petite anglaise

September 15, 2006


Filed under: city of light, working girl — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:34 pm

We take a seat at an outdoor table in front of Le Panier – a quirky little café on the Place St Marthe – and a contented sigh escapes me. What bliss to take some time away from the computer, which dominates my living room, my bedroom, my life. The Place St Marthe is a perfect place for playing “spot the bobo” and basking in the last rays of the summer.

The proprietor sets down a carafe of water, two glasses and a menu, taking a seat by my side. My mouth twitches with suppressed mirth. I have been here before and I know from experience that he is a rather larger than life character, who often pauses to sit by his bemused patrons talking surreal nonsense until he gets bored, moves on in search of new prey. Today he is dressed in white and blue striped cotton pyjama bottoms and a scruffy t-shirt. I wonder idly whether he is going commando and peer discreetly down to see what footwear he has chosen to accessorise this charming ensemble.

“The specials today are blanquette de veau with mascarpone, sauté d’agneau and a mushroom tart,” he says, giving me an odd sidelong glance which I find impossible to read. “Personally I don’t recommend the mushroom tart, it’s not up to much…” I wonder whether this is a skillful reverse advertising strategy. If not, my overwhelming desire to order the tart is simply a reflection of my own perverse nature. In the end though, I decide against it, as I scan down the menu and something else takes my fancy.

My friend – so traumatised by our last near miss that he insisted upon picking me up today on his scooter to avoid a repeat performance – quizzes me about all the surreal things which have been going on of late and then we fall silent for a while, savouring the tender souris d’agneau (I’m very vague about cuts of meat, in French, but I’m reliably informed that no mice were involved in the preparation of this meal) which falls away from the bone and melts in my mouth.

We order dessert, coffee, a beer, whiling away the afternoon until it is time for me to collect Tadpole from school. As I draw close to the throng of waiting mothers around the doorway, I reflect on how privileged I feel, right now. If things had been different, I would still be scurrying to the office every morning, never sure what kind of atmosphere would reign. A stranger would pick up Tadpole from school in the afternoons, and mind her until I got home. I would brave the rush hour métro twice a day.

Instead, I pad through my apartment barefoot, clad in my favourite jeans and power up the computer. I take a break when I feel I’ve earned one, or when my head becomes dull and heavy and words no longer flow. Grabbing a book from the pile, I head for the Parc de Belleville, sit cross-legged in the grass, my hair ruffled by a gentle breeze.

Every day I pass the steps where a plaque reads:

“Sur les marches de cette maison, naquit dans le plus grand dénuement celle dont la voix, plus tard, allait bouleverser le monde”

A song echoes in my head. I regret nothing.

September 10, 2006


Filed under: city of light, single life — petiteanglaiseparis @ 10:19 pm

When I finally took a peek out of my window, towards 2 pm, I was dazzled by unexpectedly bright sunlight. And yet, for some perverse reason, I decided it was a perfect day for an outing to the cinema. A perfect day for sitting in darkness, indoors, alone.

Once upon a time, there was a petite anglaise who lived on rue de la Roquette, and taught English part-time for twelve, maybe sixteen hours a week. She had a student card, and an MK2 cinema card (in those days, the chain of art house cinemas were called Les Cinemas 14 Juillet) and she went to the cinema three, maybe four times a week. Between classes, to kill time, she often went to the morning showing (25 francs). When her apartment refused to warm up in the middle of winter, she saw two films back to back while her toes gradually thawed.

In her time with Mr Frog she still went often, although this sometimes meant reaching a somewhat unsatisfactory compromise. She liked thoughtful, challenging, whimsical; he liked car chases, guns and mechanically working his way through a bucket of (salted) popcorn. Sunday afternoons were often spent zipping down to Bercy Village on the Vespa, munching on a Bresaola toasted sandwich and queuing up for the latest blockbuster. Then Tadpole was born, and suddenly the cinema became a prohibitively expensive outing: €21 in babysitting fees before any tickets (or popcorn) had even been factored in to the equation.

