Rectilinear buildings were what I expected and rectilinear buildings awaited me. I met the real estate agent below the first building of la résidence, as these postwar apartment complexes are grandly named; two rows of neatly-kept buildings on the wooded hillside. They looked imposing from the parking lot, but most were only three or four storeys, and the paved path between them was nicely landscaped. It had just been shoveled, too, since light snow had fallen the night before.
Could I live here? I wondered to myself, like a do every time, and I pictured myself walking the kids down this path to school in the morning or making snowmen with them in the courtyard. I find house hunting exhausting, and not just because I'm apparently no damn good at it. The exhaustion comes from trying to project myself into every possible place and what-if. I can't visit an apartment but try and virtually fit my furniture inside, turning bookshelves (we have an awful lot of them) around in my head and it all gets to be too much rather quickly. I can get invested in a place from just a few pictures in the listing. I'll literally start flagging pages in my dogeared IKEA catalog in preparation for remodeling the kitchen, and then... well, then I'll see it in person, or learn something about it I didn't expect, and all my enthusiasm will deflate. I can't seem to maintain any sort of emotional equilibrium through the process. My husband can't either, so we discuss endlessly and bicker intermittently and never come to a decision.
My husband, who had already visited the place, warned me that the owner was a charmer who would do his best to sell me the place. I'd roped my father-in-law into coming with me to ask all the right questions as a disinterested party, to present me the pros and cons afterward, and also to drive since I'm now a wimp about driving in snow.
The living room was as agreeable as the building was nondescript. There was a view out over the wooded park of small chateau, and the trees were beautiful and lacy, lined with snow. They were showing off for a potential buyer, I was convinced, along with the birds and the squirrels. A huge change from the view out our current windows to the gray 1950s building across the street. The place felt small, though, smaller than the actual surface area led me to expect, and the price was far too high. The owner kept tediously enumerating the positive details: the brand-new kitchen, the closet space, the family-friendliness of the complex. I had a good look around the place at least twice before we asked to see the basement storage unit and the parking garage.
"How many floors in this building?" my father-in-law asked as we squeezed into the tiny elevator. I was puzzled by what seemed like a hurried response from the owner, meant, it appeared, to cut off any further questions.
"Two. There are only two."
I thought about this briefly, and it didn't make sense. French buildings are numbered from floor 0, the rez-de-chaussée. An American third floor is therefore called le deuxième étage, or second floor. The unit we looked at was on the second floor; therefore, there must be two floors below it, not one. I didn't worry about it much, though. I didn't even wonder much at the doormat I noticed sitting incongruously in front of what I assumed to be a basement storage unit.
As we walked back to his car, my father-in-law and I discussed the merits of the place. To my father-in-law, the only major drawback was how far it was from Paris, from the train station, and from the schools, but none of that was a surprise. I wasn't ready to buy, but I wasn't ready to write it off yet, either. Wait and see.
That afternoon my husband and I drove back to the same town and visited another apartment for sale in a different complex. The price was much more reasonable, but instead of being nestled in greenery, the apartment was in a sad grouping of towers in the middle of the town center. It seemed older, which made sense: it was built in the 1960s, while the one we'd both visited earlier was built in the mid-seventies. It had strange details, like an elevator that opened directly into the unit. With hardly any discussion we both knew it was a no.
Still we stood in the entryway of the building for some time after our visit discussing things with the real estate agent. Since she was with a difference agency than the one that had shown us the first place, I figured I might get some interesting information from her. The town is small, the first apartment had been on the market at a number of agencies for a certain time already, and almost all the town's apartment complexes are so huge any agent in town is sure to know all their quirks.
"Oh, we have that one, too, and it's far too expensive," she told us, and we nodded in agreement to encourage her. "He'll never sell it at that price. But he tells me it's worth it, his apartment, and he's in no hurry, so. But he's not the first one in that résidence to try and sell high. They all end up having to lower their prices, and..."
She looked as us confidentially and then lowered her voice.
"I shouldn't tell you this, but..." She paused with a slight smile. Do your job, madame, I thought to myself, and give us the dirt.
"The problem is the chambres de bonnes," she told us knowingly. Chambres de bonnes are the maids' quarters that up until that instant I'd only associated with old Haussmanian apartments. In 19th century buildings they are typically small rooms under the roof and sometimes they are still sold as add-ons to large bourgeois apartments. Interior sanitation and plumbing, once it arrived, was generally shared -- as was often the case even in more spacious living quarters in the heart of Paris until I'd guess the 1970s at least. This was the first either of us had ever heard of chambres de bonnes in a modern building, however.
Sensing our incomprehension, the agent continued her explanation. The individual rooms, she explained, had shared bathroom facilities. People who worked in town (working menial jobs, one assumed: cleaning other people's houses, working in checkout lines, tending gardens) rented them, claiming to be alone, but sometimes they moved in with their families. It's no secret that Paris is riddled with substandard housing: decrepit hotels, tiny rooms with nonexistent sanitation or inadequate heating, ageing housing projects in depressed suburbs. This was probably not exactly the same. Still. Up until now, I'd always imagined the problem far away from me, not in my potential backyard.
I've noticed that when people want to say something racist or xenophobic but due to some bizarre scruple they don't want to state it directly, they talk about food. So it was with the real estate agent: as she told it, one of the biggest problems was the cooking smells. Food from Africa, she implied, not food from here. The problem to her was insecurity, difference, foreignness.
I realized pretty quickly that I had a problem with the situation, too, that there was no way I'd move into that apartment. I was disturbed by the fact that I'd be just upstairs from people who were being exploited, who were living with their families in a space that was meant for one, while I was living with my family in a giant apartment and (knowing me) still finding it too small. I didn't want to run across my neighbors knowing at once that we had so much in common -- for they are most likely immigrants, as am I; teaching their kids about both their new home and back home, as am I; proudly speaking two languages, as am I -- and yet are so far apart in privilege and resources. I would be uncomfortable, to say the least. I would feel embarrassed and worthy of their resentment. And yes, such a situation would feel insecure. I would not have the slightest idea how to bridge that gap.
What difference does it make, I ask myself, if the people who are living in substandard housing live downstairs or across the street or across the city from me? It shouldn't make any difference at all. But clearly it's out of sight, out of mind for me. My conscience shouldn't be so easily placated. I shouldn't want to live in my little bubble.
I hesitated before writing this, not sure if I should be so honest about how this made me feel. I never thought I'd stumble over something this complicated in my frivolous house hunt. That I can hold onto that naivete just proves my privilege, I guess.