Both of our apartments were ready for occupancy in mid March 2004. However, I thought I’d give a recap of the events through the 5 month renovation from October 2003 through March 2004
26 October 2003
We’re in a rented apartment on the corner of Rue Birague and Rue Saint Antoine. Rue Birague is a small street, one block long that empties into the Place des Vosges, which according to us is the most beautiful square in all of Paris, if not all of France. Rue Saint Antoine is a big thoroughfare that eventually becomes the bigger thoroughfare Rue di Rivoli as it gets closer to the Hotel de Ville, the grand old department stores and the Louvre. Like many of the building of the Marais, our rented apartment is 17th century. Under the thick beamed ceilings of the main room, windows look out onto Rue St Antoine. Two Hundred years ago (or so) this might have been where Madam DeFarge watched the carriages transport prisoners to the guillotine. We, however look from the same window and see the Credit Du Nord bank across the street where Monsieur Jean Neim is holding our mortgage papers.
We received the bank mortgage documents about two weeks before we left for Paris. Most of it was the obvious financial statement kind of detail, but then we noticed the request for medical reports. Apparently we were required to provide them with the results of cardio and blood exams. French law demands that if you take out a sizeable loan from the bank you are required to have death insurance. And so if you die while owning a French mortgage, the insurance will pay the remainder of the loan. Of course the bank tacks on an additional .2% to the mortgage to pay for this convenience (or inconvenience).
Since it usually takes at least a week to get an appointment to see our doctors in San Francisco, our agent in Paris suggested we just wait till we arrive to Paris and get the exams here. Yes, it’s true. You can get a walk-in to the doctor’s office and get your exam results the same day. It’s easier than going to the dry cleaners. And although it costs 160€ per person for the cardio and 150€ per person for the blood test, the insurance company reimburses you once the loan is approved.
Not only can you get a walk-in to the cardiologist, but you can do it at night. We called Dr Laurent Quisel and got an appointment for the both of us at 7:15pm.
Quisel’s office is in an old Belle epoch building where Rue Saint Antoine spills into the Place de Bastille. Although I’m sure there was once an air of charm and elegance, it looked like the old lady hasn’t had a face lift since the 1950’s. The waiting room was a disarray of thread bare Persian carpets, flea market versions of Empire furniture and lots of very old magazines. Quisel is small man in his late thirties or early forties, kind of a smaller version of Kevin Spacey. He spoke very few words of English, but our French seemed to hold up OK. With the insurance forms under his nose, we first received the oral exam; lots of questions about our health history, lots of nods, smiles, hums and pen scratchings. And after the forms were complete, we were invited into the examination room, a scene that looked like a theatrical version of Frankenstein’s Laboratory. It was inside of this chamber of dials and meters that we were hooked up to a series of suction cups for our EKG report.
All in all, we had a great time with Dr Quisel, who before we left, invited us to meet his wife and 5 month old baby.
28 October 2003 – 7am
On to the blood exam. The blood test center was in a typical medical office with a reception area and small private blood letting rooms. Nothing too amazing here, except that the doctor didn’t tie off my arm to find the vein. He just looked and stuck. The whole visit took 15 minutes and we went back that afternoon and picked up the results.
29 October 2003
Even though Monsieur Neim said he was trying to get the process completed for our loan papers, the wheels of bureaucracy turn pretty slowly here and it looks like it’s going to take a little longer than we expected. But Sophie, our agent here has the keys to our apartments and so off we go for a reconnaissance.
The apartment is much smaller than we remembered. But then it’s always much smaller than we remember. Memories tend to be bigger.
We rechecked all measurements, replotted the rooms three or six times into CAD drawing, gave the news specifications to Hakim, our contractor, and lo and behold, our renovation estimates are now coming in over 30% more than the original bid. It’s the way of contractors the world over. We were depressed for about a day but there was really nothing we could do about it. If we wanted a nice apartment, we had to pay for it. And pay for it we will. Even though the price did go up, Hakim was giving us a pretty good deal.
30 October 2003
Sophie introduced us to her friend Christophe, a designer, stone table manufacturer and tile salesman. Christophe is one of those people who will give you a great deal on the tile and the stone work if you incorporate his design ideas. Actually, he was very entertaining, acting out how his design for one of our bathrooms that “would give plenty of room for a woman to wash her hands before having dessert”. Let’s just leave it at that…..Lucky for us we actually did like most his ideas. The 2 inch thick honed slate countertop looked great when it was installed but within a day it looked like a slate blackboard. Anything that touched it left a scratch. What were we thinking.
