La Vie en Teaching

Then there were the students.

I had moved to Paris initially to celebrate my honeymoon, spending the first weeks in a cheap run-down, flea-bitten hotel – right behind the whirling arms of the Moulin Rouge.

We would lie-in through the late-summer days, a violinist practising over the courtyard, city sounds drifting through open windows. Onion soup and cheap carafes of wine in dimly lit spots as far away from the tourist trail as we could manage. Sacre Coeur at 4am, the city below shrouded in sleep.

The perfect, imaginary, sort of Paris life then. And one that of course couldn’t last for ever.


DSC_0389 - Αντίγραφο (2)-r50Like thousands before me, my dreams of writing the great lost novel in a Parisian pavement café went only as far as spotting great looking cafés around town in which I could picture myself sat in the window, café crème at my elbow, chewing the end of a pencil, gazing into the middle distance. I wrote nothing of course.

So, like the last refuge of the scoundrel, the stranded abroad and the stony broke, I turned once again to the Teaching English as a Foreign Language world.

I approached a teaching company situated just off the Champs Elysees run from behind an old shop.

The madame of the company enjoyed very much taking centre stage, barking orders at the two young flustered girls who made up her staff, haranguing her husband who plodded around her like a big, sad, dutiful old cart horse knowing it had outlived its usefulness.

My interview took place in a windowless office, with an old fashioned bell chiming out every time someone, by accident, entered the front shop. Mme smoked endless Gitanes and glugged red wine, which threw me a bit, but I was quickly learning that everyone in Paris likes to play the Parisian part perfectly.

My notes lay unused in my lap as she flew into non-sequitur flights of fancy, pausing only to cackle at jokes I hadn’t understood, and before I knew it I was back out on the rue outside having been promised some hours teaching private students in their homes, starting Monday.

Accommodation now became the priority.

The penniless libertine, obviously, can no longer live around the Moulin Rouge. That life is now only reserved for naïve, moon-eyed honeymooners. Even the fin-de-siecle Modernists found this to be true, turning south by the 1920s to take up home in Montparnasse instead.

The penniless TEFL teacher, 100 years on, cannot even contemplate Montparnasse – the cheap cafes romanticised in the novels now the sole preserve of the rich, or the tourist, or more: the rich tourist.

The penniless TEFL teacher has to look further afield. The Banlieues. The Paris Suburbs.

Beyond the Peripherique – Paris’ inner ring road, built over the old city walls, which symbolises much more than mere urban traffic congestion easing – the hinterland of the banlieues spreads out, each with its own unique characteristics. The casual traveller or the astray TEFL teacher would do well to research each one carefully.

Some of the banlieues in Paris are impressive and well-to-do. I did not live in one of these.

To the west of the city the streets are the preserve of rich, unsmiling, widowed dowagers, lunching on their own, stately in vintage Chanel and furs, feeding minuscule dogs at their ankles.

In the suburbs of the south are the industrial zones, the communist areas (banlieues rouges) and grimy pop-up new-art studios – the new artists keeping their distance through financial necessity as much as artistic inclination from the Impressionist trails of Montmatre.

The banlieues of the north, sitting on top of the Peripherique like hooligans swinging their legs off a razor-wired wall, are the most notorious of all.

Here, in 2005, was the centre of 20 nights of urban unrest with 9,000 vehicles burnt, 3,000 arrests, and the country left stupefied, searching itself for answers.

Saint Ouen, Clichy and, the guv’nor of the banlieue défavorisée, Saint Denis.

DSC_0612-r50And it is in Saint Denis that I decided to take a flat.

Set in the grounds of the Basilique de Saint Denis – the significant and imposing 12th Century Gothic cathedral – the small apartment we found was surprisingly rather grand.

The whole building was originally built for a stay by King Louis XIII. He died before he had the chance to sleep one night here though and, perhaps in revenge, Saint Denis decide not to build anything other than the most depressing blocks of architectural genocide again.

Still, history buffs take the metro out to one of its farthest stops – randy for antique – to come and take brass rubbings in the block, nervously looking over their shoulders all the while as they tap and jot.

