The 500-franc note wouldn’t fit into the battered, metal box. I could stuff it almost all the way through the slot, but it wouldn’t drop. Visitors to the Eglise St-Sulpice filed by, and as I wrestled with the stubborn clump of paper, I felt the look of suspicion in what I imagined as their frugal French eyes. Five hundred francs! Almost $100. Painted on the box in white were the words Tronc Pour Pauvres De La Paroisse—collection box for the parish poor. I folded the note again, into a fat little square the size of a postage stamp. I was here to express my gratitude, to seal the bond between me and this neighborhood, and equally compelling, to placate the demons who lie in wait to keep dreams from coming true.
Two days before, I had bought an apartment in the rue St-Sulpice. Only blocks from the church, the apartment represented the first chapter of a dream, a fixed point in a future whose direction I couldn’t entirely see. I had quit my job of 18 years as an editor in a New York publishing house. I was unsure of what would come next. Now, with the apartment, I would spend at least part of my time in a culture I had always been drawn to and in a place where everything seemed shinier because it had a new name.
It was my husband, George, who had put the idea into my head. Or perhaps it was there already and I just didn’t know it. We were standing on the Pont des Arts, part of a group touring the Left Bank for prominent opera sites. Already that morning we had passed by no. 14, rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, former site of the theater of the Comédie Française. The first act of “Adriana Lecouvreur” takes place in the theater’s greenroom. At the point where the rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie meets the rue St-André-des-Arts at the carrefour de Buci, we found ourselves face to face with the angular cafe that inspired the Cafe Momus in “L·? Bohème!’(Equally memorable was the outdoor market nearby, a panoply of color and freshness, where stands lined the streets, flush with plump fruits and vegetables, meats and masses of flowers.) And standing by the fountain in the place St-Sulpice, we had looked up at the colonnades and arches, the uneven towers of St-Sulpice Church, imagining the seduction scene in Massenet’s “Manon” which is set in the church’s sacristy. There was something deeply grounding in this blend of fact and fiction, of reality and story, of holding in my mind what I had seen on the stage of the Met and the real-world places that were part of its inspiration.
George was standing near the steps at the end of the Pont des Arts, framed by the magnificent dome and the curving arms of the Institut de France across the street. In his navy-blue suit and with his sweep of white hair, he seemed almost as elegant as his backdrop. Members of our group milled around us on the bridge. In a day or two, we would be leaving for Provence. I turned to look back over the waters of the Seine, the rich, architectural rhythms of the Louvre, the interplay of light and shadow under the soft, July sun.” Paris, France is exciting and peaceful,” Gertrude Stein wrote in “Paris France”—a more profound statement than it might first appear. I was sure I was at the center of the universe.
I heard George’s voice beside me. “Would you like to have an apartment here someday?”
I looked at his face to see if he was serious. Where did that come from? We had never discussed anything of the sort. I answered, “Yes,” almost reflexively, but I think it would never have occurred to me that I could do such an extraordinary thing. What did George know about me that I didn’t even know myself? The French language had been something tacitly special in my family. In school I had been more drawn to French language and literature than to English. Did George see something in my eye? Who wouldn’t regard Paris as some sort of transcendent ideal?
My first formal exposure to French was in nursery school or kindergarten. We would be perched on the floor on our long blue mats, the ones we also used for naps, as our teacher disappeared into a closet, then emerged with the big, round tray of porcelain animals. She would arrange herself on a stool, a stout, grandmotherly presence in her dark print dress, then hold up each animal in turn. Loup! we would cry out as she held up the porcelain wolf; Ours! as she held up the bear. Girafe! Lion! Tigre! Elephant! We knew nothing of masculine versus feminine nouns, so the article probably never came into play.
I was blessed with my teachers over my school years: the French-born Madame McAllister, who turned all of our names into French equivalents and, deeming Laure too plain, dubbed me Laurette. In her company, it became a game to learn 20 vocabulary words a week. Then there were the sisters Marie and Annette de Saint Maurice, still French citizens, who shared their hopes with us and widened our view of the world as they spoke of sending in their absentee ballots in the referendum that would adopt the new French Constitution, drafted by Charles de Gaulle, to form the basis of the Fifth Republic. Still vivid in my mind is the image of Mademoiselle Annette, my teacher at the time, as she turned and gazed out the light-filled window at the front of the classroom. In her momentary silence, her hope for a new order and a better future for France, after the ineffectiveness and turmoil of the Fourth Republic, was an almost tangible presence.
