Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Rain in France Falls Mainly on My Pants

Bonjour! I arrived in Paris on Friday, emerging from Charles De Gaulle with my luggage despite three flights on three different airlines. Sadly, Tina had to remain in Philadelphia, leaving me to sit next to a quiet young Irish woman for the transatlantic journey. When the pilot announced the in-flight entertainment, Hotel for Dogs, she was moved to say her only spoken words: “Oh, balls.”

I arrived on an amazingly beautiful day, low 70s and bright sun. I made it to my new apartment with no real problems and was greeted by my landlady, Patricia. Patricia is a lithe British woman, friendly but clearly thinking primarily about the Eurostar departure schedule. She was to the point: This is the apartment, hope you like it, and by the way: The neighbors are crazy.

The walls are fairly thin here, to be sure, but I was warned that the neighbors will take virtually any opportunity to knock on the door and ask me to be quiet. The night before I came, they knocked on the door at 11pm when she was reading a book in bed. And true to form, on my first night they knocked at 9pm, while it is still quite bright outside here, to ask if I could walk across the apartment more quietly.

My first thought was to formulate a response dripping with condescension (“Why do your people always have to go to sarcasm first?”), but Patricia had practically begged me to be nice and not to mention point out their nuttiness. So I smiled and muttered something unintelligible even to myself. (Something easy to do when someone is speaking to you in a foreign tongue -- you find yourself forgetting how to speak even your own language.)

The apartment is a one-bedroom in the 11th, about halfway between the Bastille and Pere Lachaise. I’ve been told that it is reasonably “fashionable,” which is apparently important. What I like is that I’m a block away from the bakery, the laundry, and the market. Diet Coke will flow through my veins once again! In general it’s quite a busy neighborhood, especially when it’s not raining. Except that it rains all the time, literally every day since I arrived. (“Oh, is Paris too rainy for you?”) Yes it is, and I’ll shut up now.

The apartment itself is about 1870s or so, and the building is fairly average for Paris – about six stories, ironwork on the windows, no balconies. The floors look 14th century to me, but apparently they are newer than that. They certainly creak like something medieval, but the patina is fantastic.

Most notable is the bathroom, as these apartments were built without a shower or a tub. (Seriously.) So a shower was fabricated by placing the head over the sink and a drain in the floor. So basically the entire bathroom is your shower, and you have two curtains to shield the door and the toilet on either end. After you take a shower, you use a squeegee to push the water into the drain. If you need to use the bathroom after, there’s a duckboard to stand on so you don’t have to pee while your feet steep in a thin layer of ice-cold water.

It’s quite amazing to consider how different this is from the U.S. You can only imagine the look of abject American horror on the faces of a House Hunters family when faced with my bathroom. How it would just be assumed that the entire room is a complete tear-down that must be rectified before even deigning to enter the apartment again. The kitchen would go with it -- the counters are essentially crafted with unvarnished two-by-fours, and the half-refrigerator sits underneath them so far you nearly have to get on your knees to get something from the back of it. But as a visitor, it’s all rather charming.

The thing is, you quickly learn that these are things that matter not one little bit. It’s all perfectly functional, just slightly more time-consuming and not as attractive. (Unless you’re handicapped, in which case I assume you’re paid to leave Europe entirely.)

This is a trap I’ve fallen into myself. I have a long list of “post-tenure purchases” I want to make for my house, and I’m not sure a single one of them has to do with a functional purpose. They’re just all things I don’t like. And if Oprah has taught us anything, it’s that our home is a special, sacred sanctuary that must be made perfect before our souls can thrive.

Not that Europeans have a monopoly on what really matters in life – this is a country, after all, in which no two people wear the same pair of jeans. It’s just that things are often inverted. The same American who can’t live without granite countertops happily wears sweatpants to work. A European must have a special place to hang her umbrella, but couldn’t care less if the mattress is 30 years old.

The mattress is something I’m finding a little less charming with each morning.

12 Comments:

At 11:55 AM, Blogger Jennifer said...

Good ol' Europe! I remember trying to ask my host family to put up a shower curtain so that water wouldn't go everywhere every time I did anything with the shower (hand-held showers are evil! and hand-washing clothes is just minor in comparison), and they just let me know that it would get too "stuffy" if they did so.

We may not have really old architecture and history in the US, but you learn to appreciate that after traveling at times...

 
At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am laughing about your crazy neighbors because I lived through that for 4 years! Feel free to call me at 3:00 in the morning if my bedroom fan is too loud. YOU obviously shouldn't have to wear earplugs when I'M the one making the noise.
- Mel

 
At 10:55 PM, Blogger drastrid said...

What a delightful peek into "life byond the walls" a Paris! We're going again in September, and are debating between some lower-key R&R in the city itself, or using
Paris as a center and TGVing into the south, beyond Aix. Any suggestions about how to find good apartment?

Congratulations on your blog!

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Thankfully the neighbors haven't reemerged from their den... yet.

On finding an apt... I think Craigslist is relatively popular in Paris. And from there you can find other apt rental agencies. Of course you are taking a bit of a risk with Craigslist, just be sure to pay only once you see the apt and are satisfied with the rental people. You will pay more with a rental company, but you might think there is a bit more peace of mind. I used a company in Rome, and Craigslist in Amsterdam. Paris was luck -- a girlfriend of one of my students rented here before.

 
At 11:46 AM, Blogger amy said...

Is there a place for me to sleep when I come IN A LITTLE OVER A MONTH, or should I bring my newly acquired camping sleeping bag? It's small and fits easily into my newly acquired frame backpack! (Yes, I just want to use my camping stuff again.)

 
At 3:08 AM, Anonymous Kris said...

You didn't mention what happens to the toilet paper when you take a shower. In my experience, better to remove it from the room entirely before attempting a shampoo.

Keep blogging. We'll keep reading.

:)

 
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