Expatriates, I’ve found, don’t necessarily get along. Meeting someone from home who’s navigating the same foreign country as you are can be a source of mutual suspicion or rivalry just as often as it’s a springboard to friendship. Other times, there’s only that superficial common ground to briefly stand on, making it all the more apparent you likely would have nothing to do with one another back on native soil.

But then there are those moments that you do find a fellow expat, someone you wish you’d known back home before you left for this new place, and the person can become a long-lost life raft.

The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine. I bought copies of Le Monde and the Herald Tribune at a kiosk and climbed the stairs to my new office on the Champs-Elysées. For three hours, I mugged at a laptop, trying to figure out how the e-mail system worked. My fingers were chattering. I spent long, spacey minutes trying to find the @ key. They’d given me a keyboard mapped for French speakers, with the letters switched around.

For the rest of the day, strangers approached and handed me folders, speaking to me in French while I panicked inside. A sentence would begin slow, with watery syncopation, then accelerate, gurgling until it slammed into an ennnnnnh, or an urrrrrrrr, and I’d be expected to respond.

We moved to Shanghai on a wintry day in March, my husband and I and our two dogs. We arrived for a job, sight unseen, and bedded down in a swank hotel on the company’s dime while the dogs were quarantined and we went apartment hunting. The company had provided us a relocation specialist, whose job it was to pick us up at our hotel thirty minutes before scheduled and midway through our buffet breakfast, then hurry us into a waiting car where we would drive back and forth through the grey, freezing sleet answering questions like, “Do you think it is necessary that you have both dogs?”

We spent several days searching through a variety of spiritless and expensive flats, whose grandiosity came in two flavors: Opulent Court of the Sun King or Decadent Sultan of the Orient. Did we see ourselves as more marble-cupids-and-crystal-swans-type people? Or more carved-wooded-dragons-and-enamel-phoenixes? Either way, the agent was at our disposal. She did have some suggestions, though.

What all the apartment buildings had in common was that they were new. Stunningly new. Glossy and gleaming and in some cases, still wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding. When I mentioned that I might like to have a second look at one place, with carved wooden moldings and a cozy window seat, the agent spat, “But it’s five years old!” in much the tone you might use to say, “But it’s full of centipedes!”

I was thoroughly charmed by a small, modern nook furnished from floor to ceiling with IKEA products, all of which still bore their original price tags and labels, creating the effect of simply moving into an IKEA showroom. Even the posters on the wall were mounted in their original shrink-wrap, their non-committal BILD label obscuring the last few watercolor daffodils in the lower-right-hand corner.

In the end, we decided on an apartment on the 29th floor of the Century Metropolis building, a compound as endearing for its ample green spaces and generous views as its comic book name. The Chinese name of our building, optimistically, is “the Oriental Manhattan.” Our building is one of dozens in our compound, each housing thousands of residents in a ring of 30-story towers covered in bathroom tile under the easily-disproven assumption that tiles are “self-cleaning.”

The apartment came decorated in a style I like to think of as “Apathetic Modern.” It appeared as is someone got tired of carrying furniture down the hall about halfway through and thought, “Minimalism.” We had a glass dining room table, a quirkily asymmetrical end table, and the ugliest sofa you have ever seen. It may not have been lovely, but everything was gleaming new and clean. Not a spot anywhere. Everything worked, every time, no fuss, no bugs, nothing. New might not be much to look at, but it’s easy to live with.

Of course, there was some trouble. We would often come down to find a posted notice in the lobby that began, in English, “IMPORTANT MESSAGE! MUST READ!” and then followed with the body of the warning written exclusively in Chinese. The few signs we could decipher made casual mention of the risk of fireworks setting our balcony clotheslines on fire, of plummeting satellite dishes from the upper floors, and of the terrible poisons regularly sprayed throughout the building’s charming green spaces. Still, we had one easy year. Then everything, quite literally, came crashing down.

We had chosen a place in Xujiahui, a riotous commercial neighborhood southwest of the graceful old French concession and an ever-growing collection of shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and real estate offices. One street a few blocks from our apartment now runs real estate office-massage parlor-real estate office-massage parlor, right on down the avenue until it’s capped at last by a bank on the corner, a handy encapsulation of new Shanghai. We picked Xujiahui because of its proximity to the subway and more importantly, to the company shuttle stop that finds my husband every morning at seven sharp ready to be carried forty-five minutes southwest into the digital suburbs, to great swathes of land where Dell, Microsoft, and Intel are colonizing former rice paddies and steel mills. We came to know and love our neighborhood, from the combination barbecued duck and pirate DVD store across the street to the Abusive Flower Vendor who would hurl invective every evening at us, his best customers.

