2003 – Paris; buying an apartment in the Marais

76_paris_plageOur apartment rental in the Marais is charming, which in Paris is another word for really small. Well, the Marais is the oldest section of Paris. The streets are smaller, the buildings are smaller and of course, the apartments are smaller.

Our apartment on Rue Bourg-Tiborg has been renovated with a new kitchen and bathroom but the rest of the 57 sq meters is almost original; 17th century wood beams and plaster. The floors are so uneven it’s almost like walking up hill to get from the bed to the kitchen. And there are so many old exposed beams, called “poutres” in French, that we’ve been referring to the place as Poutres Poutres-ghali.  But, it’s comfortable, and with the windows closed and AC turned on, very quiet.

75_paris_plageIt’s summer in the city and the mayor has decreed “Paris Plage” from July 20th till August 14th.  Paris Plage is when the city turns the walkway along the Seine, normally reserved for discarded trash, homeless people and illegal drug sales, into a fashionable family beach front, complete with potted Palm trees, sand, lounge chairs, fresh sod, resin roman columns, umbrellas, life guards, cold showers and an assortment of family activities ranging from beach volleyball to tai chi. The sun is strong, the beach chairs are full of people in swim suits and everyone seems to be having a good time of it. So far we haven’t seen anyone, or anything, swimming in the Seine. I still think even in the days of Paris Plage, that’s a grande non non.

July 21
In my opinion, the mobile phone system in Europe is far superior to the US. You change countries; you change SIM cards, the small computer chip cards that enable the phone to work in the new region. You recharge the phone credits by purchasing recharge cards at the local tobacco or magazine shops. It’s all pretty inexpensive, no monthly fee, no yearly contract. However, there are some idiosyncrasies that can only be learned the hard way. We bought a 25 euro recharge card at a Tabac shop and I followed the directions to recharge the credits to the phone. All worked fine. I even called home to San Francisco to check for messages. Then a few hours later, I tried to make a call and the phone told me I needed to add more minutes with a recharge card. And so, thinking the first time I entered the 14 digit code into the phone didn’t take, I tried it again, only to receive the message the number was incorrect. I tried a few more times, same response. The next day we brought the phone to the “Phone Store” where it was explained to us that after 3 attempts to enter the recharge code, the phone is automatically blocked. It took two phone calls, a lot of on hold time and even more explaining to the France Telecom attendant for the “Phone Store” attendant to get our phone unblocked. She also discovered that the reason we ran out of credits so fast was that while the phone was sitting idly in my bag, it re-dialed itself to San Francisco and ate the rest of the 25 euros. And so, she showed me how to turn on the key lock. No matter how smart you get in this world of technology, it never seems to be smart enough. And so we bought another 25 euro recharge card.

July 22
Paris is a city that makes you look up, all those beautiful 17th century and belle epoch buildings with amazing mythological detail, the conical slate roofs, the gargoyles and buttresses of the churches. It’s a historical fantasyland. And yet, Paris has also been a city of dogs, little dogs that get carried around in baskets or pulled along the streets on long leashes. Big dogs that take up entire outdoor tables of at a café. In past visits, Paris has been a difficult city to look up. The reward of a beautiful view is often penalized with a smelly shoe, but these days Parisians have joined in the poop patrol. It a whole other world here when you look up.
Last night, as we were walking back to the apartment after a great bowl of Onion soup gratinee at “Au pied de Couchon”  I just happened to glance down at the sidewalk and there was a crisp 20 euro note. I guess there’s a whole other world when you look down as well.

July 23
This is one of the best people watching cities in the world. The hair color alone is worth a long walk down the Rue du Rivoli. At one point we thought there was a “Carrot Top” convention in town. But alongside the bright orange coifs are equally unusual melanzane, merlot and some colors that don’t appear anywhere else in nature. It’s so trendy here.
Actually, most Parisians these days are currently adapting to more comfortable clothing, especially shoes. I used to be able to easily spot the Americans by their footwear, but now everyone, male and female is trodding along the Grand Boulevards and narrow streets in their Nikes, Reeboks, Pumas and other euro-design look-alikes.
However, there are those who still can’t break free from the chains of fashion as they hobble down the avenues in 6 inch heals, propelling themselves along with wide gyrations of their hips. It’s the end of July, and with less than one week before the August holiday begins, most shops have sale tags in the windows, sales up to 50% off normal price. And so, whether they need those fashionable shoes or not, at least they are finally affordable.

