 2005


Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:35 pm

I took a shortcut behind the Galeries Lafayette department store last Thursday, preferring the quiet, narrow street to the bustling boulevard Haussman.

At first I failed to notice the police van, parked a few metres ahead and surrounded by a group of officers in uniform who were surveying the street with arms folded across their chests, their boredom almost palpable. Deep in thought about where I fancied grabbing a quick snack, it didn’t even register that there were metal barricades blocking the road, denying access to traffic. Nor did I see that over a hundred cellophane wrapped bunches of flowers were attached to the barricades. It was only when I became aware of a dozen people – businessmen, tourists, shoppers, an African woman in a traditional batik print dress – standing motionless on the pavement directly in front of me, blocking my way, that I followed their collective gaze to the building on the other side of the street.

I realised with a jolt that I was standing in front of n° 76 rue de Provence, staring wide-eyed at the burnt shell of the Hotel Paris Opéra.

It’s stale news, of course, that 22 people, including 10 children, were killed in a fire which gutted the hotel in the early hours of 15 April. I had read articles about it, which stirred up feelings of horror and indignation, and was vaguely aware that the tragedy had occurred not far from where I go to work every day on the avenue de l’Opéra. I don’t recall any of the articles actually mentioning the address, and I certainly didn’t expect to chance upon the charred remains on a sunny, carefree bank holiday shopping spree.

And now, like the onlookers around me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the blackened windows. Windows from which people had jumped. Rue de Provence was enveloped by an eerie silence. When I finally managed to tear myself away, I cut short my afternoon and took the metro home. I had a lump in my throat, a heaviness in my ribcage. Death had cast a long shadow over my afternoon and I was no longer in the mood for frivolity.

The six-storey, 1 star Hôtel Paris Opéra was not a tourist hotel. It was a temporary – but often long-term temporary – home to an assortment of families eking out precarious existences in the city of light. Some were legal immigrants waiting for better accommodation to become available, some asylum seekers, and others, despite living in France for ten years or more, had been unable to obtain a residence permit or working papers, and were paid cash to clean the apartments of wealthy Parisians, or care for their pampered children. Home was a tiny bedroom, with one shared toilet per floor. Cooking facilities: a single microwave. Many of the rooms were rented by the Mairie de Paris and the samu social (social services) on behalf of families in need. The going rate for a 6 metres squared bedroom: € 500 per month.

The death toll, in this, the worst blaze that Paris has seen in thirty years, was unnecessarily high – according to firefighters – because people panicked and jumped from upper floor windows. Or threw their children out, in sheer desperation. Seven people died from their injuries this way. As is the case in most Parisian buildlings, there was only one staircase and lift shaft, so as the fire was rushing vertically upwards, the windows were the only escape route.

One article I read in Libération spoke of a rideau de fumée, a curtain of smoke which had been drawn around the tragedy, so that the shortcomings of government policies in the sensitive areas of emergency housing and asylum applications would not come under close scrutiny. Much has since been made of the fact that the fire was caused by a woman who had unknowlingly overturned a candle in a first floor room just before leaving the building. Her confession has been obtained: she trashed the room used for trysts with her lover, following a heated argument. A convenient state of affairs, laying the blame at one individual’s door, and handing the criminal investigation over to the Minister of Justice. The Minister responsible for immigration must have breathed a huge sigh of relief.

That way, people won’t dwell too much on the plight of those families, living in cramped conditions right under our noses, and not 10 metres from the temple of luxury that is the Galeries Lafayette. That way we won’t wonder how it is possible for children to be born in Paris, sent to school here, but still have to live in squalid hotels with their parents in complete illegality. That way we won’t think to question why government bodies support the owners of establishments like the Hôtel Paris Opéra, who are in the lucrative business of exploiting misery and desperation.

Move along. There’s nothing to see here.

