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The International Writers Magazine: My Early Years as a Frenchman

‘Ou est Baudelaire?’
• Joe Swain


At about the age of 14, I decided to become French.

“Non, non, non. Je m’appelle Bertrand,” I would scald my mother at breakfast as I swanned in, my newly purchased artist’s smock and cravat billowing behind me. To which she would invariably just smile and mutter, “That’s nice dear,” and get on with learning her lines for whatever play she was in at the time.

By the time I was 16 my Bertrand persona was just one of many polished stereotypes in my repertoire, but always my favourite. Particularly on market days, when the Landrover brigade would trundle into our small market town in Norfolk from their outlying farms, all atwitter with excitement at the prospect of a day in the ‘smog’.

“Bonjour, bonjour,” I would greet them from my slouched position in the lobby of whichever of the three marketplace pubs had taken my fancy that day, and then, whenever I thought I could get away with it, attempt to kiss them on both cheeks.

A manoeuvre which, when you consider how much of their time these people spend during the week cheek to jowel with cows, pigs and floppy-necked turkeys, always seemed to provoke a disproportionately agitated response.

“Laisse-moi, respirer, longtemps, longtemps, l'odeur de tes cheveux,” I would lament, before flouncing into the bar to refresh my glass of Pastis and lemonade.

I would then spend the rest of the day wandering around the town with an unlit Gauloise cigarette in my mouth, using my hands to frame possible camera angles for the ‘art noire’ film I had obviously been commissioned to make by the French Film Federation. Stopping only occasionally to pout provocatively at passing girls whose giggles I chose to construe not as mockery but as an expression of their repressed anglo-saxon sensuality .

When my dream came true at the age of 18 and my parents packed me off to live in Paris, it came as no great surprise. I simply concluded that they must have concluded that I was so French, it would be cruel to keep me from my spiritual homeland a moment longer.

“I don’t care what his passport says,” my mother must have said to my father one morning. “Have you not seen how natural he looks in a cravat and beret? And that nonchalant shrug? There was clearly a mix up at the hospital when he was born.”

That my ticket was born of a family whip round one Sunday evening while I was out persuading the landlord of my local pub that there was nothing weird about a ‘boy of my age’ ordering a bottle of Corton Charlemagne and a bowl of green olives, is a minor detail.

It was only a one-way bus ticket to Paris, but I took to the challenge like a canard to eau.

For the first couple of weeks I stayed with some Scottish friends of my parents in the west Parisian suburb of Maison Lafitte, before eventually finding myself a tiny little attic room at number 10, Rue Thimonnier, in the city’s 9th arrondissement. Just a hop, skip and a jump from the shimmering white domes of La Basílica del Sacré Cœur and its many hundreds of flamboyant pavement artists who I was already thinking of as my family.

The fact that I had no more artistic skill than the foldaway chair on which I sat all day, was neither here nor there to me in those heady days. I don’t think I ever painted anything, but instead simply strutted about in front of a rather colourful, half-finished canvas I’d found abandoned in a nearby bin.

Raising my pallet to the sky for inspiration, engaging gullible tourists in conversation, and, where possible, attempting to kiss them on both cheeks.

I teamed up with a kilt-wearing, red-haired Scottish bagpipe player called Callum who despite his Celtic appearance had no more skill with his chosen instrument than I did with a paintbrush. To make up for this he used to conceal a cassette player in the bagpipe’s idle gut and march around being showered with change by rich McAmericans. If any of them should start questioning the decidedly tinny timbre of Callum’s playing, it was my job to usher Bertrand in from stage left to create a diversion.

“Monsieur, Monsieur. Such bone structure, such poise. You are the subject I ‘ave been searching for all zis time. Mon dieu, ooh lah lah.”

Enough time and confusion for Callum to blend into the crowd uncontested, like Mr Benn on the arm of the shopkeeper at the end of one of his adventures.

We ran this routine without a hitch for a good few months that year and were only caught out once, when we were approached by an angry looking man in a café late one afternoon, just as we were about to split our earnings and celebrate with a disgustingly good bottle of red wine.

He stood before us, his hands on his hips and an agitated twitch bouncing around his forehead.

“I ‘av been looking for you for weeks. Especially you,” he said pointing a paint-streaked hand in my direction. His eyes scanned our bags and with a triumphant yelp, he reached down and extracted the half-finished masterpiece from my bag and kissed it like a long lost friend.

“I know now how to finish ‘er,” he added, hugging the canvas to his chest.

I wondered if this was a good moment to try and kiss him on both cheeks, but there was something a bit slobbery about him, so I resisted.

© Joe Swain March 2014
joeswain at

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