But I had been to Paris only once before that first trip with George. On a serious budget. A girlfriend and I, not long out of college. The trip was surely going to our heads as we deemed ourselves too sophisticated to visit the Eiffel Tower (well, maybe she was too sophisticated and I was willing to go along). Still, the thrill of being in Paris made even our hotel seem like an adventure. There was little new in its description: the sagging double bed that took up most of the room; the drab, brown spread; the mottled velvet draping the window. A bathtub, a sink and a bidet had been installed on a platform partially closed off by a makeshift wall. The communal toilet was in a curve of the staircase, a half-story down. It didn’t take long to figure out that a bidet could be put to multiple uses. The hotel was also the site of my first epiphany on French soil. On the morning after our arrival, at breakfast, at a small table in a hallway near the reception desk, I had my first cafe au lait— rich, chicory-flavored coffee made silken by the frothy, scalded milk. I looked down at my cup, almost unbelieving. I had never tasted anything as sublime. (I have since learned that one has cafe au lait at one’s residence. When asking for it in a bistro, the term most often used is cafe crème.)
More recently, as I felt myself pulling away from my publishing job, a friend of mine who was taking lessons in conversation from a native French speaker suggested that I do the same. Apart from answering a few letters in my capacity as editor in a publishing house, I had had little to do with France or the language since the trip with my Eiffel Tower-scorning friend. It was a good suggestion, as I had a pretty good knowledge of French grammar but lacked the vocabulary and the facility of everyday conversation.
Tall and slender, Monsieur le professeur would arrive at our New York apartment all ebullience, with a nearly permanent look of wide-eyed surprise. The opening ritual never varied. Bonjour, Madame! Bonjour, Monsieur! Tout va bien? Oui, tout va bien, et vous? Oui, tout va bien. Then perhaps a comment about the weather. The next words in the script, in a locution he had taught me, were mine: Vous voulez tomber votre veston? He would take off his brown tweed sport coat—we collaborated in the pretense that he would never think to strike such a note of informality if I hadn’t suggested it—and hang it on the back of a chair, then head to the table by the window where, for the next three hours, we would chat. Monsieur had two passions: opera and food, or more particularly, tenderloin of beef. Over a mid-lesson lunch of the latter, I could almost count on his suddenly leaping to his feet, with a swoop of his outstretched arms, to launch into some aria—he was partial to Verdi and Puccini—that happened to have come to mind. Afterward he would settle back down to his food. As the weeks and months passed, I found myself particularly fluent in vocabulary weighted toward theater and the performing arts: partition (score), repetition (rehearsal), salle comble (sold out), the d’affiche (headliner), sur les planches (on the boards), bis! (encore!), three words for star (étoile, vedette, star). And that is just the beginning. He also told me what an achievement it was for a popular singer to perform at the Olympia, the renowned music hall in Paris. I went at my lessons with uncommon zeal. It could be said that, at least in this instance, it took me a long time over the course of my life to wake up to what I really cared about.
And so the idea of buying an apartment in Paris took hold. I found myself urged on by friends, and by George, who had lived in Paris for a while in his early 20s. George loved women, and he loved me, and he applauded when women took off on adventures. While living in Paris, he had collected a number of Marie Laurencin lithographs, mostly of young women—lithe, curly-headed creatures, some on horseback, delicately rendered but clearly masters of their fate. This may have been how he wanted to see me. Still, my idea/plan/dream was anything but fully formed. Though thrilled, or more accurately, dazzled (or perhaps because I was dazzled) at the prospect, I had only the vaguest notion of what I expected my apartment to look like. In my mind’s eye, I saw one room, a brownish, walled square, ill lit, with a window high in one of the walls. Nor did I even quite know what I expected of it. At times, I imagined myself living in Paris, walking its streets, with new clothes to go with a new image, new hair. My apartment would be decorated with style and very French. Maybe I would write there. George was much older than I. Born into one of New York’s preeminent publishing families, he had long been an officer of Scribner s, the company I had worked for. His first wife had died; I was his second wife. We had been married for nearly seven years. I knew that he wanted, while he was still here, to give me the gift of a richer life.
