Here on our island, listening to the rhythmic susurration of waves rushing through pebbles, gazing across the evening's muted blues and pastel pinks, chest expanding to match the ocean's breadth, eyes lifting to the distant coastal mountains, urban life seems an imaginary fiction. But just last week, we jostled our car through Vancouver traffic, parked it under our apartment building, waved our electronic keys to open-sesame an array of doors, and rode the elevator up to the hallway lined with more doorways, one of which opens into our small condo, just outside of whose windows traffic roars by with varying intensity from 6 each morning until midnight -- with other periodic noisy spurts in those wee morning hours.
I thought about our condo while we were in our tiny rental in Paris. The latter was brilliantly located, just around the corner from the Monoprix on Rue de Rennes, five minutes' walk from a wealth of Parisian attractions, two minutes from the Blvd. St. Germain. But it wasn't quiet.
Turning the corner from the crowds on Rue de Rennes or Rue de Dragon, trying not to feel too smugly Parisian as we punched our access code to open the heavy courtyard doors, we would push our way into the building's dark interior. Over the past seven or eight years, we've watched others key their way into such entryways over our years of visiting Paris, and finally, last year, became one of that privileged crowd, even if only for a month then, a week this time. Often, we would glimpse elegantly landscaped gardens fronting a setback building, the front wall only a facade. Sometimes that facade even offered permanent tantalizing views through its pierced architecture. I would try to be discreet with my camera. More importantly, I would try not to drool as I dreamed about entering our own claim to the city.
Last April we did just that. A charming little apartment on the 3rd floor of a building in the 7th arrondissement, a block and a half from one of my favourite museum/art galleries, the Musée Maillol. Just as so many have described, we enjoyed feeling like regulars in the very local shops: fruiterie, boulangerie, café, and the diminuitive supermarché at the corner. But last year's rental was a bit more genteel, definitely much quieter, than this year's. Paul's decision to try something different, at a similar (modest!) price point, moved us right into the heart of an area pulsing with Parisians and tourists alike. While last April (2011) we digi-coded our entry into a spacious if slightly drab courtyard from a fairly quiet side street, this past May (2012), we never entered or exited without an audience, whether simply employees on a smokebreak from one of many neighbouring businesses, or the garbage collectors or street cleaners whose constant presence suggested a gleaming cleanliness unmatched by reality.
Another huge difference between this year's and last year's rental was the foyer. Last April, in the 7th, the heavy exterior doors of the building opened to a small dark space with mailboxes ranged along one wall, the staircase describing L's with small landings halfway between floors. This year, in the 6th, the foyer was larger, with doors at the back that led through an outdoor courtyard, if one could use such a grandiose term for a space filled with garbage cans. The darkness of the foyer itself was as wise a response as any to the decrepit conditions any light revealed. Not only was paint peeling off the plaster in wide swathes, but the plaster itself was falling from the ceiling in chunks, and the walls were pocked by its conspicuous and frequent absences. More frighteningly, pieces of wood seem to have detached themselves from ceiling and wall and hung precariously in a few spots. One hoped they weren't involved in any structural work. As our Parisian friend, Jennifer, said when she popped in to have a peek at our digs one evening, dropping us off after a pleasant restaurant meal, "Oh dear, it's rather leprous, isn't it?"
Both apartments, however different each other though, became more similar in their contrast with our Vancouver condo. Before I illustrate this contrast, I should acknowledge that our Vancouver apartment is in a well-situated but modest building, and that in sticking to a fairly frugal travel budget, our Paris apartment this year was considerably more modest than what we'd be willing to adopt if we were living in The City of Light for more than a week. And there's no doubt at all that Paris apartments offer luxe we could never imagine, let alone afford, in wealthy neighbourhoods throughout the city.
****Part II begins here:
Still, many iterations of our recent choices can also be found throughout the city, and we've visited other buildings whose dark foyer and curling staircases were marked more by their evocative atmosphere and fascinating urban histories than by polished finishes and well-lit space. Back home in Vancouver, our apartment building, dated though it might be, having been built in the 1970s, is nonetheless fairly typical of the area,, and I'd venture to say it's typical of Canadian, even North American, ones. First of all, it's completely detached from surrounding buildings, and there are landscaped grounds surrounding it; the open, relatively spacious back alley behind it provides easy (keyed) access to the underground parking. (And also provides foraging -- in the form of huge dumpsters hauled out on pick-up days, full of the leftovers of our consumerist lifestyles-- for the homeless who occasionally spread their cardboard under the bridge just down the way to catch a night's sleep under whatever blanket or coat they've scavenged -- living in Lotusland doesn't mean we're isolated from urban realities.)
