E xpatriates Magazine met former concierge Paulette to find out more about her profession and life in a cosmopolitan Parisian building. Paulette, 83, is now retired, but for over 27 years she worked as a concierge in an apartment building in central Paris. This little-known profession is now becoming a thing of the past with the arrival of digital door codes and video cameras, but at one time it was an integral part of life in Paris. Paulette’s parents were concierges, and although she initially trained as a seamstress, working in one of the many textile workshops in the Sentier area of Paris, when her father died she took over his role in a Parisian apartment building.
Can you describe your job?
A typical working day started very early for me, around 6 o’clock. You have to be available to the tenants whenever they need you. It’s a job where people trust you with important things for them – signing for their recorded deliveries, keeping their keys, relaying messages… I knew they needed me. Throughout the day I would distribute the post, take and deliver messages for people, clean and maintain the communal parts of the building – staircases, courtyard, entrance hall etc. open the doors to the electrical, gas, and pest control companies, change light bulbs, and generally run errands for people in the building when they needed me. I would put the bins out (5 big heavy bins) at 6pm and bring them in again at about 7pm. After that I could say that my working day was mainly finished, but throughout the evening and even sometimes the night, the tenants could knock at my door if they needed something.
As a concierge accommodation comes with the job. What was your accommodation like?
I lived in a “loge” in the entrance hall. The loge was 22m2. I had my bed, a table, a wardrobe, and a small kitchen area. I used the kitchen sink for washing. It was an old building and there were “toilettes turques” in the courtyard, but when I got older the owners installed indoor facilities for me. The building had an inner courtyard which I loved, where I kept my plants, and where I used to sit in the summer.
There were 14 apartments in the building and whilst there were more French people than foreigners, the non-French tenants were as much a part of the spirit of the building as the French.
How did you manage to communicate with the foreign tenants?
Oh we always managed to understand each other whatever the language, by hand signs and saying things over and over again. Foreigners always make themselves understood you know, and they smile a lot.
What were the expatriate inhabitants of the building like?
Well there was quite a mix of different ages and nationalities that came and went over the years. I liked the Americans. They were very demanding, but always very polite and kind and clean. The Yugoslavian tenants were also very welcoming and friendly as were the Polish. The Germans were friendly, but they kept their distance. The English tenants I had were a bit eccentric, and the Italians could be difficult. Whatever you did for them they would always ask for more and they were often quite noisy.
I know the foreigners didn’t like the French very much, because the French are rude. It’s true, in Paris we are rude to people. I don’t know why. It’s just like that. I think the foreigners had a better time than the French though. They always seemed to be doing something, going out, having visitors and always celebrating something!
What did you like best about the job?
The fact that I was always surrounded by other people. Over the years you come to feel as if you’re a part of their lives. You see families grow up. The tenants used to look in on me to make sure I was alright. Sometimes they would give me little gifts. A Yugoslavian artist who lived in the building once painted a portrait of me. The tenants would send me post cards from their travels, and they gave lots of gifts for me and my pets.
What did you find the most difficult?
Just before I retired I found the work harder. I couldn’t clean so much, and taking the bins out was difficult because sometimes they were very heavy. Also, people would come in at all hours of the night, turn on the lights in the entrance, and slam the doors. My “loge” was just in the entrance hall. It was difficult to get a full night’s sleep.
Now you’re retired it must be nice to get more rest.
Yes, but I miss Paris and being part of other people’s lives. You get to know all kinds of things about people in your building. I have lots of stories I could tell about my tenants – it’s normal, I’m a concierge after all!
Interview and translation by Cathy Taylor