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A glossary of pain
D is for 'dossier'
I hope you have had a good week. If you have subscribed since my last letter, welcome to your weekly letter from Paris. I’m glad that we’re now pen friends!
How is it feeling being in the UK, if you’re there? My lovely pal Hattie Crisell wrote an article this week where she described it like this:
“Life in the UK has been like sitting through a stressful arthouse film, and gradually realising that it’s the seven-hour director’s cut and you can’t leave.”
I also like my mum’s reporting:
I recently decided to invest in a VPN software that allows me to watch British TV from France (please do not come for me international TV police, if you are reading this!). As an antidote to the rather unedifying political situation in the home country, I made the very smart decision to become a devoted watcher of this series of the Great British Bake-off. This has really been such a good choice. It’s just so COSY, and warm and kind. It restores my faith in country. (See also: Gogglebox).
I had a really good week getting out and about in Paris (“booping and bopping”, as my dear friend Sutanya calls it). I wandered around the Printemps department store, I went to see Also Known As Africa (AKAA) in the Carreau du Temple, a former covered market turned cultural space in the Upper Marais. AKAA is a new art fair devoted to contemporary art and design from Africa. It was a dazzling display with a huge range of interesting work.
For an article, I spent the night in a hotel called OFF Paris Seine, which is the only hotel in central Paris that I know of that is actually ON the Seine, because it’s housed on a huge stationary barge. I liked it a lot.
I really enjoyed watching all the different boats go by. There were so many of them! They were mostly tourist leisure cruises, ranging from sit-down dinners to discos. As part of the stay, we also got to go on a boat ride along the Seine to Pont Alexendre III with a company called Green River Cruises, who have the mooring just next-door.
All of Paris originally grew out from an island in the Seine and it was its position on the river that made it into a landing place for the Romans, and later one of the greatest hubs in Europe. As the city grew, the river became less central in the sense that there are lots of parts of the city that don’t have any Seine at all, like where I live up in the 18th arrondissement. And yet it is still the lifeblood of the city—the most picturesque point and the dividing line that separates the Left Bank from the Right Bank. It wasn’t until I worked as a tour guide that I learned that the official symbol of Paris is actually a sailing ship. Once you know, you start seeing the ship all over—bridges, doorways, lamp-posts, the town hall. The emblem matches with the city’s motto: Fluctuat Nec Mergitur or ‘tossed by the waves, but does not sink.’
And there’s still a whole network of life and activity on the Seine. David, the driver of our boat, showed us the base of the water pompiers, (water fire brigade) not far from Notre-Dame. He told us that when the cathedral dramatically caught fire back in 2019, the water pompiers were the first on the scene, travelling by the Seine, which proved faster than the roads. This also reminded me of a story that a friend told me. She is a photographer in Paris and was hired for a themed costume wedding on a boat. At some point in the night, when most of the guests were quite drunk, the boat collided with a hard object and they had to stop it in the middle of the Seine while the water pompiers arrived to inspect if it was safe for them to continue. When they arrived on the boat, it took them a while to find the man in charge as about half the male guests of the wedding were dressed as sea captains.
diary glossary of a Paris apartment seeker
At the moment I am sort of in the process of looking for an apartment, a little bit bigger than my current one, in the same area I live now in the north of Paris. I say ‘sort of’ because I am going about the whole thing pretty gingerly. As is true of quite a number of world cities, finding an apartment in Paris is not the most fun experience.
I keep thinking of an essay/skit I read in The Fran Lebowitz Reader called ‘The diary of a New York apartment seeker’, written at the time where New York wad mid gentrification and a nice apartment at an affordable price was becoming a rare commodity. Here is a prime highlight:
“When I pointed out that there were no windows on the opposite wall, [the estate agent] pointedly pulled a sheaf of papers from her briefcase and immersed herself in them. Presumably they contained the names of all Supreme Court justices who were waiting for this very apartment. But I persisted and asked what could be done with three arches five feet high in the bedroom wall. She suggested stained glass.”
I am inspired by Lebowitz’s piece to write something similar-ish but different about Paris: not a diary, but a glossary of Paris apartment hunting.
Chambres de bonne : The classic Paris artists’ garret. Chambres de bonne are the former maids’ rooms at the top of old Paris apartment buildings. My first Parisian apartment was one of these. I found it on Craigslist. It was the size of a small bedroom, with a sloping roof and one attic window that looked out onto a courtyard: I never saw sun in there. It did have the benefit that, if I wished, I could open my fridge and cook on my two-plate camping stove from from my single bed. My landlady, a very slim middle-aged woman with an extremely obese fluffy cat, whose stomach dragged on the floor when he walked, lived next door and occasionally let herself into my place when I was out to check if I was hanging the towels in the way she preferred. Still, it was in a fantastic location in the chic 9th arrondissement and as I had just moved to Paris, I was too giddy to mind much, for the first six months at least—after a while one does crave a bathroom with a door.