Because the building is detached, free-standing, and because its provenance is so recent by European standards, its architecture is so clear as to be bland. All is right angles, rectangular boxes. When I choose the stairs rather than the elevator, my ascent takes me along one wall to a landing where I effect a quarter-turn and head up the next flight. And the interior of the door, at each landing, marks the number of that flight with a large, clear numeral. So my granddaughter, when we mount these stairs together, chimes out "4, Nana," then "5," then we're at "6" where we go through the heavy fire door into a long carpeted hallway, whose sand-coloured walls are punctuated by doors on either side.
Few of the apartment's residents take the stairs, though. Instead, they come through the foyer and move directly to the elevator. In their entrance to the building, the transition is much different from that they would experience going into either of our French apartments. That is, the foyer is well-lit, and generally offers generous natural light from a bank of windows, a glass door or one with numerous sizable lights. From any point in the rather commodious foyer, one can look outside to the surrounding landscape, rather than shutting out the street, as we did just off Rue de Rennes. Like the French apartments, ours features a bank of mailboxes against one wall, but where the feature most noticeable in the Parisian foyers was the staircase, a resident or guest coming into a Vancouver apartment will immediately find the elevator. Often, depending on the size of the building, there are, as in our condominium, two elevators, and pushing the button to beckon one generally has a fairly quick response, the motor humming into service, the pulleys drawing the moving chamber audibly closer.
In our Paris apartment building, though, all the residents corkscrew their way up the central staircase, climbing upward through the heart of the building to get to their individual doors rather than passively delivering themselves into the box of an elevator. If you decide to climb with the reassurance of the curving wrought iron handrail, your fingers track the decades, perhaps centuries, of wear by previous occupants. At the same time, your feet will be trying to find space on the stair treads, not much more than 6 inches deep where they meet the railing. Instead, if support is important, you might prefer the edge of the tread that meets the plastered wall, your palm appreciating its rough assurance. Or, if you're not worried about the possibility of slipping, you'll add your footsteps to those millions that must have passed over the middle part of the old wooden surfaces, judging by the depression that's worn smoothly into each and every tread. And the building's fragrance convinces me that molecules of the wood's mellow scent are released with every footstep.
Although we were never quite able to understand the architecture of the relationship between the various units -- how could these apartments splay off from the spiralling centre, despite the streetside entrance appearing so narrow, sandwiched between adjoining business? how was it that their doors could be at such odd angles from ours, above and below? and how could that door be so few stairs above ours and still allow for human-sized dwellings? -- the individual apartments are all organized around a central, inner courtyard. So when the sun warms the air enough, windows open into this space so that voices and other sounds float or bump robustly up and down the height of the void. In Vancouver, with all units facing either the street or the back lane, all are oriented outward, away from their neighbours whose existence they can thus more easily ignore.
And while this more rationalized architecture allows more privacy, it also denies some of the rich sensory wealth we experienced in our tiny Parisian quarters:
the sounds -- pigeons' weird and rhythmic sounds in the very early morning, voices and footsteps crescendoing and then diminuendoing as they approach our landing, then move past it.. . . piano sonata from a window above mixing with some hip-hop below . . . male neighbour passing us on the stairs, taking them two at a time during lunch hour(s), a bed squeaking impressively from the direction of his apartment shortly thereafter, explaining his haste. . .
smells of caramelizing onions mixing with butter and eggs from the All Eggs All Day place just down the street. . . the (possibly post-coital -- did our male neighbour have time for a nicotine fix on his extended lunch tryst?) cigarette smoke drifting into the olfactory melange. . .
crashing sounds of garbage being sorted into one of the recycling bins in the courtyard, doors slammed, the Metro trains announcing their schedule by vibrating from deep underground -- not at all noticeable during the day, but serving as an early-service alarm clock as dawn approaches . . .
This meal Pater's fixing for us in our St. Germain apartment Spring 2011, for example, will be shared with our neighbours via its bouquet of smells, garlic, butter, tomatoes, . . .
Ah, I'm homesick for away now. . . .Paris, je t'aime. . .
We've booked our flight for this year, and Paris is our first stop on an itinerary I'm excited about. I'll tell you more soon, but for now I'll say that we won't be staying in "our own" apartment this visit, as we're only in Paris for a few days either side the rest of our travels. Instead, I'm delighted that we'll be returning to our beloved Hotel Residence les Gobelins in the 13th.
Now, I'll turn the mic over to you . . . .have you stayed in, or visited, Parisian or European apartments? Can you relate to any of my descriptions or of my comparison with North American apartments? Or is my assessment based on too narrow a sample, and, perhaps more importantly, weighted too much to the limitations of our budget? Or are my perceptions too heavily influenced, perhaps, from having lived in a detached house with a decent-sized yard for over 35 years? We've had 3 part-time apartments in sequence over the last 15 years (in Ottawa, then Vancouver), but there's always been an element of adventure, of "playing house" in the way we occupy these, which perhaps we've carried over into our travels. . . .
What say you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the post!