Forget Paris. When in Rome…

Forget Paris. When in Rome…
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Photo by Claire Harris
Photo by Claire Harris

The owner of the English school in Paris where I teach is a tiny French woman in her 60s with a chip on her shoulder the size of the Eiffel Tower and a penchant for reducing her employees to tears. Her favourite pastime is eavesdropping outside the door of the classroom when I am with my students so she can pull me into her office and list all the things I have done wrong. Which, incidentally, is everything.

Skulking around another corner and eavesdropping on Madame is her assistant Charles, a serious Texan who is half Madame’s age and twice her height. He has already informed me that he is developing extra-sensory hearing so he can listen in on his colleagues on the other side of thick walls. Nicknamed Austin Powers by his students, he dresses in a bright red three-piece corduroy suit with flared pants, usually accompanied by a yellow cravat and an array of eye-catching shirts with zigzag patterns.

Several times a day, Madame calls from her office, her voice cracked from a lifetime of chain-smoking, “Charle! Charle!” He flies across the school, crying out “I’m coming Madame, I’m coming! Don’t worry Madame, I’m on my way!” Her office closes, cigarette smoke fumes billowing from under the door, and Charles can be seen scraping and bowing through the window as Madame’s shouts reverberate for hours through the classrooms. He walks backwards out of her office still bowing and thanking her for tolerating his myriad mistakes.

The moment Charles leaves the school after his 12 hour day, Madame invariably hurries down the hallway to the kitchen, blows smoke over her employees, declares, “That Charles. What an idiot!” and breaks into a rattling cough. She picked him up out of the gutter, you see, when nobody in Paris would give him a job. She has made him into everything he is today. “And what is he today?” I ask. “A moron!” she shouts.

My employment at the language school ends abruptly with a colossal argument that culminates with Madame sending Charles scurrying for the phone with instructions to call the Australian Embassy. She will have me deported, she barks, for insulting my boss.

Unfortunately for both of us, the French do not actually consider boss-insulting a crime so I don’t get the luxury of a free plane ride back to Sydney. Instead, I am seriously strapped for cash in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I promptly go out to celebrate my job loss and lose my bank card in the process. This is okay since I have already booked my flight home.

I wake up to an email from the airline saying that my reservation hasn’t been confirmed as I failed to specify the musical instrument I have booked in. My attempt to re-book fails on my cancelled bank card. French banks no longer have branches with tellers, so I make my way to an office on the opposite side of Paris. When I arrive after an hour and a half, I find a horde of angry Parisians outside, tapping on the windows. The automatic door is jammed. “Come back in three days”, a flustered employee tells me.

I head down to the pawn shop with my unspecified musical instrument and try to earn a crust. The teenager behind the desk shakes his head and points over to the clutter of guitars already piled in a corner. “Please,” I say, and the whole story comes tumbling out, from Madame and Charles to the broken bank door and the rumbling in my stomach. He sighs and looks down at my guitar again. He scratches his head.

“I’ll give you 20 Euros,” he says at last. A charity pawn.

I blow my 20 Euros on enough cheap wine to get me through the wait period until the bank reopens. I arrive to more bad news: they need a copy of my last paycheque. I don’t relish the idea of going back to Madame for this so instead I cross Paris to the office where I deposited the check and try an emotional plea for a bank-issued copy.

On my third trip to my bank, I stuff 800 Euros in notes in my boots and share a ride across the border to Germany where my brother lives. I hand over the cash and he books me a cheap flight home with a 14-hour overnight layover in Rome.

Photo by Claire Harris
Photo by Claire Harris

I’ve never seen Rome and 14 hours doesn’t seem like long enough for anything to seriously go wrong. A couch-surfing host by the name of Salvatore meets me at the bus station and we leave my bags at his house and pick up a bottle of wine and his guitar. We’re thinking of trying a little midnight busking down at the Colosseum and see if we can’t scrape together enough money for a night out.

Outside the Colosseum at 11pm, the only people showing any interest in us are the Bangladeshi sellers hawking little light-up trinkets. Finally, we attract an audience – a group of young Italian men who crowd around us, clapping and calling for songs they know.

Suddenly, Salvatore stops: “Hey, get your hand out of her bag!” At which the whole group bolts.

I make a quick search through my bag. My money is gone. Normally, I don’t carry my passport. I definitely don’t carry it with my money. Except when I take the plane.

Another search and I discover that my passport too has disappeared. Salvatore takes off running after the men and leaves me to fend off a drunkard who keeps pulling at my bag and the guitar. The Bangladeshis enclose me in a protective circle marked out by flashing neon Colosseums in miniature and escort me over to a row of bars. Salvatore is outside waiting for the police.

“They went in there”, he motions at the nearest bar but by the time the police arrive half an hour later, there is no sign of the men. “We’ll take a look around,” the police say, looking around at the hundreds of young Italian men who all fit the description we gave them.

“Well, where is she going? Australia? And she’s Australian, you say?” One policeman smiles pleasantly. “She won’t need a passport, she’s Australian!”

Salvatore also breaks into a grin. “Of course! You’re Australian!” he cries, gesticulating enthusiastically. “We’ll get you on that plane, no problem!”

By now it is after midnight and I have no cash, nothing left to be stolen and half a bottle of wine remaining, so we head down to the Parthenon to knock out some tunes. A couple of passing Saudis are intrigued by our busking and slip us 20 Euros. When I tell them I have just been robbed, they pull 100 more out of their jean pockets.

We arrive at the airport early the next morning because Salvatore still believes that we will be able to convince someone to let me on a plane to Australia with nothing but my accent as proof of my nationality.  We knock on the door of a bunker that serves as the office of the Chief of Police. He shuffles out in a tracksuit with a Playboy logo, clearly ready to fight some serious crime. The Chief pushes a paper written in Italian across the desk towards me. “Here’s the police report. Show this to Immigration. They’ll let you on the plane.”

The immigration officer takes one look at the piece of paper and shakes his head.  Salvatore’s face falls for the first time in 12 hours. His hands drop helplessly to his sides.

On the bright side, at least I am no longer stuck in Paris.

Claire Harris

About Claire Harris

Claire Harris holds a master's degree in writing. Her short stories and articles have appeared in publications in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. In 2010, she won the Australian Red Cross Essay Contest. She has been traveling the world since 2003, visiting the Middle East, West Africa and South America.

Claire Harris holds a master's degree in writing. Her short stories and articles have appeared in publications in the United States, United Kingdom and Australia. In 2010, she won the Australian Red Cross Essay Contest. She has been traveling the world since 2003, visiting the Middle East, West Africa and South America.

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