My friend Jean Pierre was a helluva host who knew how to throw a house party.  Oh, you must stay with me, he insisted when I told him I planned to spend a month studying art in Paris.

 

However, thoughts of spending a month looking at etchings in a bijou residence in Avenue de Foch were banished when I arrived in seedy Berbes in the middle of the night.  The streets were eerily deserted except for the little oasis of life: a still-open cafe right outside J-P's apartment, where the pavement was four deep in slouching, smoking Algerians. 

 

My gay Parisian friend, it transpired, lived above a brothel, and more worryingly, he wasn't home. 

 

Consequently I spent our first night with a friendly escort of at least ten North Africans, racing cockroaches up the curtains of a nearby hotel.  My O level French couldn't follow exactly what/italics/ the two transvestites said, but eventually, the concierge grudgingly accepted that English prostitutes probably didn't arrive to turn tricks at 3am in the morning with two sets of matching luggage, a portfolio and a folding bicycle. 

 

Next morning J-P apologised profusely, paid my bill, and whisked me back to his pad three flights above the nocturnal maison des putes.  He offered his bed.  He would take the sofa.  The guest room was already occupied by a chap called Graham from Croydon and his girlfriend Moira. When J-P met two Swedish postgraduate students on the metro, he moved me several arrondisments further upmarket to his mother's flat, nestling sedately in a custom-made pug-carrying, Hermes handbag sort of neighbourhood.  This was postcard Paris: wrought iron balconies, baguettes, street markets, schoolgirls skipping Madeleine-style along the silent dusty streets.  Even better, the apartment was empty - if you didn't count the Egyptian Univeristy preofessor whom J-P had befriended in Cairo.  Dr Sadek had come for a two week holiday and stayed for three months.  Maman, understandably, had taken an extended holiday.

 

Each morning J-P would squeeze his long, lanky 6'3" frame into his Mini, usually with a man he'd met earlier at the bus stop/leather bar/boulevard and whisk me off, often against the traffic, on a fleeting sightseeing tour: Eyes right - the Louvre, and - whoosh - it was gone.  My art classes?  I never went to one.  Instead we went to the Communist fair - the fete de l'humanite.  We ate rare steak in a succession of grimy bare, basement restaurants, drank ourselves puttyfaced with rough red wine, smoked soft pack cigarettes and engaged in every Gallic clichˇ short of singalonga torch songs to an accordion.  And only then because I didn't know the words.

 

I didn't draw as much as a line in the ashtray.  The idyll continued until Maman arrived home one morning and found me, a dyed blonde Goldilocks, sleeping in her bed.

 

A rapid relocation back to Berbes followed.  Graham and Moira had graduated to the master bedroom, the Swedes had gone and a sixteen year old Algerian runaway was installed on the couch.  J-P kept such an open house that every time the door bell rang we braced ourselves for a fresh onslaught of itinerant travellers. It was like living in an alternative Club 18-30 in high season - complete with scheduled bus tours. 

 

Word was that J-P had another place in deepest rural Dordogne.  News of both this and the flat was whispered on the hippy trail - like the French equivalent of the beach.  You met someone in a dodgy youth hostel, turned up with a hand-drawn map at a shop in rue Assiette de Salami, asked Madame Le Brun for the key and then just let yourself in.  When J-P went back to England we took no chances.  We stopped answering the door.  We bolted ourselves in, took the phone off the hook, and only left the house for undercover food and fag runs.

 

We all smoked fluent French by the time we left.  But as for Paris, I haven't a clue.  I saw the rest of from a third floor window, and through the security peephole on the door.