The Paris of your dreams isn’t the Paris of your experience. That is, what we imagine is never what we actually see. My first impressions of Paris – discounting earlier brief tourist stays – were of dust and dinginess.
I loved it. It felt like home.
I’d arranged to swap apartments with a couple who wanted to experience Manhattan for a while. That had been a prerequisite of any exchange – that I be allowed to stay for at least three months, possibly four, at a stretch. I wanted to live in Paris, not simply visit it.
Luckily, Silvia and Pavel were game. She’s a professor of Italian literature and women’s studies at the University of Nanterre, and he’s a novelist. She was taking a sabbatical, and he worked for himself – and both wanted to get better at English.
Silvia arranged the swap. We fixed details by email – in French, with me relying heavily on literal-minded Google Translation. So it was French on one side and “French” on the other.
We actually met the day before I left for France. You’re taking a leap of faith living in someone else’s home and letting another person have yours, and Silvia wanted a face-to-face to reassure herself that her apartment would be safe in my hands, even if the arrangements had already been made and it would be too late to change.
They booked an overnight at a midtown hotel and came over for coffee. Our conversation was limited, their clumsy English matching my barely there French for general inexpressiveness. But we understood each other well enough, and she seemed assured – underneath her nervous volubility I could sense relief (or I assured myself that my interpretation was her relief).
Silvia is very tall and thin, with an imposing forest of hair, as if she were a human cypress or a baobab, all trunk topped with a crown of unruly foliage. Pavel has the demeanor of a researcher, or perhaps a secret-service records-keeper, a quiet watchfulness that hides a reserve of potentially incriminating evidence. He’d emigrated from the Czech Republic. My ear was not attuned to differences in French accents, though I could detect Italian in hers and Eastern Europe in his. I have no idea what dissonance they heard in my rudimentary French. But, as I said, regardless of relative our language levels, we got along.
Their apartment is in the 14th arrondissement, in an area that seemed to me like the Upper West Side of the 1980s: a bit down-at-the-heels but homey. It’s on rue Brézin, near the station known as Mouton-Duvernet, not far from Denfert-Rocherau, a transportation hub. It lies between the avenue du Général-Leclerc and the Avenue du Maine. Like many streets in Paris, it’s named after an industrialist – Parisian streets, as far as I could tell then, are named for writers, artists, military men or engineers.
Silvia and Pavel’s building, which also housed a dingy discount supermarket, dates from the 1960s. It has none of the charm of what you expect when you see photos of Paris: the mansard roofs, the sculptural details. It has instead all the grace of East German architecture. But the partial view of the sidewalks below from their fourth-floor window – the view slightly obscured by the roof of the supermarket – intimated, like Vermeer’s “The Little Street,” untidy lives behind blank facades.
I could see a bland office building directly across the street, a bar and tobacconist to the right, a little restaurant that might be worth exploring further along, and to the left, a salon de coiffeur and Turkish takeout joint. Nothing remarkable, but everything rather wonderful.
And their apartment? Two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room. They’d lived there for about 10 years, but it looked like graduate-student housing, as if they were just passing through: cheap bookshelves crammed with papers, rickety furniture, a Soviet-era television set. I saw at once that I had to adapt to other people’s sense of comfort, of décor, of what constitutes home. It would be my home for a while, and I needed to make do with what they considered serviceable.
Luckily, I had no romantic illusions about what an apartment in Paris would look like. I had to create my own.