Notes from an Italian hermitage – despatches from BOLOGNA #3
Talking Location with author Nicky Gentil – Paris
19th February 2020
#TalkingLocationWith… Nicky Gentil, author of Taxi Tales From Paris.
I have always loved reading ‘Brit abroad’ books – Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Stephen Clarke’s comically titled A Year in the Merde being two examples that immediately spring to mind. That said, back in October 1988, when I moved from the UK to Paris to start my first ‘real’ job working as in-house translator for a large French company, not for a single second could I have imagined that, one day, I would actually write one of my own!
Being a translator by profession, I write first in French and then translate my work into English. So Taxi Tales from Paris is in fact a translation of the original Petits dialogues en taxi published in 2018 – a book I wrote as a personal tribute to the wonderful city in which I have spent over three decades of my life and with which I continue to conduct a long-standing love affair.
I tend to do most of my writing at my kitchen table, seated opposite a stunning view of the Eiffel tower. The view changes with the light, as evidenced by the two contrasting photos below. They make it easy to see why the impressionist painters were so very inspired by an ever-changing light and why I myself never cease to be bowled over by the sheer beauty of the French capital.
Somewhat poignantly, I found myself translating a tale involving Notre Dame Cathedral a week after this significant landmark had set on fire. However, while the city of Paris does indeed form the backdrop to my book, bear in mind that the French capital serves as a kind of blank canvas on which I paint an original (at least I like to think so!) view of life over here. As the title suggests, in Taxi Tales everything is seen through the prism of my most memorable cab rides and the conversations with the drivers offer the reader more of an insight into a different cultural approach than detailed descriptions of the city’s monuments. To take just one example, in one of my absolute favourite tales – Another Philosopher – the cabdriver actually manages to elevate the (in my view) mundane subject of football to the noble status of a reflection on love and the unpredictable nature of Cupid’s work! This particular anecdote never ceases to make me smile because, as I see it, only a Frenchman could do that and I make the point in the tale that this is a fitting reflection of the apparent ability of the entire French population to make an intellectual analysis of absolutely everything and anything!
The inspiration for Taxi Tales came from another observer of life in France – the American writer Adam Gopnik – although he is blissfully unaware of it! Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon is a wonderful account of his time here and in one of his essays he recounts the most unlikely of conversations with a Paris cabdriver. This set me thinking that exchanges of this kind could make a great subject for a book. After all, in Paris it is extremely easy to get talking to the cabdriver; taxis over here tend to be smaller than the majestic London black cabs and there is no glass panel creating a divide between passenger and driver. As for the nature of the conversations, they are anything but banal. Indeed, exchanges with Paris cabdrivers are more likely to be of the ‘no-holds barred’ variety! I believe this can be attributed to the fact that the relationship with the cabdriver lasts for the duration of the journey only. He – or she – is unlikely to see the same client twice (although, as I point out in the book, this has occasionally happened) and so has no past history or future encounter to worry about. This creates the perfect conditions for many a ‘barriers down’ moment.
Finally, my two top tips when in Paris – valid not only when taking a cab but also for dealing with people in general. While most people French people speak good English, even if you only have a smattering of French they prefer you to give it a try. And, if you do, you will find everybody so much more friendly and helpful. The same goes for cracking the code of etiquette. The French can be surprisingly formal; when you get in a cab, go in a café, shop etc., the standard greeting is “Bonjour Monsieur” (or) “Madame” – not just “Bonjour” which is considered to be rather rude. Once you’ve understood that, and start to use it, the longstanding myth of the aggressive Parisian is forever dispelled and that, in turn, opens the floodgates to sustained, undiluted enjoyment of this truly amazing city.
Thank you to Nicky for sharing such wonderful insights into the city and those pointers on etiquette!
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