A met a few people in Paris who did as I did or do as I do, negotiating, scrounging, swapping, bartering or begging for a place to stay.
I was at that point one of those who had begged. I was staying in a pied-à-terre on the Rue Saint-Martin, a neighborhood favored by many Parisians because they consider it to be centrally located. I found it noisy, but then I had different priorities than many Parisians. My apartment was free, and I had a place to stay for two months, so noise, centrality or even size were not particular considerations, especially in relation to availability.
I was one of many such transplants, temporary or semi-permanent, who managed to get an apartment owner to rent someplace cheap or even to loan someplace to sleep while the owners themselves were elsewhere. There was, and is, a lot of hopscotching from apartment to apartment among certain expatriates here. I had become like them, in a way. I couldn’t afford to rent my own place – not in addition to my New York apartment – and so I too looked to capitalize on the generosity of a network of French-home-owning acquaintances who didn’t depend on renting out their empty apartments for additional income (as quite a few do).
I met one couple, Bob and Jerry, who had managed to stay for several years in France thanks to Bob’s gift for befriending women of a certain age who were happy to have the low-key pair (along with their pet rabbit) look after an unoccupied apartment.
Bob had been a dancer with the New York City Ballet, and was long retired. He was gregarious and somewhat courtly, in the manner of someone who learned how to talk to arts patrons in a way that put them at ease but didn’t seem too familiar. I don’t know what Jerry had been in a past life – he was rarely forthcoming and spoke only when responding to a direct yes or no question – but he was designing jewelry when I met them. At least I thought he was, given what I took to be the sketches of the industrial-looking baubles that he hastily concealed the one time I happened to visit them at home. We usually met in groups.
I had visited Bob and Jerry for coffee in their small rented ground floor flat on the Île Saint-Louis. It’s a chic neighborhood – residents and visitors to the island drop the names of American and French actors such as Jodie Foster or Daniel Auteuil to provide a wow factor, regardless of whether Foster or Auteil, or Foster’s sister or Auteuil’s children, actually have apartments there or were simply spotted at a café and assumed to live in the neighborhood. In fact, Maria De Funès, the sister of the famous French actor Louis De Funès, lived on the same street as Bob and Jerry, a couple of decades earlier – though any heightened interest in the neighborhood from her having lived there would be lost on most Americans looking for a touch of Parisian class by association.
Life in any big city is like that, though – six degrees of living near someone remotely famous – and Paris was no exception, especially using well-known names to impress expats or visitors from abroad. I even heard mention of where Francophile celebrities studied French. Cameron Diaz was said to have taken a few courses at Alliance Française a few months before I had begun to study there, though it’s unlikely that a plaque marking the actress’s stay will be placed alongside that of the one right next to the school, on the building where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived on the Rue de Fleurus.
In any event, some people have a knack for finding good deals in borrowed real estate, and Bob and Jerry – Bob in particular – were masterful at finding residences, even modest ones.
Bob and Jerry’s apartment on the Rue Boutarel, near the Quai d’Orléans, was smaller even than my pied-à-terre, and it was a tight squeeze for two men and a bunny. But they seemed happy enough, and the rent was dirt-cheap. The rabbit seemed to be happy, too, nibbling contently on its lettuce while we sipped coffee.
They were looking for another home, though. “The walls leak,” Bob said, pointing toward a streak of moisture near the window. The building dated from the 17th or 18th century, apparently, and this was normal, but Bob said that the old normal wasn’t comfortable enough for them and certainly not for the rabbit Delilah.
Delilah was a big part of their lives. They would take her out to the Champ-de-Mars, near the Eiffel Tower, to get some sun, and she would inevitably attract a crowd of what the French might call “lapinophiles,” or rabbit lovers (there’s actually a rabbit club in France). I was surprised at how popular their rabbit made Bob and Jerry, given the lopsided impression they often made, Bob outgoing and Jerry retiring. People asked after Delilah when they ran into the couple, and they spoke of her as you might visiting royalty. (Perhaps they’ll tell visitors that she used to live on their block.) The only time Jerry’s face lit up with anything other than perplexity at the idea of stringing a few sentences together was when he described how people hovered around Delilah as if the rabbit had possessed the secret to youth.
Bob eventually sold a children’s book dedicated to Delilah (he has a lovely, fluid drawing and watercolor style). I’m not sure if Jerry sold any of his jewelry, which looked to me, to judge by the sketches I’d glanced at, to be inspired by the stray nuts and bolts you find at the bottom of a toolbox. But they were happy where they were, though I wasn’t sure if where they were was where they wanted to be for the long run.
I never actually learned why they were in France to begin with. Surely most people who find themselves here have chosen Paris. You don’t get here by chance. But Bob and Jerry – well, at least Bob, since Jerry never voiced an opinion on this subject – had mentioned that they had no real goal but to live someplace else. They’d previously had a home of their own in Hawaii and had grown restless. I guess choosing to be someplace else is reason enough, even if it seemed a little unformed to me.
They eventually found another place, this time in Nice, where they relocated for a year or so. Bob told me that Delilah was happier near the Mediterranean. Jerry hasn’t said anything, but if Delilah’s happy, I guess he is too.