Within my first week a car was torched outside this historic building.

Flames licking up to our appartment window – on the second floor – troubled me, but the Saint Denis firefighters put it out with weary resignation, before setting off for to tackle the next outpouring of boredom in the banlieue.

Most of my students were located in the prosperous arrondissements of the 8th or the 16th, or in the well-heeled banlieue out west towards Paris’ huge park, the Bois de Bologne.

Journeying to work revealed much of what must lay behind the resentment. Usually I was the only white face on the train – ghettos being very much established in Paris and, unlike in London, rich and poor very much segregated.

Out in the west, one of my students was unaware of the Peripherique near his house flowing, as it did, underground in this part of Paris, rather than totemically up on stilts as in other parts of the city.

During the riots, when all electricity was cut off in Saint Denis, the Peripherique was also closed, preventing anyone from the northern banlieues entering central Paris.

A very real perimeter in all senses.


Teaching individual students is a different proposition from the class-based lessons I had previously been used to. And teaching individual children of the very moneyed rich of Paris is a whole different proposition yet again.

Housed in high-gated Haussmann apartment blocks, the door was normally opened by the maid (or “La Bonne” as I sometimes heard them dismissively referred to).

The mother, if she was there at all, might deign to look up from her chaise-lounge, weighed down with ennui, and cast me a cursory glance as I suddenly felt like a heap of rags blown in off the street.

The kids themselves showed none of the usual enthusiasm of the 11 to 16 year olds I had taught. Instead they seemed strangely muted, marshalled, corralled.

Lessons would usually take place on huge, oak dining tables, surrounded by old Marie-Antoinette furniture and a heavy, deadening atmosphere. Or in the students’ bedrooms, which displayed none of the expected teenage posters, bunched up socks, decaying debris. Instead they were tidy chambres, tastefully but soberly decorated, with even oil paintings in gilded frames hanging on the walls.

I felt a great sadness when on lessons end the father appeared in the hall to check his son’s progress/see me off the premises.

The boy stood rigidly next to his father, as if on court martial in military school, and I was asked how well mon fils was doing.

I felt the father would rather have heard me tell how the bowed boy next to him had brought shame on the family with his weak-headed stupidity, but instead I would lie and tell them that he was doing very well and they should all feel very proud. The father would sniff, unconvinced, but I watched as the student brightened visibly.

Till the next week then, when another hour of slow lessons in museum-like silence yawned before us.

ParisIt was alway an interesting, if never warm, experience to catch a glimpse of how the très riches of Paris live.

Parents used me to phone their English broker to discuss buying a new speedboat.

A mother talked about herself at me at length as I slouched against the sitting room wall.

“And that’s an Andy Warhol you’re leaning against” she said to me, dryly.

“Oh yes?” I said, turning to look.

Oui. Exactement. An ORIGINAL Andy Warhol” she drawled, arching an eyebrow as I gingerly tiptoe away from the picture like a barefooted man stepping through snakes, pulling exaggerated apologetic faces.

One student told me his grandfather created the Asterix series and another told me how, at school, he had injured the son of the ambassador to Madagascar in a game of football. “I’m now banned from ever going to Madagascar” he informed me, proudly.

It all seemed a long way from school life as I knew it.

As I left one house – family friends of Sarkozy – I decided to ignore the cold that had settled on Paris, passed the warmly lit metro and instead took a walk for a while.

The cold of Paris in the winter invades everywhere – in the trees, the statues, in the frontispiece of the typical 6 or 7 story buildings that stared down on me with a silvery frozen hauteur on every boulevard.

I stuck my hands in my coat pockets and continued along the bitter streets, into the 8th arrondissement, and past the Élysée Palace.

I was dimly aware, as I trudged past, of the gendarmes shouting “Allez allez! Tu fou! Allez” and looked up to see who they were shouting at.

I noted with mild surprise it seemed I was the fou they were shouting at.

I then watched as the gates of the Palace slowly open and a small, undistinguished Renault pulled out. It came as a small shock to find President Hollande sat in the passenger seat just a few yards from where I stood in the late, deserted, street.