31 October, 3pm
We are back with Monsieur Neim at the Credit du Nord. The loan papers are finally signed and approved. We passed all the tests. Now it’s off to the Notaire. Unfortunately, we still have a few hurdles to go. According to French law, both parties have to sit in the Notaire’s office and sing the papers transferring the property from the old to the new. The current owners can’t meet to sign the papers till Monday. Unfortunately for us, we are scheduled to depart on Sunday. And so, we signed over power of signature to our agent Sophie.
With all but a few T’s to cross, a few I’s to dot, and a couple of accents over the E’s, we decided to start on the fun part of shopping for furniture. Lucky for us there’s a sale at La Maison du Convertible. Both Claude (the rental agent) and Sophie (the real estate agent) convinced us that the apartment would be easier to rent if we had a sleeper couch so we could advertise the unit would sleep six people. The Maison du Convertible is 3 floors of convertible sofabeds, chair beds and armoire beds. We were getting dizzy from all the choices but we finally found one that we thought we both liked. It turned out we both hated it. We were exhausted and thought we were giving into the other; kind of like an O’Henry story in reverse.
There’s a 20%-50% sale in many of the department stores to celebrate All Saint’s Day. What perfect timing for us. Six hours later, we are the proud parents of a dining room table and chairs and a comfy easy chair.
We are on the nobile floor of a 19th century regency building on rue des Tournelles. It’s a tall thin building with a large carriage entrance into the courtyard that’s shared by a building that faces Boulevard Beaumarchais, named for Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, bon vivant, musician, inventor, spy, fugitive, serial husband (accused of poisoning two of his three wives) and author of the famous Figaro plays (The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother). Blvd. Beaumarchais was once the old city wall. Now it’s the avenue that leads to the Bastille and the route of every protest and manifestation parade in the city.
The two bedrooms of the first floor apartment overlook a small courtyard barely big enough for the garbage cans but we occasionally get 2 cars squeezed in there when the occupants of the building can’t find parking on the street.
From Monday through Friday deliveries for an office company named “Suite Plus”are brought in through carriage door and dragged across the cobblestones of the courtyard on an old hand truck that the French refer to as a “dragon”, probably from the horrifying sound of the metal wheels along the stones. Our bedrooms on the first floor apartment overlook the normally quiet courtyard except during those early morning Suite Plus deliveries. The studio apartment on the ground floor is adjacent to the carriage entrance and the dragon roars often.
We’ve complained to the owner of Suite Plus, who’s storefront faces Blvd Beaumarchais but somehow got access for deliveries through the rue des Tournelles entrance long before we bought the place. We get the classic French Shrug from the owner. We complain to the delivery men and ask them to please deliver the pallets after 8am when someone from Suite Plus would actually be there to receive them . Once again, we get the classic French Shrug. We complain to the other occupants of the building. They could care less. I wish we had known about this before we bought the place.
Next door to the building is a motorcycle repair shop named “Antique Trading”. It’s an odd name for a bike shop. During the day they wheel the bikes out onto rue des Tournelles and at night they wheel them back into the shop. Most of the bikes are Harley-Davidsons, which are strange to see in France. The mechanics are rough and tough looking and at first we thought it might be a detraction for the location but it turned out to be a big plus. The guys look after us. We feel well protected.
We could have just taken the apartment as it was and rented it out, according to Sophie, the agent who sold it to us. There was very usable kitchen on the ground floor with a wide stairway going up to the 2bedroom, 2bathroom first floor apartment.
We could have just started renting it out, but we were determined to build our dream home in Paris and so we embarked on what we thought would be a 10 weeks renovation. It turned into 6 months.
Our contractor was an Algerian carpenter named Hakim, a man Sophie had used for many years on other renovations. He was a very good carpenter and a very stylish fellow but his organizational skills were a bit challenged.
The crew included Hakim’s childhood friend Nasir, a couple of Moroccan cleanup guys, Abdul, the Egyptian painter who’s lips were permanently attached to a cigarette, and the Polish tile man everyone called “Maestro”. French was not their first language, nor was it ours, but we were able to communicate through words and drawings, as long as it fit into Hakim’s sense of what was “standard”. For instance, we wanted the lights over the mirror to be at 6’3″. Hakim informed us that 1.8 meters (5’9″) was “standard”. What a bitch it was to get up to raise a light 6″.
For the first few months, we received photos of the renovation. We were in San Francisco getting reports once a week. The split photos on the page are before and after shots.