Dossier: Though this term may be found within the Paris-apartment-hunting glossary, it in fact comes in useful in many different aspects of life in France. Dossier means ‘folder’. Most of the time it actually does take the form of a physical folder. If you want to do anything vaguely administrative, you will need a dossier: it’s a necessary paper-heavy vehicle that gets you from A to B, though not necessarily in a straight line. A renter’s dossier, including all your personal and financial information, is expected for most apartments. The market is so competitive that you often have to submit it before even visiting a property. In the process of finding a flat, you will almost certainly give out your most personal documents to at least 10 different people you’ll never meet again. All that, and if you haven’t written a beautiful contents page, it probably won’t even be looked at.
Fuite d’eau: Ahhh, a leak of water. A fuite d’eau. It’s very common in these old buildings. Usually at least three parties will debate about whose responsibility it is (landlord, tenant, other tenant, or le syndic - we’ll hear about them later). You either wield the evil power of being the leaker, or you get leaked on.
After my chambre de bonne in the 9th arrondissement, I moved into a slightly bigger studio in the 20th arrondissement. I found it through a man who could only loosely be designated as an ‘estate agent’. His office, in retrospect, reminds me in its general spirit of that business park where Rudy Giuliani made the speech in front of Four Seasons Total Landscaping.
During the apartment viewing, I decided to overlook a small hole in the outside wall (ventilation!), but did feel I should mention an odd smell in the kitchen area/entrance way (one combined space). “Ah NON! I do not smell anything”, said my estate agent. It was a kind of olfactory gaslighting. I signed the contract and moved in.
About a week after I moved, I located the source of the smell. A steady drip of bright-blue sludge started falling from the ceiling in the kitchen area. It impressively smelled of both drains AND disinfectant. My very own fuite d’eau (fuite de bleu ? Fuite de sludge ?).
Metres carrés : I first lived in France when I was a student and spent a year studying in Lyon. This is where I first learned about the all-encompassing importance of metres-carrés, or square meterage. I was recounting to a new French friend my search for a house-share (or ‘colocation’) and he asked me how many metres squared of apartment I was looking for. I was confused. I don’t know!, I thought, I didn’t have my trundle wheel on me! But I soon learned that this is the main way French people designate the size of an apartment, not by its number of bedrooms. Now I’m so assimilated I have begun to regard this as totally normal. Every time a friend in the UK talks to me about a property, I have to curl my toes to quell the urge to ask ‘HOW MANY METRES SQUARED WAS IT?!’.
Side-note: I have noticed that the French are altogether more concerned with how big/wide/deep/warm/cold something is precisely, and calling it by its proper precise name. I also learned this in Lyon when I used to refer to the Rhone River as a ‘rivière’ before too many French people recoiled in horror saying “it is NOT a rivière! But a FLEUVE, you fool! It flows into the sea!!”. I was baffled, but again have now become accustomed to this French need for correct taxonomy.
Sans ascenseur: This means ‘without an elevator’. It is common. I am currently on the sixth floor sans ascenseur. An elevator is a thing of great wonder, reserved only for some. In older buildings, they are usually extremely small.
Syndicat de copropriétaires / ‘le syndic’: The homeowner associations that manage the common areas of the apartment buildings—renovations, storage, bins that kind of thing. This committee is VERY POWERFUL. If you are a renter, you have little to no influence on it, and can mostly only contact it via your landlord or lady. If ever there is a problem or shortcoming in a building or you ask for something to get done, ‘le syndic’ will be named as the mysterious but powerful blocker that’s stopping it getting done. It’s both concretely powerful and nebulous, like an international financial market, for example.
Viager: A particularly strange one, more pertinent to buying than renting apartments. An apartment bought en viager is one where there is an older person living inside it and you agree to pay the costs of the apartment until they die, at which point - wouhou! - their property is now yours and you got it at a knock-down price. Strange. The adverts for these often specify the age of the current occupant: ‘82 year-old’. Apparently estate agents selling them say things like ‘he’s obese WINK WINK’ or ‘smoked all her life (NOT LONG TO WAIT NOW!)’. Of course it is both a bit gruesome and quite a gamble. There have been some famous cases of the the would-be moribund lodger outliving the buyer.
Have you had any funny/dreadful/unusual/great!? experiences with the Paris apartment search. Please do let me know in the comments or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Thirty-second book club
I am still reading Au Bonheur des Dames. If you’ve been reading closely, you will know that I have been working my way through this Emile Zola classic about the rise of the consumer age for a few weeks now.
What are you reading? Do let me know, as some day I do hope to read other books again.
That’s all for now! Thank you very much for reading.
I’ll write again next Sunday. Until then, please do write back in the comments or by emailing email@example.com. I’d love to read you!
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