Saturday, May 29, 2010

Apartment hunting horrories

If I had to guess, at this point I'd estimate that I've made about 50 calls pertaining to apartments, about 20 emails, and made about 15 visits. We're getting closer to finding the diamond in the rough, it seems, but the process hasn't been without its share of horror stories (horrories!). Sometimes you can tell in an ad that an apartment is going to be a dud. Take, for example, this real life (translated) ad: "Furnished studio apartment, seventh floor with elevator, well laid out, hot water, kitchenette, no shower. Available immediately."

No shower?!? You know it's a pretty pathetic apartment when the landlord is advertising "hot water" as one of its main selling points. Other automatic deal breakers include bathrooms in the hall (meaning shared with other tenants), basement (no windows) apartments, or the bargain apartments known affectionately as "studettes"--ancient maid's quarters converted into closet-like student residences for the poor and desperate. However, sometimes it takes a visit to discover the dark side of an apartment. Here are a few such experiences.

I spent an hour waiting at the first apartment I ever visited, waiting and trying in vain to call a landlord who never showed. I got in touch with her a few days later, only to discover that I had been waiting outside the wrong apartment. An elderly woman, she had given Tom the wrong number on the phone when he had scheduled the visit. Whoops.

The first apartment Tom and I visited together was in a good location and of a good size, but it needed a little TLC. The aged wood floor had deteriorated in a few places, leaving some noticeable impressions in the living room floor. The lights--lone bulbs hanging on cords from the ceiling--were burnt out and a little bare. The toilet had no seat. Minor fixes, we thought, until we asked when the work on the apartment was to be finished. We were told that no, the apartment was being sold as is, and not even by the landlord, but by the twenty-something cell phoning fiend he had selected to sell it on his behalf.

One apartment I visited was everything we were looking for price, space and furnishings-wise. Unfortunately, the would-be landlord there had been sort of illegally squatting himself for about 10 years. Turns out the apartment was some sort of subsidized housing that was legally rented by his sister, but that he had been using as a home base for his Internet-based, English-language advertising company (he never spoke a word of English with me, however). He was ready to move on to a new city but wanted to keep the apartment for his return in a few years and rake in rent in the meantime--"à l'Américaine", as he put it, which to him meant without demanding the same ridiculous amount of paperwork from us, but without providing us with a contract (and thus depriving us of the CAF, the student housing discount, and offering no guarantee of our status as tenants or of the safe return of our deposit). He was aggressive enough to intimidate me into saying I'd think it over, but I didn't give him my contact information, and as soon as I was back out on the street (free!) I got the hell away from there.

One apartment we visited turned out to be about a fifteen walk beyond the Boulevard Péripherique, and thus no longer even in Paris, but in Montrouge. However, since the size (72m2) seemed amazing for the price, we decided to check it out anyways. The landlord met us groggily at the door on Saturday morning, obviously hungover and still wearing his rumpled suit from the previous workday. Once upstairs, he instructed us to show ourselves around and then out, and to call him later. He wasn't kidding--a simple question evoked a wince and hand clasped to his forehead, along with a "no questions! Call later!" Needless to say, we didn't.

When apartments in Paris seem to cheap to be true, they are. One such apartment turned out to be a pretty ghetto residence, with a bed on stilts, a dilapidated wardrobe that didn't quite cover a molding wall and a bathtub that obviously hadn't been white in years. To top it off, it was being shown by its current tenants--two poor immigrants sharing a bed who were, themselves, grumpy with the state of the apartment and disparaging of the landlord's neglect. We crossed that one off the list.

Finally, there was the apartment I visited today. It, too, was in need of a little TLC (moldy fridge, dirty floor tiles, gross shaggy gray carpet), and the thing that really got to me was that the toilet room is so small that it's impossible to fully open the door without hitting the toilet. However, the price is good considering the size, so we're keeping it on the list for now. The good news: for once, the bohemian landlord is very pro-American and seems eager to have us as tenants. In any case, she said we were much better than the next woman she was showing the apartment to: a Chinoise! (Chinese woman!) et avec les animals! Pas ma tasse de thé... (and with animals! not my cup of tea...)

