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I Am Not an Alcoholic: ‘Being alone in Paris, who was to know if I had a glass? But that was the problem, wasn’t it?’

Part 17: Although most people in the cafe are drinking coffee like me, some are having absinthe in between sips of coffee. It is 9.30am. How do they do that?

I am in Paris. The city of my heart. The city that feeds my soul. It is my first visit here since I stopped drinking. And even though I packed my suit of armour, I am nervous.

All those cafes with their attractive red awnings, their wicker chairs and tables draped with starched white table cloths. The waiters whizzing past in their long, pristine white aprons carrying trays over their shoulders with the precision of a military exercise. I look around me and I am relieved to see most customers are, like me, drinking coffee, although in front of some are small glasses of absinthe which they sip between sips of coffee.

I look at my watch, it is 9.30 in the morning. Hmmm, how do they do that?

Paris is very cold. It is baltic. So, a decision to visit the flea market in Porte de Clignancourt – an open-air market – was a bad one. I had planned my trip meticulously, but then life got in the way. The metro, line four, was not operating until midday so I took a circuitous route. That was my first mistake.


I would have been better to go and have a cup of coffee and wait until midday when the malfunctioning metro would have taken me directly to Porte de Clignancourt. Instead, I took one metro and then another until finally, I got off at Jules Joffrin and walked the 15 minutes to the market battling the cold air. This was one of those occasions when your expectation exceeds your anticipation.

Maybe the malfunctioning metro was a sign? Maybe the fact that I couldn’t feel my fingers even though they were ensconced in cashmere-lined leather gloves was a sign? Maybe the fact that the streets were practically empty of people was a sign?

But I saw none of this until it was too late.

Arriving at the flea market, I just wanted to turn back. The vendors – huddled up in thick overcoats and scarves – were in no mood to barter. They could barely muster a “bonjour” there being nothing “bon” about this “jour”. I left after a very short time, but on my way to the metro, I passed a cafe and went in.

Warmed up somewhat, I decided to try to brave the flea market again. But it was no fun walking around aimlessly picking up porcelain plates and rubbing the dust off to see if Limoges was stamped underneath. Strangely, (seeing as I would never be drinking out of them myself) I was drawn to beautiful etched wine glasses, the vendor muttering “Baccarat” through teeth clenched with cold, as if that explained the exorbitant price. I quickly replaced the delicate glass before my numb fingers dropped it and I had to pay €60 for a broken glass. No, the long-anticipated trip to the Marché aux Puces was as disappointing as not finding the end of the rainbow.

Whenever people say (and they say it a lot) that Parisiens are unfriendly, aloof and sometimes downright rude, I always defend them because my experience is different. On the streets asking for directions, I have been amazed at how far a Parisien/ne will go to make sure I get to my destination. One day going to the Musée Rodin, and not sure which street to take, I asked an elderly woman and she replied: “Vous voulez que je vous accompagne?” I was taken aback even though it had happened before but it never ceases to amaze me. I said yes, as long as I’m not taking you out of your way, which, of course, I was. We walked side by side for perhaps 10 minutes and I learned that she had recently moved to Paris from Béziers. It was a nice human interaction and another good story to add to my list of “friendly Parisiens”. It’s a long list.

It was coming up to midday one day and I walked to Café de Flore only to find a long queue. The same at Les Deux Magots next door, so I crossed over to the other side of the Boulevard Saint-Germain to Brasserie Lipp. There, there was no queue, but the place was full. A waiter squeezed me in to a table between a couple on one side and a solitary man on my other side.

When asked about wine, not did I want it but which one: ‘Du blanc ou du rouge?’, I had to disappoint him again when I ordered a large bottle of Perrier with ‘fines boules’

I had to keep my arms pinned to my sides to avoid a collision. I was contemplating how I would manage to use a knife and fork when I got sense. I left, or would have had I not been imprisoned by the table. A waiter came with the menu and I asked to leave. With that, a manager arrived and found me a table where I could use a knife and fork without fear of stabbing anyone. Then I hung my coat up on ornate brass hangers placed high above the mirrored wall. A waiter appeared as if by magic shaking his head and his right forefinger at me. Apparently, the hangers are ornaments and were likely to pull the mirrored wall down on top of everyone. I gingerly unhooked my coat. “Oh la,” another catastrophe averted.