The president wound down the window and said something incomprehensible to me in French. I returned my best French shrug, which seemed to satisfy him, and he smiled and waved to me as the car took off again down Rue Saint-Honoré.

I’d only been in Paris 3 months, I thought to myself as I started to trudge on again, and here I am, trading pleasantries through a car window with the country’s president.

Of course my students were less than impressed with my brush with the socialist president, known as ‘Flanby’ – a sort of brown, wobbly dessert – by his detractors, of which my students’ parents certainly numbered.

However, many of the students told me that the good life for them in their posh suburbs – the banlieue aisée – was actually not the vie en rose I imagined.

They repeated at any given opportunity the view picked up from their parents that the country was going to the dogs. Which I noted as a fairly extraordinary view to hold at just 12 or 13.

But then one student told me, with stark seriousness, how his Jewish family felt genuinely persecuted in Paris and how he had been ridiculed at school for his faith. His family, he told me, had bags permanently packed, ready to leave if “anything ever happens. I tell you,” he says to me “My family, we think something is going to go very wrong here in Paris.”

His words came back to me later, as I took my place with over a million other residents of Paris on a march from Place de la Republique to Place de Nation, as the country once again searched itself for answers following the murderous events that had taken place over 3 tragic January days on the Parisan streets.


A unifying pleasure I found for all of Paris, predictably, is food and drink.

The arrival of the year’s Nouveau Beaujolais wine was given rock star treatment. Posters advertising its coming festooned the city for weeks in advance.

Rumour spread through the cafes and vin caves – and also the book shops and butchers, which I noted close their doors and become jolly private drinking dens in the evenings – of its imminent appearance.

On the day of the holy arrival I drained several glasses – watched reproachfully from behind the bar for my lack of due reverence – at my favourite café in the Latin Quarter.

I had moved house, back again into Paris ‘proper’, just below the Latin Quarter area made famous by Ernest Hemingway and, as instructed by ‘Hem’, found my “good café in Saint Michel”.

It was situated at the bottom of his old road, Cardinal Lemoine, but happily at the the other end, the river end, away from the crowds.

Wooden, old, smoke-stained, complete with red check table cloths, even the occasional local playing an accordion.

And an unkempt Parisian I struck up a friendship with, again playing his part perfectly, sloshing wine and complaining how hard life was with his 5 mistresses – pulling an impassive ‘your loss’ Gallic shrug at my none.

The traditional Parisian café then, wonderfully and unexpectedly, still exists in some places.Paris

I had tried writing, or pretending to look like someone who was writing, in cafes at the other end of the street near Hemingway’s old stomping grounds – in Rue Mouffetard, Place de la Contrescarpe. The hubbub of English voices and backpacks driving me away, disappointed.

However, between breaks in my lessons in the hoity-toity western suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine – set between restaurants full of mademoiselles who déjeuner – I had also found a place styling itself  woefully inaccurately – as an English pub. It was, in fact, the embodiment of the great Parisian café.

Taking a table in its dark recesses, I found here was the perfect Paris setting you hope but don’t believe you’ll ever find.

No one English ever came in, no one ever spoke English, or would even try to. At the bar there was the constant presence of a faded philosopher, expounding in his frayed suit, shoe soles flapping, reeking of Gauloise and reading last week’s copy of Libération or L’Équipe.

Elicit lovers would steal a lunchtime tryst here away from their offices in the near-by La Defence area of high commerce. Sometimes an old local Paris St Germain pro came in and talked about football matches he played in years ago in the long haired 70s; while the bored waitresses would pout and flirt with the baguette delivery boy.

I came once a week, even feeling I’d been accepted and made friends with. And the service was always reliably, delightfully, unpardonably rude.

The service industry of course plays its Parisian role as perfectly as the rest.

I had watched as a meek tourist couple were ordered out of an otherwise empty restaurant for failing to reply to the waitresses mumbled “bon soir”, and walked past a man on the street begging to the unmoved maître d’ blocking the doorway: “But I have a reservation!”

Here the customer is always wrong.

