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.

 

 

The Zohar on my shelf. What good
to a Roman Catholic? Some kind of atheist, I
dismember my altar. The last supper I ate
at home with my son across a vintage table,
its carcass discovered in an alley’s sunken doorway
years ago, one leg broken. Imagine wood glue.
Resurrection in a Venice Beach apartment. Now
I kick the legs out from under it, like the dog’s
arthritic bellyflop. It’s in my son’s face.
The morning it was euthanized. The meal
we won’t share here tonight. He laughs
the way kids laugh when they know
what lives four leagues under the sea,
glowing in the dark. Ridiculous, this grief.
Over a table (we play Scrabble. We drink water.
We open Christmas gifts. We read. Play cards. We
color Easter eggs. Blow out candles. We argue
over homework. Write in journals. Wear pajamas.
We mix batter for cinnamon muffins. We) feel
the wood is a tree. It’s not rotten like a human
corpse. Deranged, discarded, replaced
with emptiness. There is so much space
to create. I slide my futon mattress
into its new corner under the window.
Privacy. How strange. I show my son the image,
a hand-carved shoji screen from India,
made of teak. To hide my bed, make room for
guitars and an easel in the living room. Sex
in the dining room. Finally, the oddly situated
ceiling fan is centered over something.
It makes me laugh. More death.

Our apartment complex has a gathering area on the balcony. At the end of a second floor catwalk, there’s a BBQ and two picnic tables. When we moved in, I envisioned BBQ lunches and dinner parties. The area is meant for revelry. It’s used for littering.

After dark, the cherry red glow of cigarettes floats over the bannister up there. The next morning, evidence of burgers and drinks are scattered all over the pavement below. Jim Beam and coke cans, brown paper bags overstuffed with cheese encrusted containers and scores of cigarette butts are the filthy marks of selfish people.

The number of butts is staggering. Are they throwing them down like confetti? We want to say something, but then will one of us find ourselves walking to the car one evening only to stop and scream when a carefully discarded cigarette bites into the back of our neck?

We fear the burn of reprisal.

We walk through the apartment block in the middle of the day. We’re scared of being caught acting as concerned members of our little community.

We slip an A4 sheet of paper in each letterbox, skipping ours. Looking like it’s a normal, natural thing, but with sidelong glances to check for watchers. We talk quietly, wondering whether our letters will stop the vandalism.

Out the back, into the car-park, one of us stands watch nearby. The other tucks a piece of paper into a plastic pocket, then tapes it down on a small metal box that holds the security gate’s motor. There’s a hole in the box big enough to fit two hands. Cables are visible through the gap.

“Look at that. They must’ve left a hole so maintenance can reach in. Fuck, anyone could come and rip out whatever. Shit. That’s not a safety box. It’s a joke. Jesus.”

A car arrives, they look at us inquiringly. Maybe they broke the gate last time. One of us explains we’re letting everyone know how to open the security gate, and who they can call if they don’t have the PIN or a remote. We don’t tell them we did the letter drop.

We stay outside for an hour as the sun sets, hidden up the back of the car-park, sitting on the boot of our car, just in case someone tries to break the gate despite our sign and letters.

Two days later, the security gate is broken. The torn cables hang out of the box. This is the second time in two weeks.

I park my scooter in three different spots over the week.

One at the front of our car space, leaving our car’s rear sticking out. This space works well enough, but the boot sits three feet over the line. I worry we might block people in.

I try another one out on the road. I’m worried the scooter will get knocked down. I sit indoors watching the news, turning down riots in Cairo to listen for the bang and shatter of my bike hitting bitumen.

I try a third spot next to the entranceway, between a car space and the walkway into the centre of the apartment block. This feels safe. It feels out of the way. Who could possibly object?

The next morning, one of the rearview mirrors has been twisted all the way around. It faces forward, instead of to the rear.

Was this an accident? Did someone bump it? How could they knock it in a way that twists it 180°?

Was it deliberate? Was it a warning that this isn’t a good place to park my scooter? I look all around me, trying to spot the spying neighbour. No one. I consider myself warned.