At the same time, there was reason to have doubts. Paris was far more a product of my imagination than of experience. I knew virtually no one there. And I knew nothing about Parisian real-estate practices or the traps I might fall into. I had already been told that, if I decided someday to sell the apartment, it was highly possible the French government wouldn’t let me take the money back out. At one point, I even said to George, “You know, sometimes the dream is enough. It doesn’t have to come true.” But that mood didn’t last. Sometimes, out of nowhere, life just hands you a possibility that fits.
I started checking the real-estate classifieds in Le Figaro, which is readily available in New York, turning immediately to “ Ventes 6e ardt”— Sales in the Sixth Arrondissement, or district. Although I didn’t know what my apartment would look like, the streets I saw myself walking through—close, narrow, lined by the stucco facades of vieïlles masons— were those of the Sixth. (They were also the streets we had followed to the Buci market and the various opera sites the previous summer.) Long one of the intellectual centers of Paris, it had been frequented by writers from La Fontaine and Molière to Voltaire, the Encyclopedists, Balzac, George Sand, Beauvoir and Sartre, not to mention any number of American expatriates—Natalie Barney, Sylvia Beach, Hemingway, Eliot, Pound and, of course, Gertrude Stein. The real-estate ads were anything but expansive. For a modest apartment: “Odéon. 2 pieces, 45 m2, tt eft, charme” followed by a phone number and a price would be typical. That is: “Odeon area, 2 rooms, 45 square meters, all modern conveniences,
charm.” Unaccustomed to thinking in terms of square meters, I was soon on hands and knees, measuring our living room floor and then converting, in order to get some sense of what they were talking about.
My next step was to collect the names and telephone numbers of Parisian real-estate agents. I wrote to D. Féau, a leading Paris firm specializing in apartment sales, whose name was attached to many of the ads in Le Figaro, and got another name from the French stepfather of a friend. My best source was a New York agent whose classified ad I had seen in a European travel magazine: “We specialize in the sale of apartments and other fine residential properties in Paris.” I doubted that what my budget allowed for could be described as a “fine residential property,” but I was soon armed with the names of a coterie of agents, all eager, I would discover, to impress the New York agent by being the one to find me the apartment I would actually buy
My friends stepfather had given me another tip: Paris apartments were in such demand that, once I found an apartment I liked, I would have to make up my mind about it within hours. “Once an apartment is advertised,” he said, “thirty people will be at the door the next morning to see it.” The corollary was that, if I had to decide within hours, I’d have to have the requisite number of francs for the deposit readily at hand. A friend of mine who had her own Paris dreams had just opened an account at the Wall Street branch of Credit Lyonnais. In response to my call to the bank, I soon received by mail a largely incomprehensible form, only part of which, fortunately, I was required to fill out. (In one section of what I did fill out, I had to promise—in accordance with French law—not to open an account anywhere else.) I also had to decide at which of their 160-plus Paris branches I wanted to locate my account. I chose the branch more or less blindly by its name: St-Germain-des-Prés. I sent off the form, a guaranteed signature and a photocopy of my passport, as instructed, along with a check for an amount that I considered substantial, then waited for the bank’s gracious letter of welcome. Instead, a few days later, I received a computer printout warning me about bad debts. I had already been told that, if I bounced a check, I might lose my banking privileges for a year. Still, I treasured this first concrete symbol of my future time in France. I had a bank account.
While immersed in these logistical details, I was becoming more and more drawn by Paris’ mystical lure. I saw myself absorbed in a different
sensibility—different sounds, different architectural styles. I dreamed of blending in, of becoming a new person in a new culture, if only from time to time. What an adventure it would be to become … French! My rational side was fully aware of how unlikely that was. Not long before, a French sales assistant in a dress shop near our apartment had informed me that I had an unmistakably “British” face. I was crushed. And I couldn’t fool anyone for long once I opened my mouth. Nonetheless, I was determined to conduct the apartment hunt in French.