“No” is the first response to everything. Unlike when I was living, teaching, in Japan, where telling someone “no” would be unthinkable (even when – frustratingly – “no” is definitely the correct answer), in Paris “no” is the mandatory prerequisite to any question.

I stopped in a brasserie to ask directions.

“Is the museum Carnavalet…”


“I just wondered if it was near here?”


“Ah, I see. But my map definitely says…”

“Your map is no good. It is… how you say… faulty. This museum, it does not exist.”

I found the museum two doors further down the street.

The sour attitude of anyone wishing you to buy something of theirs, use their service, or pay them any money whatsoever, seemed to also, sadly, match the unavoidable smell of the city: the sour smell of the piss-ridden street.

Everyone in Paris appears to choose to micturate freely and happily absolutely anywhere they fancy outdoors – I Pariseven saw one man urinating AGAINST the outside door of an unused, rare sighted, public lavatory provided on the street.

The Mairie de Paris – the city council – combat these dried lakes of urine that make you frequently gag and choke as you stroll around town, by arbitrarily opening one of the old drains set in the kerbsides, releasing a torrent of water to snake down the gutter on one side of the street.

This gushing flow can be seen at various times all around town, but how it meaningfully helps the situation always remained rather unclear to me.

But this is how things were done so this how things are still done.

Paris is a magnificent museum piece. Wonderful to visit, wonderful to spend time in. But one gets the feeling that the protection of how things were can limit how things are.

You can see this in the fact they have an official council to protect the French language from change, or even just in the make-up of the city itself.

The sex shops in Pigale on Boulevard de Clichy, running past Anvers towards Rochechouart, are proudly put forward to the tourists by Paris’ cultural convocations as a fun extension, a link, to the old libertarian ‘lost generation’ Paris of the early 20th Century.

However, the – still currenly working – prostitutes, as they have been for centuries, I see on Rue de Faubourg St Denis, lower down Paris, a street flowing like a gutter all the way from Gare de l’Est to finally run out towards the Seine, present a different side.

The desperate looking people-trafficked girls, the shuffling men, the true bleak loneliness. Not the sort of thing floodlit by Paris’ enobbling emissaries.

These areas of shutters drawn and shops barred are the ignored – shameful, family members of the arrondissements municipaux.

There is a disorder called ‘Paris Syndrome’.

It affects mainly Japanese tourists who all their lives have dreamt of coming to Paris. Brought up on Japanese magazines showing ultra chic Parisians on street corners: beautiful women kissing suave men wearing high fashion. Prints on Tokyo walls are of the Eiffel Tower under moonlight with poets and lovers crooning.

When the Japanese tourist actually arrives in Paris and finds just a city of average people going about normal daily lives they are so disturbed they fall into deep psychiatric shock. There have been reports of the tourist suffering paranoia, dizziness, vomiting, even attempts at suicide.

Perhaps the Paris bureaucrats and commissioners feel the same.

Paris’old buildings are beautiful, of course, and rightfully take centre stage, but anything new in this actual modern, growing, living city, is automatically pushed to the outside or, in the case of the huge new university construction at Jussieu, thrown-up without thought or care. As if the existence of now, of the contemporary, is an annoyance to ignore or overcome.


I was living close to the area, where, in the 1920s, George Orwell wrote graphically of his experience of poverty in Paris.

The slums near Place D’Italie may have been replaced – there is now a vast, bustling Asian district here – but the “lowless of poverty…squalid and boring” certainly stills exists in the city.

Homelessness was very apparent on the streets and the metro, having not been ruthlessly but effectively cleared away as London moved to do a quarter of a century or so ago.

As we experienced the first real, artic, cold snap since I moved to Paris, I read that five people sleeping on the street had died that week alone.

I was disturbed to see, while walking near home, through the 13th arrondissement, a crowd gathered round another prone, frozen figure lying in the middle of the pavement. The wind-stripped leafless trees standing in thin lines in weak, propitiatory ceremony along Rue Jeanne d’Arc.


Begging is more prevalent than in London, but also the giving of spare change to those on the street seemed far more common and more generous. Perhaps an unconscious deal has been struck as the citizens, aware that something has gone wrong with the duty to provide welfare to these people, are more inclined to help individually.