Friday, May 28, 2010

The "romantic" life

On Wednesday, I had a museum date with a girlfriend to go see the Chopin exhibit at the Musée de la Vie Romantique, or the museum of "romantic life." Despite the images that the name might evoke (not to mention the nearby Pigalle area, host to the infamous Moulin Rouge burlesque shows, sex shops and the Musée de l'Érotisme) the museum has nothing to do with romance, but rather focuses on Parisian life during the romantic movement in art. Indeed, stepping off of the bustling, business-filled streets of Montmartre and into the alley of the museum felt like stepping back in time. As I walked into the green courtyard, it was easy to imagine the days when its ivy-covered cottages still housed the studios and salons where musicians, authors, opera divas and aristocrats shared inspiration over coffee.
As a pianist currently learning/studying Chopin, my friend Clare was primarily interested in the musician and the artifacts surrounding him, including a plaster cast of his slender hand and an antique piano he played on. I was more interested in his longtime lover, George Sand, one of France's first "feminist" (not to mention just female) writers who I gave a presentation on earlier this semester. The exhibit was riddled with portraits and quotes of her and her children, who both played into the 19th century Parisian social scene (not to mention the sudden, violent end of George's affair with Frédéric, which is presumed to have involved her daughter Solange). I couldn't get a photo of the iconic portrait of her they had on display, but here's a copy (thanks, Internet!):
After we had our fill of art, we enjoyed some tea and cake in the garden café.
I loved the cute (if not slightly racist--oh the French!) mitten for the hot metal handle of the théière (teapot), complete with Turkish tasseled fez:
The on and off spring showers kept the crowds away, but we were definitely not the only people out enjoying the resulting flowers.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Strike!

With the RER on strike (yet again) today, I opted to walk home from Denfert Rochereau. I started hearing Michael Jackson about half way along Rue Daguerre. I decided to investigate, and this is what I found:
video

Not far away, I ran into an awkward white dance party, rocking out to tracks from Grease:
(that's for you, Laura)
video

Block party? Festival? No, of course not. It's a strike!

Confused? So was I. It took a group of excited, costumed French workers and a few sheets of propaganda to explain it to me. Apparently the strikes are nationwide, against a new proposed law that would push the age of retirement back from where it is currently set at 60 years old. Their posters made me laugh: "6o isn't early enough, 40 years of working is already too much!"--not because I disagree with the idea, necessarily, but because starting work at 20 is pretty old by American standards, not to mention totally unrepresentative of French youth, who seem to linger around the house and mooch off their parents until their mid 20's.

Sticker of plebeian rage were everywhere:
As were banners and huge helium balloons strapped to cars:


There were a range of different career fields represented at the strike, from street cleaners, to industrial chemical workers, to nurses. This nurse was wearing a lab coat and a jester hat with syringes dangling from its points: Grève-ing starts young. Here, we see that even the students are invested in the age of retirement:
The magic words, it seemed, were "salariés respectés" (respected workers). For the French, retirement seems to be not so much a matter of resources (or lack thereof) so much as it is an issue of respect--or at least that's the way it is being framed in the reactionary rhetoric.
The parade started to move, and I moved with it, cheering and drinking in the excited atmosphere:
Many of the vans were equipped with loudspeakers and blasted music, motivational, anti-Sarkozy speeches or, most commonly, simple chants: (in this one, she's leading the paraders in a cry of "tous ensemble, tous ensemble--Grève! Grève!" or "all together, all together--Strike! Strike!" which is catchy, I suppose, if rather uninspired)

video

The MJ performance wasn't the only aspect of the strike that felt bizarrely party-like, as the drink menu on the ubiquitous food vans showed:
Ah. The abandoned, lime-filled cups and jolly strikers suddenly made sense.

This particular food van made me smile, because it seemed like the majority of its protest signage was general, revolutionary stuff (note the Che Guevera flag), which I assume means that it has been adapted for frequent use at this type of event. And you know what? That's probably a smart business move, because even if the economy plummets, France will still continue to strike (probably moreso) and those strikers will still want their 2 euro beers and baguette sandwiches. Even the French term "en grève" (on a strike) sounds to me like a habitual action, almost happy: "on vacation", or even comical: "gone fishing".
But maybe that's just because I've grown accustomed to hearing it with a casual attitude and a frequency that I never hear associated with its English equivalent. The French are often mocked for their eagerness to strike, but the American taboo on strikes reflects a cold, capitalist approach that values efficiency over workers' rights, and leaves the overworked and mistreated with little recourse. Striking in France makes these workers more visible, and as a result, more respected and more accommodated.

