11 February 2009

Parisian apartment math: 17+2+3 = 1

More precisely, 17 apartments viewed, in 3 arrondissements, over 2 days = 1 lease offer.

We were lucky to have the services the past 2 days of Cosmopolitan Services Unlimited, a company that specializes in handling relocation into Paris. Our shepherd, Sophie, had identified 17 furnished apartments in our specified price range and feature set, an impressive feat given that we changed the search from unfurnished to furnished late last week when we learned our stay would probably be shortened. We requested a focus on the 17th arrondissement, since all we spoke to in Paris said it would give good quality-of-life and -commute. There weren't so many apts available in the in the 17th, so we saw 7 there, 1 in the 8th, and 9 in the 16th, in the regions of those districts that border on the 17th and offer similar commute. 17 is a lot of apts to check out, and I'm really glad we saw so many.

Apartments tell you a lot about life in a place, or at least life for your rent brethren. Apparently people looking at the same apartments as us don't shower or bake. Or at least don't mind wet floors or microwaved food. Most of the apartments had tubs with handheld shower nozzles and no shower curtain or door, and several lacked ovens and had only tiny microwaves.

Even so, most of those places were fine, and we're lucky enough that we can afford to pay enough rent that all of the apts were in nice neighborhoods. The composite average apt we looked at had 1 modest-sized BR with a small bed, a LR/parlor that was just large enough to serve as multi-purpose living room/eating room, a small bathroom with a sink and a bathtub with the requisite handheld nozzle (but no toilet), and a very small separate room with a toilet only, or a toilet and an airplane-sink. Furnishings were often kind of random in style and quality, but all included a washing machine and cooking range, and all had some kind of heat, but none had air conditioning.

Upgrades (for our preferences) included bigger kitchen, even with an oven or dishwasher, bigger bathroom or regular size bathroom with a shower, heavier construction, windows on opposing sides of the apt for effective cross-ventilation (see “no AC” above-- it's hot here in the summer), double-glazed windows, good views or especially good immediate surroundings, and nicer furnishings. None of the places we looked at had all of those upgrades. I suspect that getting all of them would put us out of our price range.

Apartments also tell you a lot about yourself and the way you interact with what's around you. It was really striking, by the 5th or 6th apartment, to realize how our experience in Paris will be influenced by the apartment we choose. Some were high-floor apartments, where you looked out over the jumble of tin and mansard roofs, with chimneys housing as many as 14 flues, antennae, and satellite dishes. Some of those views were aesthetically pleasing, others dreary. Others looked out onto courtyards (quieter than the streets when your windows are open in the summer) of endless other apartments, some onto the street, some at the Arc de Triomphe or Tour Eiffel. Ornate late 19th/early 20th century Beaux Arts style vs sleek modern, small street vs grand blvd, mostly residential vs active commercial block-- no matter how much time one spends away from the apartment exploring, where you live influences which city you see and get to know. And in the end, it's an active, deliberate choice, and so it says a lot about you.

We were lucky to see many apartments we'd have been content to live in for a 6-mo stay. But we were even luckier to find 2 that we'd be happy to live in for 5 years or more. And interestingly, they were very different places.

The first was in the 17th, on the 3rd floor (in Europe, the 1st floor is what we'd call the 2nd floor in the US), on the corner of a 19th century corner building that looked out onto a little Place (square/circle), with lots of big trees, a little open space (rare in the city), and an ornate gothic building on the other side. It had high ceilings with plaster moldings, with windows that were old, leaky to both air and noise, but charming and well maintained, and with views so engaging and immediate that you felt physically connected to the neighborhood. The owner must be a woman in her 50s-- it felt like very old world, elegant and simple. It also felt immediately like a home. The downside was that the street it overlooked was busy, so that physical connection with the neighborhood came at a noise cost.

The other was in the 16th, on the 6th european floor, set back a little on a grand blvd. Art Deco-era bldg, with high ceilings and very simple plaster work, but furnished in a sleek minimalist Euro-modern style. The views were also good, but being so high and in a more “monumental” immediate neighborhood, at more of a distance, the city as a backdrop, not as a living companion. Between the height, the set-back, and the double-glazed windows, it was possible to shut the city noise out if you wanted, a place to retreat.

In the end, we chose the 2nd, because we like being able to control our environment (or have the illusion of it), and because we've never lived in a place like that. Our house in Philly is much more like the place in the 17th, where live very integrated into the life on the street. The place in the 16th will be a novel experience, what I imagine living in a high-rise is like. Today we'll walk through both neighborhoods more extensively, gathering more info before signing a lease before we leave this week.

Whichever of these apartments comes through, it'll be a great place from which to experience Paris.

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