Down but not out in Paris. Part one
‘Vous voulez laver les vassailles?’
I then pushed the absolute limits of my schoolboy French attempting to explain to the bemused man across the desk that I was inspired by George Orwell’s description of life as a scullion in ‘Down and out in Paris and London’ and had hitchhiked to Paris in search of a suitable hotel in which to get my hands dirty.
‘Vous avez venu d’Ecosse?’
I replied in the affirmative, adding that I had just arrived in town that morning. He stared at me for some time. Apparently, this wasn’t his usual job interview scenario. Then he picked up the phone and spoke to someone too quickly for me to follow.
He replaced the receiver and spoke to me, for the first time, in English.
‘Well, Mr. Smith. Your story is possibly the most ridiculous thing I have heard in a long time but it would seem that you are in luck. We require a seasonal kitchen assistant. The pay is poor but I am sure that there will be no shortage of dirty dishes. I hope the glamorous life of a plongeur meets your expectations. Give this card to Madame Duhaut. Her office is down the hall to the left and she will make all the arrangements for you to start. I assume that you are able to commence almost without delay?’
‘Uhm yes, right now if you need. Uhm, there’s just one other thing. . .’
‘I am going to need somewhere to stay and I don’t know anyone in Paris. Do you have accommodation for staff?’
At this question the bemused manager lost it completely. He laughed like his favourite comedian had just told him the funniest joke in the world and it took a moment before he came back to normal.
‘Now I know you’re a crazy boy. You arrive in Paris with no job, nowhere to stay, no friends and you just turn up here hoping for the best. How many other hotels have you been to today already?’
‘Well, none. This is the first place I’ve tried.’
That set him off laughing again and happy though I was to spread some good cheer I was now a bit nervous that my request for digs had pushed him a bit too far and that he would change his mind and have me booted out into the street. Luckily, he seemed to think that I was still good value, for the entertainment if nothing else, and he made another quick phone call before bidding me farewell.
Exiting the office, I turned left as instructed and paced along the corridor looking at the door signs for some clue as to which was Madame Duhaut’s. I was looking sideways so much that I almost walked into the woman herself as she stepped half-in half-out of her office.
‘Yes, ah, oui.’
‘I speak English Mr. Smith. Come in.’ She sat down and passed several forms across the desk to me. ‘Your passport please. Fill out the details here. This is the address You will be staying at and a key for the door. The room is shared with one other and the cost will be deducted from your salaire. There is a deposit held from your first two payments which will be returned on departure assuming you cause no damage during your stay. The Metro map shows the location.
You may start on Saturday morning so you have a day free to become familiar with the city. Work begins at five. You should report to Simon in the Kitchen and when you do please do not use the front entrance of the hotel. There is a staff door at the back. I am sure the others will show you the way. Do you have any questions?’
‘No, none at all. Thank you. I’m looking forward to it.’
‘Really? This is not a pretty job Mr. Smith. It’s not normally very popular. Monsieur Michaud said that you have hitchhiked from Scotland specifically to do this dirty work. Why? This spell is for two months. If you arrive back here in two days to tell me that it is all a bit harder than you thought and you are going home, I can assure you that I will not be at all happy at having my time wasted’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be good. I know this sounds a bit odd but I really want to see how this compares to the Kitchens that Orwell described back in the day. I’m not a stranger to hard work and two months is perfect because soon after that I should be ready to start my new season’s job back home.’
‘I hope so Mr. Smith. What job do you plan on returning to?’
‘I teach alpine and cross-country skiing in Scotland. With a bit of luck, the season starts around Christmas and I should be busy from New Year onwards.’
‘Really? You are a moniteur de ski? En Ecosse? I didn’t know that there was even a ski resort in Scotland. Well, Mr. smith, if you are indeed a hard worker, I probably won’t see you again until you are leaving. Good luck.’
She handed back my passport and a load of paperwork in an envelope which I stuffed into my bag. I got to leave the hotel by the front door for the last time and I stepped out onto the Parisian street and headed for my new home. Once the bag was dumped, I could take a walk, get to see a bit of the town and find somewhere to nurse a coffee while watching the world go by.
Last night I had been on a Ferry from England and two very quick lifts had brought me to the outskirts of Paris in the early hours. In the little time since; I had cleaned up, eaten breakfast and scored a job.
What a great day.
Working split-shifts meant that I had a few hours ...
The staff accommodation was small and busy. The th ...
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