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More Nostalgia

3 Jun

Yesterday marked a year since I collected the deposit from my apartment on Belleville’s Rue Rampal and moved back to England. The anniversary passed me by almost completely til I noticed the dates on my photos, and remembered that the phrase “June 2nd” had at one time been a sort of holistic mantra for me. I’d got used to living in Paris, but I was by the time I left fairly desperate to get back to London. Fun as it was to play the part of idiot foreigner for a while, I wanted to go back to being ignorant and patronising in my own language.

Annoyingly, though, I now find myself getting all nostalgic about my last couple of months there; the weather was nice, I had an impossibly cool internship at the great Standard Magazine and although I didn’t have many friends, I was never exactly lonely. Plus, my address really stood out when I signed peoples’ visitor books on trips back to Britain: Digby Warde-Aldam, 18 Rue Rampal, Paris 75019. I used to feel proper glamorous writing that out, I did.

Paris is a fairly small city by comparison to London, and when tourist season hits, you really, really feel it. I started to develop an involuntary snobbery towards the crowds of visitors who asked for directions in English without thinking twice and taking photos of the rain. The rain! As if it never fucking drizzled back home, British and Irish tourists would throng the quais on wet Saturday nights, cameras aloft, North Face gear sopping and- crucially- blocking my way as I tried to make my teaching appointment in time. ‘It’s so beautiful!’, they’d coo, as I restrained myself from taking their eyes out with my umbrella. My intolerance to this sort of minibreak cluelessness completely put me off taking photos of the city I was living in; I was determined above all other things (even completing my degree) to avoid seeming overwhelmed by my surroundings, and since it is nigh-on impossible to take a picture of Paris without striking some sort local trope or cliché, this stretched to a four month self-imposed ban on any photography outside of my apartment. The result was a lot of images that did nothing but bear witness to my increasingly depressing consumption of wine and cigarettes;

My ex-girlfriend once told me that the slang for a spent bottle is a “cadavre”; my personal pet cemetery grew to such gargantuan proportions that when my friend Patrick came to visit me in my first flat on the Rue George Sand in the West of the city, there was not enough floor space to put out a sleeping bag. I used to get really pissed and sing Half Man Half Biscuit songs in the shower in a futile attempt to drown out the incessant sex noises coming from next door. Yum.

I got pretty fed up with being out on a limb in the ultra-Conservative 16th arrondissement, so I moved to a half-finished apartment block at the other end of town, in Belleville’s Chinatown. If ever a building typified the modern unheimlich, then this was it; sharp angles, echoing corridors and neighbours too terrified to manage anything more than a muffled bonjour. The building was divided between offices and studio flats, and was evidently designed by a very reclusive architect; communication between residents was minimal. I came home from work one night in January, and met a confused-looking motorcycle courrier, puzzled as to why the separate apartments had no individual numbers. He needed to deliver a parcel to a tenant down the corridor from me, and having nothing particularly better to do, I agreed to drop it off for him. I climbed the three flights of stairs and rapped on the door nonchalently; no response.

I knocked again, on the off-chance that I hadn’t been loud enough the first time. I heard a shuffle, and from behind the door came a mousy voice of indistinct gender informing me that if I didn’t stop my clattering, the police would be called. I dropped the parcel and buggered off back to my apartment, annoyed that my good deed had been greeted with such hostility.

Sure enough, though, the building began to freak me out a bit, too; towards the end of January, I got mugged by a posse of pre-teens in the park behind my street. Pathetic? Of course, and that didn’t make it any better. To put it bluntly, these were some fucking scary children, their unbroken voices and pimped-out puffa jackets only adding to their collective menace. Although they didn’t actually manage to get anything off me (I can run pretty fast when I want to), I subsequently became extremely security-conscious, and intensely aware that I was living in a place where I was not welcome. The upside of this estrangement, though, was that for the first time in France I wasn’t being defined by my nationality; I don’t think any of the dirty looks I got in the tabac had anything to do with the fact that I was a foreigner and knew nothing. No, this was the universal (and completely understandable) reaction to gentrification- I was a bobo and I was coming to price the working class out of Belleville. Politically, I didn’t know what to think. So I didn’t.

Jesus. I’m making the first quarter of 2011 sound as though I spent it pretending to be Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion; it wasn’t that bad. I made two really good friends and read loads of books. I taught English and dubbed David Cameron’s voice into French for TV. I spent two months watching France’s political élite getting hoisted by their own petard in the wake of Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions. I got to sit in on the debates at the Assemblée Nationale twice a week. I even started taking photos again. Here is a very cack-handed (and, I think, illicit) view from my habitual seat in the viewing gallery of the parliamentary chamber of the Palais Bourbon;

I finished up working at Standard Magazine on rue Dupetit-Thouars. My bosses, Magali Aubert and David Herman rank pretty high in the cool index, and in stark contrast to the rest of the population of the Marais, they didn’t need to shout about it. Working in a shared office with them was great; despite my utter incompetence, they actually entrusted me with interesting work, made all the more satisfactory by the presence of a dazzling array of Monoprix biscuits. Best of all, I didn’t have to turn up til the afternoon, which meant that however late I worked, I could still go and get drunk with my chums Koji and Esme, who lived ten minutes from me in Ménilmontant;

We’d start off drinking Campari at their flat at around 8, and then suddenly I’d blink and I’d be standing on the pont Neuf at 6am swigging Pernod from paper cup. How this kept on happening, I fear I shall never know.

This was how I ended up as the cliché-spouting nostalgic typing this none-more banal account of my year abroad. My critical faculties didn’t really survive intact, and I therefore suspect that I have, in my own way, become just as annoying as those camera- happy tourists who used to piss me off so much whenever it rained. A Moveable Feast? Of course not, and I always did think that was a stupid title. In any case, Hemingway I ain’t- for which I suppose I should be rather grateful.