The crazies of Paris, the maladjusted ambassadors of absurdity have offered a special welcome to travelers here for centuries.  They are loud, colorful, occasionally annoying but usually harmless. Some say it’s good luck if they stop you. While walking down the Boulevard St Germain near the Odeon, we met Madam Ont n’y pas lieu. This 4 1/2 ft tall old woman with the face of Popeye circled the sidewalk shouting “ont n’y pas lieu”, which I think means “they’re not there”.  She waved an unlit cigarette in my direction and yelled “ont n’y pas lieu”. Thinking she wanted a light, I gave her one, but after pulling in a long breath through the smoke, she continued on with another “ont n’y pas lieu”. We moved onto a nearby bench to consult our map, and she moved along with us. “Ont n’y pas lieu. Ont n’y pas lieu”.  We got up to walk away and she started to follow us. “Ont n’y pas lieu. Ont n’y pas lieu.” And then, she was gone, absorbed into the crowd. I still spend hours trying to figure out who “they” were.

Later that day, as we crossed the Rue St Honore by the Comedie Francaise, a young,well dressed black man stuck his head into our faces and yelled “Brake Off, Brake Off!!!” Gretch smiled at him and said, “oh no monsieur, it’s Fuck off, Fuck off.” He looked very confused but at least he moved aside.

The following morning, as we walked along the very narrow sidewalk of the  Rue de Vielle Temple in the Marais, a wild bear of a man threw up his arms at us and yelled something that sounded like “glah, glah, glah!!”  We stared each other down for about 10 seconds until I raised my arms and in my best Dracula impersonation yelled back “Blah, Blah, Blah!!” The weird thing is that I think we actually communicated with each other. He smiled and gave us the sidewalk. A minor victory I guess.



An Interesting Parisian story:
Michele, the woman who manages the apartment we’ve rented told us a story about the people in another apartments she manages. Apparently the American father decided to celebrate his son’s birthday by taking him to a Parisian night club. Now this guy has been in Paris for 4-5 days and every day he would call Michele to ask about restaurants, markets, museums, shops, etc, but on this particular instance, he decided to look in a tour book to find out where the Parisians go for a good time. For some reason, they ended up in near Place de Pigale in the Montmartre district.  In the late 1800’s at Le Chat Noir or Le Moulin Rouge this might have been the place to cheap drinks, cheap sex and maybe a dose of syphilis, but now the bizarre sex shops and cheap strip clubs aren’t what I’d call a fun night for your son’s birthday celebration, especially if you don’t even speak French.  As Michele asked, “They called me for everything else, every day they called me with more suggestions. Why didn’t they ask me about this?”

Well, back to the story… It was late, apparently very late and the only ones left in the bar were the American father, the young son, the son-in-law and four very large French goons. During the wild night, the American father ordered three bottles of Champagne and when it came time to settle up, the waiter presented the bill for 1200 euros. For those of you not following the rate of exchange these days, that’s about $1,380. The American father protested and said there must be a mistake. The French proprietor assured him there was no mistake.  The father then refused to pay the bill. That didn’t go over to well either. It didn’t look to good for the tourists and although I never got all the details, eventually the four French goons took the American father, the son and the son-in-law to a cash machine. I guess some deal was made. They first made him withdraw 200 euros in cash. Then they had him sign a credit card slip for another 800 euros. Then they let them all go. His first reaction was to call the police, but the police spoke no English and, of course, he spoke no French. The next solution was to call the credit card company where he found out the French bar owner also charged an additional 600 euros to his card. When morning came, he finally called Michele, but by this time, there wasn’t much she could do to help. She suggested he let the credit card company handle it.

Buying an Apartment in Paris – July 25
One of the reasons we came to Paris was to look for real estate. I think the thought of owning an apartment here first hatched about three years ago, about the same time we discovered renting apartments in Europe was a hell of lot more fun than renting hotel rooms. At first, it sounded like just another pipe dream but when we looked at the rental possibilities, it all started to make sense. An apartment in Paris normally rents out between 25-40 weeks per year. Claude, a French apartment agent who lives in San Francisco, told us that after September 11th 2001, the occupancy rate dropped considerably, but then 2002 was the best year he ever had. Let’s face it, Paris is one of the most traveled cities in the world and with hotel rates soaring to 300-500 euros and more a night for a very small room, renting a beautiful remodeled apartment with a kitchen, living room, dining room, two bedrooms and two bathrooms in a great neighborhood for $2,000-$2,500 a week is a great deal.



Sophie, our real estate guide through Paris is a young, energetic, funny , no nonsense person. Her business is helping people (mostly from America) find apartments in Paris.  And she knows this game really well. Considering the fact that everyone goes on Holiday in August, the search for real estate at the end of July was iffy at best, but we figured we’d at least get our feet wet. As Sophie explained, “there are not many good properties now, but the ones that are available are priced to sell before the holiday.” In the past few days she has shown us three apartments. Although the first one in the 7th Arrondissment was a great location, it was ugly, expensive and apparently had just been sold the night before we got there. The next one was in an 18th century convent on a very quiet street in the Marais. It was a beautiful building but the layout of the apartment was too strange and the ceilings too low. It also had one of those 1970’s urban renewal projects across the street. What happened to the architecture of the world in the 1970’s? Was everyone out on a disco break? The third apartment we viewed was a beautiful place on the Rue de Tournelles (we’re on the floor above the entrance in the photo), 2 blocks from the Place des Vosges. The apartment is around the corner from the location of the Hotel de Tournelles, where the Royal Family lived prior to the 17th century. In 1559, but when King Henri II was killed in a jousting match, his wife, Catherine de Medici, was so depressed, she had the Royal Palace torn down and the family moved the family to what is now the Louvre.