And even if the strike doesn't accomplish anything--if Sarko insists on dragging his 35-hr work week, early retiring country kicking and screaming into the modern world--well, at least the French got a good party out of it.

Snapshots on-the-go (taken with my mobile)

The Monday after Pentecost is a holiday in France. Apparently, the way to celebrate it is to bus in boy and girl scouts from all over the country and host a parade. Troops walked bearing flags of their departments (counties) divided by vans equipped with loudspeakers that were blasting a Catholic prayer call as the hoardes of scouts chanted responses in unison. I had heard that the French scouts were heavily religious, but the effect was creepily cult-like:
More scouts, this time with the Invalides dome in the background:
Racist, anti-arab sticker campaign resisting North African cultural influence and associating it with drug-dealing:
A cute little alleyway right on the Boulevard Périphérique at Porte d'Ivry, that contrasted oddly with the surrounding huge, Amerian-esque apartment high rises :
The side of a primary school in Alésia:
Odd art in the 14th:
This cool mural in the 13th brightens up an otherwise industrial, slummy set of residences:
This poster was all over the Metro for a while. It made me laugh, because thanks to some bad Photoshopping it looks like the guy in the back in lifting up some other guy's shirt. And who knows where his hand is going...

Bottom line: men may like to think otherwise, but sports are totally homoerotic.
McDonalds in Chinatown, just a few tram stops away from us. We come to the grocery stores on this street on occasion to find odd produce and decipher labels on strange sauces. We've made some pretty delicious stirfrys/curries/noodle soups/pad thai so far.
Ah, le Métro:
Pretty cool graffiti near Luxembourg:
A fun fooderie I came across in the 6th. Apparently Jews are doing "sushis" and "beggels" now...
Grate in front of the American Church in Paris, which is near the Seine in the ritzy 7th arrondissement. I have been making a weekly pilgrimage here to check the community message boards for housing announcements:
Scary "don't climb me" spikes on a nearby drain pipe:
This was in the window of a designer bridal store. It's basically a corset with sleeves, made with gauze and some blingin' strings of cubic zirconia. I couldn't decide if it was a really slutty piece of bridal attire, or a really formal lingerie item:
Tiles in Charles de Gaulle Étoile metro station, line 2:

Evian's creepy rollerskating baby advertising campaign is made even more badass by the graffiti:
Close up of a tile in the tea house/hammam of the Grande Mosquée, where classy tourists flock for Moroccan mint tea and flaky middle eastern pastries in the sunny, bird filled courtyard:

You know you're in France when young women bring their backpack accordions to university:
And last, a view of rooftops in the 13e arrondissement from my classroom at Paris III:
(...there's a lot to be seen in a city, if you just take the time to look...)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Sunshine, sculptures, soccer and sugar highs

Summertime officially hit Paris this weekend. High spirits, low cut clothing, and brightly colored balls of gelatto abound. What better time to have a three-day weekend?

We rose early on Saturday for yet another apt visit (verdict: huge and pretty nice, but a little too far from the metro) followed by a leisurely stroll around town. We stopped for espresso and baguette sandwiches in the street-side 'terrace' of my favorite boulangerie before heading to Bastille to check out the artisan market, where I bought a pressed-flower suspended in Pyrex necklace.

Then it was on to a friend's birthday picnic (the first of several this weekend) in Parc Montsouris for some cheese, chorizo, wine, kir, and of course, decadent desserts. Stuffed and happy, we attempted to burn off some calories with Frisbee. Afterward we accompanied a few German friends to watch the champions league final football match between Munich and Milan, settling for a Haitian creole restaurant with a huge flat screen when the nearby bars were too packed. (The food was way worth the compromise--chicken in an octopus sauce, with plantains, peanut sauce and some pretty intense peppers...mmm!)

Sunday and Monday called for even more picnicking, popsicles and Frisbee. We also managed to finally make it over to the Rodin museum for a sunny stroll around the sculpture garden:

You could see the golden dome of Invalides in the background:
He had a simple (legible!) but elegant autograph. I particularly like the "N":
There were several statues missing clothing, limbs or even heads that were apparently studies for later, completed statues that allowed Rodin to really get a sense for the anatomy beneath the cloth and the realism of a movement or gesture. Here's a shot of a finished piece with the stumpy study in the background:

And then the obligatory:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Penetrating the System

So I've already written several posts about how stupid, stone-age, inefficient, unnecessarily complicated every piece of French paperwork is. Little did I know that I had only barely brushed Purgatory, and that I would soon be made to traverse all nine hellish circles of French bureaucracy in the Inferno that is the Parisian rental market.

