So. Flights booked. Now, where to live?
After countless frantic international calls, I was terribly upset to find that the Coco Chanel Suite at the Ritz is fully booked. Apparently you have to book at least 6 months in advance.
So it was back to the drawing board for my digs in Paris.
It has been many years since I have had to apartment hunt – not since 1994 – so I am a little out of practice. And I have never had to do it sight-unseen in a strange city.
But I was not daunted.
As always in this day and age, the first port of call had to be Google.
At first I thought I was going to have to use French search terms and navigate numerous badly designed French websites, tear my hair out trying to translate, and then find only pokey, unfurnished apartments with three century old plumbing and rickety stairwells, located out in the sticks, for astronomical rents.
However, I was delighted to find there are numerous English language sites offering short and long term rentals of fully furnished apartments. Most are searchable by date, price and area, and come equipped with linens, kitchen utensils, washer and dryer and most importantly (for my work), high speed internet! Many also have the bonus of unlimited international calls, massive TVs, stereo systems and coffee makers. Good job too, as I hear the coffee in Parisian cafes is undrinkable.
But now all of a sudden I had hundreds of options to choose from. Where to start?
Choosing an area to live was definitely the way to go.
Paris geography can be quite confusing at first with all its troisièmes and cinquièmes, but once you understand how it works, it all makes perfect sense. (I suspect this is not the only time I will say this about France.)
Paris is divided into 20 districts or arrondissements. They are conveniently numbered from 1-20 and start in the center at the Louvre, spiraling clockwise outwards. And cleverly, the districts match the postcodes, which I imagine is handy when you are trying to decide where to go – well, anywhere.
So which – ième is the one for me? Well I plan to spend a good chunk of time being a shameless tourist (as will some of my houseguests) so I want to be near the museums and monuments. But not right in tourist-central, where there is not a French speaker in sight and where a cup of (undrinkable) coffee costs a week’s salary. I also don’t want to be anywhere too quiet and residential. Somewhere lively with shops and markets, bars and restaurants; a neighborhood-y kind of area. Would that be too much to ask for?
After a wee bit of research, it seemed like the Marais area in the 3rd and 4th would be the perfect blend of everything I needed.
Marais means swamp – which presumably is what it once was, not what it currently is – and it is the oldest neighborhood in Paris.
First cleared of swampland in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar, the Marais has since been home to French nobility, Jews, Chinese and currently, “Gay Paree.” It still bears the marks of each but is also full of “trendy restaurants, fashion houses and hype galleries.”
Rather scarily, according to a local blogger, it has become so fashionable that “Dressing to buy a baguette here is now more daunting than assembling an outfit to get past the bouncer at Le Baron.” I’m assuming here that Le Baron is a rather swanky nightclub – check out their minimalist website that just oozes exclusivity.
Add that to star-chef David Lebovitz’ confession in The Sweet Life in Paris that he gets smartly dressed up to take out the trash, and I think it means I am going to have to work on updating my slouchy beach wardrobe of flip-flops, tank tops and fishermen’s pants if I am going to hack it in the Marais.
But will they even let me in without a designer handbag?
Well, I decided to give it a whirl. After searching for a while among the plentiful apartments in the area, I found quite a few in my price range. But as I started to get closer to booking, I realized that all these sites charge a whopping 25% agent fee on top of the advertised price. So I broadened my search and drew on my meager apartment hunting experience, mostly in San Francisco. This was back in the days when Silicon Valley was in a golden internet bubble. With new millionaires appearing daily and a mass influx of modern day gold-seekers, vacancies were less than 1%, rents were spiraling out of control and if you were apartment hunting, Craigslist was King. But it was not easy; I once listed my spare room and had 80 responses within 4 hours. Crazy times.
You have to remember I have been out of western life for many years now, and I don’t know if Craigslist is still a household name, or if, as I suspect, it has degenerated into a seedy embarrassment to its stellar beginnings. But back in its infancy, Craigslist was the online bulletin board in SF. It became a part of my daily life. As well as apartments, you could find, well, basically everything your heart desired. Craigslist was the place to go for anything from a sofa to an electric guitar to a Vespa to true love. Or at least a one-nighter, and it being San Francisco, a one-nighter of any variety. (I actually got two items from the above list from Craigslist – I will let you guess which two ;-))
So I thought, “Why not try it for Paris?” And what do you know? There is a Craiglist Paris with tons of apartments for rent and much cheaper! Now I couldn’t fail!
But then I read about the scams…. Craigslist Paris is apparently a den of rip-off merchants, lurking in wait for unsuspecting foreigners who are tricked into sending Western Union transfers to “Parisians” who have never stepped foot out of Nigeria.
But by then it was too late. I had found my perfect apartment and I had found it on Craigslist.
The apartment is right in the heart of the Marais, built in the 1800’s, and within spitting distance of the Pompidou Center. It is also, most importantly, on the very same street as the dance school that I am planning to attend a few times a week.
It is plenty big enough for me and the odd guest, and comes with everything I need. It has wooden beams, a hardwood floor and even a piano!
“Piano?” I hear you cry. “You don’t play piano.” Well it is a little known fact that I actually did as a child. In a recent moment of idiocy, I thought it would be a nice idea to play again, and for the last 6 months I have been trying to pick up where I left off, aged 14, when “boys and pop music” became much more important than passing Grade 5 piano. But learning has proved very difficult without a teacher; the Chopin Nocturnes lie open but neglected on the music stand and the increasingly dusty keyboard has become a very handy surface to arrange all my paperwork in chronological order.
But as luck would have it, the dance studio also does piano lessons!
And the icing on the cake – located on the Rue du Temple, I am hoping that perhaps if I lean very far out of my window, climb a lamp post or get up onto the roof, that I will be able to see Notre Dame, which is right at the end of the street!
The apartment was perfect. I really, really wanted it, but I was very nervous about booking, given that it was not through an agent. Despite this, I contacted the owner. He got back to my emails immediately, he spoke perfect English, he congratulated me on my French (thank you Babelfish) and gave me a good vibe. Better still he was Paypal verified which might give me a comeback if anything goes wrong.
So as I clicked on the Paypal “Send Money” logo and sent the rather hefty 30% deposit winging it’s merry way to France, I crossed my fingers and hoped and prayed that I would not end up homeless and destitute in Paris on August 8th….
Still, to look on the bright side, if all does go wrong, at least Paris is steaming hot in the summertime, so I won’t freeze on the streets in my flip-flops, tank top and fisherman’s pants…..