There are few things that irritate the French more than earnest expat millennials. The youth of Europe who descend upon their capital city in droves, romanticising the people, the cafes, bastardising the beautiful language after binge-drinking Pernod in local bars and expecting to produce a great work in their garret bedroom, blaring out tinny Edith Piaf on an old CD player they lugged onto a £14 Megabus.
As long as Paris has a reputation for artistry and industry, young hopefuls will flock. They will vow to live on heart-racingly strong cups of coffee and eat nothing but a handful of lentils a day: all in the name of creativity.
It is Tuesday, a dark, wet evening last winter, and I am pretending to be one of these people: notebooks lie open before me, the bed is sagging, the blank Word document is bright and heavy with accusation. I have been living in Paris for three weeks, have found a job, opened a bank account, sat in the freezing cafes and chased a five-year-old round more parks and playgrounds than I’ve had hot dinners.
And yet my hard-as-nails Parisian landlady is less than impressed with the scruffy English girl she’s forced to deal with: permanently stuck in the lift, locked out of the bedroom after a shower, caning the internet for seasons of Mad Men and Game of Thrones. My bedroom smells of strangers, of bad cooking, of strong French tobacco: it is snowing outside.
Today, I decide to take matters into my own hands. Underneath the sink there’s a pair of pliers, rusty and creaking, which I latch onto the radiator and attempt to tinker around with until heat bursts forth. I am crouching in a tatty, Jane Austen-style nightgown and the sort of trench coat you wouldn’t even wear to an illicit rendez-vous, because it smells like the thrift shop where I bought it, in lieu of extra duvets.
The pliers catch onto a screw and slowly I’m turning them, and air is rushing out: I am filled with pride and know-how. This is adulthood! I rejoice jubilantly, imagining how I’ll re-enact the drama with my young charge tomorrow, tell him how I battled the radiator and was victorious, and pondering how best to put a Star Wars spin on the whole episode to hold his attention. Suddenly, the screw pops off and water gushes forth; I drop the pliers and more water comes, great streams of it, hitting the mirror opposite, toppling a pile of crockery, drenching the floor in moments. The screw is gone: I attempt to stuff the pipe with towels to no avail – my room is soaked in seconds and the fucking radiator’s still cold. I am shouting out every swear and curse I know, kicking the pipe, and still, more water comes.
There’s a sharp knock at the door, and I rush to open it, hair hanging in great sopping tresses down my face. The landlady, who’s pre-op transgender, is framed in the doorway, dressed in a floor-length cocktail dress. ‘Bah, la vache,’ she cries, and disappears, re-emerging seconds later with a toolbox and a face like thunder.
For several minutes she barks gruff instructions at me; we work together, hunched over the radiator, and slowly the water turns to a trickle.
She places a spanner on the floor and sinks down, also soaked, by the wall, her eyes closed. Her shoes have sequins on them. I join her and we say nothing.
Slowly, silently, there is heat at my back: a final, stuttering gasp of steam signals the arrival of salvation. I almost weep with the relief of it, and ask her if she’d like some tea. We sit there, sipping Earl Grey.
‘The English, they put milk in their tea. Disgusting, I thought it would be,’ she says. ‘But really it is ok.’
I thank her for her help; she asks what I’m doing in the city, and I tell her. She says she likes the fact that I seem to go out a lot, and says she wished she could, too. ‘But people stare,’ she says, looking down at her hands, the fingernails painted bright, the dress not quite able to cover the man’s body beneath it. She points to the computer. ‘What were you watching?’ she asks. I tell her about Sherlock, and find myself pressing play, not wanting to move from the heat, despite the fact we’re both drenched.
‘This Dr Watson,’ she says, after a while, ‘he is a bit confused, no?’
‘Yeah. He’s not sure what he’s doing, and he always seems to get it wrong’, I say.
We sit there for a bit longer, not talking, watching Sherlock, not really understanding, either of us. The snow has stopped, but tonight I decide to stay put, in my smelly, warm room. On her way out she stops, and bends to examine a pair of boots in the doorway. ‘So chic,’ she murmurs (€3, holes in the soles, thrift shop again), pulling at the zip. The next day we go outside, just across the street for lunch, and nobody stares at her: she wears the boots, she orders tea with milk. I’ve learned to fix radiators.