Thursday, March 29, 2012

House hunting

"I want a house with a bedroom exactly like the one I have now.  Only bigger, with extra room for my Legos."  Le Petit told the real estate agent straight up what he wanted, and that much, at least, was easy to understand.

"...and I also want a little sea in the garden, where I can raise salmon and octopus," he continued.  The agent looked a bit confused at that one, but Le Petit, his usual outgoing self, cheerfully changed the subject.

"Did you know that I went to an island in the Atlantic with my grandparents?  My grandparents have a car. It's an Audi."

At that, the agent was suddenly interested in Le Petit's four-year-old chatter. "Oh, an Audi, that's a nice car.  Does your Daddy work with cars?"

"No, Daddy works with computers," we answered, cutting Le Petit short.  So much for the agent's blunt fishing for financial information from the preschooler.  He took us to see a house, the first one we visited, and it fit neither le Petit's criteria nor ours -- the garden was overgrown (and with no sea), the floor plan was odd, the paint in bad disrepair, the bathrooms and kitchen in need of major remodeling.

"Oooh, the toilet is brown, Mommy!"  Le Petit remarked.

"Yes, um, a little bit of limescale," the agent said nervously, then continued vaunting the supposed qualities of the dumpy, unremarkable house, the ugly duckling of the block.

"You're not enthusiastic," my husband whispered when we stepped out into the street.


And so our house hunt began.  On subsequent visits, we've tried to leave the kids with my in-laws (or at least le Petit, who hasn't mastered his real estate poker face.)  It's only been a month, but I feel worn out by it all.  I'm dreaming real estate -- no exaggeration -- visiting apartments in my sleep, buying virtual furniture, losing my way on a new imagined commute.  We've spent our evenings scrolling through the listings on the iPad; we've signed up for e-mail alerts and we send each other anxious text messages in order to schedule visits.  We're approaching this as we seem to approach everything, turning it over every which way, trying to control the imponderables and generally making it all A Very Big Deal.

We're looking for a place in Versailles.  That much we've decided upon, and it isn't exactly a new idea for us.  It's further from Paris and therefore cheaper than the suburb where we currently live.  But it has been (shall we say) appreciated by the elite for four centuries, so it isn't exactly inexpensive, either.

You can credit the Louis(es) who put the place on the map: it doesn't feel like a suburb; it doesn't feel like a village; it feels a quiet provincial city, with a monumental side.  It has a true commercial downtown, and it also has the château and its gardens, it has quiet residential neighborhoods.  The schools are excellent.  And although it has a reputation for a certain vieille France snobbishness, we're far from alone in appreciating it.  All that means, quite naturally, that nice houses and apartments (that would be "condos" for my American readers) are hard to find.

We made an offer on the second place we saw.  It was a last-floor apartment in a typically Versailles 1960s four-storey  building with a stone facade and prim rectangular windows set in a mansarded zinc roof.  It was nondescript on the outside, and I would have called it ugly once upon a time, but we fell in love the unit itself.    It belonged to a widow who had lived there for decades, and she was reluctant to leave.  While she was considering our verbal offer -- a week and a half and still no response -- we began to have second thoughts.   The deal fell through (happily enough) and we were back to square one.

Square one started to look a lot like staying where we are another year.

In Versailles, there are "modern" buildings, mostly built in the 1960s and 1970s, with elevators and parking garages but also expensive homeowner fees and strange amenities like heated marble floors.  Anyone who's hip and has enough money to spend eschews the "modern" for apartments dans l'ancien -- in historical buildings, that can be rather historic indeed, dating from the 18th or even the 17th century.  Then, you either have to get creative or buy from someone who already found a way to carve modern rooms out of giant drafty reception rooms or low-ceiling attics with thick rafters.  The result will likely be charming, but will rarely have a retrofitted elevator. Nevertheless, everyone's looking for charming, it seems.