All we had to do was remove the staircase that linked the two floors, seal up the ceiling/floor, install a bathroom and kitchenette in the studio, take the kitchen appliances and cabinets from the downstairs move them upstairs and carve out part of the living room and create a kitchen. We also wanted to enlarge one of the bathrooms on the first floor, replace and move the location of the hot water heater , replace all the fixtures in the bathrooms and install air conditioning. The rest was all cosmetic plaster and paint.
The demolition went quickly. Then everything slowed down. Then they all took a break for Ramadan. Then it slowed down even more. There were unforeseen problems. Hakim had to dig through 3′ of concrete foundation to put in a soil pipe for the bathroom in the studio and the plumbing was a nightmare. We had to replace the electrical panel and gas meter which required the city assistance and when Hakim was installing the new water heater (chaudiere) he inadvertently broke a gas pipe that fed the entire building. It was not the best introduction to our 4th floor neighbor Agnes.
Then we found out the toilet in the second bathroom was what the french refer to as a “sanibroyeur.” This is an amazing device that basically combines a garbage disposal with a toilet. You press the button on the toilet and it activates the broyeur engine that grinds up the waste into a slimy mush so it will be able to travel through a small waste pipe. These toilets are great if you don’t have access for a proper soil pipe. Unfortunately they don’t work so well. The broyeur constantly gets clogged up. I wish we knew the toilet in the bathroom was a sanibroyeur before we bought the place. Now it’s too late. We’ll learn to live with it.
In Tuscany we learned about the little Tuscan town of Quaratta where a lot of the beautiful Italian furniture is made, an little industrial zone of factories and showrooms stretching for about 12 km along SS 66. It’s about a 20 minute drive from our friends in Lastra A Signa. Yes, the furniture is less expensive but in order to get the best price (as in all of italy) the payment is made under the table, with cash (solo contanti). The ATM machines would only let us withdraw 250 euros a day. Since there were two of us, that was 500 euros. The furniture cost for kitchen bar chairs and the closet/bookshelves/entertainment center for the studio (including shipping to Paris) was a little over 2400 euros. We made a downpayment and came back five days later. It was pain in the ass but we did save a lot. The prices in Paris were twice as much for half the quality. Our real estate agent Sophie and her partner Michele were amazing. They arranged for the delivery from Italy and assembled the enormous closet/shelf system into the studio. We were really impressed and very grateful.
We’ve arrived with boxes galore from San Francisco and stuffed them into the apartment. In retrospect we probably should have waited a while. The downstairs apartment was covered in debris and the upstairs was filled with cabinets from the downstairs kitchen and mattresses. With the addition of a bunch of boxes on the floor, the apartment got a lot smaller.
It was Gretchen’s birthday. We were going to go out and enjoy Paris and have a great birthday celebration but first I decided to help the crowded apartment by unpacking the boxes and putting the items into the bookshelves in the bedroom. At least they’d be off the floor. I was in a hurry and the French style box cutter jumped from the carton and through my finger. Nasir took me to the Hopital Saint-Antoine where Gretchen and I waited in the emergency room for a couple of hours. Once the Emergency doctor examined my hand he told me I needed to get further evaluation and I was admitted to the hospital. That night I was prepped for surgery. There were two doctors and two anesthesiologists. I was given a full body anesthestic, tube down the throat, just to check if I had damaged a nerve in my finger. A few hours later I was out of danger and into a hospital bed connected to a plasma drip and a blood pressure cuff. I remained there for a day and a half, sharing the hospital room with a Jean, a French Gypsy guitarist who accidentally slashed his wrist while washing a ceramic plate in the sink. The plate slipped and broke is what he told the hospital doctors, but they weren’t convinced the wound wasn’t self inflicted.
When I was released I went to the check out window and paid the bill, 800 euros, which also included two return visits to check the wound and change the bandage. If I had French medical insurance it would have been covered but because I was a foreigner I had to pay. Even with the current rate of exchange it was about $950. The cost of the operating room with a staff of 4 and an overnight in a hospital room would excede $5000 in the US. My US insurance did eventually riemburse me for the cost after I translated the bill from French to English.
January is a great time to shop in Paris. The sales usually begin towards the middel of the month and they can be as much as 50% off the retail price. We needed a lot of furnishings and we hit every shop in Paris; Habitat, BHV, Samaritaine, Bon Marché and a lot of small designer shops. Euros were flowing out of us.
The studio is almost completed and Sophie has arranged to have the interior of the apartment dressed by a very talented Parisian designer named Marco Mencacci. The plan was to have it shown on a local TV show called “Paris Permiere”. We were a 5 minute video magazine story on creating a luxury “Chambre d’Hotes” in Paris. The taping took place in February 2004. It aired in April 2004.