The menu was very meat-reliant with little option for a quasi-vegetarian like me. I decided on a salad – avocado with prawns – when l noticed a sentence at the top of the menu: salads are not considered a meal. I couldn’t leave a second time.

I put on my sweetest smile and, ignoring the fatwa on salads, ordered the avocado with prawns. The waiter was either unaware of the fatwa or he didn’t care. Either way, I got my salad. When asked about wine, not did I want it but which one: “Du blanc ou du rouge?”, I had to disappoint him again when I ordered a large bottle of Perrier with “fines boules”.

Finally, I could sit back, admiring the beautiful decor and pretend I was an extra in a French film (the restaurant has been used in several films over the years).

Yesterday, I went to the hairdresser. This news comes with caveat emptor. I thought I had done due diligence by popping in the day before, showing my shoulder-length tresses (they charged by the length) and agreed a price. When it came for me to pay, she asked for a price way above the agreed price. I asked her why and she explained it was for “le soin”. She had asked me if I wanted conditioner and I replied: “Just on the ends, s’il vous plaît.” That sentence cost me an extra €10.

Next, I walked into a cafe. The waiter approached me as if I were trespassing and said: “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?” I replied, “Un café.” I thought he meant did I want to eat or just have a coffee. He showed me to a table and I sat down. Minutes later, he appeared with an espresso. I told him I wanted “un café au lait”. He grumbled about me saying “un café” and went to get me “un café au lait”, hopefully without his spit added for flavour. Between these two misunderstandings, I questioned my ability to speak French, a language I thought I spoke relatively well.

One evening I went to a book launch. The book being launched was The French Art of Living Well by Cathy Yandell. She read selected passages from chapters and, in one, she discussed Montaigne’s essay on drunkenness. He rejects drunkenness on the principle that it’s vital always to have control over our consciousness, but he subscribes to Plato’s claim that wine gives “temperance to the soul and health to the body, grants older people the courage to dance and makes everyone merrier”.

Was I supposed to be listening to this? I wanted her to stop talking.

She continued. Montaigne does, however, include a disclaimer: “Military men, judges and magistrates should not engage in drinking when they are carrying out their duties.”

This last sentence brought chuckles from the audience. I had lost my sense of humour.

The background noise to all this was the uncorking of bottles of wine, pop, pop, pop. I wanted to get out of there, but I was sitting in the front row and to leave would have caused an inconvenience and disruption that I preferred to avoid. Naturally, Dolores (yes, I’ve named the voice of temptation) did not miss this opportunity. “You see, I told you. A glass of wine is good for you. Everyone will drink a glass of wine and savour the wonderful taste. You can too.”

Her voice was pleading. She continued: “And even Montaigne, one of France’s greatest philosophers, advocates the drinking of wine.”

As if Dolores had ever heard of Montaigne.

No, this was not a good place for me to be. Being alone in Paris, who was to know if I had a glass? But that was the problem, wasn’t it? It wouldn’t be a glass. The other customers would take a glass of wine and sip it as they queued for their books to be signed by the author. They would not walk miles out of their way to find a shop that was open and sold wine on their way home.

No, but I would.

After that experience, I thought going to an AA meeting might be a good idea. I arrived a little late and, to make matters worse, I slammed the door behind me (not intentionally) and everybody (all nine of them) turned around to see who was causing the interruption. A woman was reading from a book and the man beside me handed me a copy of the book: it was called The Twelve Traditions and this group was reading Tradition Eleven, which states: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”

AA meetings are run along similar lines across the globe, but I was interested to see if another country would put its own individual stamp on them so I went to a French-speaking AA meeting

Was this not serendipity? The fact that I write articles anonymously that are published in a national newspaper that inform, but do not instruct, the public about the dangers of alcohol?