I telephoned two of the agents whose names I had been given from New York, shortly before we were to leave for Paris again. The first, to my surprise, was cheery, motherly—I was sure she had silver-blond hair pulled back from a smiling, middle-aged face. She couldn’t wait to meet me. She would start on a list of possibilities right away. I reminded her of my budget requirements, and she seemed unfazed. This came as a relief, as my friend s stepfather had warned me that I wouldn’t find anything I could afford in the Sixth. Even the New York agent had backed off his initial assurances, asking me if I didn’t want to consider looking in some other arrondissement.
The other agent, I could hear in her voice, had auburn hair and was svelte and efficient and elegant. She was not an agent, after all, but scheduled an itinerary of visits to apartments represented by agents, advised the client during negotiations, and helped with such chores as getting the electricity turned on and the phone installed. As we were to be in Paris for only two weeks, this seemed an ideal way to see a large number of apartments quickly, and I agreed to her conditions and her fee. We would start the following Tuesday. Her name was Isabelle.
Although a little anxious about what lay ahead—I felt at times as though I were hurling myself headlong into the unknown—by the time we arrived in Paris, I was filled with the simple joy of being there. Everyone was beautiful and young. The sun always shone in the Luxembourg Gardens. Everyone was falling in love. It was a city of contrasts: the excited clack of women’s heels along the pavement; the peaceful hush of the Jardin des Tuileries. Ordre et beauté. And everywhere there were the words, French words, on storefronts, the sides of delivery vans, restaurants, the blue-and-white street signs on the buildings’ exterior walls: patisserie, boulangerie, tabac, plomberie, fleuriste, livres anciens, gravures, avenue des Champs-Elysées, boulevard St-Germain, rue du Bac, Cafe de Flore.
Isabelle’s hair was indeed auburn and she was efficient, but to my relief, she was more cozy than svelte or elegant, and my forays with her formed the structure of my days. (George preferred to stay behind while I did the looking.) She also spoke English, which came in handy more than once in discussions of legal or structural detail or when I simply got fed up with the effort of speaking French. It appeared that I could afford between 35 and 50 square meters in the Sixth, and the elements of shape, price and size came together in almost infinite variety. I saw looming rectangular spaces, isosceles triangles, trapezoids, new moons. They could have been illustrations for a geometry textbook. Clearly, something had been made of every shred of each building s space. I felt tempted by a studio on the Seine with five tall windows facing Notre Dame, but the room would soon be dominated by the kitchen being installed against the center of the interior wall, and you had to cross an unheated landing to get to the narrow, curving bathroom. There was also a great deal of traffic, both vehicular and tourist, along the quai. A sixth-floor grenier, or attic, not far from the Seine had a view over the rooftops of Paris that was worthy of a postcard, but the shape of the apartment, a sort of boomerang, and the sloping outer walls arcing overhead were too unconventional for me to get my mind around. It also appeared that the building housed a number of American students. How could I dissolve into Frenchness if I were living with Americans?
Many of the apartments looked out not onto the street but onto the quiet, often charming courtyards hidden behind the imposing closed doors of the buildings’ facades. Most of the apartments had been renovated. The larger ones in my price range needed to be. To my surprise and disappointment—this was Paris, after all, the capital of taste and fashion—renovated bathrooms and kitchens tended to be gaudy. Some were even tiled in orange or purple. And the apartments had little in the way of architectural detail. I began to wonder if I would find anything at all. Was I being too particular? Or did I simply lack imagination?
I know I wasn’t always, if ever, a vision of elan. Interspersed between my forays with Isabelle were visits with other agents to apartments not on Isabelle s list. The agent from D. Féau was red-haired, a little reserved and, on the day that I met her, très chic, in a sleek skirt, high heels and the requisite scarf tied just so. I guess she made me a little nervous. Sitting at a cafe between apartment visits, I managed to spill my
Perrier all over her. She was convinced that, as an American, I would never be satisfied with an apartment in my stated price range. Americans wanted space, big rooms with high ceilings and parquet floors. I saw what I took to be French volupté incarnate in the most expensive of the apartments she showed me, where the owner lounged in a luxe of Chinese red-draperies, upholstery, carpet—under the aforementioned high ceilings. The large room’s chief points of interest were its tall windows, a beautiful mantelpiece and a fish tank filled with artificial pink coral. When I assured the agent that I couldn’t afford the apartment, I think she lost interest in me. Or, in her defense, perhaps her agency simply didn’t deal in properties as humble as the ones I could afford.
