Wednesday, December 11, 2013

the attic

 I have the address memorized. Easy: it's on a block within the heart of the 6th Arondissiment. I've walked these streets so often. I'll find it!

And I do: it's an imposing painted door with the usual old key holes.


Except I don't have a key. I have a code. Mailed to me by Patrick, the owner of an apartment inside.

In recent times, I've finally stopped searching for the perfect room on my trips to Paris. I like my little hotel and over the years, they have come to like me back (or at least recognize my existence). If I book reasonably early, the rates are exquisitely discounted. The room is tiny, but clean, pretty and relatively inexpensive. And so I was not happy to see that the hotel was closing for half a year for yet another renovation.

I searched all the left bank hotels. All of them. Nothing gave me the value I was used to for the price. And so I turned to my new friend: AirBnB -- the site where people post their own places to let.

I was willing to pay as much as my discounted hotel room, but not more. And because this is a private transaction, I was really good about reading every last review. People are sometimes over the top generous or sometimes unnecessarily negative, but read enough reviews and you get a good enough picture of what you're in for (and unlike, say, Tripadvisor reviews, you cannot review an AirBnB place unless you've actually stayed there).

Still, I have been warned that renting privately is risky. Fine. Consider me warned.

Inside the door, there is a dark hall of sorts and then an iron gate. I have another code for that. So far so good. The numbers work.

Then come the stairs. I knew that it was a walk up. I'd forgotten it was on the 6th floor and that I would have my suitcase. Well now, up I go.


Nearly at the top. What's this? The stairs are narrower now. The apartment is in the attic -- yes, I knew that. The photos showed a sloping roof. Alright. Here's a door. A small door. I'm to meet the owner's assistant inside. No doorbell. I knock. Nothing. I check my watch. The train was on time and I estimated well enough. It's 2:30. We were to meet at 2:30. I wait. Nothing happens.

Airbnb has a great policy: you pay up front, the full amount, but the organization holds on to your money until you've had 24 hours in the rental. In that time, if something is not as it should be, you can contact them and they will withhold payment to the owner until the issues are resolved.

I'm thinking -- this is a scam. Someone has figured out how to put fake photos and fake reviews on the site. But no -- I do have access codes.

It felt like I was waiting for a very long time. In reality, it's no more than ten minutes before I hear the sound of footsteps on the stairs. It's Patrick. With apologies. And since Patrick really does look like a French speaking George Clooney only with a scarf, I am very forgiving.

He tells me he lives downstairs, on the second floor, but his maid usually opens and shows the apartment. She just had a baby and so he dashed from his office to take her place.

I am very relieved.

We step inside and it is a beautiful studio-like apartment! I mean, really stunning! Not large by any means, but possibly five times the size of my little hotel room.



As he shows me how to work the lights, the heat, etc, we hear an unnerving high pitched squeal. He's puzzled. He checks the appliances. No, not that. He shuts down the electricity and restarts everything. Not that either. We open windows to see if the noise is from the outside. It isn't. I can see that he is without any idea. We try to focus on where it's coming from. It's a hot/cold guessing game, but finally we are in the small kitchen area.
Here. It's somewhere here, he says. He's standing right next to my suitcase.

Oh shit! It's my alarm clock: some jiggle set it off.
I unpack it apologizing profusely. Patrick is kind and forgiving and I'm sure much relieved that he did not call plumbers, engineers, etc. to search out the source of the disturbance.

We chat a little about things that are taking place in Paris right now and after telling me that my French is perfect and my timing is sublime and a bunch of other things that I'm sure George Clooney would never think to say, he takes off for work and I am left to examine my new surroundings.

But not for long. Let me catch those last rays of sun now. Ah the sun...

I'm remembering how difficult it always is to pick a place to visit in Europe in December. If you mind the cold, well then -- stay south. Unless you mind the wind. Because then you would steer clear of France. Maybe go southeast? Sicily? Greece? Good chance of rain there!

For me, it was a given that I should pick France. Even though I wasn't sure yet if I would be retiring, this is the trip that I really treasure -- the one that comes at the end of a hard semester and just before the holidays are fully upon us. The south was almost certainly going to be sunny. But Paris? That's iffy. You tell yourself bravely that Paris is Paris and the weather really does not matter all that much.

For the most part, that's true. But I have to say -- I don't think I have ever been so lucky here in December. A string of warm and sunny days in Marseille and now a string of not too cold and very sunny days in Paris.

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 (people are still eating outside, but unlike in Marseille, the outdoor heaters are on)

I catch the last golden tones of the sun as I walk past St Sulpice. Oh, there's that same moon that chased me around in Marseille!


My walk is conventional. It's nearly always the same on my first day here. I canvas the neighborhood, from one end to the next.

It's dark now and I continue walking. I am really susrprised how bike sharing just keeps growing and growing here!

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It all seems crazily dangerous, but somehow, it does not surprise me that Parisians should take to the streets in this way. Parisians manifest a certain amount of bravado that comes with knowing you live in a place that is nearly universally acknowledged as insanely beautiful.


A few hours of strolling and some light holiday shopping and now it is nearly 7 and I make my way to Le Timbre, for an incredibly early dinner reservation there.

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I found this place on my last visit here and loved it to death and so here I am again, ordering wild mushrooms (why don't we eat more wild mushrooms back home? They're so good and surely we have bigger better forests than the French do!), and duck with endive and chestnuts (taste-wise, chestnuts add only a mild flavor, but their crunch against the braised endive is sublime!) and a poached pear in a spiced honey sauce (which is so perfect that you want to take it home and have it again and again -- for breakfast, lunch and dinner).

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I watch as people come in to fill the tiny eatery. Pairs, of course. Foursomes. Another single woman. Many order the same things I do. Maybe this is the season to eat duck with chestnuts, or wild mushrooms. I ask the chef (who cooks just on the other side of the counter) if wild mushrooms are a year round thing in France.
No, it's the end of the season for these (chantrelles -- orange and gray, trumpets -- served in a meat jus).
Ah, so we're savoring what little remains.

Savoring foods. Yes, everyone is doing just that. Come to think of it, have I ever seen a French person grimace or complain about a meal? Or send back something imperfectly prepared? Back home, we're always so dissatisfied! Too rare, too well done, too this too that -- something about life leads us to complain constantly about how imperfect it all is.

I leave my dinner and I have no complaints.

At night, those clear skies produce a dip in the temperature. It must be near freezing now and for once I'm glad I packed a scarf. I pull it tightly around my neck and make my way past the Jardins Luxembourg and through the heart of the 6th to my attic apartment in Paris.

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