My First Job: Lisa Appignanesi, president of PEN, was a waitress in Paris

'I made coffee in an urn and added chicory'

"The perpetual smell of Gitanes and urine and disinfectant: I thought it was absolutely wonderful!" Yes, the novelist Lisa Appignanesi remembers it well, the smell of the hotels during the summer in Paris when she studied French literature at the Sorbonne and helped to fund herself by working as a "breakfast waitress".

Usually based in the clean Canadian city of Montreal, she was enthralled by the smells of the French capital. Her family had lived in Paris for a time, and during her four-year course at McGill University she revisited the place where she had spent her early childhood.

Lisa Appignanesi is the new president of English PEN, the campaigning writers' organisation that boasts H G Wells and Antonia Fraser as former presidents. Her current campaign is against the law of blasphemy, "a relic from the past". Paris features in her novels, and also in Mad, Bad and Sad: The History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present (published today by Virago, £20).

In 1964, she was just a short walk away from the Salpêtrière, the vast asylum where demonstrations of hypnosis were conducted on patients by the trailblazing French doctor Jean-Martin Charcot, famous as the "Napoleon of neuroses". (Previously the site of a gunpowder factory, it is the hospital where Diana, Princess of Wales died.)

Staying at the Hôtel Minerve (Minerva is the Roman name for Athene, goddess of wisdom) in the rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne, she paid for her room partly in francs and partly by serving breakfast.

It was not exactly the Ritz. "The kitchen was a tiny room behind the reception area. The job consisted of making the coffee in a vast, industrial-sized urn and pouring in chicory – actually, a very good brew. This was served with tartines – baguettes sliced in half." She was one of two waitresses who took the breakfast trays up to the hotel guests sitting at Formica tables. These were mainly Americans.

One of them asked her what she wanted to do with herself when she grew up. When she in turn asked this ancient fellow – he was at least 30 – the same question, he replied, "I want to be a philosopher". He had certainly come to the right city: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were to be glimpsed at the time, though sadly not by Lisa, being existential in local cafés. Lisa also sat in cafés, pretending to read.

Many of the people who actually worked in those cafés seemed to be Portuguese, and the Minerve's night receptionist also hailed from Portugal: "The hotel was wonderful for him, a place to half-sleep. My feeling of alliance was with the people who had to do this work for a living. I was aware that I was only a temporary worker."

Later, Appignanesi returned to Paris and wrote a book about Simone de Beauvoir. Hard work, too.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins wins the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
News
(David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Guru Careers: Graduate Sales Executive

£18 - 24k OTE + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Executive ...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant - IT Channel - Graduate

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a Value-Added I...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor