A Paris Fairy Tale with a Happy Ending
Volume XXI, Issue 5
Twenty-six years ago to this day, I walked out of an unhappy marriage and never looked back. I was thankful that I had Paris in which I had fallen madly in love to replace the love lost in the marriage. At the time, we were living in a furnished rental apartment in the 17th arrondissement that my husband had found for us by canvassing the ads for agencies in the FUSAC.
The FUSAC was just about the only English-language publication in Paris at the time, made up of classified ads of all kinds—long before there was the internet and any other fast and easy way of finding property. From our Los Angeles home, he called and wrote letters until he embarked on a trip to Paris for one week to find and secure an apartment for us.
That February 2nd, the day of the breakup, I was able to move to the guest bedroom to formalize our separation. That began my quest for a new life. It might have been more logical to return to the U.S., but it simply wasn’t emotionally possible. I had lived in Paris 2.5 years, gotten to know the city well, made tons of friends, so leaving the City of Light felt like a death sentence.
The whole process to find an apartment for rent then was very different than it is now—simpler in many ways, but more difficult in others. The landlords weren’t struggling then against laws that favor the tenants, but the search process without the internet was clearly more complicated.
In June, a few months before our lease would run out, I went on a mission to find an apartment for myself and my daughter. I didn’t have any help or know how to go about it, but I picked up the FUSAC once again, garnered up whatever publications I could find advertising apartments for rent, and set out to visit as many as possible that would work for the two of us.
Somehow, without knowing why, it seemed that 7,000 francs a month would be affordable, though I didn’t yet have a job and didn’t know how I was going to come up with the money. My first inclination was to look in the chic sixth arrondissement around Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Odéon where we had spent our touristic days, but every apartment was too “cher” for my imaginary budget. I learned fast that the district is the most expensive real estate in the city. My tastes were far too expensive for what I could afford, so I decided to concentrate on the fourteenth arrondissement, just below the sixth, which was middle-class French and pleasant. After visiting a dozen apartments in the district, nothing presented itself there, either.
By the end of the month, I had looked all over the city and come up with nothing suitable. Every apartment had at least one big drawback. Either it was a wreck and needed a lot of work, or it was up too many flights without an elevator, or the layout was unlivable, or the location was inconvenient…always something. It was frustrating, but the upside was that I was losing weight and gaining muscle from all the trekking around town I was doing. Plus, the search kept me occupied and not thinking too much about my divorce dilemma.
One afternoon at the offices of an organization for which I was a volunteer, while in the midst of the apartment hunting, the Studio Arts Director with whom I had butted heads on a couple of occasions, asked me as directly as anyone could, “So, are you staying or leaving?”
“I’d stay if I could find an apartment,” I answered.
“Well, I have an apartment. What are you looking for?”
That was a welcome, yet unexpected response.
“I need two bedrooms and would need to move in at the end of August or the beginning of September. I have about 7,000 francs a month to spend.”
“My apartment is two bedrooms and it’s 7,000 francs a month. Actually, it’s my daughter’s apartment that she rents furnished. It’s available as of the end of August.”
It sounded too good to be true. My heart pounded. Maybe my luck was changing.
“Where is it? When can I see it?” I asked, almost out of breath.
“It’s in the Marais. Tomorrow if you like.”
And with that, I made a date to visit it the next day. My friend, Geraldine, was game to go with me to visit the apartment. It was in a part of the Marais with which I wasn’t familiar. It wasn’t a neighborhood that had been on my radar. The neighborhood was downright scruffy, but full of personality owing to its centuries-old buildings.
Entering the ancient building for the first time, through big dark red doors opening to a carriageway that further led to a large rectangular courtyard, Geraldine and I noticed its worn cobblestone paving and the urns of geraniums on pedestals along the length of the backside of the courtyard. That part was up just a few steps so as to be a bit higher than the front side. There were four entry doors, or stairwells to four different buildings, all of which were attached, making one big rectangle surrounding a large courtyard. On the front side of the building we found stairwell D and the name on the buzzer.
“It’s Adrian,” I said when she answered.
We heard a click and the door opened. Geraldine and I climbed the steps of the wide, wooden, elegant classical seventeenth-century staircase with an iron railing, winding up sometimes in a smooth circular motion, other times stopping at small landings, so as to be completely inconsistent. At the third level, the steps narrowed, but each level was high. From the third floor, you could look down and see the spiral of the stairs in a beautiful pattern.
