Odette accompanied me to the information and security office for the building on the Rue Saint-Martin, in the third arrondissement, the building where the pied-à-terre of my friend Michel would be home for the next couple of months. He had loaned me his place when my hoped-for living arrangements had fallen through.
I was there to pick up the keys from security. It was, like most security offices, an uninviting architectural afterthought, like a supply closet that had been liberated, though this one had a glammed-up entryway. I had a sudden unreasonable thought on seeing the guard that I’d be told no key existed for Michel’s apartment and that I would be on my own. But the key was there, the instructions were clear, and for all of my ridiculous nervousness, Odette’s presence had reassured me. It was as if her fluency would make up for any calamity that might have arisen out of my sudden tongue-tied French, should something have gone awry. But the guard had understood what I’d said, and he gave me the key and the accompanying note from Michel welcoming me to his place. The guard returned to his sports pages and I was left to find my way to the apartment around the corner.
Renaud and Odette had picked me up at the airport – a selfless gesture that you can never really repay – and had first driven me to their apartment building in the 13th arrondissement where they’d kept a couple of bags of stuff for me while I was back in New York. This had allowed me to travel relatively lightly, though that didn’t mean that I’d lived that way once I’d settled in. I’d taken pains to empty my closets at my home in New York months earlier, to make room for the couple with whom I’d swapped apartments – and I had thought my days of needless acquisition were behind me. But there I was, holding three shopping bags filled with clothes and books and Parisian trinkets purchased in moments of sentimental weaknesses. It was as if I wanted to cheapen the rich new life I was building by holding onto worthless whatnots hidden in someone else’s storage unit.
I didn’t quite know why, but I was also unsettled on arriving in Paris to take up residence in a different neighborhood than the one I’d come to know. It wasn’t fear, exactly, but a strange inquietude. When I accepted the keys to Michel’s pied-à-terre I briefly wondered whether I’d been selfish in asking to stay there. It was too late for regret, of course – regret is always too late – but I thought that by doing the right thing even in so ordinary an act as entering his building I might alleviate my feelings of guilt at asking for something so important from someone I barely knew, someone who could have denied me my request, but who hadn’t. At the same time I felt somehow unworthy of such kindness.
Neither did I know what my doing the right thing might actually consist of here – is there a wrong way of picking up keys for a borrowed apartment? – other than my not being there at all. I was also uncertain of how I might show my gratitude for Michel’s generosity – his gift was as hard to repay as is being picked up at the airport. I didn’t realize that he didn’t expect repayment. How little I understood simple courtesy.
A deeper inquietude came, perhaps, from the difference I immediately felt in this part of the third arrondissement, in Beaubourg, with its maddening swirl of tourists and the predatory youths who swooped in on them as they ambled about the plaza in front of the Centre Pompidou. I had become used to the 14th arrondissement, near Denfert-Rochereau, which had been to me like a quieter, dowdier Upper West Side from the 1980s. My entry into Parisian life had thus been eased by the distant familiarity of that new neighborhood.
Here I was more a foreigner, and I seemed more out of place. I sort of spoke the language at that point, but I had a feeling that the customs of the quarter were different from those I’d come to understand – believing with foolish naïveté that each neighborhood had its own way of doing things – and I didn’t know yet how to make the Rue Saint-Martin my own. In any event I wasn’t sure if I’d wanted to: its uninviting busyness precluded immediate exploration. Perhaps what seemed more oppressive to me, if I could call that relentless hubbub oppressive rather than irritating, were the clutches of conversing Parisians crowding the cafés around the apartment building, smoking, chatting, laughing, clinking glasses, engaged in the kind of convivial fraternity that usually eluded me. Everyone knew each other and the people whom I knew weren’t there. I was a callow student at a new school at the start of a semester.
I did welcome this opportunity to start again, however, since I hadn’t finished what I’d begun a few months earlier, and I even had the sense at that time to realize that I never would. This wasn’t a project that had a conclusion, but rather a continuing exploration of another world that existed just beyond my grasp, even as I grasped it and even as it slipped away, as life does as you grapple with accepting possibilities and managing uncertainties.
Renaud and Odette had left me at the door to the apartment building – they couldn’t really find a parking spot, and the Rue Saint-Martin is narrow, busy and hard to navigate in any event. As I stood before the door to Michel’s apartment, I saw their car turn right onto the Rue Rambuteau, Odette waving toward me from the passenger seat in a maternal way. I looked up at the low, unprepossessing 1970s building, a cold reminder that Paris wasn’t all inspired or planned by Baron Haussmann, that contemporary gracelessness and 19th-century graciousness could live side by side here.
But the key worked. And I managed to find the correct elevator bank up to Michel’s floor. I opened the door to his apartment, and came upon his tiny studio with its pullout couch, a corner kitchen area, a redone bathroom and a view of neighboring rooftops. It was mine for now, and I was already plotting the path of my walk to Alliance Française for the language classes that would begin in a day or two. I was already looking for ways to orient myself. I knew that I would eventually find my boulangerie, that I would discover where the wifi might work, that I would become part of the life of the streets here too.
You always do. I always did. You move from the uncertainty of a newcomer to the casual knowledge of a resident pretty quickly. I was there to become part of the fabric of the city, but I always hesitated at first on returning, because I believed I wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the people here. With each arrival in a different neighborhood, I needed to adjust my expectations of where I was living, and force myself out of my jitters, my disdain at what was new and my anxiety about what I might be capable of.
And you generally manage to adapt. At least you do if you choose to make a home where you find yourself, even if that home isn’t really yours and that neighborhood isn’t particularly inviting. What was important for me was that I was there in France, that I was back in Paris, and even though I wasn’t at ease just yet (this had more to do with my timidity than with my being in a particular neighborhood), I would get by.
Perhaps this area wouldn’t become my Paris, but it would come to represent a part of my life there, like the fragment of a song that recalls a specific moment in time. And I had the impression that what I saw and heard and how I lived on the rue Saint-Martin would probably stay with me longer than the cheap baubles I had bought to remind me of what I thought I had experienced but had instead hidden away.