The layout actually incorporated two flats, a two bedroom, two bath apartment on the first floor and a smaller studio on the ground floor. With a few reparations, it would have great potential as two rental spaces. We played around in it for about an hour and then made an offer. We are waiting for the reply.

83_michael_gerri_gigiJuly 26
Our Australian friends Michael and Gerri are in Paris. I guess this is a half way meeting point between San Francisco and Sydney. They had been in Ireland for a week, spending time with Gerri’s family and watching the endless rain. And on the day they arrived in Paris, the rain came with them. Boy, were they pissed off. The weather didn’t bother us too much. After complaining about the intense heat for the past 5 weeks, it just didn’t feel right to complain about the rain, at least not on the first day. We started complaining about the rain on the third day. We’ve learned that it rains a lot in Paris.

Since this was their first time in Paris, we let them sight see during the day and then met up later on for dinner. Many of the great chefs of Paris finally realized that although they’ve claimed fame and fortune with their haute cuisine, most of the people in the city couldn’t afford to eat there. And so, a few years back, they began opening more informal and affordable restaurants around the city. The prix fixe lunch menus at these annex bistrots are a great bargin and the a la carte dinner menus aren’t too expensive either. We met the first night at Les Bouquinistes on the Quai Des Grandes Augustines, a beautiful Guy Savoy annex restaurant overlooking the Seine. I can still taste the rabbit stuffed courgettes in a wild berry sauce as I’m writing this. Mmmm. The following night we tried out Jacques Cagna’s La Rotisserie D’en Face, another great meal. We even rated a visit from Jacque Cagna himself. I guess since his signature restaurant was just around the corner, he snuck out to see how the simple people were doing.

80_tour-de-franceJuly 27
The Tour De France is finishing up in Paris today. Grandstands and hoopla are set up along the Champs Elysee and barricades everywhere else have separated the right and left banks of the city. In fact, the only way to get across the river is by taking the metro underground. Cycling enthusiasts around the city are extremely excited and are rushing to the many viewing positions. Everyone else is really pissed off that they can’t get through the barricade to the opposite side of the river. At one point we saw a police officer open up a barricade on the Rue du Rivoli to let a few people get across and it turned into chaos as a flood of families attached themselves to the flow. After some yelling and a few French expletives, the gate closed again.
If you looked up, you could see the two helicopters following the race around the city. It was pretty easy to see when they were getting close to each viewing area. First, a few police cars would drive through to make sure the road was clear. Next came the cars tattooed in Tour de France sponsorship, then came the cars carrying the bike racks filled with spare bikes and finally, the cyclists themselves raced by in a blur of brightly colored lycra. The whole procession took about 15 seconds, less than 5 seconds for the cyclists to race by. But not to worry, it was short walk to the next viewing area and in about 20 minutes, they helicopters would fly over and the whole thing would happen again. As we waited by each location we listened to the spectators telling stories about Lance Armstrong’s impending divorce from his wife or how, when Jan Ulrich’s colleague fell, Jan waited for him to get back on the bike before he continued on. Americans, Brits, French; they were all telling stories, mostly about Lance. It was definitely a Lance Armstrong day.
This was his 5th victory in a row. At the press conference, one of the reporters asked him, “What are you going to do now Lance?” And even though Euro Disney is but a few kilometers away, Lance replied, “in about two weeks, I’m going to start training for the 2004 Tour de France.

86_la-signatureJuly 29
We got the call from Sophie that our bid for the apartment on Rue du Tournelles was approved. The good news was we got the apartment. The bad news was we got the apartment. Oh the angst of spending that much money, especially when the dollar is so weak. Nerves were unraveling as we arrived to Sophie’s office, but she’s been through this many times before with other nervous Americans. After a session at the excel spreadsheet, we saw that with a 20% downpayment and a minimum of 24 weeks rental, our apartment would pay for itself. If it all goes as it does on paper.

And so we signed a bunch of pages. Monsieur Michot attempted to explain what we were signing. some of it we understood, some we didn’t. That didn’t stop the pen from moving forward.

July 30
It’s our last day in Paris and it’s time to pack up all our memories. That is after we fax a letter of authority for a wire transfer to the French notaire, visit three or four furniture stores, re-design the new apartments three or four times, make a last visit to the Marriage Freres tea shop, and yes, have a few glasses of wine. Gee, I’m exhausted.