It was in the nondescript northern banlieue or suburb of ‘Suresnes’ that I had my first experience of Paris in 1976. While I have loved Paris and France ever since, the word ‘banlieue’ continues to fill me with dread.
I had just turned twenty-two and had never been in a foreign country before. My naivety was off the Richter scale. But I had one major advantage. I had trained as a chef, in England, in classical French cuisine. So I could understand French menus. In addition I had an ‘O’ level in French and, although conversational French was beyond me, I could ask and understand directions.
I planned to stay a week in the youth hostel in Suresnes to explore the city before heading south and go ultimately on to Italy and Greece. It was in the hostel that I met John from Youghal in County Cork. He was a big farmer’s son with an interest in art on a tour of the big European galleries. He proudly introduced himself as,‘Happy John’. He said that was what people back home had always called him. Irony must be an inclination of the people of Youghal for John did not have a happy disposition.
“You want to watch these feckers,” were his first words to me in reference to the French. He’d latched on to me after witnessing the competent manner in which I had ordered ‘le petit dejeuner’ in the hostel. John hadn’t a word of French and I surmised that this gulf between John and the French had contributed to his distrust of them. He assumed that if they didn’t speak to you they must be talking behind your back and probably fleecing you into the bargain.
“I’ll show you a trick or two,” he proudly announced.
John’s main trick was not paying on the banlieue train system. He’d spotted a loophole in the system caused by the fact that no one checked your ticket at any stage. I was impressed as this scheme would save a few precious francs out of my meagre budget.
It was on the fourth day of our journeys into Paris from Suresnes that Happy John’s train scam unravelled.
As we arrived in Gare du Nord, to our dismay we saw uniforms of some kind at the end of the platform and our hearts sank.
“Keep walking,” said John. “We’ll bluff it out. Just act the stupid big Irishman. It always works!”
Sure enough, the two officials demanded our tickets. As they looked remarkably like Laurel and Hardy we struggled to take them seriously.
We shrugged, as if not understanding their demand, thinking these two jokers would be easily bluffed. We tried to walk past them but they swiftly blocked our path.
“Passport, s’il vous plait!” the fat one insisted as he clicked his fingers imperiously.
He examined John’s Irish passport.
“Ah! Le Guinness,” he said smiling at Happy John and turning to show the passport to his colleague. John smiled back nodding gormlessly; evidently believing that his ‘stupid big Irishman’ act was working a treat.
Then, examining my British passport, the fat officer said flatly to his skinny comrade, “Anglais.” They both shrugged their shoulders resignedly. There were no smiles for me.
No point disputing that I was not English, I thought. Try explaining the Irish Question to a Frenchman in pidgin French.
“Une centaine amende franc, s’il vous plaît,” the fat official demanded with a chubby hand outstretched. I understood enough French to know he was demanding money.
Again we shrugged. So the skinny one wrote in his note book and showed it to us: “100 fr”.
“Wait a feckin’ minute!” said John outraged.
“D’accord! L’office, s’il vous plaît, ou cent francs maintenant,” the skinny one said pointing to a sign saying ‘Gendarmarie’.
Again my grasp of French told me they were demanding one hundred francs on the spot or we would be taken to the police station.
“You know these feckers are putting this money straight in their back pockets?” demanded an irate John. “British feckin’ passport!” he mumbled in an effort to shift the blame for our predicament.
“What’s our choice? This was your plan, John,” I fired back.
What option did we have? We were caught red-handed. We feared if we went to the police station it would be worse for us.
So we paid Laurel and Hardy and they went happily on their way.
“Au revoir, Guinness!” the fat one shouted merrily to John.
“Feck off, you fat French shite,” said John.
That was the end of my excursions with Happy John. He blamed me because he believed we would have got away with it but for my British passport. I blamed him because it was his scam that had cost us.
I next saw Happy John in Florence. I heard this Irish voice shouting across a crowded square, “Oi, les Anglais!”
I turned to see his big red face, “le Guinness!” he shouts proudly pointing to himself. I promptly lost myself in the crowd.