Second Language

by Michael Donohue                                                                                                                 

When I could, I took the bus to work. I didn’t have anything against the metro as such, but one encountered a different breed of person on it. They tended to be in a rush for a start, which implied they wanted to be on time for work, and it followed that they were probably serious about their work. The bus crowd, on the other hand, had prioritised their emotional wellbeing over good timekeeping and, if asked, would complain about the over-crowding, stuffiness or smell on the metro. For the visitor of course, there was the added attraction of enjoying the sights and sounds of early morning Paris, played out in my mind to a soundtrack of an ageing jazz vocalist scatting over her trios’ overlong solos.

     I would cross over Boulevard de Rochechouart where some African prostitutes were still plying their trade. Though heavily made-up and dressed to the nines in cheap furs and lamé miniskirts, it was obvious many were underage. There’d be two or three huddling together in doorways with a couple of dealers or pimps hovering around them. Their presence was disconcerting on several fronts. Firstly, though the sun was already up, they were still on a night schedule, unable possibly to face the day. Secondly, it was odd to think that guys would be cruising round looking for action at that hour in the morning. And finally, not for the first time, I got the impression that Paris was completely lawless, a place where young girls could be exploited like this in full view of society.     

     As I continued up rue Marcadet, the street whitened. By this I mean that somehow, miraculously, at a point undefined but understood by all, the pawn shops, internet shops and hair salons of the African immigrants were replaced by galleries, craft studios and children’s designer boutiques. As if to hammer home the disparity in living standards, there was an abundance of real estate offices advertising luxurious apartments. I was always intrigued by the office of a satirical magazine with a blown-up cover of the latest edition in its window. Inside, four or five elderly guys in moth-eaten cardigans with deathly serious expressions sat around a large communal table tossing, I presume, jokes around. The pottery workshop at the top of the street was unoccupied at this hour but in the evenings boasted a row of office workers slumped over pottery wheels, delighting in their filthy fingernails. 

     The bus stop stood in front of an upscale pizza restaurant. I’d take my place in the queue behind the elderly, the disabled, and young mothers with prams on their way to medical appointments. Some schoolboys in giant-collared shirts and baggy trousers would be hanging around and a few professional guys in bespoke suits who seemed to view the bus as a necessary evil in a city where transport options were limited. They usually skipped on ahead when the doors opened. I tended to sit in the back where the raised seats and elongated windows facilitated a better view of the street. As the bus pulled away, I would relax and let my worries dissipate under the auspices of being a helpless passenger rather than driver of my fate. 

     My bank greeted me on the first corner. The first emotion it elicited was gratefulness, not an emotion usually associated with a bank. I had tried to open an account in three others before I landed on this one. In the first, my paperwork was insufficient to prove my ID, needing nothing short of my grandmother’s birth certificate. In the next one, I hadn’t got the necessary proof of address, so I returned with a forged letter from a colleague claiming to be her roommate – but they had a problem with her ID! In the next, I had actually moved into my apartment and waltzed in with my thick portfolio in order. They refused on the grounds that they just didn’t want to open it – probably after seeing my salary. Exasperated, I happened on my branch by accident and was met by a young French girl who had lived in Kerry for a year. She opened the account in five minutes, barely glancing at the paperwork.

     La rue Caulaincourt was my favourite street in Paris. There were others with more historic buildings, more fashionable shops, more interesting façades, but none fulfilled the idea I’d had of Paris before I moved there in the same way. Free from corporate influence, every business was an individual entity sprung up from the loving hands of someone with a dream. It was difficult to know where to begin: the florist whose giant lilies scented the morning air; the patisserie whose kaleidoscopic deserts feasted the eyes; the butcher who displayed his cuts like Chopard necklaces. My favourite establishment was a small bistro that evoked a theatrical green room, with maroon velvet upholstered seats and brass railings dividing the tables. Modernist portraits, resembling the clientele, stared down ominously from the burgundy flocked walls.     

     At the end of the street the mausoleums of the Cimetière de Montmartre rose up like marble trees in an eternal forest. Because the cemetery was built on a hill the elaborate mausoleums were integrated with the surrounding apartment buildings, creating the illusion that the dead were in closer proximity to the living than was necessarily comforting. Famous names buried there included Degas, Nijinsky and Truffaut, though their immense achievements seemed somehow diminished when I imaged them in their little plots, squeezed in between other immortals. Even in the middle of the built-up city, the graveyard maintained that lovely calming atmosphere where the dead are gently reaching up to the living, inviting them to the eternal slumber party in full swing. In the evenings, one often caught a glimpse of a courting couple among the headstones in a dance of life mocking death in its backyard.    

