Down but not out in Paris. Part three.
Working split-shifts meant that I had a few hours every day to do chores, go for a run or wander about town. After the first two weeks when the hotel was no longer taking the security deposit for the flat out of my wages, I found myself with enough extra money each week to do more than mooch about the streets on my days off
Much time was spent in cafes, watching the world go by. A few Francs for a coffee and croissant and I could blend into the background as the beautiful people hurried or strolled down expensive boulevards. On my days off I tended to visit museums, walk along the Seine or hang out in fancy department stores. The contrast between these moments and my working life was delicious.
I started several mornings in a window seat of a café at the Gare de L’Est, watching trains belch out waves of humanity which crashed onto platforms then flowed outwards to shops and offices. I was struck by how many besuited commuters would pause at the stand-up bars in the concourse to down a snatched espresso and a brandy before heading into work. A Plongeur’s life was hardly glamorous but I was thankful I had never felt the need to neck a few cognacs before clocking on at the coalface.
There was a huge recruiting poster for the foreign legion high up on one of the walls and I was sometimes tempted by the silver screen glamour of the Legion Etrangere to wander down the street to the recruiting office. A moment’s reflection though was enough to convince me that I was much more likely to match the Laurel and Hardy version than Laurence Olivier’s.
From the station it was only a short stroll to Beauburg or the Centre Pompidou which housed a marmite collection of modern art in a very marmite building. Designed by the Rogers Partnership to maximise the viewing experience inside by putting all the ducting, and plumbing on the outside of the building. I only went in once but I never failed to pause and consider the façade when passing. Much has been written about it since the unveiling and it sort of works inside but problems have plagued the structure from its early days and it is about to be shut down again, this time for four years to ‘finally’ sort out all its deficiencies. All I will add is that if the design was so good there would be loads of this kind of building around the place and that is clearly not so.
Almost inevitably though, my favourite museum was the Louvre. This enormous, multi-level palace shows what can be done with a big budget and a bigger imagination. I loved walking around aimlessly with no programme in mind. In a place so chock full of remarkable treasures it was inevitable that something impressive would cross my path.
As we hit December work started getting busier. The seasonal uptick in business meant much more overtime and fewer hours to gallivant around Paris pretending to be Un Homme Culturel but that also meant that I wouldn’t be leaving the job penniless which made a pleasant change.
Christmas parties made dinners even more manic and in the Kitchen the noise and activity levels cranked into high gear. The waiters would enter and shout at chefs who would shout back and both would shout at the plongeurs who rarely deigned to notice. If you were already scrubbing pans in a hotel kitchen then there was very little anyone could do to make things worse.
Watching through the small window it initially surprised, then entertained me that the smiling, calm, polite waiters would depart from a table, stroll across the dining room floor and turn into cursing, gesticulating berserkers upon passing through the swing door to the kitchen. When the waiter/chef argument was over and the furious madmen passed back through the magic door the spell was reversed and they would be transformed once again into the epitome of silver service refinement. Simon ruled over the maelstrom and made sure that none of the problems got out of control and that order was maintained. He adjudicated disputes and sorted most things out with a pat on the back or a kick up the backside as required and somehow, we all survived.
The staff party happened in my final week and it was enjoyable to be with these people that I worked with daily, wearing something other than an apron, staff uniform or chef’s whites. It was a civilised affair as many of us were back on the job early the next morning but we all had some food, a few drinks and a chance to unwind. I was chatting with some friends in one corner when a slap on the back nearly sent the food flying off my paper plate.
‘Neil Smith. Ecossais. I hear you are almost done with our little hotel and are going to be a moniteur de ski back in Scotland.’ It was M. Michaud the general manager who had found me so amusing when I first arrived looking for a dishwashing job.
‘Ehm, yes, I finish on Tuesday.’
‘Did you enjoy your time here? Did you experience what M. Orwell described?’
‘I’ve had a great time here. It’s fifty years too late to see what Orwell described but the spirit is the same I think’
‘Marvellous. Well, merci et bon voyage. Remember us if you ever want to wash some more dishes. Here, take this and have a good evening.’
‘Oh! Merci beaucoup monsieur.’ But he was already gone and I was left looking at the bottle of champagne he had handed me.
I turned back to my friends who stood staring. No one spoke for a moment and then Edith, who manned the reception desk said;
‘I’ve worked here for three years and that man hasn’t spoken to me once. In fact, I doubt he even knows my name.’
‘He only remembers crazy people who hitchhike here from Timbuktu. Think yourself lucky.’ said Ade ‘Anyway are you going to open that bottle or do we have to force it from you?’
It was a good night.
A few days later I boarded a train to Chantilly from where I would start hitching home. Like Orwell I had witnessed something from within that I had volunteered for. Like him, dishwashing in a medium sized Parisian hotel was a temporary lifestyle choice rather than my destiny and like him I got to ride away in a train.
Not everyone is so fortunate.
I scribbled some thoughts then put away the notebook and watched Paris slide by as I headed for home with the ghosts of writers past for company.
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