Swapping, borrowing and sometimes begging: that’s how I managed to live in Paris for the first six months of my stay there.
It was a bit like the way you’d go about reporting a story at the Wall Street Journal when I worked there: discovering a theme, locating sources and getting just the right quote to illuminate what you wrote.
My first apartment was a swap with a couple – she a professor of Italian at Nanterre University, he a novelist of Czech origin writing in French – whose place on the Rue Brézin in the 14th arrondissement became my home for about four months (while my apartment on the Upper West Side became theirs). What their relatively roomy flat lacked in charm (its indifferent decoration evoked student housing but on a smaller budget) it more than made up for in location (Paris itself and the neighborhood around Denfert-Rochereau). And, of course, availability.
My second apartment was supposed to be on the Rue Grenata in the 3rd arrondissement, between the Rue Saint-Martin and the Boulevard de Sébastopol. My friend Walter – to whom I’d been introduced by Silvia, the Italian professor – had a studio there. Walter, who grew up in Rome, paid more attention to the look and feel of where he lived than had his Italian friend Silvia, and his studio was inviting, with a homey yet efficient air. Walter generally spent most nights at his boyfriend Bertrand’s house in the 13th arrondissement, and used his Rue Grenata apartment as an ad hoc office.
Without prompting on my part, Walter had offered me his place for October and November. I’d planned on returning to Paris at the end of September to continue my immersion in French as well as my dive into French culture. His apartment would suit me perfectly, I thought, and I’d have the chance to explore another part of Paris, one I didn’t really know well.
Shortly after my return to New York from Paris, I received an email from Walter with the subject line: Gros Problème, or a huge problem. It seems that on returning from a family visit in Brittany, Bertrand discovered that during his week away his bathroom had flooded – water had been running constantly – and the house had become uninhabitable. The repair work would take two to three months. So Walter and Bertrand would have to camp out at Walter’s studio for the duration.
There went my next temporary home.
But I did what any freeloading journalist usually does, I looked for another handout. (I say freeloading only partially in jest: you’d be astonished at how much stuff is sent or offered to reporters, especially arts reporters, as I had been.) I asked my friend Michel, who lives in Montpellier (and who runs the Musée Fabre there) whether I might be able to stay in his pied-à-terre in Paris. He’d mentioned his place to me when I’d seen him in Montpellier a few months earlier. He had also said that he didn’t use the apartment that often but preferred to keep it anyway, so that he wouldn’t have to stay in a hotel when he came up to Paris for his work a few times a year. Naturally I’d stored this last nugget away for use at just such a moment.
Michel said yes, and suggested that I might pay monthly charges for electricity and water, which was fine with me. It meant that I’d have a place to call my own again for another couple of months. (In the end, I didn’t pay for anything, thanks to Michel’s generosity.)
The apartment is on the Rue Saint-Martin, between the Rue Rambuteau and the intersection of the Rue aux Ours and the Rue du Grenier Saint-Lazare, near the Centre Pompidou, often referred to familiarly by Parisians as Beaubourg (after an old village in the neighborhood known as Beau-Bourg, and also hard by the Rue Beaubourg). It’s actually only about a 10-minute walk from Walter’s apartment on the Rue Grenata. Michel’s apartment is in one of the buildings of a 70s-era complex known as the Quartier de l’Horloge – the clock quarter – which is named after a sculptural mechanical clock known as Le Défenseur du Temps, or the defender of time, by Jacques Monestier. (Time stands still now, since the clock is no longer running, due to budget constraints.)
I would come to know the area around Beaubourg pretty well during my time there. I found the Quartier de l’Horloge ugly, with it brutal 1970s concrete architecture, though apparently the architect, Jean-Claude Bernard, had devoted a lot of thought to its development and construction, as part of a long-planned urbanization of the area.
But I didn’t think about any of that then. I was grateful to Michel for his allowing me to stay at his apartment even if, as he told me, it was tiny. He said I wouldn’t have much room to entertain, as I’d done in my apartment in the 14th.
No matter – it would be home. The only thing I’d have to deal with was the apartment’s lack of internet, which was essential for my work. But I’d managed to find another apartment when one had fallen through, so I figured I’d deal with internet connectivity once I was there.
I didn’t have the money to rent a place of my own, and I’d been unable to arrange another swap for the autumn. But I managed to find lodging. I realized that my life in Paris had become so important to me, after only my first extended stay, that I’d begun to devote a lot of energy to making sure I could live there for months at a time. Of course, my experience wasn’t unique: many people are so taken with their time abroad that they do what they can to return. My return to Paris was just months after I’d left, however, and it had become more pressing. I’d known I needed to continue my studies in the language (half measures would avail me nothing) and I had begun to meet more people who’d given me an idea of what a future would be like that involved more than what I’d become used to.
And I had tapped into the resourcefulness I’d had as a reporter when I’d been asked to find a source or an expert to quote. Finding a place to live was as if I’d been on assignment for a story, only this time rather than being hounded on deadline by an insistent editor, I was up against my own demands for results. In a way, finding a temporary home in Paris was more satisfying than seeing my name in a byline.