Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Chez moi, chez eux, chez nous

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.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Oh and it is important to mention

In the interest of full disclosure, all of the places we're house hunting are really nice suburbs of Paris.  As in, although my neighbors won't all be movie stars and the Paris snob elite cognoscenti, I feel really damn lucky to be able to even think about looking for a place there nice.  So when I say not perfect I mean that in a wow-I'm-privileged-and-I'm-beginning-to-get-that kind of way.  I mean that my "perfect" was clearly out of whack to begin with.

Ahem. That's part of being an adult too, right?  Or at least less of a spoiled expat.

By the way, it's snowing here, and that, too, gives me a new perspective on this city.  Snow in Paris!  It wreaks about as much havoc as it does in Seattle, but it can be as much fun. I just hope we're able to drive to the apartment visits tomorrow, or else I'll have to chalk it up to direct divine intervention in my house hunt.  I may take it as a sign that Someone wants us to move to Versailles after all, maybe wants us to work to reestablish the monarchy.  The divine right of kings.  And real estate.  Or something.

Not perfect, continued

I woke up this morning happier and I attribute this mainly to the blog post I wrote last night while sitting in the middle of piles of laundry.  So even though it's midnight and everyone else in the family is asleep and I can think of about five useful things I should be doing instead (like sleeping, incidentally), I'm back here again. No laundry. Just me.

Here goes.

One of the constant themes on my blog is my search for the perfect apartment (or condo, to be precise: we're looking to buy, although in France the vocabulary doesn't make the distinction).  So for a while I wanted to be in Paris proper even though that was financially ridiculous, and then for many years we dreamed of Versailles, and now we're thinking Sèvres (of the famed porcelain) or one of the nearby communities along the convenient train line to La Défense and Saint-Lazare.  I want green space.  I want space tout court, having made my husband acknowledge now that we've finally outgrown our 640 square feet and two bedrooms or at least my ability to maintain my equilibrium through frequent trips to IKEA.

Once upon a time I wanted high molded ceilings, mansard roofs, french doors and the architectural trappings of, well, France.  Now I realize that these details come with winding, inconvenient hallways, poorly-distributed floor plans and lofty price tags that reflect their rarity and charm.  They usually don't come with elevators or parking garages or built-in closets.

The trente glorieuses are how the French nostalgically refer to the thirty years following the Second World War. Wikipedia defines it from 1945 to 1973: the end of the war to the oil crisis.  During those years, France celebrated its economic recovery by building batteries of rectilinear apartment complexes filled with all the modern, logical comforts of the latter half of the 20th century: elevators, underground parking, trash chutes, bidets.  If you're searching for an apartment in the Paris region, you'll inevitably visit scores of such buildings, to the point where you can almost accurately draw out the floor plan from just an interior snapshot or two and the brief description in the listing.  You can also guess the decade of construction by looking at the windows or the balcony railing design or the pattern of the hardwood floor.

I didn't think such buildings were for me.  The charm of the 1960s and 70s, well... isn't.  Yet I'll have to admit that these buildings are quite practical.  And not utterly uncharming, in the right environment, looking out over the Forêt de Saint-Cloud for example, with a long, wide balcony and some late-model French doors.

I'll be visiting two apartments that fit this description tomorrow, and I'm already aflutter with ideas of how I'd transform the space into something chic and inviting à la Bemz or Apartment Therapy.

What matters after all?  Space.  Distance to schools.  Quality of said schools.  The ability to walk less than ten minutes to get groceries and a daily baguette.  Sunlight.  Workable floor plan.  Calm.  A reasonable commute.  There I go again, reasoning like an adult, which makes me irritated as much as it makes me proud.  Letting go of the perfect to get to the useful and the reasonable and the livable.

My husband already visited the first of the two apartments and was pretty enthusiastic, so things could get interesting fast.  Although no one who knows us well and has been following this story will believe me on that one.