For some odd reason, I felt compelled to count the steps that very first ascent. There were seventy—not a good beginning to how I might feel about this apartment, knowing that every entry meant climbing and descending seventy steps. Slippery ones, too, as they were a highly polished oak. The stairwell was badly worn. The walls were a dirty cream color marked and peeling with age. The doors and the wooden trim were painted a deep burgundy red, just like the front door on the street. It was old, really old, and it was charming, really charming, in spite of its shabby appearance. The sounds of a piano playing a classical interlude came from an apartment on the first floor and filled the stairwell with pleasant notes.
At the top of the landing, down a small corridor, the door to the apartment was hidden from view. The door was painted a burgundy red (bien sûr!) and had a brass knob and a brass plaque with a space for a name. I didn’t notice what the name was. The landlord greeted us at the door, and behind it was the apartment she had available for rent, a bit shabby and out of date like the rest of the building. Geraldine and I strolled through the rooms and took in the atmosphere. It was bright, thanks to four windows overlooking the street, and high enough on the third floor to see sky as well as all the apartments directly across from it on the narrow Marais street—so close, in fact, you felt you could almost touch them. We concluded the apartment was southeast facing and therefore it would have light all day long.
The carpeting throughout was a dingy taupe. The walls were faded white. The tiny kitchen off to one side was filled with tan cabinetry, a faux-wood laminate counter top and terra cotta tile floors—all the colors I hate, but it had a washer/dryer combination, a full-sized oven, a four-burner stove and, amazingly, a dishwasher.
“How will I cook in this tiny kitchen?” I asked Geraldine.
I had enough pots and pans and kitchen gadgets to fill a kitchen four times its size, having come from the usual large American house with a big central kitchen and a lot of pantry space. Where was it all going to go? This might have been the tiniest kitchen I had ever seen.
Along one wall in the large living room was one long “bibliothèque” with lots of storage cabinets at the bottom, all white painted wood and classically designed bordered by narrow strips of molding to add detail. One bedroom was off the foyer, with two entries, one into the foyer and another double door leading to the living room. The other bedroom was on the other side of the living room, creating a natural separation and making the living room the center of the apartment’s life. The bedroom off the foyer had no closets or storage and the other was lined in cabinetry similar to the bookshelves, but the walls were decorated with cloth fabric that had been stapled on along the edges and the old-fashioned green-colored print was pretty comical. The furnishings throughout were nothing special.
The bathroom at the far end of the apartment was appointed with gray enamel fixtures including a “bidet” and a bathtub with shower, but it had pink walls, and it was separate from the toilet that was all by its lonesome in a small room off the foyer, without a sink.
There were lots of doors between the rooms, but almost all of them were “French”—glass-paned allowing in the light and the views from room to room. The doors into the bedroom off the foyer were both like that affording no privacy at all. We surmised that perhaps that room had been a dining room at one time, now converted to a bedroom. That’s the one I imagined would be mine.
“I like it,” Geraldine blurted out.
So, did I. There was something warm and loving about it. It was hard to explain the immediate reaction we both had to the apartment, even in its shabby shape.
“I’ll take it,” I said.
Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Did I really just do that? Did I really just say I’d take it? And mean it? Was I really staying in Paris? I gulped. It was hard to believe.
“Just one thing. My daughter is in the process of divorce.”
Uh oh. There it was. A caveat to deal with. “Aren’t we all?” I thought.
“She might have to sell the apartment sometime soon.”
“No problem. I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it here, either,” I explained. That may not have been the right thing to say to a potential landlord, but it worked for her.
“I have some furniture left in storage in the States I’d like to ship over. Do you mind removing some of these things? Not all of them, but some?”
After that eventful day, February 2nd, my husband had emphatically declared that he wanted certain pieces of our furniture, all of which were our best Italian-made things. I was secretly thrilled because I was happier with the smaller, less important, and less expensive things to which I didn’t want to be “married.” I didn’t want to be married to him and I didn’t want to be married to the furniture, either. The apartment had things I wanted to keep—like the TV and the double bed and some other odds and ends I found useful as well as a savings, so I wouldn’t have to buy new ones. I didn’t have any money for anything extra.
“No problem,” she said. “We can remove what you want and leave the rest. So, it’s settled? We can have it ready for you to move in at the end of August.”
Perfect, perfect, perfect, I thought. How did I get so lucky? The universe certainly was carrying me along down that hill and on the right path. That was 1997 and I’m still here to tell the tale.
How did it end? You guessed it. The landlord wanted to sell the apartment two years later…and I had the good fortune of making it all mine. It’s been home ever since…
The Adrian Leeds Group®
Adrian with Geraldine on February 2, 2014, celebrating freedom!
P.S. If you missed our announcement at the top of this Nouvelletre®, I will be one of the presenters at the The 2023 US Expat Finance Conference held online next week! Details and registration available on the event’s website.