The miracle I was beginning to lose hope for appeared not in the Sixth but on the He St-Louis. The He is a place apart in Paris—quiet, self-contained, its narrow streets lined with 17th-century buildings and small shops. I had directions to find Madame C at her office in the rue St-Louis-en-l’He, past the chocolatier, the antiquaire. As I approached I saw three women standing in the doorway of the agency. Madame C introduced herself, and I replied earnestly, “Je suis enchantée defaire votre con-naissance.” The three of them looked down at me, unable to quash a benevolent smirk. I knew I had said something slightly off, but I didn’t know what until later, when I heard people saying “ enchanté de vous ren-contrer” not “faire votre connaissance” using rencontrer in a sense that was absolutely forbidden when I was in school. Then, too, it could have been partly my schoolgirlish seriousness in reciting the entire formula, instead of merely responding, “Enchantee, Madame!’ (At the opera one night, I watched a young woman being introduced to a man who was considerably older. She held out a languorous hand and deigned only a sort of growling “Heureuse!’) I had recently had another lesson in linguistic outmoded-ness when asking in a cafe for another croissant for George. “Encore un croissant, s’il vous plait” I said. “Un autre croissant” the waitress corrected me, a much more natural usage for an English-speaker but at one time not allowed—at least by my teachers.
Madame C punched the code into the digicode, the digital lock that is now a Paris commonplace. The big, green, wooden door clicked open into a large courtyard, at the far left corner of which was a small staircase leading to a studio on the premier étage. Madame C was clearly the most sympathique of the agents I would meet. “J’aime bien le Wyoming” she told me—a statement I certainly hadn’t anticipated—on our way from the agency to the apartment. She had vacationed there several times with her husband. She even suggested we have tea at her own apartment soon. She was proud of her new furniture and thought I might like it, too.
We climbed the stairs to the studio and stepped inside. One by one, the elements registered in my mind: fireplace; walls lined with bookshelves; large windows facing the courtyard; dark, massive ceiling beams. The small bathroom and kitchen were tucked into a corner near the door. It was love at first sight. This was a nest, a burrow, a place to curl up in. And it cost less than what I could afford! I imagined myself lying on my side on some sort of divan, head propped against my palm, with a multitude of throw pillows, reading a book. George would sit nearby in an upholstered chair, reading he Figaro and the Paris Herald. In the evening we would go out for dinner, my heels clacking across the courtyard in the fading light.
And yet it wasn’t until a couple of hours later, after a visit to another apartment with Isabelle, that the intensity of my attachment came into focus and I knew what I must do—now! I dashed into a nearby brasserie, dodging waiters and small square tables, and descended the winding staircase to the dimly lit sous-sol. There, between the doors to the toilettes, under a single, yellow light was the pay phone. I sat down on the dark, varnished stool and, fumbling with my address book and coins, reached the agency, though Madame C was not there. Madame C’s colleague assured me she would pass on my offer to the owners agent right away. I headed back to George in a flurry of exhilaration and agitation.
I could hardly sit still, alternately exclaiming over the apartment and agonizing over whether I’d made the offer in time. Seventeenth-century building! Beams! Bookshelves! Fireplace! Charm! But what if I was too late? I should have made the offer right away! I hope I got there in time! So peaceful, quiet! Such character! Courtyard! Windows! Oh, if only! George just listened, amused. When the phone rang, I froze for a moment before picking up the receiver. It was Madame C’s colleague, désolée. A young man had seen the apartment right after I did and had made an offer on the spot. As I was exclaiming to George, the young man was signing the contract. I had made up my mind about the apartment within hours, but it hadn’t been fast enough.
So it was that, when I saw the apartment in the rue St-Sulpice, I pounced. It was a favor, really, to another agent to fit it in before my appointment with Isabelle at 3. I didn’t want to see it. I had been told that it had two rooms, living room and bedroom, but as the entire apartment totaled only 43 square meters, they could only be two small rooms. Besides, how could I live anywhere but the Ile St-Louis? I saw myself shopping in the small market off the rue St-Louis-en-l’ Ile, whose jovial, white-aproned proprietor held court from behind a broad display case of cheeses. I thought of the mimes, like pencil-thin mechanical dolls, behind Notre Dame on the Pont St-Louis. I pined for the warmth of the apartment I had lost, the solidity of those dark, massive beams.
