Thursday, September 13, 2007

A view from the toilet: crankily guarded praise of Parisian short-term rental apartments

I recently returned from Paris where my beautiful girlfriend and I – and another couple – rented a two-bedroom apartment for a week instead of checking into a hotel. It was, as they say, an experience. What kind of experience it was depends on which of us you ask.

While I grew more and more enthralled by the flat, the Crank’s girlfriend grew proportionately disenchanted – a living example of how one visitor’s impression of quirky charm is another’s experience of living hell. Or at least of moderately discomforting heck.

The apartment was a two-bedroom triplex. Our bedroom was on the top floor. It offered a panoramic view of the Paris skyline from seven stories up. (That’s mighty high up in Paris.) The upstairs bedroom had an attached bathroom, with a sliding pocket door.

Let’s start with the upstairs bathroom

Here comes the first of the apartment’s quirks. The door to the bathroom was glass, which raised havoc with the notion that somebody sitting on the john in a roughly $3,600-a-week flat ought to be entitled to a bit of privacy.

One the other hand, as the Crank’s beautiful girlfriend pointed out, not entirely pleased, “This is the only apartment I’ve ever been in were I can shit and look at the Eiffel Tower at the same time.” (The photograph above is an authentic view from the toilet.)

Quasimodo’s staircase

Passage from the living to the upstairs or downstairs bedrooms was via a pair of corkscrew staircases so narrow that I found I could only use them by walking sideways. I very nearly expected on the way up to encounter Quasimodo coming down from an unseen belfry.

Again, I found this quirk charming. But the women were not amused. Not only were the stairs no fun to use in high heels, but there was no way to get our luggage up or down the stairs. We had to unpack in the living room, carry our stuff on hangers or cradled in our arms up and down the corkscrews, and then stash our emptied suitcases behind the living room couch.

Attack dog concierge

In a Paris hotel, the concierge is a usually-pleasant person who makes restaurant reservations for you and commands a staff that manages the bellhops and doormen. In Paris apartments, the concierge is part of an entirely different tradition – one that I’m sad to learn is rapidly disappearing.

Traditionally – and my experience with “traditional” concierges goes back to 1959 – the concierge is a woman of “a certain age” who works for the management of an apartment building as a combination janitor, superintendent and snoop.

She is – one imagines by consequence of some venomous code instituted during the Revolution of 1789 and never repealed – totally humorless, ill-natured and suspicious. Long before the security camera was invented, the gendarmerie of Paris knew they had a reliable record of who came and went in almost any apartment building. That record was the stewing memory of the concierge, tirelessly spying from behind her lace curtained window at the building’s entrance or in its courtyard.

In other words, "the concierge" is a Parisian institution, as integral to the city’s personality as Montmartre or the Seine. Our concierge was all that and more. She was of a certain age plus at least ten. She had all her upper and lower teeth – but only all the ones on the right side of her mouth. Her open-mouthed scowl was a vision to behold, and we beheld it often. She was frequently in an explosive mood. And she had a small, uncheerful dog who never wagged his tail.

The concierge flew into a rage on our arrival because I inadvertently tried to insert the wrong key into the lock that opened the building’s front door.

She flew into a rage again when two members of our party tried to squeeze into the elevator with their luggage on the way up to the apartment. (She professed fear that the weight of two people plus their suitcases would break the elevator cable.)

She put a thumb on our doorbell and kept it there for the full 120 seconds it took me to get to the apartment door one morning. Then she furiously announced that our house phone was off the hook and she could hear every word we were saying. (But she couldn’t understand any of them, since she spoke no English; for all I know, that lack of comprehension was the source of her resentment.)

The concierge’s self-evident ill will had Crank’s girlfriend nearly in tears. I, on the other hand, considered the concierge part of the ambient entertainment. I was no more upset by her than I’d get by watching Peter Lorre or Sidney Greenstreet performing as villians in an old black-and-white movie. In fact, I think she was better than Greenstreet.

Some wag once wrote that it’s silly getting upset because the French hate you – they hate each other just as much. Some Americans may feel annoyed by this. But that's one of the reasons I like going to France.

Meanwhile, vive le Sixieme!

Our apartment was on Rue de Seine, a narrow street lined mostly with art galleries. The quarter is lively 24 hours a day and extra lively at night when the surrounding 6th Arrondissement, as well as the adjacent 5th, seem to turn into a giant singles bar. Every sidewalk café, every restaurant, every ice cream parlor was booming – and at night more with Parisians in their 20s and 30s than with cranky old foreign visitors like me.

With due respect to my political opposite numbers at No-Pasaran – – who find the French largely disagreeable and admittedly have more first-hand experience in France than I can claim – I found that at least the better-off youth of Paris are upbeat and totally counter to tradition and expectations. Alas, if over time the next generation becomes enough like us, there will be no point in going there any more.

Especially not after the last concierge dies off.

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