Sunday 18 January 2009

Prologue: in which we fear bass assault at the opera

The plan was to get a ticket for something at the Paris Opera, bomb into my tried and tested yet stunningly foul €20 hostel and wake afresh for the train to Rouen.

The Opera had sold out months previously (and with particular vigour, no doubt, since it was the première of a new production of Lady Macbeth of Zsmenzch by Shostakovich). I decided to brave the returns queue reserved for the Unemployed, OAPs and students, armed with a copy of Henry V -- not inappropriate fodder for my embryonic assault on France.

I plonked myself on the floor to general Parisian shock and began to read. As the minutes tocked by, I realized there was little chance I was going to get in.

It was then I noticed a shadow moving along the queue. It stopped in front of me. A hand clutching a ticket was thrust in front of me and its voice says, "Vous voulez ce billet?" I looked up surprised and what must have been foreignly for the voice came again, "Ze ticket. Z'free."

I glanced at it. Face value of €74. I follow the hand to a suit to a hideous but clearly expensive yellow tie. I gave a definite, "Oui," jumped up and followed the chap out of the ticket office.

That was when a wave of bafflement wafted over me. I had been in the middle of the queue. Why had I been offered the ticket? What had made this rather perfumey chap select me specifically to receive his gift (especially given my squatting position)? I asked: "Est-ce que quelqu'un est malade et ne peut plus venir?" "Eugh, non," came the reply and little offer of further explanation.

I began to worry what might be expected of me in return. €74 is quite a fair amount to go giving away. Our faltering conversation had revealed the man was a Classics teacher. Panic grew. I steeled myself for the following 60 mins in the awkward company of this smelly pedagogue until the curtain went up.

For some reason he wash rushing up the stairs at some speed. Quick, he said, it's about to start. And so it was -- my clock was still on English time.

Thank goodness.

At the end of the evening he gave me his card and an offer to get in touch whenever I was back in Paris. And that was that. Luckily I was retreating to Rouen with no specific plans to return...

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