We visited an apartment in a 19th century building with two gorgeous bedrooms, a dining, living room and kitchen that were straight from the pages of Maisons Côté Ouest magazine.  But a vertiginous staircase -- more of a ladder, really -- led to two other attic bedrooms, with little head space.  We just couldn't imagine how it could possibly work with small children.  And the price was at the veeeeery top of our budget anyway.

My husband has been doing most of the visiting, prospecting alone on Saturdays while I look after the kids.  He's seen funky old buildings with windowless dining rooms, or with bedrooms that lead from one to another; he's seen  dull 1960s places with everything from the kitchen to the electricity in bad need of an upgrade.  There's always something not quite right it seems.  He'll be taking me to revisit one last promising place tomorrow, and we've given ourselves two more weeks to find something or put off moving for another year.  From offer to closing takes a minimum of three months in France, and we want to move in the summer to coincide with the school vacation, or not at all. We're happy here, after all.  Mademoiselle has a great nanny, le Petit has another year in nursery school.  And my in-laws are within walking distance, which is priceless both for us and for the kids.

But next year it will be the same story, you point out.  Perhaps, but we've tentatively decided to move into a rental place in Versailles next year.  That way we'll be able to sell our current apartment and look for a new one without a deadline, already set up in our target home base.

Meanwhile, I ask myself how I can at the same time feel like I'm over-analyzing everything and am utterly unprepared to deal with all the possibilities.  Welcome to being a grown-up, I guess.   

Monday, March 26, 2012

Look, Ma!

Yesterday I made the optimistic mistake of taking Le Petit running with me.  Not that I expected him to keep up with me on foot, but I thought he'd at least be able to follow along on his bicycle.  We'd surely be able to manage one loop of a nearby island in the Seine. Alas, no: he still pedals one minute, stops, heaves a huge sigh and declares, "I'm tired," and waits for me to push. I oblige, we pick up some speed with me ready to grab the handlebars to avoid clipping trees or passersby, and then we stop again.  After a kilometer of this, I was through.

"We're heading home now," I grumped.  Le Petit had abandoned his bike in a park to play hide-and-seek by himself and invent an imaginary landscape loosely based on our travels in France.  "And la Lorraine is over there, and Alsace is over here..."  It was cute, I had to admit.  You're here to have fun with your son, I reminded myself, not to, you know, break a sweat or anything.  Yet I longingly watched runners striding up and down the sidewalk.

Bike ten feet, stop, push, bike another ten feet, "Hey, Mom, that runner is in the bike line!", stop, push, ten more feet, "Hey, Mom, that bike is on the sidewalk!"  Stop again.  Le Petit giggled.  I sighed and gripped my patience with both hands and my teeth.  By that time we were nearing a wide pedestrian street, when le Petit asked me out of the blue:

"Maman, et si on enlevait les petites roues?"

Yes!  He wanted to take off the training wheels!  

Ever since before I became a mom, I've had a list of milestones in my head where I projected myself to my child's side (more or less in the background, as the occasion required): graduation, wedding, first apartment, first baby.  First bike ride without the training wheels.  I pictured myself running alongside my kid, proud, breathless.  Just like my dad did when I was a kid, and I can still see him chasing me, encouraging me as I pedaled my blue Schwinn down our dead end street in Olympia as I, a little bit terrified, wondered whether this big kid bike thing was such a good idea.  From time to time I'd mentioned to Le Petit that he could take off his training wheels if he wanted, secretly hoping that I'd be the one who'd get to share the moment, but he wanted to wait.  "When I'm five years old," he insisted, and I figured I'd just have to wait until July or whenever, really.  No pressure, of course.   

But I was thrilled at yesterday's sudden reverse decision. I took the wheels off, le Petit climbed on, and we took off.  The bike is technically a bit small for him and has a low center of gravity, so he managed pretty well from the beginning.  I also credit the pedal-less bikes they play with at recess at school.  He already understood that the key to stability is speed, and unlike me, he was unafraid.

