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.

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