From the discomfort zone: French bills

From the discomfort zone: French bills

A French sociologue had once long ago advised me that to understand French society, I should listen to people talk in coffee shops, hair salons and the park.

Forty one years ago was the first time I arrived at Rue de la Glacière in Paris 13th district, crossing an old, open metro bridge. Turning right at an old Haussmannian building, a small road called Rue du Champs-de-l’Alouette had a modern building adjacent to it constructed after the Great War. I came here now to focus on apartment number 23.

Nothing had changed. Cafe l’Alouette in front remains more or less the same. My journey in France had started here after I’d arrived at the late scientist Dr Pyne’s laboratory. He didn’t know me, I’d just heard about him. When I landed in Paris mid-November 1973 at the age of 19 with less than the $8 I’d left India with, this most generous man gave me my first shelter and turning point here.

To pay homage to Dr Pyne’s memory, I sat at the cafe to look at the building’s third floor and recall my first three months in Paris when I understood no French, and could never afford to come to this cafe. I ordered my favourite casse-croute (food for breaking hunger), a platter of multi-choice smoked ham and pate with French baguette.

In spite of the overcast 10 degree Celsius weather, people were sitting outdoors as the awning had heaters above to keep the air warm over the tables, a development I’d not seen 41 years ago. While contemplating my third floor mission, some humming voices suddenly reached my ears.


Two women, around 30 and 60 years old respectively, were engaged in an intense conversation. The older woman, recounting her stressful young life, symbolised French social life today. Considering my research habit of eavesdropping on potins (gossip), I could not miss out on this.

A French sociologue had once long ago advised me that to understand French society, I should listen to people talk in coffee shops, hair salons and the park. I’d been lucky earlier that a friend was working at a women’s hair salon near my home, and she’d agreed to cut my hair at a corner of the beauty parlour so I could listen to Parisian potins. Women would openly gossip for hours while getting their hair done.

They unknowingly gave me immense knowledge about French society, which I’d used to induce marketing strategies for different clients.

This kind of gossip makes you aware of economic problems, adultery, social discrepancies, love affairs, new trends, food habits — generally everything about everyday social life and living. Now in Cafe l’Alouette, the elder woman was narrating her personal life kaleidoscope to her young friend: “Electricity bill, water bill, EMI bill, cooking gas bill, house tax, income tax, these are life’s daily burdens. In this country, you just cannot enjoy love and better living without stress. That’s all I’ve seen in my young working years”.

Her husband had left her, so she had to look after their two children. She’d worked as personal secretary to an entrepreneur, maintaining a life and style beyond her means and call of duty. She’d liked her work, but slowly understood that she’d become too dependent on her boss.

If she raised economic problems that were troubling her like paying bills, he’d immediately say that personal problems should not be brought to the office. But whenever she looked a little down, her boss would buy her expensive clothes or accessories and take her out for dinner in sophisticated Parisian restaurants, splurging much more than what she needed. “Instead of spending on my dresses and accessories, if I had this extra amount, I would not have struggled to pay bills. But it was impossible to express this to my boss.”

So she collected an exquisite wardrobe to attend official parties and to accompany the boss to different functions. Because her wardrobe was so classy, her friends would consider her above their lifestyle and not include her in their social life.

“My allure was higher than my earning,” she said. But she had nobody to tell her woes to then. The comfort of a regular job and a commanding position at office kept her very busy. She simultaneously handled all requirements of the boss’s wife and children. During his absences while he was on family holidays, her responsibility was to maintain the office. “After returning from a holiday, he’d get angry seeing my pale, tired face. He never understood that I never did get the chance to go to the south of France to get a sun tan,” the elderly woman bemoaned.

“When he was here, I had to be in office before time because he always wanted some intimate time with me. He’d also get my sympathy when he complained about his unhappy domestic life. Years went by without my realising I was not only his secretary, but his mistress. I performed both roles.”

Now that she’s retired, the bills are still there but, “I have no work pressure or the pressure of being the boss’s pin-up secretary.”  Her son now works in Hong Kong and her daughter is in the US; she visits them regularly. “So my friend, enjoy your life now, don’t wait to relax till you reach my age. Mistress-secretary was a kind of aura I lived in. I was so conditioned to being the pivot in the office — at the centre of all important happenings – that I could never find or adjust to another man because nobody could give me this kind of life full of action and power. My biggest regret is that I live alone now and have no lover.”

Her key message was, “The more you get influenced by and align to superficial society, you’ll live beyond your affordability, and only pay bills; the number and size of bills will continue to grow.” The younger girl asked if she was happy then. “I don’t know,” the elder one answered. “I was so hassled with paying bills. And at the same time, I was enamoured with outings in chic restaurants with beautiful dresses.

While always giving him my best smile, it seemed to me that attending the boss was another bill I was paying.”


Shombit Sengupta is an  international creative  business strategy n consultant to top  management. Reach him at