Down but not out in Paris. Part two.
The staff accommodation was small and busy. The three-room apartment would have been perfect for a small family or a couple. With my arrival it was the crowded home to two French guys, three Algerians and a bloke from Cameroon who had the dubious privilege of being my new roomie. His name was Ade and we got on very well despite him being my organisational opposite in every way possible.
His clothing and other belongings were always folded, hung or neatly put away. Mine lived in my holdall (clean), a black plastic bag (dirty) or around the floor (probably dirty but would do in an emergency). Books were carefully arranged on the bed or floor and fortunately, I didn’t have much else to scatter. Surprisingly, our differing approach to personal space didn’t lead him to strangle me with my own dirty shirt and dump my body in the Seine.
We shared a lot of the same shifts and used to walk the twenty-five minutes to and from work rather than pay for bus fares. He saved his for a better future and sent money back to his mother and siblings in Cameroon. I saved mine, less nobly, so that I could spend my days off seeing the sights. A feature of these daily strolls was that we would regularly be stopped by police officers. Agents would pull up in a patrol car and request by which I mean demand, ID from my colleague.
Three or more times a week, every single week the same situation unfolded. Ade was an experienced silver service waiter and always immaculately turned out. I, on the other hand generally looked like someone who had spent the night in a bin and dressed in a very sub-casual style. His hair was perfectly combed whereas I had a ponytail that no pony would ever lay claim to yet repeatedly, he was the one stopped, ID checked and sometimes searched while I stood looking on like a particularly badly dressed potato. A potato that was never once asked for identification or had to turn out its pockets.
We talked about it regularly and he was remarkably sanguine about the experience and accepted the harassment as the price to pay for a better life in the future.
‘You have to see with me. They don’t like blacks. They aren’t going to like blacks. If I react badly then I will be arrested, fined, possibly deported and they get to win. The thing is though that they can’t win on their own. They need me to make it possible for them and if I stay calm and don’t react then they lose every time.’
He was a much wiser man than me and I hope his future worked out as well as he dreamed.
The work was everything I wanted when I made the decision to head south and over the channel. I loved the routine and the mindless repetition but I also loved taking an utterly blackened roasting tin or sauce pot and getting it gleaming again. The breakfast shift was pretty simple; mainly unburnt pans and crockery. Dinner always produced more of the heavily incinerated items that needed serious attention as well as the odd bits of mixers, mincers and other machinery that are a feature of commercial kitchens everywhere. Once the vessels were done and the stoves had cooled, we cleaned worktops and grill surfaces. Somewhere during the evening, we would take the time to eat dinner before plunging back into the soapy melee.
My name was deemed unpronounceable by my new colleagues and I was universally known as ‘Ecossais’ or ‘Scotty’. Word on my reasons for being there had gotten out via Simon the head chef. He was an ex-army sergeant who had fought in Algeria and once rescued three of his comrades who were trapped in a burning building, booby trapped by FLN forces. His bravery and the burns which still showed on his face earned him a medal and a discharge from the military. Simon thought me insane for travelling to Paris when there were surely plenty of dirty dishes back in Britain and he wasn’t alone in questioning my mental stability.
‘There must be a few plates. You can’t always be eating feesh and cheeps from a newspaper.’ Was his take on it but so long as the work was done, he never got unhappy or bothered by anything. And the work was always done because no one wanted to find out what he could be like if he ever did get unhappy or bothered
It was undoubtedly much cleaner and less brutal than the scenes described by Orwell in the nineteen twenties but the essential nature of kitchen life was pretty much the same.
One thing that had certainly changed was the garb and attitude of the chefs. Orwell described a rigid hierarchy of corpulent, sweaty men. Stripped to their waists and dipping their fingers into each plate to check that the food tasted right. The fancier the hotel the more ranks of chefs and therefore the more people who had stuck a dirty finger into your food before it reached your table. I was relieved to find that although there were still layers of authority, both official and otherwise, the semi-nudity and free form tasting habits had been swept away by better ventilation systems and a greater understanding of hygiene.
And so, the first couple of weeks of life in Paris meandered on. Unexciting things were exciting to me. Drudgery was fun because I appreciated the novelty of having a routine and everything felt like a story from a book because it was, in essence, exactly that. Scrub, mop, wash, peel, sleep and go again.
This was what I had come here for and I revelled in its mundane, repetitive beauty.
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