Apartment living can be a terrifying series of subtle signals and hesitant interpretations. This is our space as much as it’s everyone else’s. None of us has any idea what the other is capable of. In a world of suicide bombings, anthrax envelopes and flash floods, it’s only natural to assume the worst.

Afraid to risk it, I park my scooter at the front of our space that night and forever after.

I was twenty-three years old and working at a dead-end job when my boyfriend, a graduate student, was offered a chance to do a semester abroad in Paris. This boyfriend spoke no French and had never been abroad, whereas I spoke some French and had spent one week in Paris the year before. This made me something of an expert. Not for nothing had I slogged through all sixteen French tenses in college, including those used to demarcate actions intended, actions completed, and fleeting actions long anticipated whose ultimate execution leaves you feeling strangely hollow.

The semester abroad came with a small stipend but nowhere to live and so it fell to me to find us an apartment to sublet. Every morning I combed the classifieds atop our tiny hotel bed and called every listing only to find the apartments already rented. Unfortunately, I was not making a very good first impression, confusing as I did the word l’annonce (which means “an advertisement”) with the word l’avertissement (which means “a warning”). This confusion would come to seem fateful.

I hardly remember the first weeks, considering all that would come later, except for the cold and the dwindling money, the sense of impending doom, the consistently bad water pressure. After days of costly phone calls, only one option remained. L’avertissement read:

5th, M. Jussieu. Flexible availability. 2 rooms, 26m2 furnished flat w/ bathtub, American kitchen, 800 €/m. 5-6 months.

(The “American kitchen” is local terminology for a studio-sized kitchen nook without proper counter space or an oven; in other words, small, like America.)

I called the landlord immediately.

“Bonjours, j’appelle au sujet de l’avertissement de immobiliers,” I began.

“HELLO?! DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? PARLEZ ANGLAIS? HELLO?”

“Oh, yes, hello, I speak English.”

“SO, YOU DO SPEAK ENGLISH? DO YOU? SPEAK ENGLISH? GOOD. THIS IS MARGUERITE DELUCA.”

(It’s important to note that while I will shortly abandon the practice of writing her words in all capital letters, Ms. Marguerite Deluca will in fact continue to speak in all capital letters. Every single word she says.)

Only a few hours later, I would find myself face to face with Ms. Marguerite Deluca.

Or Margaret Deluca, as she called herself both names indifferently. Marguerite was a mustachioed American woman of Armenian extraction, 70 years old, divorced. She had lived in Paris many years, but retained homes in the States and elsewhere. She was a “feminist,” by her own frequent labeling, and a “liberal,” though her political opinions seemed more like an amalgamation of personal grievances against celebrities (she loathed Madeleine Dietrich) and vague, incontrovertible assertions (she liked women, and the poor.)
Marguerite had decided to sublet her apartment in Paris for six months while she returned to the United States for a minor surgery. She had placed l’avertissement months before, but when I arrived that afternoon, she had not packed a single item or even booked a plane ticket—and she was still not sure she even was going. In the meantime, she was planning to go to Nice to “decompress.” (Marguerite spoke with a strange slang, combining the worst of many decades with her own irrepressible gusto and grating Boston accent. She might speak of something being “plastic,” then end a sentence with an enthusiastic “baby!” as in “We’re just working one day at a time, baby!”)
The coveted apartment had a front living room, a small bathroom, an incredibly American kitchen, and a separate bedroom. The building was graceful, lovely, and old. All the apartments had charming French windows with charming French shutters that made you feel like you were in that one Egoïste commercial.  However
Marguerite had saved every single item she had ever laid her hands on in the last twenty years. The filthy apartment was crammed with filthier garbage—spoiled food, mildew and mold, soiled underwear. It reeked of dust, urine, rotting wood, and that inexpressible but instantly recognizable smell of old person. Marguerite washed all her dishes in the bathtub. The bathtub was therefore encrusted not only with mold and grime, but with pieces of food. The bathroom shelf contained a Smithsonian exhibit on turn-of-the-century cosmetics: witch hazel languished next to lipstick still made with real whale blubber, while nail polish silently atrophied alongside safety razors that predated plastic and weighed 1.5 pounds each. Underneath the wretched sink, tubs of dirty dishes floated in their filmy water, propped up by a broken stool, a sopping wet piece of foam rubber, and two plastic tubs of assorted crap, all topped with the aforementioned soiled underwear.
The kitchen was a moldering closet piled high with unimaginable garbage. She had saved every food wrapper, every lid and jar. Piles of margarine tub lids—just lids—rubber-banded together. Half a dinner plate. The rest of the house was stuffed with magazines, newspaper clippings, clothing and shoes, linens, hats, plastic and paper bags, and just about every imaginable item, piled high on every surface, everywhere. There was an unwrapped bar of soap in the bed sheets; a jagged pane of broken glass; there were three conical piles of salt on the rug; there were rugs and posters stored flat between the mattress and box spring.
The rug was encrusted with every possible pollution. By her own admission, she never vacuumed it, preferring instead to sweep at it with an old dust broom. Once, she declared proudly, she had scrubbed the rug with hair shampoo from the bathroom.
Sometimes I put hair shampoo on it, to clean it. Instead of going to get carpet shampoo‘cuz how do you do that?!”
She then suggested I try “dyeing” the rug by pouring coffee on it.
We took the apartment.
Marguerite originally promised that we could move in on Sunday, then switched it to Wednesday. As Wednesday dawned, the new move-in date became Friday. And so it went, for weeks on end. Our budget depleted, we were forced to give up our hotel room and spend the interim days in a youth hostel, an experience like living in a homeless shelter, but without the free soup.

