French twist

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The Independent Culture
Forget the language. That will come, eventually, and in the meantime communication can always be reduced to a series of shrugs, nasal grunts and facial gestures. Actually, many foreigners find it more difficult to pull the face than to master the tongue. It requires exceptional mobility of the lips and eyebrows to pull

off that old-fashioned Gallic look, a combination of pout, smirk and frown, which can indicate almost anything, but usually means: "Do I seem even slightly impressed with everything you've said? Of course not. Now either entertain me or piss off."

A working knowledge of French history, art and literature could come in handy at some point, I suppose, but the true measure of cultural integration is a much more down-to-earth matter. After only two weeks, I can negotiate the turd-littered pavements of Paris without thinking about it. Several times, while walking the streets, Agnes, my flatmate, has practically leapt out of her skin to prevent me stepping into the slimy deposits which lurk every 30 feet or so. But on each occasion my early warning system had already noted the faecal threat and initiated evasive action, effortlessly preserving my suede trainers. You know you've finally arrived when the Dog Shit Radar kicks in.

Everybody wants to find their own little bit of Paris, says Agnes, the bit that belongs just to them. Some have a hidden square, or a quaint cafe, or a wall bearing a certain piece of graffiti. For her, it's a puddle just around the corner on the rue de Charonne. No matter how hot or dry the weather, that puddle is always there. And whenever her boyfriend Andrew is over from England, he always tries to push her into it. I'm still walking around with my nose in the Leconte and my head in the clouds, trying to memorise the boulevards and map them against the skyline.

You know, I just realised that this city is so romantic and beautiful, says Zoe. But Zoe, I say, you've lived here for two years now; what took you so long? Yeah, but my boyfriend, he never takes me anywhere. Ah, yes, dear old Jeff. Come in Jeff, I've been expecting you. There's still a lot to learn about living here, after all. I can avoid the canine crap but Jean-Francois, or rather Jeff, even though he's at the other end of the country, he still hounds me, dogging my footsteps. I wish I could scrape this guy off my sole and leave him on the pavement. For six months now I've kept my mouth shut and let events take their course. Six months of passive squirming, because I don't want to push Zoe - who can't be pushed anyway - or do any harm to harmless Jeff, even though their affair is obviously going nowhere.

But I've swallowed so much I'm starting to choke, so when she starts on about him again, I just blurt it out: Look, I think you should leave him and come with me. I give her the rundown. This is how I feel, this is how long I've felt this way. I didn't want to say it like this, but I can't keep quiet any longer. And what? And nothing. That's it. There's a long silence, and I feel my face burning while she gives me that old- fashioned Gallic look. That night we go up to Sacre Coeur and she buys dinner. One has to go beyond passion to arrive at love, she says. Right, I say, through a mouthful of crepe. I agree entirely. Outside, I tread in something soft and slimy. Shit, how did that happen? That's good luck, she says.

And what? And nothing. She leaves for England, returns, goes down south to see her mother, and maybe Jeff, without so much as a phone call. It's now a week since we last spoke. Maybe she's back, and we're in a Mexican standoff, each determined the other should phone first. Or maybe she doesn't give a damn either way. Yeah, that's it. Maybe.

Maybe it's marble, says Agnes. No, I say, scraping at the pile of sooty debris that a former occupant has left in the corner of my room. Look, this is some kind of cement; marble doesn't crumble like that. So I wrap the blocks in a sheet and risk a triple hernia, humping them down to a skip two blocks away. On my second trip I realise that nothing on earth could possibly be this heavy, except... I turn around and hump the marble fireplace back up to the apartment. There's a piece missing. I run back to the skip, clamber in, root around under plasterboard, old socks and paint cans. Too late, it's gone. Covered in filth, cursing, sweating, knee-deep in trash, I look up to the sky and say, please, don't make this my little bit of Paris

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