He was circling Mars, he told me, and Pluto, and Saturn, and isn't it funny that they'd changed places?  "Watch out, I'm ready to turn!" he called. And he did, and I followed, ready to steady him when he wanted to stop.  He almost didn't need me except to help get the pedals going at first.  "Look in front of you!  In front of you!" I nagged nervously, as he still tended to look down as he pedaled.  I wasn't running along to reassure him so much as to help him avoid taking out joggers or poodles.  (And yes, he was wearing a helmet, of course.)

"Je ne ferais plus jamais avec les petites roues!"  he said proudly when we stopped.  No more training wheels, ever.  And to think I was there when it happened.

Also in the "Look, Ma!" category, Mademoiselle is becoming more and more of a climber.  On Friday evening as I was putting away groceries she climbed onto the dining room chair, grabbed a ballpoint pen and started scribbling on the back of the mail.  On Saturday -- as we watched carefully this time -- she climbed from the same chair to the tabletop, where she stood up in triumph, looking like she wanted to plant a flag.  The coffee table is minor summit in comparison, but there's no keeping her off of it now, and if she thinks someone will catch her she'll walk right off the edge.  Smiling. 

When she gets the opportunity, she grabs the plastic step stool from the bathroom and, tucking it under her arm, toddles around the apartment looking for new heights to scale.  She likes to place the stool in front of the couch, stand on it and jump off, throwing herself at the couch cushions. Needless to say we spend a lot of time closing doors and confiscating stunt props, and Mademoiselle spends a lot of time in her playpen.
When it's her turn, I expect she'll skip the bicycle training wheels and go straight for the motorized stunt bike.

Maybe I'll go ahead and buy her a bike helmet now.  You never can be too careful, right?

Back to regularly scheduled (ha!*) miscellanea

I don't have another political post in me.  We're only weeks away from the first round of the presidential election here in France.  I have no idea who I'll vote for, and if I did, I probably wouldn't write about it here.  And I need to write about less heavy stuff, since I'm busy making mountains out of molehills in my free time -- looking for an apartment, notably.  I need this to be a place where I can evacuate some of that stress.  I'm not sure I have anything particularly enlightening to say, anyway.

* As if there were anything 'regularly scheduled' about this blog, right?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Toulouse.  My husband's city.  Three children, a father. I can't help but do the mental calculation when I hear: what ages?  How many years difference with le Petit?  With Mademoiselle?  I admit with guilt that the horror resonates more when it is shadowed by the familiar.

And this isn't supposed to happen here.  

I don't watch television news and I don't read French newspapers.  My husband faults me for this, wondering how can I live here and completely ignore the French media. I answer that Le Monde and Le Nouvel Obs's navel gazing irritates me, and that I don't particularly care about whatever political or criminal scandal is l'affaire du jour.  I read our subscription to the Economist, listen to the BBC and NPR online, and distractedly scroll through the New York Time's web page a few times a week.  I'm often more aware of what's happening in Seattle than in Paris.

Of course I hear when there's a random shooting in the US.  It happens with chilling regularity.  But here in Europe we have real gun control, I remember.  Our schools don't have metal detectors at the door.  If I lived in the US... if I had to worry about such things...  and I click away, saddened, but only abstractly.  While the act itself shocks, the causes are almost predictable.  After all, I'm so far away.

I heard the news from Toulouse today from a colleague.  Extreme right or extreme left?  He wondered aloud.  The shooting today was outside a Jewish school.  The soldiers killed or wounded on Sunday were of North African and Caribbean origin.  It's rare that the latent xenophobia in France manifests itself in violence. But the causes, I wonder, in some sense, aren't they predictable too?

You can't view a society through the deranged crimes that appear on the front page, but you can't ignore them, either. Is that why I don't read the news?  Because I don't want to hear about the dark side?  

The National Front party plasters the highway underpasses with indignant slogans about French identity and the press wonders aloud what percentage of the vote they'll receive in the presidential election.  That kind of  xenophobia is mundane, familiar, domesticated, and maybe all the more pernicious for its acceptability.  Marine Le Pen shows up, smiling, on the nightly news.  Maybe it's opportunistic or paranoid to connect that to the murders in Toulouse.  