A week later, I went to another AA meeting and at the obligatory, “My name is ... and I am an alcoholic”, I said: “My name is ... and I am a visitor from Ireland.” A man turned around to me and, gesticulating with his hands, indicating that I hadn’t finished, he waited. I waited. The room waited.

It was very awkward for what felt like a long time before the facilitator continued the meeting.

AA meetings are run along similar lines across the globe, but I was interested to see if another country would put its own individual stamp on them so I went to a French-speaking AA meeting.

Ah, the French version of AA. I should have known sex would come up.

When I arrived, the door was locked. There was a bell which I pressed. A voice asked me if I knew the code. I explained I was a visitor and he buzzed me in. I was a little nervous as I entered the room, but when I saw my neighbour sitting at the top of the table, I was so shocked I forgot my nervousness. What was Patricia doing at an AA meeting in Paris? And when did she learn to speak French so fluently?

No, it wasn’t Patricia but her doppleganger, Sidonie. This woman even spoke like my neighbour, even if it was in a different language, using hand gestures exactly like Patricia. I sat down on a chair and found it hard to concentrate so distracted was I by Patricia/Sidonie. We were tightly ensconced around a table and I couldn’t fade into the background. Patricia/Sidonie was running the meeting and she opened the floor for whoever wanted to speak.

My second visit to a French-speaking AA meeting and I was again nervous going into the room, but, like the previous time, I was welcomed warmly

After a short silence, Jean-Luc explained how his libido was affected since he stopped drinking (much more likely his confidence was affected). He spoke freely, not minding strangers knowing all about his sexual history. It was a first for me. I felt very welcomed by this group, a group who had just met me and would probably never see me again. I was touched by this.

Again, as in Dublin where I have attended many AA meetings over the years, I was struck by how much people get out of AA. Despite differences, there was one constant – the level of commitment these people have for the fellowship of AA and the support they got from attending meetings on a regular basis. I was envious of this knowing it eludes me and I don’t know why.

Did I mention that Sidonie was black and Patricia is white? It didn’t matter. When Sidonie was talking, it was my neighbour. Quite disconcerting.

I was awakened last night several times because of alcohol. No, thankfully not my consumption of the drug, but rather the results of it on the Erasmus students who then had lost all sense of propriety and did not realise that they were shouting and that it was two o’clock

In the morning, I lay there thinking of the awful hangovers they would have and I didn’t feel bad that that thought made me happy.

They further disturbed me relaying their drunken exploits while I was sitting in the salon des residents trying to write this article. Talking quite loudly, I overheard a story that involved a guy who, when leaving his rent-a-bike back, discovered his phone had died so was unable to pay (phones double as wallets for young people, apparently) so he cycled around Paris until he found himself in the 20th arrondissement a long way from his home which was in the 5th arrondissement. “Why’d he do that?” one student asked. “Because he was drunk”, laughed the storyteller as if that explained everything.

Another girl lost her coat, a gift she’d just received for her birthday from her mother. She couldn’t remember where she had left it and she couldn’t return to the bars she’d been in because she didn’t know where they were. “Weren’t you cold when you left. It was freezing last night.”

“Was it? No, I guess the alcohol kept me warm.” They laughed. Hilarious.

Then they spoke about how much they had consumed and if one’s capacity for alcohol surprised me, another’s shocked me. These stories were told with a kind of bravado as if they had done something to be proud of.

My second visit to a French-speaking AA meeting and I was again nervous going into the room, but, like the previous time, I was welcomed warmly.

It is an interesting fact that however a meeting is run – and they do vary – the result is the same. People are helped and supported by their peers and feel listened to. The evidence is there that AA meetings help people to abstain from drinking and maintain their sobriety. The fact that there are so many meetings at any time of the day or night in every corner of the world is testament to the fact that they work.

People keep coming back. Sauf moi.