Monday, February 04, 2008
An Apartment Search in Arrondissements
5eme: Postage stamp-sized studio on the billionth floor of a billion-year-old building, in a good way. The curving stone staircase is not just pre-Revolution but probably pre-Renaissance. Up and up we walk, just stairs and stairs that get narrower and narrower. No one can breathe by the time we reach the door. The couple that shows it is lovely and English-speaking and tells us about how they’re living in Monparnasse now but they used to live in the Caribbean. The room is strangely set up with a lofted bed and a view over the rooftops of the Latin Quarter but the price is painful and the square meters are few. We tell the guy half of the couple, who’s newly arrived from Denmark, how to sign up for our French course. We tumble down the stairs. We move on.
13eme: The wind and the Metro take us to the southernmost edge of the city, to a place that looks, at first glance, not like the Brooklyn of Paris or the Queens of Paris but the Secaucus, New Jersey of Paris with its modern buildings all weirdly spaced and flanked by a crowded cemetery and an office park. Everything has Italian names. We get lost trying to find it. We meander through a deserted park where everything is dead and leafless except for one brilliantly confused rosebush, flaming red against the gray day, valiantly braving the gale. At the apartment, the woman who we’ve been instructed to ask for speaks no English. There are wide gaps between her teeth and she smiles, pausing while we flounder in third grade French. Somehow, we say everything we need to say. There is an elevator. (“It’s old,” says Madame with a chuckle. “But it works.”) A book shelf full of travel guides in Arabic and English. It’s utterly lovely, and utterly in the wrong place. We thank her a million times, because “Merci beaucoup,” at least, is easy.
10eme: A Frechman, neat in his creased pants, his salt-and-pepper hair, gestures us into the double doors of a Haussmann building near the train station and walks us up to his daughter’s place. She’s away in Provence . The place is enormous with brilliant light, a view over the rooftops. But it’s sad, too. Poorly cared for. It needs rugs. Curtains. Paint. Fabreeze. A couple of thousand Euro and a couple of weekends of work and she could rent it for twice as much. “L’Internet, c’est ‘wireless?’” I don’t know of any other way to describe it. The German couple who has come up behind us intercedes. “C’est WiFi?” The man doesn’t know so he pulls out a cell phone, calls the daughter in Provence. N’est-ce pas le WiFi. N’est-ce pas OK.
15eme: The place is so close to the Eiffel Tower that you can see it, its glittery champagne-glass lights, in the windows of all the surrounding buildings. It is a two-bedroom. The owner is frazzled and the entryway smells of wet paint. It’s gorgeous. Moldings on the ceilings. Windows with billowing white curtains that open up onto pretty, wrought-iron balconies. The rooms are cozy, many-angled, gleaming. But it’s so expensive. Not just the apartment but the neighborhood which seems a little dull, a little old, a little remote. I could live there, though. I could see it. My traveling companion could not. We take the Metro back to reality and the Right Bank.
10eme: It is the only time in our whole search that we get weirded out. The neighborhood is remote, desolate. The building is on a strange, poorly-lit dead end that seems like it’s asking for trouble, or at least the company of a few homeless people. In the lobby, the lights keep going out on us while we wait and J____ and I punch the buttons furiously in the dark, wait for the click, for the pale overheads to come back on. The guy comes out wearing a velour track suit with motocross logos all over it. He’s handsome in spite of it, which maybe says something for Frenchmen in general. The studio on the 6th floor (which he advertised as being on the first floor) is agreeable, though. There is a sunny window, a mattress, directions to open the skylight, enormous posters of beautiful naked women on the walls. “I’ve been staying here with my daughter,” he says. Oddly, this somehow seems less weird than when he insists that the neighborhood is safe. “Oh, there are a few hobos around sometimes.” I like the way he says the word “hobos” with his accent. Like they’re not homeless people but characters in a vaudeville act.
11eme Enormous, well-priced place on Oberkamph shown by a gangling German with an even more gangling accent. Enormous and dark, I think. Unwelcoming. Dingy. Uninteresting. At the bottom of the stairs, J____ is in love and I’m underwhelmed. She sees the exciting neighborhood, the proximity to everything, the walk to classes, the size of the kitchen. I see the weird fluorescents overhead that would give me clinical depression in less than a week, the skinny little mattress, the drop cloths masquerading as curtains. She loves. I don’t love. We make other appointments.
14eme Roger seems very French and very not-French at the same time with his clipped little moustache, his quick mannerisms, his Burberry hat. His apartment is really wonderful except that it is, again, pas de WiFi and you can’t stand up in the shower. The English girl who’s renting it is still there and she smiles, makes it seem human and livable. The neighborhood is Denfert-Rochereau and we’re close to the Catacombs and the big roundabout with the wonderful Bartholdi statue of the Lion. I could almost live there for the lion alone. And the street market on the Rue Daguerre with its overflowing buckets of strawberries and tulips and squirming crabs. Roger tells us he’ll see what he can do about the WiFi. The sky brightens. The air seems not so cold.
18eme: It is not Montmatre, but it’s not far. The neighborhood is like a little village. Street market. Boulanger. Fish. Butcher. There are Arabs. Chinois. Old people. Young people. Professionals. Old Haussmann buildings abut new construction. Anne meets us at the end of the little pedestrian street that’s not even a Rue. It’s a passage. She puts a little brass key into the lock and I think that’s how I start to fall in love. Not with the neighborhood or the price (which is seriously unbelievable, even in Euro) or the passage with its heel-destroying cobbles, but with that key. It opens onto a pint-sized studio that reminds me of my first place in New York. Little bed. Little cook top. Little table. Anne starts pointing at things that she’ll replace before I get there. “I don’t like this table,” she says, poking at the top, indicating that she thinks it’s cheap. “I’ll get a new one for you.” All right, I think. All right.
4eme: Deborah is an ex-pat with a shock of yellow hair and a vaguely French speech pattern, a habit of saying things like, “Well, that’s that,” imposing itself on her careful English. She talks to us for an hour, invites us to sit down. She tells us about another language school that she liked better than the Sorbonne, about Carla Bruni, who might have actually been a whore in the literal sense, about Radio France Culture which makes NPR sound more or less like kindergarten, about the neighborhood and living abroad and going home to the USA to make money. Her apartment is wonderfully bright with tons of storage and a funky little kitchen. One of the two toilets is in the closet. I like it. The lavender paint. The bedspread with its Provence colors. It feels like a home, like an outpost halfway around the world.