In 2007, Rosecrans Baldwin was offered a job with an ad agency in Paris, and he and his wife made the move to France from Brooklyn. In this excerpt from Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down, his new (and very funny) memoir about the experience, he goes on a search for an apartment.
Three weeks later, I returned to Paris to find an apartment. The agency provided me with an HR representative and a real-estate agent to show me around. Extremely generous of them, I thought. We saw eleven apartments in nine hours. The agent was serious about her business. She rarely smiled, driving us in her small Peugeot. The HR rep was friendlier, with peachy skin and a high, screwy laugh. All day long, we crisscrossed the city, and I could barely keep track of the neighborhoods, the arrondissements.
Back in Brooklyn, I’d spent hours reviewing apartment listings on websites for expats. The descriptions were dreamy and confusing:
Exclusive EXCLUSIVITY: Magnificent studio. Totally re-newed, last floor, sight loosened on Paris. Beautiful room to be lived, with U.S.-equipped cooking (oven, patches, refrigerator). Public prosecutor’s department. Very bril- liant: several windows. SdE with wc. Close any conveniences. Immediate availability. To seize!
The first apartment was above a farmer’s market near the Sorbonne, on the Left Bank. The location was Paris Magnificent. Many cheesemongers nearby, booksellers, and tabacs. It was the area known as the home of Sartre and Hemingway, the old boys you saw on postcards for €2.25. We waited for ten minutes to be let into the building, and the agent checked email on her smartphone. A lot, I thought, had happened since the days of Hemingway. Luke Skywalker had happened. Supermarkets happened. Hip-hop happened and Joan Didion happened. Email happened. More relevant to Paris, there was 1968 and Les Halles razed, there were Mitterand’s grand projets and Serge Gainsbourg buried in Montparnasse.
The landlord arrived and we climbed upstairs, where the apartment did not reflect the Left Bank’s glory. It reflected us. It was a 1970s party pit and the owner had gone in for mirroring. Walls in the bedroom were mirrored. The headboard was mirrored and cabinets were mirrored. The breakfast bar would be good for doing cocaine.
“Do you like it?” the agent asked in French.
“Ce n’est pas terrible,” I said, focusing on my annunciation.
She said, “What would you prefer to see?”
I glanced at a pair of chairs upholstered in red leopard. I did not want to seize them.
“S’il vous plait,” I said slowly, “moins des chaises des animaux?
“Merci beaucoup,” I added.
The next two apartments were under construction. A fourth apartment, north of the Luxembourg Gardens on a demure, quintessential Parisian street, was all green. Green walls, green drapes, green furniture. Kitchen appliances in avocado. The only thing that wasn’t green (the doorknobs were green) was in the bedroom, behind a chair: a large trompe l’oeil painting of women’s lingerie hanging on knobs.
We were in a Folies Bergère dressing room.
“Not bad,” said the agent. The HR representative agreed and went close to admire the work. The agent saw my face. “Wait, we’re in Paris,” she said. “It is creative, the capital of creative. Americans love this.”
“Je suis d’accord,” I said. “… Peut-être moins créatif?”
Before we moved on, the HR rep said, “We thought you were creative.”
Rue de Harlay. Sauf Accès Parc. Interdit. Honestly, even the street signs were nourishment; I was in a mood to drive around Paris all day long. First we went for lunch on Ile de la Cité, one of the islands on the Seine, where Paris had begun. The agent took us to Place Dauphine, behind Pont Neuf. We occupied a sidewalk table. The sun was so close we could have plucked it.
Just unbelievable, the idea I’d be living there soon.
The women required two minutes to confirm they would order different plates of charcuterie, then came wine selection:
“You think a Sancerre?”
“Oh no, not a Sancerre.”
“No. Stupid of me.”
“What about rosé?”
“But a good rosé.”
“Yes, yes, a good rosé, it would be perfect. From where, though?”
“Ah, Aix . . .”
The next apartment, a loft nearby, was across the street from La Conciergerie, a fortress from the Middle Ages that once had been the “antechamber to the guillotine.” The stairs we climbed were centuries old, tacky with black mold.
“Ah, the charm,” the agent sighed. She paused on a landing for the HR representative to agree. The HR rep nodded, breathless from the climb.
Inside, I shielded my eyes, the loft was so bright. The apartment was wild. Windows overlooking Notre Dame’s gargoyles, showing the Seine flowing east and west. Sight loosened on Paris. The bathroom was all marble; it had a bathtub with a view and river breezes. And the rent, the agent said, was nothing.
Unfortunately, the apartment was about the size of the agent’s car.
“Yes, it’s too small,” she said, patrolling the room in about four steps. “You will hit your head. And you are bringing your wife. You will need space.”
The agent stopped dead next to the bathtub. Both of us took in the view of Notre Dame’s spires. The agent tugged up her suede boots and said she had an idea.
“Listen,” she confided, “now suppose you want to have an affair. Men in Paris… Just remember this place. It would be perfect for that.”
The HR woman said, “The size would be just right.”
She was sitting on the bed, patting the duvet. She smiled at me, blinked behind her glasses, and laughed. She said in English, “Nice bed, hey?”
Rosecrans Baldwin‘s debut novel, You Lost Me There, was named one of NPR’s Best Books of 2010, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and a Time and Entertainment Weekly best book of summer 2010. He is a cofounder of The Morning News.