I've spent the last few weeks balancing my normal life with the full-time job of hunting for apartments in Paris. The first step is the search, which is done mostly by Internet these days. I start with pap.fr, the French real estate website of choice, then browse through leboincoin.fr, vivastreet.fr, FUSAC (Paris' anglophones magazine) and even paris.craigslist.org. When I can, I repeat this browsing do this cycle about five times a day, except for pap.fr, which I leave open (set to my search terms: one bedroom apartments under 1000 euros/month in the 14th, 5th or 13th arrondissements) and refresh as often as possible.

Next comes the call. In a market as competitive as Paris, the tenant has absolutely no value. If you want a shot at an apartment you have to call as soon as an ad is posted (literally--no more than an hour later you're often already too late), prove you're serious (and have money--landlords often screen tenants by grilling them about their job and salary) and be persistent (follow up emails/calls/texts, whatever it takes).

Parisian apartments are small, expensive, and bare. If you're lucky (and willing to pay more) you can sometimes find them with furnishings, but that's more the exception than the rule. And when I say bare, I mean BARE. In France, appliances like fridges, washing machines, and even ovens and stoves are things that you lug around with you each time you move, meaning that an empty apartment literally comes with nothing but the kitchen sink.

Then there are the visits. Which, for whatever reason, are usually during the middle of a work day--thank God for my flexible student schedule. This is your chance to check the state of the apartment (mold? double-paned windows? collective or individual heating/water? carpeted or wood floors?) and the landlord's chance to judge evaluate you. This is also when you're expected, if you're interested, to hand over your "dossier"--a fat, expensive-to-have-printed folder, consisting of a lock of your baby hair, the rights to your first born child, etc. In other words, pretty much everything that has mattered, ever, in your entire life.

In all seriousness, a dossier should include: your ID (passport and carte de sejour, for foreigners), your last three pay stubs (from a French job), your contract (for the same French job), your birth certificate, a letter of recommendation from your current lodging, your bank account information, and even sometimes your previous two years' worth of tax summaries. Multiply that by two if you're a couple, and by three if you need a "garant"--a guarantor who declares their income in France, and who must provide pretty much the same paperwork (or, at a minimum, the pay stubs, ID and tax statements). Keep in mind that this is all going to a complete stranger, who is likely hosting about ten more apartment viewings that day and may not even consider you a potential tenant.

If you don't have the time (or sanity) to spare checking ads and calling and waiting on landlords, the alternative is to use one of Paris' many localized rental agencies. The convenience comes at a price, however--stricter paperwork standards, an upfront fee (usually around 200 euros) and often a percentage of the rent as a sort of finder's fee. In short, it seems like a bit of a rip off, not to mention a surrender. I'm still looking on my own. But I'm running out of time.

I did my 8th visit this morning. Out of the 8 there are only two possibles, and only one that I'm in love with. As foreigners, Tom and I are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dealing with landlords. Even if I can muster good enough French to satisfy them, we are unable to provide the same standard of "Frenchness" as other candidates when it comes to our paperwork, in particular the garant. After trying to muddle through without one, we finally got Tom's supervisor to agree to back us. Unfortunately, he seems to be balking at the idea of all the paperwork he has to present (and I mean really, who wouldn't?)

I will end with the very high-tech graphic I made to illustrate the aggravation factor of this whole process. It shows all of the components involved in renting a residence. The arrows indicate the "price" needed to gain the "product" (i.e., the black arrow from the garant to the house indicates that you need a garant in order to get a house). The fuchsia arrows highlight the many catch-22s inherent to the system (i.e., you need a job for a residency card, but also a residency card for a job) that seem designed to weed out foreigners.
...mais, enfin, ce qui ne me détruit pas me rend plus fort...

Sunday, May 16, 2010

birfday fun

I realize it's been a little while since I updated this now, (big, life-changing events happening) but here are some birthday pics to tide you over in the meantime, oh faithful readers.