I met the agent at 2:15 in a sleek, glass building in the rue Bonaparte. Raymond was a tall, slender man with black hair, whose legs seemed to account for at least two-thirds of his 6-foot-plus frame. As we made our way to the apartment, past shop fronts and the stucco facades of old houses, I clambered after him, nearly slipping on the drizzle-slicked sidewalk. The hem of my narrow, French skirt tugged at my knees as I struggled to match his stride. Most of the time, he was a half-stride ahead, offering a running commentary over his shoulder, only some of which I took in. I was beginning to feel like a foolish American, more than a half-step behind the Old World. Without warning, he wheeled into the vestibule of a house near the head of the street. The neighborhood seemed attractive, but I barely saw it as I leapt after him and we were buzzed inside.
“Don’t worry about the stairwell,” he hailed as we started up the winding staircase to the troisième étage (the fourth floor, according to American calculation). “The repairs have already been voted.” Voted by the owners of the apartments in the building, that is, so that the cost to the apartment I was to see would be paid by the current owner. The staircase was, as the French say, en travaux (under repair), though what I noticed more was the beauty of its lines; the burnished, wooden steps; the wooden handrail on what I took to be wrought-iron balusters circling upward from floor to floor.
The door to the apartment was open as we reached the landing of the troisième étage, and I could see immediately the graceful, carved-stone fireplace in the living room and, above it, a huge, rectangular mirror reaching nearly to the ceiling. Large, casement windows, somewhat
crooked with age, looked out on a row of houses that could have been a stage set for “La Bohèrne!’ The apartment had a living room, with alcove, and a bedroom. The rooms were small, but the layout made maximum use of space. The kitchen and bathroom had been renovated in muted earth tones and white. There was even a window in the kitchen. I hardly noticed the slope of the living-room floor, which for me was simply another indication of the buildings venerable history. I felt almost immediately at home, astonished that I had found something that could make me almost forget the Ile St-Louis.
Back in the street, eyes lowered, I could feel the words in my throat. But no matter how hard they pushed, I couldn’t get them out. Raymond strode on, uncharacteristically silent. Should I? Should I wait? I wanted to, but, oh, I didn’t know. All of a sudden, the step seemed immense. Should I keep on looking? What if there was another apartment I’d like even better? From the whirl of indecision, the words finally burst out. “Je vais faire l’offre” (I’m going to make an offer). We walked on. I’d done it. I felt a little dizzy, elation thinly edged with anxiety. When we reached the office, I learned that, this time, no one else had gotten there ahead of me. I was still a little giddy but managed to settle down enough to sign the offre d’achat, which was to be accompanied by 10 percent of the purchase price. They had to teach me how to write a French check.
I arrived in the rue du Bac, a half hour late, to find Isabelle and Madame R, yet another real-estate agent, waiting for me. I managed to convey to Isabelle under my breath that I had just made an offer on another apartment. We decided not to disappoint Madame R, who, after all, had been waiting for me for more than half an hour. We would look at the apartment here as if nothing were amiss. Unfortunately, it would not be without leaving one flank exposed. On our return to the street, Madame R found a parking ticket on her windshield. Oh là là! She chased after the policeman, exclaiming the injustice of it all. She was only doing her job, she wailed. How could it be helped? There were so many cars in Paris. She had to make a living. She’d been parked there for only a moment. Where was his sense of fair play? She was an honest, hard-working citizen. Why wasn’t he out chasing criminals? “If you’ll write a letter detailing your complaint …” the policeman proposed, then drove off More exclamations as to the injustice of it all. Isabelle gestured helplessly. Shopkeepers came out to sympathize. “If only you’d left the
key with me,” one of them cried. I felt as though I’d stumbled into an opera bouffe.
It was a performance I knew I would never be able to replicate. Granted, I was not a tourist anymore. I owned an apartment here, almost. Already that set me apart from the many visitors who, much as they loved the city, were merely passing through. I belonged here in a sense that they did not. I said goodbye to Isabelle and Madame R and strolled up the rue du Bac toward the flood of traffic in the boulevard St-Germain. But would I ever become a real part of this city? Would the city ever embrace me? Would I ever be able to dissolve into Frenchness? I felt an extraordinary calm. Did it matter? Could I not simply take what the city had to give? Could I not simply relish the joy of being in this beautiful place? I wondered if one ever came to take all this for granted. If you were born here, grew up here, led your daily life here, did you see it fresh? Or did the preoccupations of daily life largely blind you to your physical surroundings? What was it like to have such beauty as the locus of your life?