Nowadays, although I have a little more time to myself, I tend to want to spend my precious freedom wisely, preferring to see a friend for a leisurely brunch, or a few drinks, rather than sitting companiably in the dark.

But today I returned and got bitten by the cinema bug all over again.

I bought a ticket for the mid-afternoon showing of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, then retired to the outdoor terrasse, where I sipped a café crème and nibbled on a cannelé for half an hour, my nose in a book. At the appointed hour I chose the perfect seat (a third from the front, in the middle of the row) and kicked off my flip flops, tucking my feet up under my skirt. The room was sparsely populated and quiet. As the lights went down I felt a familiar tingle of anticipation.

The film was quirky, endearing and occasionally laugh out loud funny. Gael Garcia Bernal was rather delectable in his ill-fitting, large collared suit. Losing myself in a dreamscape filled with stuffed toys, cardboard toilet rolls and eggboxes for a couple of hours was glorious escapism.

As the credits drew to a close, I strolled out into the sunshine and stretched like a cat. Glancing at my watch, I was pleased to note I had a whole hour to kill before Tadpole o’clock. I stopped at a café I’d never even noticed before, on a whim. A table in the sun. The sound of djembé players drifting over from somewhere near the canal. An occasional métro aérien screeching across the metal bridge from Jaurès to Stalingrad. Scenes from the film replaying in my head. A crisp, cold pression. One of the best croque monsieur‘s I have sampled in years (it’s all in the topping – and this one was oozing to perfection with thick coating of bechamel).


There was only one false note. From time to time I found myself missing a certain someone. It crossed my mind, fleetingly, that Mr Frog would have loved the film; that he would have adored the café. We would have sat in companiable silence (popcorn chewing excepted), conversation unnecessary.

Ironic, isn’t it, that I should find myself wishing I could spend a few hours of my precious freedom with the one person who can’t be there. Freedom, it seems, comes at a price. And situations are never quite as clear cut as they first appear.

September 3, 2006


Filed under: city of light, single life — petiteanglaiseparis @ 2:42 pm

“Et, dites-moi, ma fille, pourquoi vous avez quitté votre mari, hein?” my neighbour enquires, in her abrasive, rather masculine voice.

Head: patchy fog. Limbs: rather stiff. Conversation: undesirable.

I danced until 4am last night in the scarlet womb of the Batofar. At first I thought the drink was playing evil tricks on my sense of balance, but it soon became apparent that the boat really was listing on the starboard side. I chose to believe that an uneven distribution of revellers across the dancefloor was responsible, because even if the boat had been about to capsize, there could be absolutely no question of leaving half way through “Bizarre Love Triangle”.

I finally manage to collect my wits sufficiently to venture out of my apartment twelve hours later. My aim is simply to take out the rubbish, have a peep inside my letterbox and then scuttle back upstairs to bed. Clutching a wad of junk mail and bank statements I begin my ascent. Halfway up the stairs I am waylaid by my new neighbour.

I don’t even know her name, but I am already perfectly au fait with her family situation. A son, living in Israel with his two wives (!) and four children. She was born and raised in Tunisia. There are two grown up children living in Paris, one of whom is a taxi driver. Her husband passed away sixteen years ago. She wears a sleeveless patterned overall over her clothes at all times, which I think Vitriolica would refer to as a bata; a headscarf is knotted around her wispy grey hair.

One thing is abundantly clear: the lady does not do small talk.

In the space of two minutes, she has already quizzed me about what I do for a living (ahem, complicated…) and enquired as to why my daughter isn’t with me. When I explain that Tadpole is at her daddy’s house today, that leads her to the million dollar question: “what on earth had possessed me to leave my husband?”