I was also vaguely amused to find that even those down and out played their Parisian part too – bottles of wine rather than cheap ‘White Lightening’ cider – and I saw more than one sleeping rough in the metro station reading the collected works of Baudelaire and other such heavy philosophical tomes.

I also noted with marked interest the fact that buskers appeared to be treated favourably by the public passing through the city too…

Armed with a battered ukulele, I convinced my newly married wife – a classically trained violinist – to join me and have a go at this busking at various stations, and in the passageway of the Louvre’s metro, and out in the cold open air of the square behind the Sacre Coeur church.

We stood there, bashing out tunes with a hat hopefully thrown down in front of us.

Expecting nothing, we go down surprisingly well. The few “bravos” I was singled out for, despite the lousy playing, rankled with the true musician of the pair of us, but in less than a couple of hours we had made more than I would have done in a full day of teaching.

The passing musicians, fingerless gloves, threadbare coats, on their way to the Conservatoire de Paris with double bass cases slung over their backs were the most generous.

We continued this for a few days, making good money and I was contemplating a complete career change when I noticed three uniformed policemen in front of me in the metro passage, arms folded, watching us play.

Fans of the badly strummed ukulele I guessed.

However, as we came to the end of the song, the lead policeman stepped forward. “Where is your badge?” he prodded me. I feigned non comprehension.

“Your badge. You need approval. You need to have a badge, a leecence to play this…” he gestured with disgust at the instrument “This thing. So. Tell me. Do you have a leecence? Yes? Or non?”

As we were ushered out of the metro station by force we were informed that if we wished to play again we must first audition in front of the city council in a building near Gare Lyon to obtain our “leecence.”

I pictured with amusement sitting waiting my turn in the queue with the other Marcel Marceau mime artists, balloon sculptors, cello players and painted statues, but sadly never got to find out.

I didn’t take my place in the buskers auditon as, for the first time since falling in love with the city, I had started to feel my enthusiasm – my jouissance – begin to wane.

I had told one of my students about my musical experience here, the pleasure of playing in front of an appreciative audience and asked him what the word is in French for buskers like me.

Mendiants” he told me.

“Mendiants” I replied satisfied, feeling part of long lineage of Parigot street singers stretching back to Piaf.

I later looked up the word in my French dictionary to check I had it right. “Beggars” it said.

ParisI grew tired of forever being called “Brian” by one student’s fashionable, disinterested, privileged mother, despite me correcting her after every lesson.

“It’s Alex actually”

Bof. Names are so difficult to remember these days. So anyway you will be here at the same time next week, yes Brian?”

My writing, of course, had led nowhere. No great lost novel had any hope of coming to me. Not when every street, every boulevard, every building, every café was its own special form of art anyway. Always distracting, diverting.

It all added to a feeling of disappointment. Disappointments in the middle of a city of riches, it seemed crazy.

My tolerance for the daily crush on the metro, even with the beauty of the stations and the greater efficiency compared to London’s Underground, had started to dwindle.

And, despite the compensations of the pain, the fromage, the cheap good vin, the Jardins du Tuileries and Luxembourg to walk in, being a TEFL teacher in Paris was tough. We were poor, and I could see it would have never really progressed from just bare day-to-day living.

I decided my time was up in Paris.

After one final move to an apartment in the east of the city, near the Père Lachaise Cemetery where the bones of Paris’ finest found their final resting place, I left my students.

They would do very well in life.

More immediately they would all pass their end of year exams despite anything I had taught them or not. Their parents and their schools – some of the best in the country: the Lycée Carnot, Lycée Louis le Grand – would see to that.

I had got close to a few of them, had some fun moments in the lessons, liked many them and would miss them. But just like the city they lived in, they didn’t need to show any emotions or make any effort for me.

They were the lucky ones. Their city was incredible. They, and Paris, would never even notice I was gone.


As that other – successful – writer of the Latin Quarter once wrote “Paris is a necessary part of a man’s education … But she is like a mistress who does not grow old and she has other lovers now”.

And other teachers.


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