In France a buyer makes an offer—that is, signs an offre d’achat and hands over a percentage of the purchase price—and then has time to repent. Five days or so after signing the offer sheet, he is expected to appear before a notaire to sign the promesse d’achat, which makes the sale binding. Until that time the buyer may change his mind, and his check will be returned. If he changes his mind after signing the promesse d’achat, he forfeits his hand money. At least that’s how it was laid out to me.
I invited two American friends to meet George and me at the apartment at 2:00 p.m. the following afternoon. George and I were the first to arrive, after picking up a key at the agent’s office. As George paid the driver, I got out of the taxi and had my first real glimpse of the neighborhood I had seen only in a whir the day before. The narrow streets were lined with five- and six-story houses, almost all with shops at street level, wrought-iron grilles (railings) and geranium-filled window boxes on the floors above. Most, if not all, of the buildings were presumably divided into apartments, just as mine was. Superstitiously, I delayed looking directly at my own building. What if I’d made a mistake? If I had, I couldn’t quite bring myself to know it. When I finally turned and looked up at the building’s facade, I could only stare. Oh, my God.
It seemed to be disintegrating. It was mottled with damp, riddled with crevasses and peelings. One of the shops was boarded up. And there was an ominous bulge between the first and second floors. It was, without question, the ugliest, most decrepit-looking building on the block. Was this why Raymond had walked so fast—so that I wouldn’t see? The gears of a bus ground menacingly from around the corner. What have I done? I asked myself. What have I done?
Gail and Pat arrived and immediately dismissed my anxiety. “It’s only the stucco,” Pat assured me. Gail agreed. Apparently, the facade of a house like mine would be built of stone with an overlying layer of stucco, which was not integral to the building’s soundness. Once in the apartment, I felt the delight I had felt the day before. Light poured in through the windows. Gail and Pat went from room to room, exclaiming over the apartment’s charm. George, on the other hand, stood in the living room dismayed, struggling to see what I saw in it. I said nothing. I opened one of the windows, only to hear the roar of another bus. Yikes. But once the window was closed, it was quieter. “After you’ve been here awhile,” Gail said,” you won’t notice the noise.” And indeed I did seem to forget it after a few minutes. I took photographs and measured every wall and nook with my metric tape measure. I knew George liked things that impressed. It would take him a while to understand the lure of this cleaned-up vie de hohème.
A subsequent stroll through the neighborhood was breathtaking. The apartment was only blocks from the boulevard St-Germain, the place de l’Odéon and the Odéon Theater, the Luxembourg Gardens and, of course, St-Sulpice Church. Along the streets, specialty shops alternated with rare-book and print dealers, publishers. Crayfish and oysters lay on beds of ice in restaurant windows. Boulangerie, patisserie, charcuterie, pharmacie—those words again—were only steps from the apartment. And the bank branch I had chosen? That, too, was only blocks away in the rue de Rennes. I couldn’t get over the coincidence. Perhaps I was meant to be here after all.
Still, visions of my building s degraded facade haunted me through the night. At 4:00 a.m., I lay awake, eyes wide in the darkness. George slept peacefully beside me. Anxiety had curled into my gut. How could anything so decrepit-looking be sound? I knew I could get out of the sale if I needed to. I hadn’t yet signed the promesse d’achat. But I didn’t want to get out of it. I felt already invested there, unable to pull away.
The next step was to talk to the syndic, one of the many professional administrators who handle the affairs of Paris apartment buildings. It was he who would give me a copy of the procès-verbal of the most recent assemblée générale—that is, the minutes of the most recent meeting of proprietors of apartments in the building—and he who would tell me about the condition of the building. “Not at all,” he chuckled, when I spoke of my concerns. “The building is not délabre” (beyond repair). It had recently been replumbed and rewired; a new security system had just been installed; and the ravalement (the repair of the facade that, by law, was to be done every 12 years) was projected. (As it had not been voted, I would be the one to pay for my apartment’s share if I decided to buy.) Isabelle had instructed me to ask if the shop was boarded up because of legal proceedings, which in France are not uncommon and can be little short of Dickensian. But no, the shop was en travaux (in this case, meaning undergoing alterations) and would open in the spring. The next assemblée generate would take place within the month.