We spent our mornings assisting Marguerite with her excavations, running her errands, buying her croissants, carrying her packages, and taking her phone calls. Her dedicated pack of friends visited daily, crowding the apartment with boxes, trunks, and conflicting bits of advice. From time to time she would capture a young, guileless Canadian or Australian tourist and lure him back to our home to listen to her stories of Vietnam War protests and lovers lost.  All the while Marguerite fanned herself from her ragged folding chair, imparting bits of wisdom like, “Be careful what you drink. The other day I drank some soap, I thought it was olive oil.”

Our evenings were spent out roaming the streets, buying time away from the insufferable backpackers with whom fate had bound us, half a dozen not-so-young world travelers wrapped in filthy North Face polar fleece, ambling through one of the world’s most fashionable cities looking like it was laundry day at forestry school.

Weeks passed; at last we were installed in the apartment, paying regular rent, and still the recipients of regular visits from Marguerite. We had simply exchanged places, and now it was she who was staying at the Young and Happy youth hostel down the street. She still came over in the mornings, always without a call or an invitation, to “pack” for America. She would plop down in her broken wicker chair and tell me, “You can just start the water for some tea, and there are tea bags in the kitchen.”

And then, with a lordly gesture, “You can just take these suitcases next door.”

And what did Marguerite pack in these suitcases for her excursion back to the youth hostel? A duffel bag full of instant soup and moldy tangerines she had dug out of her own trash can.  “They’ll be alright if you peel them.”

Her last night in Paris, Marguerite arrived with a confused-looking young man in tow.  This handsome German boy was staying at Young and Happy with Marguerite bullied him into carrying some boxes to our apartment for her.  He came in, set the boxes down with the utmost care, and stood awkwardly in the corner, trying to figure out how long he was obligated to stay.

It was time for l’avertissement.

I led him quickly down the stairs and whispered to him in stilted German, “Whatever you do, avoid Marguerite.  Really, you must flee from her.”

“I think she is crazy.”

At that point, Marguerite threw a pair of boots down three flights of stairs.  One landed within inches of my head.

“Jesus!” I shouted in English.  “Why did you agree to follow her here?”

He replied honestly and a little sadly, with his halting accent, “I didn’t know where I was going.”

I escorted him back through the cobbled courtyard.

“Why do you stay here?” he asked me.

“Because this is the only apartment left in Paris.”