The bedroom area was very comfortable with a large queen bed and great linens. The walls were pained with alternating stripes (a very labor intensive process). Marco arranged for very trendy furniture and fixtures to be loaned to the video shoot, but it all left when the cameras shut down.
For the kitchen we bought a very clever all in one compact kitchen called a Kitchoo; stovetop, refrigerator, dishwasher, sink and storage. The bathroom, which never existed before the renovation, now had a shower, toilet, sink and storage. It was all tricked out and ready to go. Marco did a really great job on the interior design and Sophie and Michele were amazing.
We lived in the studio the entire month of March and it was great. Every day we went upstairs to the first floor flat and tried to light a fire under Hakim and his crew. Sophie and Michele already rented the month of April to some friends of theirs but it didn’t look as if the job would be finished by then. The cabinets from the old ground floor kitchen were still all over the place, always getting in the way. The boxes filled with linens, pots and pans and other things we brought over from San Francisco are blocking the doorways. The mattresses leaning against the walls are moved from one room to another. It takes an extra hour to do anything just because everything is in the way.
It was push and in retrospect, we would have done things differently if we had to do it again. It seemed like a good idea to reuse the kitchen cabinets and appliances that one lived on the lower floor but we should have just bought a new kitchen that fit instead of waiting for Hakim to get around to figuring how to recut the old pieces into a new puzzle.
Even though Paris stays relatively cool in the summer, we wanted air conditioning for those heat waves like the one that just passed through a few months ago. We probably should have looked around for a reputable AirCon company instead of having Hakim bring in his friend Walid to install some whacky system above the ceiling in one of the bathrooms. The unit was basically a large ice box freezer. When the unit was turned on, cold water flowed the freezer coils and cold air would come through the air conditioning units attached to the walls. When it worked, it worked. Unfortunately it broke down a lot. Water would pour from the unit through the ceiling. At one point, the water pipe leaked through the wall and started to destroy the building. Walid rarely responded to repair calls. We finally found another AC man who came in and told us the unit was OK, it was just installed improperly.
The apartment is finished and ready for the first rental. We are now the proud parents of a 73 square meter 2bedroom/2bathroom apartment and a 22 square meter studio apartment we call “Le Bijou”.
Our 19th century Regency apartments have been lovingly restored and renovated. From the plaster moulding and ceiling rosettes to the plaster and stone walls to the old herringbone (point anguile) chestnut floors. The small coal furnace in one of the bedrooms doesn’t work any longer but it has been polished up and decorates the room beautifully. The cast iron radiators have been bled and cleaned and the air conditioning is working perfectly. The fireplace in the living room (sejour) works great and the mirror hanging over the original marble mantel was made by a craftsman from a family in Versailles.
The kitchen is compact and clean and the paint job on the cabinets is amazing. The French are still allowed to use paints that wouldn’t even be considered in America. I’m sure they are toxic to the environment but what a shine. The gloss almost looks like automobile paint. The refrigerator is large, the oven is small. There is a dishwasher, double sink, microwave, coffee maker, espresso machine, knives, dishes, serving trays and a 2″ thick slate counter.
There is a separate laundry room with a Miele washer/dryer, and an entrance hallway with a coat closet and storage for cleaning supplies and a locked storage area for our personal things.
The Dining Room has a table for four that opens up to comfortably seat six. There are handmade Tibetan rugs on the floors and professional photographs by my brother, Stuart Rome, on the walls. All the curtains are all handmade, the walls have a nice semi glossy sheen, the windows are double pane to keep the street noise out and the wooden shutters on the windows are once again bright white.
Both bedrooms overlook the courtyard, which is usually very quiet during the night. The master bedroom has a large queen sized bed, bookshelves and a large clothing closet. The second bedroom has 2 twin beds that can be joined together to make a large king size bed. There are so many set of sheets and covers that it is very confusing for the maintenance staff to figure out what goes on when. There are 4 sets of queen size sheets, and king sheets and 8 sets of twin size sheets. There is a queen down comforter and a king and 2 twins as well as lighter cotton blankets for the warmer seasons. There are 8 sets of towels, bath mats, mattress protectors and kitchen towels. It’s not an apartment, it’s a hotel.
We’ve hired a Parisian woman named Brigitte Puig to handle the maintenance and care of both apartments. Brigitte doesn’t have much english but she is very responsible and incredibly helpful to all the guest. I adore Brigitte. She is an ex hippie who still takes care of a large family of nephews and friends.
For the moment we are listing our apartments through Claude, the man who got us started on buying an apartment and who runs his Paris Rental empire from San Francisco.
We are exhausted but we feel great. We’ve built a home (and a business) in Paris.