     Sometimes inspectors got on at Place de Clichy. They would sneak on behind the new throng of passengers cramming into the bus. It was shocking that, out of the seventy or so passengers, at least ten or more would have avoided paying. But these fare dodgers weren’t hard-up students or refugees; oh no, they were often affluent looking professionals, pillars of the community types. Neither humble nor contrite, they would turn on their accusers as if indignant at being challenged at all, coming up with all manner of excuses that usually blamed the transport authority. And if the poor inspectors happened to be foreign, it would simply add fuel to their fire. The result of all this was that, after haggling for about ten minutes, they would let it be known that they were handing over the fare out of the goodness of their hearts, despite the injustices in the system.

     On one of my first journeys I was surprised and intrigued by the existence of La place de Dublin, until I realised there was a rue de Madrid, rue de Moscou and rue de Rome among other capitals making up the quartier de l’Europe. I couldn’t see any connection to Ireland in the square, and have since been made aware that it’s more famous as the backdrop for Gustave Caillebotte’s iconic painting Paris Street, Rainy Day. The couple huddled under the umbrella in the foreground of the painting, along with the other solos dotted in the background, perfectly illustrate for me the anonymity of city life: nobody knows anybody and we’re all just dashing around pursuing our individual goals with nothing more than the weather as a unifying factor.

     As we approached Gare St Lazare, the whiff of urine-soaked streets wafted through the window as the landscape transformed into a grotty selection of cheap hotels, porn shops and fast food outlets. There were any number of dodgy characters hanging around the entrance or doing shady deals in the alcoves of the noble arches. I don’t know why the area surrounding large bus and train stations takes this turn; maybe the transitory atmosphere supplies a fertile breeding ground for vice? I alighted and didn’t linger as you would be approached by someone begging or selling drugs. To soothe my senses, I would take a quick detour past Square Louis XVI with its extraordinary Greco-Roman basilica that somehow transformed monumental scale to miniature size – as if it was a plaything of the guillotined monarch and his spendthrift wife.

     If I had time to spare, I took a latte in a franchise café near the college. There was usually a class or two to prepare, especially the ‘conversation’ classes where you had to spend an hour ‘conversing’ with students who had the fluency of a native five-year old. That was where he first appeared. One of about eight people spread around a large table, I eventually became aware of his intense stare. I wasn’t unnerved because, even though it was full-on, it wasn’t threatening, more like a child transfixed by an exotic animal in a zoo. Just at the end, the conversation turned to the subject of New York and he told us how he regularly visited his successful older brother there. There was something in this that moved me: the little brother in the shadow of his older sibling whose achievements he’d never match.

     A couple of days later, he plucked up the courage to approach me after class and asked if I’d help him with a business proposal he had to write in English. So, the following Saturday, we met in a café near his apartment and set to work. While he tried to move the conversation on to a more personal footing, I was wary of sharing too much information because the students loved gossiping about the teachers. I was also warned-off getting too involved with them by another teacher who was accused of sexual harassment, having refused the advances of a girl he befriended. In any case, I found out that he still lived with his parents despite being in his late twenties, had lost his job some time ago in a tech start-up, and was recovering from a serious foot operation. Again, all this was pulling on my heartstrings, more attractive perversely than if he’d been a roaring success.

     Some evenings he would wait for me outside college, slowly going through the ritual of preparing to mount his motorbike. That early-evening golden light, particular to Paris and which drove artists mad, would bathe him in an apparitional glow. It diminished somewhat the rough and ready image he cultivated with the Brando leather jacket, ripped skin-tight Levi’s and army boots that never saw any action. When I appeared on the steps, he’d glance up through his dirty blond quiff with an inviting scowl and we’d share a few pleasantries before going our separate ways. Then, one evening, he asked if I fancied a spin on his motorbike the following weekend? I acquiesced, though terrified for my life.

     On the Friday, however, I was in a rush between classes and being pulled in three different directions when he approached to make arrangements. In one of those awful moments, I gave him a helpless look, looking for sympathy, but which he misinterpreted as a snub. And that was that, so to speak. He stormed out after every class we had together, made a point of ignoring me in the hallways, even waited for me in the evenings just to speed off when I approached. I wanted to say something, but he’d such a bee in his bonnet I knew it wouldn’t matter. Then I got upset that he’d misunderstood me so badly and was acting so childishly, so I adopted a similar pose. Neither of us spoke but were communicating in the strongest terms possible. He got a job in another French city soon after, and just before he left thanked me for my teaching skills, which had helped him considerably.