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.

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Developer - HTML, CSS, Javascript

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Graduate UI Application Developer - ...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Software Developer - Norfolk - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Software Developer - Norf...

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine