In the second of 12 episodes, Oliver Ash recalls how Parisian geography got him all hot and bothered on the way to a job interview
Sometime around the middle of 1983, I picked up a copy of Chartered Surveyor Weekly and opened it at random somewhere near the back, where the jobs were advertised. There it was, staring at me: a plain advertisement in a small, rectangular box with no frills, no extras, no colour. “Hampton and Sons”, it read, “seek a commercial property negotiator for their Paris office. Apply to Clive Llewellyn FRICS.” I felt my pulse quicken, and thoughts of destiny flooded my mind – before I pushed them out. No good wasting too many minutes pondering free will when there was a job in Paris to apply for.
I ignored the fact that I had no knowledge of commercial property apart from the theory I was learning from RICS books and evening classes at the Central London Poly. Surely if the meatheads in the commercial department of Hamnett Raffety could cope with it, then so could I? There was also the fact that my French was decidedly rusty. However, being half-French meant I could get up to speed if I just worked on it.
So that lunchtime I sneaked out to the nearest phone box and phoned Hampton and Sons in Paris. A few days later I sent out a CV and started planning a trip over for the interview. Things were difficult at home because my mother was ill, so planning to move far away was ‘à contre cœur’ but it felt right for me. I couldn’t live at home forever: I was 25. My sister would just have to cover for me. A few days later, in mid-July 1983, I set off for Heathrow.
It was a rainy, blustery morning. For the day trip I took my briefcase, a raincoat and a golf umbrella. We landed at Charles de Gaulle airport in a 35ºC heatwave. This was impossible to foresee in the absence of the instant global forecasts we are blessed with today. As a result, I got to Paris sweating like the proverbial pig and sorely tempted to discard my mac and brolly in the nearest bin.
My first task was to find Hampton’s office at 19 Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt. Those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of this major Parisian thoroughfare might think this challenge straightforward enough. But for a first-time visitor, already nervous, overdressed and dripping under the burning sun, it was to prove daunting. I emerged from the metro on the north side of the Champs Élysées and found what appeared to be the beginning of the avenue: the numbers starting 2, 4, 6 and so on. I crossed over and discovered the numbers started at 43, followed by 45 then 47. Somewhat confused and beginning to panic I continued down the odd side (although by now both sides were starting to seem decidedly odd). I hurried along, between nervous glances at my watch, hoping that by some miracle number 19 might turn out to be sandwiched between numbers 47 and 49, but it wasn’t to be.
When the Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt became the Place Saint Philippe du Roule, I knew I was in trouble. I crossed back over the street in desperation and saw number 28. This was madness. Running back to where I started,
I spotted a phone booth and decided to try my luck at phoning the Hampton office to ask for help, despite the risk that this would put me in the idiot category before the interview had even taken place. There were three people queuing to use the booth. Damnation. Looking around,
I saw a Barclays bank: I charged in and sprinted to the reception desk. “Excuse me, is there a number 19 along this road, because I can’t find it?” I stammered in my schoolboy French.
The lady looked at me quizzically. “You’re English, aren’t you? Well, yes, number 19 does exist, only it’s not here.” “Not here?” I whispered. “No, it’s quirky, the low odd numbers are all on the other side of the Rond-Point.” “Oh, great,” I groaned, suppressing the urge to ask the good lady why on earth, if the low odd numbers were on the other side of the square, the low even ones were on this side? But it didn’t seem like a good moment to go the full Fawlty.
She was pointing across the massive square to the Grand Palais building. “The road is one-sided down to the river because of the palace, which doesn’t have a number.” She had hardly finished the explanation than I was out of the door, making my way round the huge square as fast as traffic would allow. Five minutes later I was in front of number 19, an imposing Haussmann-period building. I was dishevelled and unpleasantly damp but no later than the average Parisian arrives for his meetings. I was still
in with a chance.