La Vie Française in Other People’s Homes

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I have stayed in the houses and apartments of others in Paris, and made my temporary home among the living ghosts of other lives.

Like a lot of temporary transplants in Paris, I’ve found housing in different parts of town, from the quasi-bohemian, quietly gentrifying 14th arrondissement, on the Rue Brézin off the Boulevard du General Leclerc, to the smutty Rue Saint-Denis, the “rue chaude” in the 2nd arrondissement that’s lined with sex shops and populated with old-fashioned doorstep hookers with their fishnet stockings, push-up bras, troweled-on makeup and police-proof come-ons (“Est-ce que je peux vous expliquer quelque chose, monsieur?”).

I’ve lived on the busy Rue Saint-Martin, near the Centre Pompidou, an area prized by certain Parisians for its centrality but pretty much loathed by me for its incessant noise and touristy tawdriness. I’ve spent time in Montmartre, in the 18th arrondissement, in an apartment on the très chic Avenue Junot, an apartment whose living room looks out onto the church of the Sacré-Cœur (more agreeable from a near distance than up close) and whose dining-room window perfectly frames the Eiffel Tower which, during dinner, sparkles like an ecstatic electric candle as night deepens.

One of the more appealing places where I passed some time was in a quarter known as Maison Blanche, in a four-block “cité florale” in the 13th arrondissement, near the busy Rue de Tolbiac. I stayed for about a month there on the Rue des Volubilis (or morning glory street), in a small house owned by friends who were then vacationing in Tahiti. The houses here were built in the late 1920s and have the feel of those you might find in an English village that clings to an old-timey heritage. Not quite authentic, but then, what is?

Volubilis

Each of the four winding streets here is named for a flower (such as iris or glycine), and the houses are swathed in vines or blossoms. The area is frequented by assorted walking tours – visitors are drawn to this village within a neighborhood that would seem almost ordinary in certain British towns but in Paris is unusual for its non-Haussmannian architecture. The streets are so narrow you can hear the sharp echo of footsteps as the wandering curious make their way down the lanes. The walls are so narrow, too, that I could hear, as I lay in bed, the inadvertent stomps of people going up and down the stairway in the house behind mine.

The writer-director Michael Haneke chose this little quarter as the setting for the residence of the beleaguered, bourgeois, spied-upon couple in his celebrated film Caché, and I could see why: it’s an area that seems to guard a false isolation from the dangers of a grimier, murderous world, clinging to an ingenuous, even delusional, make-believe past. And houses like these, neighborhoods like these, invite you to wonder about who lives here, and how they live, and who they are, and what they believe about the world they inhabit. And whether you can join them.

The house where I stayed has a rooftop terrace (a toit terrasse) that was, at the time I was there (my friends have since sold the house) lush with plants. I held a few dinners there, but traipsing up and down the three stories of cramped and twisting stairs from the basement kitchen to the table under the skies offset the charm of the rooftop. After I’d strained my back for the third time playing dumbwaiter for my guests, I stuck to dining either at the kitchen counter or at the small table on the main floor. Less picturesque, but far more comfortable.

Rooftop Volubilis 2

I didn’t stop heading up to the terrace, however. I would often find myself spending long stretches of time peering out across this semi-isolated cité florale and over the rooftops to nearby streets, buildings, windows, inhabitants, lives – trying to visualize the private worlds half-hidden even from my open aerie on the terrace, worlds entirely unknown to pedestrians on the circumscribed streets and threadlike sidewalks.

Rooftop Volubilis

That’s part of the allure of living in different parts of Paris: the imaginary voyeurism, the daydreams of, always, encountering something finer than you already have (even if it’s borrowed). Even if my view was for me, priceless, in that it was unique, and not at all what I would find in New York, it reawakened in me the dormant unease regarding where I live, whom I meet, what I do and where I’m going. Nothing deep, mind you – just the fleeting wonderment that always attaches to the sight of windows onto other people’s worlds.

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