May 9, 2005

supermarket sweep

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:07 pm

My secondary school French teacher could barely contain his excitement when we got to the section in our textbook devoted to French hypermarkets. He hopped from one foot to the other and gesticulated enthusiastically as he extolled their virtues. They were vast! You could buy a TV along with your weekly grocery shop! They constituted a shopping revolution! All of his sentences ended with exclamation marks!

Well, I moved to France ten years ago and I must confess that thus far, I haven’t manage to work out just what it was that my teacher was getting himself worked up about. I think that the most sensible explanation for this – the one not involving my teacher being in need of sedation – is that in the meantime, Tesco and Sainsbury’s superstores in the UK caught up with French hypermarchés, overtook them, and raced on ahead, turning only to make a triumphant bras d’honneur in the direction of the rapidly receding Auchans and Leclercs.

I can’t claim to have frequented many proper hypermarkets, as living in central Paris and not owning a car, I have always been more likely to shop in the Franprix/Leader Price that seem to be located every 500m or so throughout the city. The choice of products is relatively limited, but they do sell all the basics we need, and the prices are somewhat more reasonable than slightly more upmarket Monoprix. But when we visit the Evil In-Laws (as we did this weekend), and it rains (as it always seems to, making the promises we have made to Tapole about being able to play in the garden/on the slide/in the paddling pool/on her bike null and void) I can usually find a reason to visit Géant Casino at Chateaufarine for some much needed respite from the Evils.

Chateaufarine is one of those soulless industrial estates which exist the world over, populated with sweaty sports shops and ‘bargain’ clothes stores, housed in vast hangars, interconnected by a labyrinth of roads and a roundabout every 20 paces. Invented intially as a traffic jam free alternative to town centre shopping, these trading estates are now a victim of their own success: the enormous carparks are always full, the access roads are choked with stationary traffic. I curse myself every single time for forgetting just how depressing the Chateaufarine experience is.

Just because Géant Casino is located in a gigantic hangar, doesn’t, in this case, mean that I stand a better chance of finding just what it is I’m looking for. Vast does mean that the yoghurt aisle is ten times longer than the one in Franprix. But all this really means is that the same flavours are repeated over and over for again for the length of an Olympic sized swimming pool, the only difference being that they have different brand names on. Shopping becomes exercise. As far as I can see, there doesn’t seem to be any more real choice than in Franprix. On this occasion, there was no Thai green curry paste to be had for love nor money.

It also proved to be nigh on impossible to buy a regular-sized pack of nappies for Tadpole’s use at the In Laws’ house. The optimist in me shied away from buying a 92-pack of huggies, just in case we are successful in potty training her before the end of 2005. But the only packs on sale were of the “mega multi family value bulk buy” variety. If this principle is applied to the rest of the merchandise on offer, these places must be every singleton’s nightmare.

And last of all, I could not help but compare the in-house store fidelité cards, a relatively recent phenomenon in France, with their equivalent in the UK. My parents, through astute use of their Tesco credit card, recently managed to wangle themselves a week away in the Channel Islands, all flights and accommodation courtesy of Tesco Plc. When I consult the balance of my s’miles points (Monoprix, Galéries Lafayette and Géant Casino), they serve only as a grim reminder of the indecent amount of money I must have spent shopping there to get them, only to be rewarded with a free cinema ticket for every 1,000 points accummulated. If that is all my fidelity is worth, I shall be sleeping around from now on.

The only upside to visiting the souless trading estate is that I immediately felt like a fashion goddess, conspicuous in my understated, but oh so terribly chic, Parisian clothes. Now far be it for me to say that country folk have inferior dress sense, but if my options were limited to the best that Kiabi, Pimkie and La Halle aux Vêtements had to offer… [sentence best left unfinished so as not to cause offence to rural readers]

Anyway, I would like to point out at this juncture that I wasn’t the one muttering “pramface!” and “chav!” at fellow shoppers. I didn’t know whether to chastise Mr Frog for making the risky assumption that no-one in Chateaufarine speaks fluent English and regularly reads popbitch, or to be proud of his impressive knowledge of English vernacular.

Perhaps Mr Frog should be awarded honorary British nationality?

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