Paris – 2nd Impressions

by Terry Oliver on September 1, 2011

As the old saying goes, you don’t get a second chance at a first impression. But it’s been so long since my first impression 50 years ago that it almost seems that way.  In that long ago time I had hoped to live and work here in Paris but I couldn’t make it happen so I de-camped to England where I lived and worked for the next half century, biding my time.

During that period I made several forays back across the channel but only for holidays or short breaks, never to stay to live and work. Until now. Finally, at age 75, I’ve managed it. For the next 3 months – maybe longer – I shall be living my dream of being a resident of Paris not just a tourist.

The tiny appartement in the 17th arrondissement that we’ve rented from an old acquaintance, will be home and after only a few days here it’s starting to feel like it. The Batignolles area is an old working class district and still has a strong village flavour despite the rapid gentrification that has overtaken much of it. The little park opposite is full of kids and families throughout the day and evening. As I sit looking out at it from my 4th floor open casement window, the sense of community feels palpable.

When I descend from my rooftop eyrie to mix with the locals and practise my rusty French the feeling intensifies. So far, everyone has been friendly and helpful – well, nearly everyone. The monosyllabic newsagent at the kiosk outside  my local metro station who sold me a copy of Pariscope – the indispensable weekly guide to what’s on – failed to point out to me that it expired that day. As I stood there, staring at it and taking in this fact, I could feel his eyes on me. I raised an eyebrow at him, holding up the guide but he never cracked a smile, just giving me a slight shrug. I grinned and walked away. Live and learn. Tomorrow I will buy the new week’s guide – but not from him.

Notwithstanding my newsagent encounter, it is a fallacy and a slur to say that the Parisians are rude and dislike English speakers. Make even a token gesture at French and they will politely rescue you. At least, if you’re a senior, or so it appears to me so far. Admittedly I have a reasonable background in French but I have been away from it for many years. And I am also in my mid-70s with all that that implies. I have enough trouble trying to recall certain words in English, even though it has been my career, never mind coming up with the ‘mot juste’ in French.

And it’s not just words, of course, which elude me. Directions, street names, metro destinations, telephone numbers and even door entry codes all provide new challenges. When I was last struggling to live in Paris half a century ago, every apartment building had its resident guardian – the concierge. Usually female and always daunting, they took a dim view of foreigners of any stripe – especially young ones. More especially a young one trying to smuggle a girl past them  into his room.

All that has changed. The struggling economy has replaced these formidable females with electric door entry codes.  The big heavy doors remain but the dark hallways no longer harbour their household guardian. I simply punch in my 4 digit code and heave against the old door when I hear the electronic click. Although twice already I’ve had more trouble than I used to with the concierge.

On the night of my arrival, I fumbled with the entry code for fifteen minutes, straining against the door with my load of bags and cases. Nothing happened except that I became aware of curious glances from customers in the cafe opposite. I was about to go and look for a public phone to call for help – who, I wondered? – when a young woman approached, keyed in the code and opened the door. I quickly showed her my piece of paper with the code and my apartment  door key to prove I wasn’t trying to break in. She glanced at it and assured me the code was correct, then held the door open for me to enter.

The next evening, on returning home, I was again refused entry. Fortunately, the confectioner from the shop next door was watching me as he stood outside having a smoke. He even knew the correct code without asking me for it.  When I showed him my piece of paper, he explained that sometimes you just have to ‘repetez’ over and over – the electronics are temperamental apparently – just like the concierges of old, I thought. One must be patient, he said and allow sufficient time between attempts. I tried again. No luck. He took over and opened it first try. Smiling, he held the door open for me.

At length, after several more exits and entrances, I felt I had mastered it – until last night. I punched in the code several times, waiting patiently between times as instructed but still nothing.  A thought crept in slowly – wrong code number. I had it written down of course, safely stored upstairs in my room.

Do you know how many permutations there are of four numbers? Neither do I but I tried quite a few, with pauses and repeats before I finally remembered the correct sequence. It is now seared in my brain – I think – but I’ve taken the precaution of putting several copies of it in various pockets and wallets and passport, just in case.

It  is now just after 6pm – time to go out to eat and see my first play in French.  Nervously fingering my piece of paper with the door code, I prepare to leave.  If only that concierge of my youth were here to let me in when I come home. At 75, I have a warm feeling of nostalgia for her.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Neil Aberle September 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm

You really know how to create envy in my soul.
The memory tests as illustrated do temper it.
Do continue to enjoy, learn and enthuse. – N

Carpe Diem!
All the best.

Camilla Morrow September 22, 2011 at 9:06 am

Ah, Terry, quel nostalgie! In 1979 (!) my french friend Anne and I lucked out with the use of a small apt. for a couple weeks, thanks to generous friends of hers who were out of town…I can’t remember where it was exactly, but it was very central…and we spent a lot of time exploring Beaubourg and its delights, and eating at the Algerian stands, which suited our budget….!

Hope you continue to enjoy Paris, and that your francais improves daily….! I also have a funny memory of landing in Paris in 1982, after teaching English for six months in Japan…I was still so polite, and bowing automatically a little as I spoke to people. I remember the amused faces of Parisians, and how my politeness affected them in a positive way; they were even a tad polite back…:)

Terry Oliver October 1, 2011 at 9:56 am

Seems like everyone has nostalgic memories of Paris, Camilla. We’re going to the Beaubourg area tomorrow to the Pompidou Centre as it’s free on the first Sunday of each month. But tonight is Nuit Blanche so we’ll be out all night long taking in the cultural delights of this once a year event which happens to be partially going on in our own backyard here in Batignolles.

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