It certainly sounded good. More than good. Did I dare just be happy? Why was I being so hesitant? Had I been trying to make judgments through too-American eyes? What kind of promise had I been expecting? Nothing is risk free. I decided to follow my heart. The various legal and title searches had already been done, which meant that I would not have to wait the usual one to three months between signing the promesse d’achat and the final sale. I had already called my bank in New York to ask them to wire the funds I needed to my Paris account. George was in the room when I called. As I recited account and telex numbers, he interrupted to tell me they should take half the money out of his account. His tangible support seemed like the ultimate seal of approval.
Maître V, the notaire, was a robust, cheerful man in a gray, tweed suit who had come in from his office in Trouville for the closing. (I didn’t ask why we were using a notaire from Trouville instead of one of the many who surely existed in Paris.) He opened the proceedings at the real-estate agency by explaining that he had a slipped disc, then, throughout the meeting, squirmed and winced self-mockingly with each twinge in his back. He had an appointment with his chiropractor at 6:30 that evening. He looked out over the desk at me, Raymond and Raymond’s English-speaking colleague. The seller, having given power of attorney to the notaire, was not present. Nor were there any lawyers.
Maître V read dutifully from the myriad documents arrayed on his desk. At my request, he showed me the D.I.A., the declaration d’intention d’aìiéner, which someone, probably Isabelle, had told me to ask about. But having no idea what it was, I could only nod when he held it up. (Isabelle had neglected to tell me what it was about it that I was supposed to be watching for, and I had been so busy taking notes that I hadn’t thought to ask.) He also assured me that the buildings État Hypothecate was less than two months old and vierge, sans exercice, as Isabelle had said it should be, though I wasn’t entirely sure what those terms signified. It occurred to me that I was, perhaps unwisely, throwing caution to the wind, but I decided that any country so strict about checking accounts would probably be equally unforgiving of any notaire-rehteá hanky-panky. And besides, I had Raymond and his colleague with me, eager to please the agent in New York. I handed over a bank check for the sale price plus a separate check for the notaire customary 10 percent, most of which goes to the state. (As a precaution, I had gotten an attestation from the bank to the effect that the funds had originally come from abroad. That would presumably ensure my being able to take the money out of France, should I sell the apartment someday.) My original check for the hand money was returned, and I emerged from the meeting with an aged-looking document detailing the previous owners of the building and the rules of the subsequent co-proprietorship (I was told not to lose the document, on pain of death); an attestation depropriété stating that I had bought lots 9, 10 and 11 in the building; and a fat, stubby key. The acte de vente (the deed) would arrive in six months.
So, I was a homeowner. I walked slowly back to the apartment and sat cross-legged in front of the fireplace. There was something so pure, so peaceful in the gray stone of the mantel, poised against the white wall. I reached for the “aged” document—page after typewritten page, bound in heavy, gray stock—which had actually been prepared in 1949 with the establishment of the co-proprietorship. I was a part of this now. Wherever the records were kept, I would be listed as one in the sequence of the buildings owners. Over history, from the 17th century, when the building was constructed, to some unknown date in the future, my name would be one in the series of names, some of which came before mine and some that would come after. I visualized the names flowing down a sort of unfolding scroll. In this way, at least, I would belong to the city. As long as there was a Paris, my name would be a part of it.
A wedding would begin soon at St-Sulpice. Four young boys in short pants, navy-blue bows at their collars, and four young girls in white dresses readied themselves at the back of the church. I squeezed the folded note again and pushed it into the slot. It dropped. Superstition aside, my offering was, most profoundly, a symbolic gesture of the heart, of commitment to the neighborhood, and a quiet message: I am here. I glanced back at the nave, the series of chapels along the far wall. In an exception to my usual response to Paris structures, the beauty of the church’s massive interior, if indeed it was beautiful, was not immediately apparent to me. But perhaps time would give me a more discerning eye. I looked down at my watch. George would be waiting for me. I turned and left the dimly lighted church and walked out into the sun.