A French Proposition



“I’ve got a little proposition for you,” my friend Bob said. “It concerns our apartment.”

We were dining in the 13th arrondissement, at the charming house where I was staying while my friends, its owners, were vacationing in Tahiti. Bob and his wife Loraine, both of whom I’ve known since we were teenagers, happened to be in Paris at the same time as I and were free to come over for a last-minute meal.

A French friend of mine, Richard, was there, and our conversation took place mostly in French, with some English thrown in. Between the main course and the dessert, Bob broached the subject of this little proposition. He and I hadn’t seen each other in a few years, and this was the first occasion where we had spent time together since I had begun to live in France, learning to speak and read French.

Bob had worked for many years in Paris and, in fact, one of their three sons had been born in France. His French is excellent – he’s an American who actually had to speak French at the office, so he became accustomed to explaining himself in a way that makes him more French than American in his dealings with the French. His and Loraine’s knowledge of quotidian France was also enviable: they had rented and bought homes in and around Paris over the course of many years, and had navigated various maddening French bureaucracies for schools, cars, banking, shopping, real estate, home repair, work, worship and leisure. They knew the country as only people who’ve actually lived there as families know it – its seasonal habits, its weekly flow, its daily routines, its frustrations and its joys. Bob and Loraine had bought their apartment in the 17th arrondissement before returning to the States a few years earlier, and they keep it as their résidence secondaire.

I asked Bob what the proposition was.

“It’s about staying in the apartment and doing a little something for us,” he said.

I perked up at this. I was always on the lookout for places to stay – as soon as I would be set in one residence, I would search for the next one, to assure my swift return to France – but the thought of staying at Bob and Loraine’s place had never occurred to me. Far from it. But this seemed ideal. Even if I wasn’t entirely sure what I was being asked to do.

I wondered aloud if their apartment had television and wi-fi, which are essentials for my work and for my continuing immersion in French. Although I earn a living in English, I live in French in France. The internet allows me to work when I’m in Paris, while French television, both good and bad, allows me to continue my immersive experience in the French language and culture.

The apartment had both, Bob told me.

“Then I’ll do whatever you want,” I said.

“You should come to lunch anyway and see it,” Bob said, “It’s cozy.” Like a  seasoned yet considerate negotiator, he wanted to make sure I was comfortable with a proposition before agreeing to it.

A day or so later I exited the Courcelles metro station, at the crossroads of the Boulevard de Courcelles and the Rue de Courcelles. I turned right onto the Rue de Chazelles, then left onto the Rue Léon Jost, then right onto the Rue Médéric and then found their apartment building just minutes away on the rue Léon Cogniet, named after a little-known 19th-century painter. (You could give yourself a nice lesson in art history by searching the works of painters after whom streets are named around Paris.)

I had plotted my route turn by careful turn before leaving the house on the Rue de Volubilis on the other side of town, where I was staying that summer. At that point a few years ago I still needed to know exactly how to get to where I was going before I ventured out. I had a tendency to become lost quickly amid the circular layout of Paris. And this part of Paris, near Park Monceau, was new to me.

Bob had told me that their apartment was cozy. But cozy depends on what you’re used to. They were used to living in houses big enough for their family. So for them, their apartment was cozy if cozy meant comfortable and homey but not as spacious as an actual house. I wouldn’t have called it cozy – as welcoming as I immediately found it. It’s bigger than my apartment in New York, actually, and has a gracious disposition of rooms, as the French say when referring to how an apartment flows. Its kitchen is larger than most Parisian (and Manhattan) kitchens, and to me it was both roomier than my own American home and at the same time utterly French, with its elaborate ceiling moldings, marble mantelpiece with framed mirror and its double séjour.

Bob and Loraine had set out a lunch à la française, that is, they had shopped with care for prepared items at neighborhood stores. The French have a knack for knowing what to buy and what to cook, what to let others prepare and what to make oneself. French meals are often a mix of bought and homemade. No one bakes his own bread, for example, and if you decide to make dessert rather than pick up a gateau at the patisserie, your dessert is usually something simple that you’ve thrown together, like a tart of some sort (using widely available, high-quality and relatively inexpensive tart dough). Bob and Loraine, in their years of living in France, had learned to rely for some meals on products offered by the local traiteur (broadly speaking, a caterer, but more specifically someone to whom you turn for the pâté, rillettes, vegetables and tidbits that will augment your home cooking).

As we ate the cheeses, charcuterie and salads, Bob told me what he and Loraine had in mind: that I find a contractor (an entrepreneur in French) to paint their apartment and do little touch-up repairs, and that I remain on site while the work was being done.

Although I had no idea about how to find a contractor or how even to speak to one or how to describe what was needed, Bob had told me he thought that my French was good enough to handle the necessary interactions with the painters and workmen. In any event, he knew that I had been on the lookout for another place to stay (this is often one of the first things I tell people, in fact, in case someone has an idea for me). I agreed to the proposition, of course – as I would have without seeing that cozy-impressive apartment.

When I returned a few months later, in early January, I would be entering a new phase of my life in France, thanks to these generous friends who saw where we could help each other. I still had to find a couple of contractors, get competing estimates from them for the proposed work, figure out what would be needed needed to be done beyond the painting, and then arrange it all, without knowing the vocabulary of home repair in French.

But that didn’t matter. What did matter – even beyond knowing I’d have a place to call my own for a few months – was that my friends had confidence in me. All that my friends in the 13th arrondissement had asked that I do for them was feed their tropical fish while they were vacationing. Bob and Loraine had trusted me to improve their home.

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