The first apartment that I seriously considered leasing in Paris was a seven-story walk-up. I thought it would be great exercise. A pain the first time with my suitcases, but you could see Sacre Cœur from my window, three miles away. In a city as flat as Paris, it seemed as close as I could get to a mountaintop view.
My mother, much wiser and better versed in city living, had a different initial reaction. Do you know any of the neighbors? Well, no. Are there fire escapes? No, they don’t really seem to have those in Paris. What happens if you come home late at night and have to climb seven flights of stairs by yourself? Is the building safe? What about the street? OK, fair points. I didn’t take the apartment.
Apartments in Paris are notoriously expensive and difficult to find, especially for students. As an international student without a French guarantor, my options were even slimmer. Many of the “studios” advertised in Paris are chambres de bonnes, the attic rooms that used to be reserved for the maids when French apartment buildings were the residences of Paris’ bourgeoisie. The typical chambre de bonne is about 30 square feet, and I couldn’t even stand up straight in several I visited. For $450 per month, you can find a chambre de bonne with a bathroom sur le palier — in the hallway, shared with your neighbors. For your own bathroom, it can be upwards of $600, and closer to $800 if you’re looking for a particularly nice neighborhood. Ah, adulthood.
Luckily, I was able to sublease an apartment from a friend of an acquaintance of my mother (it really is who you know). In my first real apartment, I even had a separate bedroom from my living room and a washing machine. No dryer because this is Paris after all, but still. What luxury.
Old Parisian apartment buildings are full of quirks. My building’s stairs form an aesthetically pleasing spiral, but they’re significantly slanted to the right. On separate occasions, both my father and I slipped down an entire flight.
When my boss needed a burst pipe replaced in her apartment, she and her husband discovered that they had lead pipes. Apparently this is concernedly common in Paris, even in the 21st century. It makes the lack of garbage disposals seem trivial.
I’m not sure what material the pipes in my apartment are made of, but the hot water is rather capricious. In the kitchen, if you turn the pipe even slightly right (yes, the opposite direction of normal households), the water is scalding. In contrast, hot water in the shower lasts approximately four minutes in the morning and two in the evening, if you’re lucky.
Warm water may be short-lived, but my shower drain serves a dual purpose. It amplifies the music playing in my neighbor’s apartment, so the French rap and dubsteps that he plays at all hours of the day comes into my bedroom with resounding clarity. And I do really mean all hours — 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. A few weeks ago, he started playing Dua Lipa and Rihanna at 5 a.m. I really am curious what he does for a living (and during what hours).
Ovens are another appliance that simply do not exist in one-person apartments in Paris. In the past few months, I have become quite adept at two-burner stovetop cooking. My apartment came with one pan and one pot, and I wasn’t inclined to buy anything as I had to move at the end of the semester anyway.
I took it as a creative challenge. I steam asparagus with my colander. If I want to sautée something that needs to be covered, I use the lid from my pot. It’s almost big enough. As a result, approximately 80 percent of my dinner meals cooked at home consist of some form of stir fry. Easy assemblage and easy clean up. At least I never had to do a lot of dishes, which is a bonus considering the dishwasher is non-existent.
No matter the weather, I have to open every window in my apartment and light multiple candles, including an “anti-cooking smells” one, whenever I turn on the stove. My apartment still regularly smells like soy sauce. The one time I decided to be super domestic and make my own bone broth, my apartment smelled like chicken soup for a week. So did all my clothes that were line drying in my living room. They really should put a disclaimer on some of those recipes: While making your own broth is often simpler and cheaper than a store-bought version, proceed with caution if your kitchen doubles as your living room/dining room/laundry room/office. Maybe I should write a cookbook.
Space is certainly a luxury in this city. I just moved out of my first apartment, bidding farewell to its idiosyncrasies and fabulous location. All I can say is that I’m ready for a summer of Colorado mountain adventures and open space. I’d even be happy to cook with a camping stove every night as a trade-off