I’m a squatter of sorts in France. When I first began living here for a few months a year, I swapped apartments. I couldn’t (and can’t) afford to rent another place, other than mine in New York, and I certainly couldn’t (and can’t) afford to buy one. So a swap worked out. A shared interest in cultural exchange allowed me to spend a few months at a time in Paris, while the Parisians for their part spent a few months at my apartment in New York. It was a bargain of equals – their place for mine.
Since then, what would become “chez moi” during my months in Paris wasn’t or isn’t really mine, though. Unless you can possess something in a figurative way by inhabiting it without actually owning it. At times I feel like the somewhat sad but ultimately grateful character of Miss Bunting, in an old Angela Thirkell novel of that name. (Thirkell wrote a series of popular novels in mid-century England that featured her version of descendants of characters that Anthony Trollope had created in his great 19th-century saga of life in the fictional county of Barsetshire.)
Miss Bunting is a governess who’s getting on in years, and at one point, realizing that she’s nearing the end of her useful days as a teacher and minder of children, she becomes distraught realizing that all she has to remember, as her life begins to dwindle down, are memories of families that aren’t hers and of offspring that aren’t her own. She imagines her tombstone reading something like, “She lived and died in other people’s houses.”
I feel that way sometimes in Paris. What I live is mine, but where I live is not.
Among the many mistakes I’ve made along the way (if I can call a lack of planning a mistake rather than thoughtlessness), perhaps one of the most lasting is my ineptitude regarding real estate. Like anyone, I have a fair degree of apartment envy (some of my friends have beautiful homes in Manhattan and Paris), but unlike reasonable adults who know how to organize their life and funds, I have never had either the wherewithal or the money to buy my own place, either in the U.S. or in France. I should say rather that I never had the wherewithal to put money aside for a home. I’m an eternal renter and perhaps as a result, as the French might consider it, a person who is much less secure (and also perhaps much less of an adult) than someone who has saved to invest in what they refer to as putting one’s money in “pierre,” or stone – that is, in real estate to call one’s own.
But Parisian neighborhoods have become my own. Situations too. And I guess I can say that I own something of my experiences. Swapping has allowed me to explore different parts of Paris and to also spend whatever money I do have on plane travel to and from New York and Paris rather than on rent (or mortgage). And now, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of my friends Bob and Loraine, who lived for years in France and who, before returning to the States, bought a beautiful apartment in Paris where they let me stay, within reason, when it’s available, I have a home that’s not my home but where I make my home for a month or so at a time.
Sometimes – even for someone like me who could probably stagnate with self-recrimination at all the stupidity I’ve committed were I to let myself linger over my continuing idiocy – things do work out for the good in unexpected ways. I have no illusions that my friends’ apartment is my apartment, but I think I contribute something valuable, albeit ineffable or fleeting, to the “âme” or soul of their Parisian home, simply by inhabiting it for a bit. Simply by loving it here. Simply by wanting to breathe in the air that interesting other people with a different worldview inhale. I may have unrealized and probably impossible daydreams of ownership, but thanks to the unstinting grace of friends, I also have a Parisian reality that I couldn’t otherwise afford.
And although I don’t own the place where I live in Paris, I treat it as if I do. In a way it is mine without its being so. I’ve sometimes had moments of heedless profligacy, but I’ve not too often lived irresponsibly. Or at least I haven’t in years. And I’ve become trustworthy, which is something I wasn’t in my past, and it’s a quality that I now never want to lose. And if there’s one thing I actually do possess now, it’s the knowledge that while I’m still, and perhaps always will be, something of a struggling writer, a known unknown, I’m actually rich in being able to create a life in two countries, two cultures, two languages and in two homes that I may not own but that I can call mine for at least a little while. I don’t possess much in terms of material goods, but I’m fully aware of how much I really have.
There’s no word for home in French, but I do have a home in France, even if I’m only borrowing one for a little while. But then, that’s what all we do, isn’t it? Borrow time no matter what we actually own?