Harold Strachan's Last Word

Every comfort. Foreign affairs


Aaah, City of Light! I arrive in Paris just as the illuminations are coming on. I ask the taxi man to take me to a modest B&B because I don’t have a great deal of money, he pulls up at the Pension Turquoise, Touts Comforts, four floors, about two rooms wide, in a most modest suburb. I present myself at the reception desk where stands owner/manager Madame Turquoise Scilpot herself, in the flesh. Plenty of it.

Aaah, M’me, say I in formal French, I desire title deeds to a family crypt. ’Ere we speak English, she replies, do you wish a rim? Mais oui, say I, I mean yes please, and hand her my RSA passport. Masculinim, femininim, ambidexter or futbol? she asks.

I am not here for sexual purposes, I declare with some dignity, and what, pray, has football got to do with my sexual preferences anyway?

Nononon! she exclaims with some hauteur, it is for toilets; we ’ave Ladies and Gentlepersons each on ’er own floor, also for Gaypersons both masculinim and femininim, and Futbol is for top floor because le ascenseur is inoperable. You mean, say I, that if I book in as a football fan and run up and down three flights of stairs because the lift is bust, I will get a discount on my bill?

Nononon! says she, Futbol floor number three they receive one large gratis teapot of English tea at the bedside for waking up, gentlepersons on floor two receive one cup with teabag. Floor one is easy for the salle é manger. Mas oui, say I, I’ll have the Football floor, please, and milk and sugar for the tea, hey? Mais oui, says she.

Well it’s not a bad little poz, I tell you. Off the tourist routes for economy, of course, with Algerians and black Francophone folks all about and a certain amount of colonial culture along with them, like the toilet structure whereby the lavvies are built one over the other and a bit to the side and they all empty into a municipal sewage cave below the ground floor without benefit of plumbing, just gravity and a narrow sort of mine shaft. So if you’re unlucky enough to be in the Femininim toilet whilst another guest is in Futbol, you will hear his defecation come whistling by at Mach 7 or so, followed by a great thud down below of 8-or-so on the Richter scale. That sort of thing. But it’s a grand little place for any of you dear readers contemplating romance in the spring.

I breakfast on tripe-and-garlic soup according to a quaint old Côte d’Ivoire recipe, then off fancy-free on the Metro to the City Centre and the sights and sounds: pavement cafés and men in berets playing accordions and struggling artists on the riverside, and Notre Dame, all that sort of thing. I decide on a random bus ride, a surprise journey. All buses are going to the same place, though, called Complet, and don’t stop at my signal, but eventually one comes along saying Bastille, it stops, and I hop on and say to the conducteur How much to the Bastille, please? What part of Bastille? says he. Well, the prison, say I.

Nononon, says he, ’e is démolir. What! I exclaim, you can’t just demolish a National Monument, man!

Nononon, says he, ’e is démolir in 1789, finish, caput, and he draws a hand across his throat, not the finger ear-to-ear, English style, but the side of the hand across the back of the neck, guillotine style. He notices I feel a proper narner however, and says to me Why do you not go to the Palace at Versailles, they did not démolir ’im, take a blue bus.

But I don’t. I decide to do the non-tourist thing and just wander about and enjoy Paree in the spring and see if maybe I will fall in love as prescribed, but all the waitresses are far too busy for le zizipompom and all other ladies seem to be already in love with good-looking gents which I am not, also I am seventy years old, but I have a lovely time nonetheless, thanks.

So then. After a week or so I decide to try London where also it is spring and maybe I’ll fall just as easily in love there. I bid adieu to Mme Scilpot who kisses me twice upon the cheeks and I’m away on a train to Waterloo Station.

I feel strangely at home. Well KZN is really just another Pom county, isn’t it? I hum a small tune hum-te-tum and smile at my surroundings. I might as well just do the surprise bus ride here, I suppose, so I stick around a bit and one arrives declaring Crystal Palace.

’Ullo mate, say I to the conductor, ’ow much to the Crystal Palace then? Are you a bloody loony or summink, says he, it burned down in 1936.

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