I'll let you know what I find out.  In the meantime, anyone got good house hunting stories for me?  Or redecorating tips?  (I almost wrote "trips" there.  Maybe that's more accurate.) You can come crash at our new flat if you know how to replaster walls after ripping out wallpaper!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Half empty, half full

I'm sitting here on the couch next to a laundry basket that is half empty, surrounded by scattered piles of folded clothes. Half empty, half full.  That's where I am right now.  I'm overwhelmed, in a word.  I'm oddly capable of superhuman calm in the face of early-morning toddler freak outs or when the five-year-old picks up a piece of salt off the sidewalk and puts it his mouth.  Then something little happens -- a fork falls off the table at dinner or someone pushes past me brusquely on the escalator at the train station in the morning -- and I feel like I'm just going to lose it.  Even if it doesn't quite make it out of my mouth, inwardly I'm screaming, "What the hell is up with you people? Common courtesy on public transportation! The proper usage of silverware! The foundation of civilization as we know it!"  I want to stamp and scream.  Instead I take a breath, I hold in the outburst, but then it just comes out later as a rant to a colleague or as barked orders at my husband.  Or worse, my patience with the kids abruptly evaporates, I yell, and I lose all the points I'd gained before.

Half empty, half full.  When it's a basket of laundry, half empty is the better way to look at things, and this suits me.  Empty leaves space for something else, and that's exactly what I think I'm missing right now.  I don't write here on my blog anymore, and then as I'm falling asleep at night or when I'm running through the Forêt de Saint Cloud on the weekends the words fill up in my head and they have no space to spill out into.  I want everything to look orderly and eloquent and happy so I write nothing.  I like to tie up my posts with cute little one-line endings.  Life isn't like that.  Life is messy.  You start making room for the words that want to come out and the mess comes out, too.  But that's exactly what I need to do if I want to know where I'm going, if I don't want to suffocate, if I want to sort out and make sense and feel useful and remember the big moments and not turn around in a year and wonder why I didn't appreciate or even notice 2013 while it was happening.  

So I need to write.  So I need to write not so perfect, y'see.  Because the perfect gets stuck, and the perfect keeps me up at night, and the perfect doesn't let me breathe, and the perfect doesn't let my kids have any snapshot of who they are right now in 20 years when they happen upon a printout of this blog or something.

All that to say that I think my focus will shift, then, from being clever here to just being present here. Even when I've got laundry to fold. Here goes. 

I pick up Le Petit at after care these days, and he almost always has a new drawing to show me.  I have to drag him away from the cup full of pens because when I arrive he's absorbed by completing the final touches: coloring in large patches of green, his favorite color ("But we have a green marker at home, too," I argue) or writing out his name with the 'S' written backwards.  Most of the drawings are maps. Lately they don't represent anything I recognize, but that's OK; I need maps of any and all varieties, because I have no idea where I'm going.

Work is both overwhelming and unsatisfying.  I have plenty to do and some of it is interesting, but I feel like I don't know where to start.  Once I've started, I make slow progress.  And when I'm done, there's inevitably something I forgot.  I'm drowning in details and feeling unsure of myself, and I'm not certain that what I'm overwhelmed by is so valued, anyway... in short, I'm in a funk.  No advice please on how to get out of it, because I think the value will be in my figuring that out myself (if I can).

So as we're walking home tonight I asked Le Petit about his day, and since I figure the sharing should go in both directions, I said, "I had kind of a bad day myself."

Why? Well, my husband's sick with a stomach flu and the trains were messed up and a bunch of other things, but what I told Le Petit was mostly, "I have to do something at work, and I'm not sure how to do it, and that makes me scared."

"But," I added after reflection, "It's sometimes good to do things you don't know how to do." 

Le Petit thought about this, then said (in French): "Often I finish an activity after all the other kids are done."

"Oh?" I ask, trying to keep my voice neutral.  The teacher had mentioned this to me, without alarm, earlier this year.

"Yes.  The other kids are in circle time or playing, and I'm the only one who is still working."

As usually happens when Le Petit starts to share something that I desperately want to learn more about, I want to jump in and drag the details from him, complete his sentences, drown him in questions.  Interrogate.  But I stop myself.  It wouldn't work anyway.

"And... how do you feel when that happens?" I hold myself back but he still doesn't answer.

"Frustrated that it takes you so much time, or... proud that you stuck with it and finished?" I venture.

"Proud," Le Petit says resolutely.  I'm not sure that he's not just saying it to shut me up, but I go with it anyway.

"That's good.  It's... it's important to learn to stick with things even when they're hard.  Learning how to do that is one of the most important things you can learn.  It's learning to learn.  Because most things are hard when you first do them."  

Le Petit says nothing, we're almost at our front door, and I'm waxing eloquent here, for myself as much as for him.

"And you never stop learning.  That's one of the best things about life." 

I'm not sure I ever learned this lesson.  Or let's just say I'm in the thick of it now at age 36.  It's like I'm at step five of a ten-part story problem.  Half empty.  Half full.