I’ve never been poorer than when I lived in Paris. It was dire, I worried about every centime. The man I lived with had a job, but like most jobs in France, it was only paid le SMIC or minimum wage. That’s the trouble with minimum wages, they become THE wage. Bringing up a child on one minimum wage was a large part of why we broke up. For all David Cameron’s family friendly tax breaks, he should note that the biggest barrier to couples staying together is the anguish of sheer poverty. The man so often just cuts loose from all that.
I didn’t have a job at all. It was impossible to find one. Parisians don’t like the English. They don’t even want to learn English from the English, preferring American. Their excuse is “it’s better for business”. But most of their English language business is done with Europe or the British. Really they just prefer Americans or Irish or Scottish. Anyone but the English. After all the Americans saved France in the second world war didn’t you know? It was annoying watching TV programmes about the heroic American soldiers and never having your own country mentioned or invited to D-Day celebrations. The reluctance of the French to credit Britain was palpable, a kind of sibling rivalry.
Once I saw a headline in ‘Libé’– “Filer à l’anglaise”.
“What does that mean?” I asked my partner.
“It means ‘to run away like the English’, it was coined after Dunkirk, when you all ran away rather than help us” he said.
Believe it or not, that’s how the story goes in France. Dunkirk was not a heroic mass rescue effort from a doomed battle, regrouping to fight another day, but an act of cowardice on the part of the English.
I tried to get on a ‘stage’, a training course which would lead to work. One stage required 2 days of tests to be admitted. At the end I asked the young woman whether I’d been accepted.
“Why should we accept you? There are lots of unemployed French people!”
I got angry. My partner had spent three years in Britain, at first on the dole on a free English course and finally in work. He had free health care and his rent paid. In France I was eligible for nothing. If you couldn’t get a job, you couldn’t get health insurance, you couldn’t get any unemployment benefit, any help with rent. But at the beginning my French wasn’t good enough to articulate any of this well.
Utilities were incredibly expensive. France has no oil and relies on nuclear power. Even in cities they don’t have gas. Our flat, our heating was run on electricity. I used to watch the meter ominously tick forward and turn off the little electric hot air blowers that were the ‘central heating’. I spent months being cold. Paris is colder than London, you get those continental winds blowing in from Siberia and Poland. In winter it becomes clear that you are in grey bureaucratic Europe not temperate Britain.
Because of the cold and the 450 cheeses that France boasts, I got fat. All I did was cook and eat. I didn’t even buy clothes because everything in French shops is size 8 and they don’t have charity shops, second hand shops. When you are poor, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to shop. Shopping can boost your mood, even buying a cheering little frippery for a couple of quid in Oxfam can make your day.
Shopping for me was limited to the shops around Gambetta and Pelleport. Within weeks I realised that I couldn’t afford Prisunic plus the staff were so rude. Once I bought a pair of tights there, when I opened the packet at home, they had a hole. I took them back. With tights you can see if they’ve been worn, they stretch. I didn’t imagine that there would be a problem.
“C’est vous qui l’avez fait!” exclaimed the customer services woman loudly enough for others to hear “YOU made the hole yourself!”
“I didn’t” I stuttered in my beginners French. It was humiliating. And under stress, your mastery of another language grinds to a halt. Eventually I managed to say “Look I don’t have long nails, I didn’t do it”
She reluctantly allowed me to change the tights. No apology, no ‘here’s your money back and a pair of tights’, just a squinty eyed resentment at how I was ripping off Prisu and probably the entire French nation.
Above every till they have a notice saying they can search your bags. This shocked me. It suggested a priori suspicion of their customers, so alien to the anglosaxon way of going about business. But it also surprised me that customers walked around putting shopping directly into their own bags and trolleys.
If you asked a Prisunic employee where you could find a product or the price of something, they would snap aggressively “Look for it yourself, I haven’t got time!” or “The price is on it, can’t you see?!” in a ‘I’m so tired of dealing with inconvenient morons all day’ voice.
I soon discovered Ed l’Epicier which, at that time, had a range of about 100 products. I knew every one of those products off by heart: the cheap smoked salmon bits, the not too bad range of cheeses, the ten franc bottles of wine, dented tinned tomatoes, the slim packets of egg spaghetti, eight franc mild Dijon mustard perfect for salad dressings, 20 franc ‘extra virgin’ olive oil. Sometimes, just to get a bit of variety, a couple of extra product lines, in my discount supermarket experience, I’d walk 15 minutes uphill to Leaderprice where they had Président extra fatty Camembert (45%) at a knock down price.
A few years later Lidl started up in Pelleport. If I thought Ed’s was basic, Lidl was a whole new basement level of barrel-scraping discountery. You were practically buying the stuff off the back of the delivery truck. There were no shelves, no displays, just boxes and crates on the floor. I was there with all the other immigrants, the Arabs, the blacks, the Romanians scrabbling around for something to buy. I felt the thrill of travel to the developing world, a sense of secrecy and discovery. It was a zone free of BCBG types who you could spot instantly at a hundred paces due to their velvet hairbands. I felt relief. For a start I didn’t have to wear matching clothes or comb my hair. I could rock up there in slippers and my preferred au chomage daywear of nightgown topped with apron if I felt like it.
Saturday’s were a big treat; shopping at the market on Avenue Belgrand. There is nothing like French markets in this country, the nearest equivalent is Borough market, but that’s a tube ride away and more expensive than Fortnums. At a decent market you are inspired to cook from what you see on sale.
Lettuce leaves were sold separately, different types, make your own salad mix. Beetroots were bought wet, seeping cochineal colour into the box, with a fork stuck in the top. Cheese was expensive but there was a wide variety of handmade artisanal cheeses, tiny goat patties in straw or covered with ash, ink-stained Roquefort, orange-skinned Reblochon, itching to ooze from the casing, pungent verging on sulphuric Pont l’Eveque, good hard cheeses, Comté, Cantal, Tome, that are not well known in the cheddar stronghold of the UK. I felt it my duty as a culturally aware visitor to try 3 or 4 new ones every week.
The highlight, where I was finally living picture postcard Parisian life, was the weekly pastis or kir royale stop in the market corner café amongst the ruddy faced traders and other tired shoppers. The market would be finished by midday, when everyone eats lunch.
But as a final stop before heaving our basket home, we’d troop up the rue des pyrenées to an artisanal boulangerie Ganachaud. They sold sourdough baguettes, bien-cuit and crunchy on the outside with airy, Swiss-cheese holey dough on the inside. We soon learnt to buy at least two or three because one would end up with the end torn off, then a bit more, then another pinch, on the route home, until there was nothing left to eat with our fresh butter and peppery radishes which in season would so often form the apero course.
But as any tourist knows, a drink in Paris is expensive, especially if you want to sit down. An entire meal is cheaper by comparison. So these treats were few. Food was the luxury we could just about afford, which is why the poor in the West are so fat. I also thought, I’m having such a miserable time here, that if I can learn about French cheeses then not all is lost.