Executing my very best gallic shrug, I mumble something incomprehensible about how these things happen, which seems to satisfy her, for now. I choose not to correct her erroneous assumption that Mr Frog and I had been married. Now is not the time. It’s not that the subject of our separation is a sensitive one, really, but I suspect that to someone of her generation, my reasons would seem pithy. We didn’t fight tooth and nail. He never mistreated me in any way. We still get on rather well; in fact he’s one of my very best friends. The flame just sputtered out, over time, and we find it healthier to live apart. Even to myself, I now gloss over the leaving him for someone else part, which somehow seems irrelevant.

My neighbour decides to impart some friendly advice, woman to woman. Ever since she first saw me moving in, she has had a soft spot for me, apparently.

“Il faut pas rester seule, ma fille,” she says, putting a wrinkled hand on my arm and looking earnestly into my bleary eyes. “Pas pendant trop longtemps. C’est pas bien.”

I force my lips into a smile, wondering how to extricate myself from the conversation without causing offence. The footfalls of another neighbour in the stairwell give me hope. It is a thirtysomething male, bound for Franprix with a tartan shopping cart. The briefest flicker of irritation passes across his face when he sees my neighbour lying in wait, but, to his credit, he fields her questions about his family and his summer holidays with admirable patience.

I seize my chance and mutter an excuse, darting back into my apartment.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s lovely to have neighbours who actually want to have a chat from time to time. It’s usually the elderly who do – younger Parisians rarely take the time to get to know the people who surround them, even if the paper thin walls which divide our apartments mean that we are intimate in many other ways.

But next time I have an errand to run, I shall be checking to see that the coast is clear before I put a foot outside my door. Because there is one more thing you should know about my neighbour: her memory is failing.

We have had this very same conversation three times in the last week. I’m not quite ready for round four, just yet.

August 31, 2006

missing in action

Filed under: city of light, good time girl, miam — petiteanglaiseparis @ 12:50 pm

I take my seat with a group of girlfriends at L’Apparemment Café, an old haunt of mine deep inside the Marais, opposite the Musée Picasso, where you can choose from a long list of mouth-watering ingredients – sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, fresh marinated anchovies – to build your own salad. Except it is Sunday today and I had completely forgotten that on the day of our Lord they serve only brunch.

This would be perfect if I hadn’t already ploughed through a copious Pain Quotidien brunch the day before, a major blowout involving lashings of praline spread, confiture de lait and other sinful concoctions which, if they didn’t taste so good, might as well be applied directly to the thigh area with a palette knife.

Waving my healthy salad goodbye, I settle in for the long haul: juice, coffee, a boiled egg, mountains of crusty bread, pancakes with maple syrup, a cheese platter (the French always seem to add a random unnecessary savoury dish into every brunch menu, which I never have room for), fromage blanc and blackberry coulis… and conversation.

“I can’t believe you snogged two guys on the dancefloor last night. Seriously, you are a menace to society!” My friend blushes, as she has only just arrived, doesn’t know the other ladies present particularly well. She should be used to me by now.

“No”, she says, recovering her composure remarkably quickly, “they were the menace to society. Fancy reaching your mid-thirties and not knowing how to kiss. Appalling. One of them had a technique like a washing machine. His tongue went round and round in a clockwise motion, then suddenly went into reverse and swept round and round in the other direction. It was so, well, mechanical.” She shudders at the memory.

All this talk of domestic appliances calls to mind the last person who chatted me up: a Darty man who delivered my new cooker. Granted, I indulged in a little eyelash fluttering, but only because I wanted him to take away an old refrigerator left in the apartment by my predecessors, and that wasn’t strictly his job…

The result was ten or more messages left on my mobile in semi-literate text speak before my suitor finally drew the appropriate conclusions from my resounding silence.

“Men just seem like too much trouble right now, I don’t even have time to do all my own stuff, let alone take anyone else into account,” I say, almost thinking aloud. “Mind you, I kind of wish my favourite toy hadn’t gone missing when I moved.”

Because, yes, of all the things that could have inexplicably failed to materialise when I unpacked my boxes, it had to be that. I live in fear of it turning up at an inopportune moment (say, during a visit from my ex-mother in law).

Embarrassment potential: critical.

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