Paris: The fashion capital of world; home to some of the world’s best wine, finest cuisine and most renowned museums. Who knew then, that living in Paris could be entirely un-glamorous – especially if you don’t dress the part?
Monday, 1 January, 2007. I arrive at Paris Charles de Gaulle, 19, a virgin and absolutely clueless. I have no idea what to expect for the next ten months of my young life. My knowledge of the French language? Well, let’s just say that it ends at ‘Bonjour, je m’appelle Hannah’. The amount of Euros to my name? Enough to survive… for about a week.
As I enter the Arrivals Hall, I spot a group of people who look like they could be my host family. The mother, whose blond hair is tied to tightly the back of her head in a bun, is in black from head to toe – stylish, understated. “Yes, she could be a buyer for Chanel, who lives in the 16th arrondissement with her husband and two children,” I secretly imagine. The children – one boy and one girl – look about the right ages, too.
“This must be them,” I think, but can’t be sure, as I recognise them only from photographs and descriptions given in the e-mails that were sent. I slowly approach them, waiting for a sign of recognition from their side. The mother waves at me and I am flooded with relief. Relief turns into anxiety, however, when I get a close-up and realise that she has an alarming resemblance to Trunchbull from Mathilda. “This is going to be an interesting year,” I think to myself as I smile my most charming smile and try my best to picture myself fitting in with my new quasi-family.
Paris is the tourist capital of the world. In 2010, an estimated 940 million international tourists visited the city of lights. What’s more, an overwhelming number of immigrants – some legal, some not so much – from Lebanon, North Africa and France’s peripheral region, have flocked to Paris since the 1970s. Unfortunately, however, the Parisians have been known to turn up their noses at new arrivals on their turf. Of course, one can understand why: Having to deal with over-crowding, pollution and traffic congestion? Really, what a pain.
So, before even leaving South Africa (my home country), I decided that I was going to be different. I was certainly not going to contribute to any over-crowding, but rather, I was going to be the one immigrant to Paris who would be welcomed with open arms. I would not arrive knowing nothing about French wine, cheese and fashion, but would, at all times, ooze sophistication and French-ness.
In my preparatory stages of the above-mentioned mission, I decided that an appropriate wardrobe would be amongst the first things to see to. Weeks before leaving Cape Town and beginning my adventure, I set out to find the perfect winter coat. (I would, after all, be arriving in the coldest month of the year in France.) Hours turn into days, as I trekked through endless shopping mall corridors, already developing a (new-found) distaste for malls and their rats, in my anticipation of becoming French and cultured. (Of course, I would be shopping along the banks of the Seine very soon.) On day five or six of my shopping escapade, I found the perfect coat. It was the brightest red imaginable – a bold choice, but I decided then and there, with an unshakable resolution and before forking out a third of my savings, that the French would find it hard to resist my extravagant charm with this red coat. I felt thoroughly chuffed.
Saturday, 27 January, 2007. It’s nearly four weeks into my stay and the night before my 20th birthday. I’ve spent the past few weeks settling in and finding my feet, but tonight, I decide, I am going to paint the town red. What better way to do so than to whip out my red coat for its debut appearance? I pair the coat with skinny jeans, a sleeveless top and ridiculously strappy heals. It’s about 4 degrees Celsius when I step outside. “Not to worry,” I think. “My red coat will keep me warm.”
I spend the 15-minute metro ride into the city practicing basic French phrases like ‘How do you do?’ and ‘Could I have another glass of wine, please?’. I’m on my way to meet a friend who is in Paris for a few months. We’ve booked dinner at a classically French restaurant and have invited a few local boys, who ticked all the right entertainment criteria boxes. I feel invincible (if slightly freezing).
“Hi, Hannah! Happy birthday for tomorrow!” Jerome greets me when he spots us standing outside the restaurant. He gives me a peck on each cheek, and then slowly looks me up and down. “Um, where did you buy that coat?” he asks. I look around. My red coat is the only splash of colour within a two mile radius. I am the most unfashionable person in sight.
Monday, 28 January, 2007 – my birthday. I wake up with a throbbing headache and try to breathe, but instead, disintegrate into a coughing fit that would have tuberculosis patients backing out of the room. My chest feels as though it’s about to explode with pain. Note to self: Never, ever go out in strappy heals in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius, despite presence of striking red coat. The red coat has, by now, been stuffed into the deepest corners of my cupboard (which, by the way, is only slightly bigger than my room of seven generous square metres). I spend the next two weeks in bed, feeling spectacularly sorry for myself.
By June, things are looking up. I am nearly fluent in French, and have discarded all items of clothing that are not black, grey or navy blue. To my initial disappointment, I’ve fallen in love with an Englishman, who is even more un-French than I am. I try to fight it at first, but it’s no use. We’re deliriously happy and he happens to have a spacious apartment in the Bastille and enough cash to blow on expensive dinners with me, which comes in handy when you’re expected to live on a monthly salary of EUR300 and a coffee costs about half that.
In July, my closest and oldest friend comes to visit from Australia. She’s like a sister to me and so, when she asks to stay with me for six weeks, my response is immediate.
“There’s just one rule,” I tell her. “My toilet is made of plastic. It does not take well to anything other than toilet paper,” I look purposefully at her and she nods obediently. “I’ve managed it this far,” I say. “So, I’m not sure what would happen if you were to throw cotton wool down it, but let’s not find out.”
A few days later, at around 03:00, we are both awoken by a strange rumbling sound coming from my toilet. When Alexandra realises this, her sleepy expression is seized by a look of panic.
“Shiiiiiiiiiit!” she cries. “I threw face wipes down the loo last night!” The face wipes, of course, were due to the fact that my host family had not seen the necessity in installing a shower in my room. There was a toilet and a basin but, in order to shower, I had to leave my room, walk out onto the road, enter their apartment building, climb two floors, and use their shower. My guest was allowed to stay with me, on the condition that she did not use the family’s bathroom. Hence, the face wipes, which, inevitably, she had to use to clean more than her face.
I open the bathroom door and the smell of sewerage hits me so strongly that I nearly fall over. To my horror, my plastic toilet is spewing out old drain water that’s slowly making its way towards me like an unstoppable oceanic current.
“Don’t worry,” Alex says, “I’ll clean it up right now.” She bends over the toilet to check the leakage and suddenly the plastic loo squirts a fresh load of brown water into her face. We both collapse into a pile of tears as I try frantically to clean her face.
Over the next few days, the toilet goes through bouts of leakage, until finally, we gather up the courage to tell the father of my host family. Of course, he finds the whole thing outrageously amusing.
That week, as I’m sitting on the pavement outside my boxy room one evening, I secretly wish that I could be whisked away to my boyfriend’s loft apartment in the Bastille. By this stage, however, he’s moved back to London. Alex comes to sit beside me, and the tension between us is almost tangible. I am still furious at her for disobeying my one house-rule and for flooding my room. With poo water.
Eventually, October rolls around. The plastic toilet saga is but a distant memory, and I’m feeling decidedly Parisian: I’ve mastered the art of French food shopping at outdoor markets; I’ve learned to enjoy espressos; I’ve attended gallery openings and photography exhibitions; I wouldn’t dare wear colour and when I speak French to locals, they no longer guess that I’m foreign within the first 30 seconds of our conversation.
By the end of October, it’s time for me to leave. With a surprising sense of nostalgia, I begin packing up my life and bidding my farewells. I’m desperately unhappy about leaving the city; but cannot really say the same about no longer having to look after children: If there is one thing I’ve learned during my year as an au pair, it’s that having children should be left until the absolute last minute.
Tuesday, 30 October, 2007. I step off the plane at Cape Town International a transformed woman: My hair is long and sleek and I’m donning a dead-straight fringe; a black polar-neck, black tights, dark brown leather boots and a light brown coat.
I enter the Arrivals Hall and spot my family: Mom, Dad and sister. They have anxious looks on their faces. My mom catches my eye and I wave at her, excitedly. For a moment, I think that she’s going to wave back and then she glances in the opposite direction, a searching look on her face.
“Mom!” I walk up to her. “It’s me!”
“My darling!” she cries. “I didn’t recognise you – you look so French!” she says. I let out a long sigh and am glad to be home.