On my actual birthday, the other lit students (minus one) and I went out for a pho lunch at an authentic Vietnamese restaurant. Ivy ordered for us all in Vietnamese. I think this was my first time hearing the language. My discoveries: all words are one syllable, and there are about five different (and common) variations on a "y" sound.

The last lit student, Barclay, made it to my "party" the next Monday. By party, I mean I basically invited everyone I know in Paris to a bar called "l'Assassin" after one of my final exams to enjoy their burgers and happy hour 3.50 euro pints of Delerium. In any case, here we are, sharing the lit love:
And the obligatory cute couple shot:
I had the sudden realization at the party that Laura, one of my NYU friends, and Lucy, one of my Cité Universitaire friends, look...the SAME!
In the end, I think I had somewhere between 10 and 15 people show up (not bad, for a Monday night and in the middle of finals). Chill bar, cool crowd, and I think everyone had a good time.

I was only mildly hungover the next morning. I blame the lack of Mexican food in this country. Mexican food works wonders on hangovers. In any case, I was recovered before my job interview that afternoon. Details on that to come soon.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

hippo bird day to me!

Today I am 23.

As usual, my birthday falls at a less-than-ideal point in the academic year: right in the middle of two finals and three papers. Alas, but no worse than it has been in years past when it coincided with AP exams, then with college finals, and then with the presentation of my senior thesis. The result is that I'm not planning much of a party--perhaps drinks with friends after one of the finals, but that's about all I have time/energy for. Sadly, being éloignée from the States means I can't take advantage of the Mexican food and margarita benefits of being born on Cinco de Mayo (although considering my mixed reactions to tequila the older I get, that may be a good thing...)

Thank you to all the folks who sent me birthday wishes, especially via mail. It's always fun to get letters, and even more so when dépaysée. Your cards have been incorporated into my decor.

There are only two things I really want for my birthday: a summer job and a Parisian apartment. So far I've yet to get either, but the day is still young (unlike me...what a geezer I'm becoming! I'm already at my mid-twenties? Jeez) and I have a rendez-vous with a rental Madame this afternoon. Wish me birthday luck!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Living it up like the ancient Greeks

Athens felt a little like Spain to me: built up to be cute for tourists but happening, with a real pulse, and slightly less developed/cheaper than Western European countries. Greece in general seemed to have a lot of stray animals and a fair amount of abandoned construction projects --perhaps the after effects of a once much healthier tourism-fueled economy. It also progresses very quickly from the cute, friendly, consumer-driven tourist center of Athens to the grittier, grumpier, no-English-spoken "suburbs"--our trips to and from Athens' industrial port city of Pireas were a little less than picturesque. The Athenian transportation system leaves a little to be desired as well. The city's entire bus and metro system was shut down on the day we arrived, and when we returned the metro was running but with several stops closed, making it necessary to use a replacement bus service for part of the line. When we tried to get to the airport the next day the end stretch of the line was out of service, so we again had to rely on a taxi. Irritating, but at least it puts my annoyance with Parisian train strikes into perspective (train systems here are required by law to maintain minimum service, so it's never entirely impossible to get where you need to go).

Here's the view of the hilltop Acropolis from our hostel balcony. We got a private room and bathroom, kitchenette and sweet balcony for 25 euros a night each. Definitely the best value hostel I've ever stayed in:
Laura, enjoying said balcony after taking a car to a rickety island bus to a ferry to a train to a line replacement bus to another train to get there (ah, disfunctional Greek public transportation):
Big communist protest group we ran into while walking around. We never managed to figure out exactly what they were protesting, but considering the current financial crisis I'd say the government's handling of the country's finances is a good bet:
Cool graffiti found halfway up the Acropolis hill:The cool thing about Athens is that it's a bustling, modern city, but then everywhere you turn you see remnants of something from the 5th century. Wild. There was even an underground monument area in the middle of Monastiraki plaza, where you could look through glass as you walked across to see the stone foundations of ancient houses around a long since dried river.

Monastiraki plaza at night (you can just see the Acropolis lit up in the background):
We splurged on a nice dinner for our last night, being sure to get our fill of stuffed vine leaves, feta, zucchini balls, lamb, moussaka and a honey-cake dessert called galactobourico. After heading back to the hostel we enjoyed a night view of the Acropolis over 3-euro pints of Mythos (Greece's go-to cheap beer) at our hostel's rooftop bar: