I arrived in Paris in September 1995, a month before my stint as a lectrice was due to start.
My first base was a room in the Collège Franco-Britannique's halls of residence at the Cité Intérnationale Universitaire. It was sparsely furnished, with peeling paintwork and had an 'institutional' feel to it. I scuttled nervously along the long, echoing, badly lit corridors, looking over my shoulder every few yards, paranoid that someone or something was lurking just on the periphery of my vision. I shirked the communal shower room, preferring to wash with cold water at the washbasin in my room.
The building reminded me of the hotel in 'The Shining': an unthreatening place, when filled with its usual life and bustle, made sinister by its emptiness. Especially after nightfall, when I slept with the bed sheets pulled up over my head, leaving just a little gap below my eyes for my nose to peep through, for breathing purposes.
Thankfully, I stayed there for less than the week I had booked. The flat hunt was a resounding success: after perusing the handwritten adverts on the American Church notice board (recommended to me as a good source of cheap student accommodation) I duly visited one maid's room a stone's throw from the church, which cost a small fortune, and had a shared toilet on the landing. The second call I made was to Madame M, who was renting out a deux pièces on the rue de la Roquette. The rent would cost half of my meagre teaching salary, but I decided to check it out anyway. I had vague ideas that I might get someone to share it with me once I'd moved in, to cut costs.
I fell in love with the flat as soon as I laid eyes on it. Or perhaps with what it represented. My first bachelorette pad. It boasted an en-suite bathroom - which simply meant a bathroom opening off the bedroom, with only a rather flimsy curtain for modesty's sake - a tiny kitchen alcove with the obligatory two electric hobs, a tiny fridge and a sink. It was compact, it was bijou, it was mine, all mine. My first ever chez moi.
Madame M was a bit of an enigma. She was shifty, for starters. The flat was rented au noir, undoubtedly for tax avoidance purposes. This complicated my life enormously. I had problems opening a bank account, because I had no lease. I couldn't obtain a residence permit. I had no access to APL (housing benefit), which as a student, I should have been entitled to. Worst of all, I had to withdraw my rent in cash at the end of every month, over several days, as in total it was well over the limit I was allowed to take out in one go. Madame M would sweep by the apartment on rent collection day, looking disheveled - porn hair, lips bee-stung and red - but gorgeous, as if she had come straight from an illicit rendez-vous in a nearby hotel.
Sadly, my love affair with the flat was not destined to be a long term infatuation. First there were the cockroaches, who merrily waved their brown antennae at me when I surprised them in my kitchen in the dead of night, before vanishing into the dark space underneath the sink. Once I had seen these unwelcome visitors off with a barrage of noxious sprays, a colony of ants climbed all the way up to my first floor window and busied themselves making a trail into my bedroom. I had to put ant powder around my windows. Quite what the ants coveted in my bedroom I will never know. I wasn't even aware that ants had a head for heights.
This was all very tame indeed compared to what followed. Context is all: imagine a rather tired and all partied out petite anglaise, who had travelled back from London on a grotty but cheap Eurolines coach, the day after a Northern Exposure night involving 12 hours of dancing. Her pupils were slightly enlarged; she was fidgety and suffering from mild paranoia. The nightmare journey finally over, she fumbled with the keys in the front door, eager to slip her aching body between cool sheets.
Not particularly eager then to clean up approximately 550 mouse droppings off the floor, and every other surface in the entire flat using a hand held hoover with lacklustre suction powers. Nor to wash all the bedding -in the nearby laundrette - which bore telltale signs of mouse inhabitation. The invaders had, it turned out, created a point of entry in the bathroom wall, behind the toilet, and proceeded to made free and easy with all the amenities during my week long absence.
I went off the flat a little bit after that.
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