My first two weeks this year have been good. The experience has been largely similar to prior years, but with some differences worth mentioning.
- Weather. I’ve come to realize that Paris weather is just as unpredictable as Boston’s, although more moderate. The first three weeks of April this year were, I’m told, warm and sunny: the best April in recent memory. It turned cold and rainy around the end of the month, however, and this continued for the first week of May. The second week has been quite sunny, with just occasional showers, but it’s still chilly out of the sun. While it would be nice if it weren’t quite so nippy I enjoy being here for the progression from late spring weather to (hopefully!) early summer.
- A Happy Home. I’m very comfortable now in my 2014 Paris home. The Saint-Paul neighborhood, and my particular street, are both wonderful. The layout of the apartment works well, with the bedroom on a quiet courtyard and the living room having two sunny windows on a lively — but not noisy — street. The washing machine and wifi are great, I’ve been sleeping like a log, and little details I wanted, such as the desk I’m typing on now, have mostly met expectations. The configuration of toilet/medicine cabinet/tiny sink separate from shower/washing machine/big sink is very unfamiliar but workable, and especially convenient when I’m sharing the apartment with a house guest. Several visitors have helped me appreciate (and enhance!) the apartment’s charms.
- A Bad First Impression. When I first arrived, however, I had something of an anxiety attack as I discovered the apartment’s deficiencies: stopped up shower drain, broken cabinets, broken dishwasher, curtains falling off their rods, dead flowers in the window boxes, etc. I was afraid I had made a mistake, which would not only impair my own experience but inconvenience the guests who were planning to visit. The two brothers who manage the apartment are brisk, casual and negligent. Over these two weeks I have fixed what I could and badgered them into fixing the most critical defects that I couldn’t resolve myself. The kitchen is still tragic, but functional for breakfast, lunch and munchies for visitors. The drapes are fine now; though it took two weeks to get them fixed they were done when I needed them (for the arrival of my first house guest). I’ve done a lot of cleaning. And the new flower plants have made a world of difference!
- Observations. My friend Jaffar told me this would happen. He had a similar experience with his current apartment in Cologne: initial shock and eventual contentment. On the one hand, I am happy here now, and I’m confident that my guests will be as well. On the other hand, this apartment is not maintained to an acceptable standard, and I would not rent from this landlord another time. I do accept some responsibility, however. For one thing, I could see in the on-line pictures that the furnishings of this apartment were older and more worn than those in my prior Paris rentals. I consciously allowed the fabulous location and convenient layout to override this concern. Saving money wasn’t a factor for me, but I noticed that the rent for this apartment was nearly 25% less than the one I have rented the past three years, despite a comparable location, so I realized that it must offer less. For another thing, I think I’ve been spoiled by the fact that all of my Paris apartments — except for my first month in 2010 — have been outfitted for use by the owner. Compared with them this place is sad, but compared with what you might expect from a rental apartment it seems more normal. My take-away is that you usually get what you pay for, but also that you are really at the mercy of the apartment manager, a risk that I had not fully appreciated.
- Coffee. All my prior apartment had American-style electric coffee makers. My last apartment also had a Nespresso machine. This apartment only has a French press (which, notwithstanding Jason’s expected joke, the French apparently call une cafetière à piston). I wondered whether I would miss the gadgets, but the French press has been fine, especially since David corrected how I was using it.
- Soundtrack. I almost never watch TV at home, and I haven’t watched TV at all in any of the years I have visited Paris. This is just a matter of habit, not principle. I prefer conversation or reading or surfing the web, when I’m home, to sitting glued to the tube. In Paris this is a mixed blessing, however, since watching TV is a great way to building facility with the language, as well as offering a rich perspective on French culture. All of my apartments have had nice stereo systems as well, and for the first time this year I turned on the radio, and immediately fell in love with Radio Classique, which offers a lovely selection of classical music along with news and occasional interviews. It has become the regular background music for my 2014 stay. June 9 update: I’m still enjoying Radio Classique but I’ve come to perceive its limitations. Not only do they just play old favorites, but usually only the most popular movement. Of course this is nice, but it’s a bit like eating a whole box of bonbons one after another. The fact is that Radio Classique is “easy listening” classical. Easy to listen to indeed, but something of a guilty pleasure.
- Road Trip! The four-day road trip Normandy and Brittany with my Harvard friend Zhizhong was a first for any of my Paris visits, and it was a wonderful chance to see another part of the country, as well as to get out into the countryside.
- My French Friends. Most of my social contact this visit has been with Zhizhong, and with my cousin Lisa, her daughter Aya, and her partner Ali. They are real friends, who always have time for me. My other French friends have been away or busy or whatever. I do expect to catch up with each of them before the end of my stay, and I’m sure we’ll have some nice meals. But it must be acknowledged that on the whole I haven’t made intense new friendships here. My happiness is fortunately not dependent on this, but the point is notable, and weighs in the balance against the idea of spending even more time here.
- Phone/Internet. In prior years I had to turn off data on my cell phone, and buy a French SIM card for an old GSM phone to use only for texts and local calls. The upshot was that I carried around two phones, which still didn’t add up to the level of service I’m used to at home. Texts and calls on the old phone were fairly cheap, but my account would always run low and I’d have to find a tabac to top it up. Thanks to T-Mobile all those annoyances have been swept away. Their standard plan — which I switched to just before starting my trip — includes unlimited data and texting anywhere in the civilized world, and worldwide phone calls at 20 cents per minute. Data is at 3G speed, but I see absolutely no need to pay extra for 4G. Consequently, this year I carry only my iPhone, I pay nothing extra, and I have unlimited data and texts, as well as reasonably-priced French or U.S. phone calls. It’s a real convenience to have email, web access, Google maps and Google translate at your fingertips, not to mention social media apps.
- Activity. I still wonder whether my activity in Paris will eventually revert to the mean, but so far this year it has been right on the pace I set last year: twice the distance and three times as many flights of stairs.
The Scarf. I’ve vaguely noticed in prior years that a lot of French people wear scarfs, even when it isn’t cold. It looks a bit precious to American eyes, but once you get used to it someone without a scarf looks odd. So a few days ago I finally bought my first French scarf. The shop clerk — who gave off several signals of being gay — helped me select a suitable scarf and showed me how to tie it. Now I feel like a cool kid!