Having lived in Manhattan and then LA, I made peace with the fact that I would never be able to afford owning a home. Moving to Paris was no threat to that peace process because surely I wouldn’t own anything in a foreign country and, besides, who knew how long I’d be staying? Luc works in education and I in publishing, the math isn’t even supposed to work out for us to own anything in a major capital. So imagine my choc when we bought a one-bedroom apartment in 2007.
After visiting 45 apartments in the two neighborhoods we were willing to live in that were still affordable and gentrified-ready, we found our new home. Luc and I could afford to buy after all because France is very generous towards first time homeowners who are under a certain age and who earn under a certain income. The overachievers that we are, we were seemingly so poor that we scored ourselves 60,000€ in loans at 0% interest. When our banker first told us about these special loans, one offered by the city of Paris and the other by the federal government, I didn’t understand.
“What?! Why would the government do that?” I expressed with amazed consternation. Luc did not look at me to kill, but to annihilate.
Two months after we ditched our 248 sq. ft. studio for our 441 sq. ft. palace, it was time for our annual homeowner associations meeting. Since Luc could not leave work early, I would be forced to attend and represent our domestic interests. Gulp. I went with two missions.
Firstly, we had to do something about those pesky pigeons; the ones that seemed to live just above us in the attic and wake us up each morning with their cooing and heavy footsteps. Since we had somehow not met any of our neighbors up to that point I was extremely anxious about going to a formal meeting and having to speak in front of them, no matter what the subject matter. While high school French classes prepared me to ask for the check and find out where the restrooms are in any establishment they did not prepare me for talking about bothersome pigeons in the attic.
My second task was to suss out how the others felt about our building’s common stairwell that doesn’t seem to have been renovated since Joanie loved Chachi. The wall is neither covered with paint nor wallpaper; it is carpeted, an interior design scheme I didn’t know existed. While not shag, Luc and I were still determined to make it go away.
I believe the professionals refer to this color as Sunset Vomit.
I spent the whole day at work panicked about how to bring up these two atypical topics in front of strangers. Although I was 98.2% fluent by then (with a 3 point margin of error), when I am in uncomfortable situations I never know what will come out of mouth. I find it frustrating to not always be able to use the exact word I’m looking for because it is often nowhere to be found. In certain circumstances, my sentence structures are like those of a 10 year old and I therefore must come across as an idiot. (No offense to any 10 year olds.) And when my insecurities reach defcon 1, my accent falls apart. For someone who finally learned how to survive public speaking in English my anxiety over speaking in French could be debilitating.
Luckily, my neighbors were out in small numbers that evening and I realized quickly that those present were not so intimidating. In fact, they barely spoke at all. Since they didn’t bring up certain issues I found my mojo and with it the courage to speak. Someone had to.
An opening to discuss the carpeted walls presented itself and I was surprised when another new resident supported the idea of taking it down. (I decided then and there that she would quickly become my new best friend.) Apparently, though, we couldn’t just decide like that to take down the carpeting. We would have to get estimates for the cost and vote on the work to be done at the next meeting, next year. (Incidentally, I later lost interest in my new best friend because of a pointless cat story she billed as hilarious. It wasn’t even about her own cat.)
When it came time to vote for the condo’s board members, I was surprised to learn that we even had a board. When we moved in, they did not send Luc and me a welcome basket of croissants and cheese. It turns out that the previous owner of our apartment was the board’s president so somebody needed to take his place. Were there any volunteers? Silence. My cowardly neighbors were all looking down so as not to be called on. Surely I couldn’t be president, I didn’t understand half of the things we talked about. Heck, we were in the middle of two lawsuits because of unpaid maintenance fees and I started to think for a second that I might be one of the defendants.
Not one single person wanted to assure the proper functioning of our home. “Ok, this could make for a good story at our next dinner party,” I thought to myself, and volunteered to run. Someone had to. However, I agreed to do so only if my neighbors agreed not to knock on our door at two in the morning because of plumbing issues. I was swiftly voted in and to this day my constituency has kept up its side of the bargain.
High from the rush of my newfound power, I found the courage to bring up the pigeon problem later on in the meeting. It is not acceptable for a president to be hassled by pigeons. They must be dealt with. And so they were…
When I got home that night, Luc beamed with pride at my news. I went to the meeting terrified, and returned a president. In his eyes, it was almost as as if I joined a union.