In both France and in the US,  my family and friends, whether I talk to them weekly or follow from from afar, all seem to live their lives far away from the dark edges, far from the violence and the fear.  Could this only be a mix or privilege and luck, one that could disappear?  Or am I overreacting?  Do the media just distort reality like the reflection in a rear view mirror, making the fear appear closer?   

Like the rest of France, I'm going to watch and wait and mourn and keep asking questions.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Next time I'll ask for a Citroën

I'm so stressed at work these days that I'm dreaming about database tables (when I'm not dreaming about real estate transactions, but more on that later).  My subconscious mind is evidently trying to make up for a lack of reliable, complete technical documentation, and it's doing a pretty poor job if you ask me -- but then again, Mademoiselle is still waking up a minimum of twice a night, so there's constant interruption; my conscious mind can hardly work under such conditions, either. It wouldn't bug me so much if it didn't feel so thankless.  My current project isn't considered to be of much importance to anyone.  Maybe I'm pessimistic.  But to judge from the resources and money not being thrown at it, or being actively removed from it, I have to suspect.

"It's like they want a BMW, but all they'll pay for is a Twingo," I lamented to my boss this afternoon.  The Twingo is the tiniest Renault, one of the class of cars affectionately referred to as "yogurt pots" in France.

"Well, they both can drive, what more do you want?" my boss answered with a shrug.

"OK, let me rephrase that: they want a BMW, but all they'll pay for is an hour of Velib'."  Velib is Paris' rental bicycle system.

"I'd rather have Velib' myself," a colleague chimed in.

"Much more ecological," my boss asserted.

"Better way to get exercise!" my colleague added.

I'll start pedaling, I guess.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The perfect wave

We were on a hike on Brittany's Cap Sizun last summer, following a path along the granite cliffs of le Point du Raz, when we got a clear view of the sandy beach that rings the ominously-named Baie des Trépassés.  There were no shipwrecks on that clear August afternoon.  It was calm and warm -- well, warm for Brittany -- and we regretted not bringing our swimsuits and beach gear.  Most of the people in the water were surfers, bobbing like buoys well out from shore, hugging their boards and letting wave after perfectly good wave wash over them without taking action.  I know nothing about surfing, of course, nor does my husband, but that didn't keep us as good cynical Parisians from shaking our heads and having a laugh at their expense.

They were hanging out waiting for the perfect wave, and meanwhile were evidently bored, wet, cold, and wasting their time.  How ridiculous.

I thought about this for a minute. 

"Yeah, but isn't that a bit like us?"

For years I've been talking about moving and leaving an apartment that has for different reasons never quite fit my dreams.  It has, at the same time, been perfect: the right place to rent when we arrived here from Boston, the right place to buy when the occasion presented itself.  It's on a quiet street, and the sun streams in through all the windows from morning through late afternoon.  The closets are big.  The kitchen is huge by Parisian standards.  There's a parking spot and a basement storage unit, and a grocery store a block away.

But we're feeling a little bit... root bound, with two kids, two bedrooms, and two thousand-odd books at last estimate.  Legos, CDs, stuffed animals, preschool art projects I'm too sentimental to get rid of.  Three bicycles. Four car seats.  Lots and lots of baby clothes.  

For at least two years now we've been idly following online real estate announcements, but for one reason or another it was never the right moment.  We're big on unnecessary reflection chez Parisienne: for example, we started making lists of baby names back before we were married, none of which, incidentally, came close to making the final cut.   We're also big on to-do lists before we leap into the unknown.  In order to consider a move farther out of Paris, I had to get my French driver's license: check.  We decided that it was not a good idea to move in the summer right before I started back at work at the end of my maternity leave.  Now we're wondering if we should move this summer or the next, for the former will mean that we'll have to find a new nanny for Mademoiselle.  

As wave after wave crashes on my head, I'm clinging to my board and dog paddling.  And I'm getting sick of it.

This weekend we're visiting a house and an apartment.  I doubt either will inspire us, but I'm not sure that surfers make to-do lists, either.  

Hold on folks, that may be a whitecap on the horizon.