You can find our apartment compound just a tad west of the Xujiahui intersection, a collection of colossal steel towers and LEDS blinking out “Welcome to the Terrifying World of Tomorrow” in colored lights. You can have coffee at the Starbucks perched beside a giant glass sphere ringed in orange rope lights and look down on the manic Sunday shopping crowds who cover every inch of sidewalk, undeterred by snow, wind, or rain, to watch noisy demonstrations of various up-and-coming digital products. There is a constantly changing parade of live demos, video billboards, product pavilions, costumed mascots, and picketers. The first time I saw a line of shouting students marching through the crowds with picket signs hoisted over their shoulders, I thought I was witnessing a rare example of overt Chinese political protest. Turns out, the signs were advertising a sale on Hewlett Packard printers.

Almost all the buildings in Xujiahui are new or at least tricked out to pass as new. The pace of construction in Shanghai has already provoked a lot of breathless commentary in America and abroad but it’s still something you have to see to believe it. There are cranes and work crews everywhere, and the nights are lit up with the welding arcs that glimmer beneath my living room window at night. Everything is very thrown together, impromptu and impermanent. Contractors, developers, and speculators here know that whatever goes up today will come down tomorrow. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and boutiques may have less than a month between the opening party and the wrecking ball, so there’s not much point in squaring every nail. The expatriates here, too, their lives and commitments are rushed and temporary. For me, living in a furnished apartment had a temporary feeling. Why should I bother to clean the awful sofa when next month I might be gone, and the sofa, and maybe the whole tower, gone too? No, none of these things were exactly built for the ages, but after living in a lot of ragged places in the U.S. and elsewhere, I was getting used to sleek efficiency.

And then, like Cinderella after the ball, at the stroke of one year, everything fell apart. It was another March night, a year since we’d moved to Shanghai. I turned down my street, past the Abusive Flower Vendor’s cart. Tonight his daughter was manning the cart. She is sullen, but not abusive. I passed four or five security guards helping to wave a Lexus into a narrow parking space. I got to the door at the same time as a group of three maintenance workers in matching blue coveralls. They asked to be let in, but with my limited Chinese I couldn’t figure out why. Once inside they rushed to the bathroom and began busying themselves with my toilet.

“What are you doing?” I asked, and couldn’t understand the reply. “The toilet is not broken.”

I called my building manager and put him on the phone to translate.

“They’ve come,” he said, “to take your toilet.”

“To take my toilet?”

“Yes. They will try to bring it back in four hours. Maybe tomorrow.”

That was only the beginning of the problem. The weather turned warm, then hot. The air conditioner poured buckets of filthy water onto our ugly sofa.

I came home soon after to find the apartment dark and sweltering. The dogs were lying on the badly soiled sofa in pools of drool, the windows were covered over with mist, the flowers on the table wilting from their vase. The air conditioner wasn’t on. I was so upset to find my cool, orderly apartment turned suddenly steaming and primeval that I didn’t notice at first that nothing else was on either. No power. I called the building manager.

Meiyou dian!” I exclaimed. “No electricity!”

An electrician came to the apartment, unlocked our wiring closet, and uncovered a jumble of dangerously inadequate wiring with several small smoking explosions in the switchbox. He hastily taped together a makeshift solution which he himself deemed “very dangerous!” and promised to return tomorrow with a safer one. We never saw him again.

The electricity would be a perennial problem, but not the only one. When the electricity worked, the water didn’t. For four days we were without hot water, and had to trek across the town to shower at the newer home of a gracious friend. The drains didn’t drain. The water cooler developed a steady, pooling leak. A friend put one too many coats on our coat rack at a house party and the whole tower came tumbling down, scattering splinters of wood into every corner. The kitchen door wouldn’t open; the closet door wouldn’t close. One early morning we awoke to a crash as the dining room light fixture exploded in heat and came shattering down onto the glass table below. The clothesline fell. My built-in desk began a process of slow collapse, punctuated by the occasional outburst. When I pulled open a drawer to get a pen, the bottom of the drawer fell out. The bathroom was overrun with mildew. Mosquitoes bred in the shower drains and circled the house while we slept. The bank of elevators that served our tower began to rear, plummet, and stall. We kept track of which elevators that week were safe and which iffy, but we used the iffy ones, too, just the same. Then it was winter again and the heater didn’t work. We wore knit hats to bed. Now I understood what the agent meant: everything was old. Maybe it would be better to just tear it down and start again?

At least Cinderella was recycling. When midnight had come and gone, she lost her coach but at least she gained back a pumpkin. After two and a half years in China we moved away: where did all my shattered light fixtures and soiled sofa cushions end up? Is my compound still there? There are still plenty of investors in Shanghai, developers, speculators, and residents who haven’t had their midnight moment yet. Not everyone has noticed the expiration date stamped on the city, on its exuberance, on the wild life there. Be warned, new renters, and maybe invest in a space heater now.

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.”