My first task as president was well suited for an American — I had to fire the substitute cleaning lady because she was bleeding us dry. Before Luc and I moved in, the building hired our original cleaning lady, Mme Dubois, directly as an employee which was much more expensive than going through a cleaning service. Not only did we pay her salary, we had to pay the notoriously high social taxes that went along with it.
Mme Dubois had been on extended sick leave because of a bad back. (I hope she didn’t vacuum the walls.) Her replacement was earning 150% of her salary because her job was considered to be “precarious”, as in she could lose it at any moment if Mme Dubois came back to work. None of the neighbors could stomach paying such a high salary so we managed to fire the temp, cut Mme Dubois loose and change over to a cleaning service which saved our building 6000€ per year. I was off to an effective start. I made note to consider presiding over other neighboring condo boards.
There are 12 units in our building and most everyone keeps to themself. Our most colorful neighbor is the crazy man on the ground floor. He is notorious for yelling at crying kids in our and neighboring buildings, pleading with them to shut the fuck up. He also takes to screaming at himself, often on Saturday afternoons while listening to The Beatles. One of our friends had the misfortune of bringing a bike into the building once. After we buzzed him in, he crossed our neighbor’s path and asked him where he could put his bike.
“Up your ass,” came the reply.
In the summer of 2010, having completed my third term as president, I was amused and dismayed to be the only person present at the annual homeowner’s association meeting. Everyone whines about being busy and not having the time to come to one meeting per year. We’re all busy; how can I find the time and not them? As far as I know, I have no special powers. This in spite of years of countless birthday wishes.
That evening, I had a few proxy votes so managed to sail through the agenda with the rep from our management company. Unfortunately, that was the year we finally got our act together to vote on taking down the carpet and painting the walls. Despite my bitter resentment towards my neighbors, I did not feel comfortable voting in favor of making them spend a total of 14,000€. If only I didn’t care.
Then it came time to vote for president. I surveyed the empty room of potential candidates. While it felt weird at first, I naturally nominated myself and then proceeded to vote, for me. In an instant, our building became an autocratic democracy and I was the corrupt, democratically elected dictator.
This was also the year I found out that the building had lead in its pipes. While the levels were not dangerous, they would be in 2013 once the laws changed. No need to worry about my health until then. That’s a relief. Changing the pipes is sure to cost a pretty centîme so I have French kissed my dreams of an uncarpeted wall goodbye. We won’t be able to afford both projects and I fear that lead trumps carpet.
This past year, I was tasked with finding us a new management company because ours was too far from home and a bit more expensive than the average. The hope was that more people would come to our annual meetings if they were held in our neighborhood. In any event, the turnouts couldn’t get worse.
I had targeted four companies within a 10 minute walking distance from our building and met with representatives from each of them. The first company I met with ended up being more expensive than our current company so they were out. The man at the second company wore a bright red suit to our meeting. Uh…no. The guy at the third company came to the building to meet me, which I thought was a nice touch. The fourth company just didn’t seem to care.
In my mind, company Number 3 was the obvious (and cheapest) choice, but careful not to be the autocratic ruler I elected myself to be, I had to consult with the two other members of our condo board. They were mostly silent members. The fees involved with these companies are quite complex as are the services they provide so in order to help my two neighbors easily compare and contrast the four proposals, I spent hours creating a spreadsheet. Luc and I had them over on a Sunday afternoon and I was dismayed when they barely looked over their spreadsheets. They absent-mindedly listened to what I had to say and agreed to go with company Number 3. I realized that they wanted someone to decide for them, and like any good dictator I played the role well. With the dirty business out of the way, they then went on to discuss equally important matters — gossip about people who don’t even live in the building anymore. At that point, they might as well have thrown in a cat story.
A change in one’s management company happens during the annual homeowner association meetings. At this year’s meeting, held in our management company’s office, as usual, we had to vote against renewing their contract and then vote in favor of hiring company Number 3. Through a tireless lobbying effort, I managed to get enough neighbors to attend the meeting. Once the vote fell, the rep from our original company left her office and the person from Number 3 came in to finish the meeting with us. No, that wasn’t awkward.
Now that I’ve fired the cleaning lady and our management company, I’m setting my sights on my next target. The crazy neighbor seems like an obvious choice. I’m feeling confident about getting him evicted.