Monday, September 15, 2008

Our House, In the Middle of the Street

It's been over two weeks since the last update: That's about how long I've been in our new place, and about how long I've been without my own internet connection... apologies for the delay.

It's with absolutely no sadness that we moved out from our last (and final) temporary apartment. Sure, we'll miss how utterly colorful it is, how friendly the shopkeepers around us always were, and the easy access to cheap ethnic food. But we won't miss the five flights of stairs, the utter lack of space, and what we've decided should be called The Worst Sofa Bed in the World. As in a proper noun. Because it won that title handily.

If we do feel like taking a stroll down Memory Lane, however, the old 'hood is only about five minutes away... This made moving in very simple. So did the fact that we had very little to bring with us. Which meant that our poor little new apartment was very, very empty.

On the upside, we live in what should be is known as The Coolest Neighborhood in Paris. Just north of the dead center of town is the 2nd arrondissement - the city's smallest - much of it cris-crossed by pedestrianized streets made of cobblestone. The neighborhood oozes the kind of charm you'd typically only see in movies, but thankfully isn't infested by tourists and loud-talking expats like the nearby Marais, where trendy, overpaid Americans are gentrifying a formerly charming, traditionally Jewish/gay neighborhood.  In fact, the relocation guides and expat survival manuals don't even mention our neighborhood, unless it's to mention that it's dead and nothing goes on here, instead directing them straight to the Marais.  Either they're trying to keep things cool, or the expat community here is as unhip as I've always suspected...

No matter. I avoid hanging out with fellow Yanks as much as possible. Except for the one I'm married to, of course. After seven months of marriage, we finally have what we can consider our own home. We're renters, mind you, but we co-habitated maybe a grand total of 12 days before tying the knot, then started the cycle of moving from temporary to temporary like a pair of well-heeled vagabonds. Actually having our own place and making it ours is a new adventure.

The apartment is a triplex, which means it's a three-story unit. Of course, it's a very tiny three-story place (officially only 30 sq.m or 320 sq.ft), with each floor being almost half the typical height (just over six feet), sets of stairs on either side of the place, and tall windows running up along the front of it.  We decided immediately to name it... The Antfarm!

After sleeping on The Worst Sofa Bed in the World for 3.5 weeks, the prospect of sleeping on the wooden floor of the bedroom didn't sound very appealing. We'd already ordered a bed weeks before, but delivery wouldn't happen for a couple more days.  Fortunately, I'd budgeted a huge amount of money for furnishing the place (we sold most of ours in the US), so I was ready to throw down a good chunk for a sofa bed for the living room. We could sleep on that for a few days, no problem...  Even more fortunately, before we were internet-challenged, Alannah had found the sofa I fell in love with at Habitat for over 1000€ less on Craigslist...  

And most fortunate of all, I had a buddy in town on business who was so bored, he helped us move it!  Six flights of stairs (four down, two up), a few crushed appendages, six blocks of pushing an upright couch on a furniture dolly through Parisian traffic, and about five hundred confused-onlooker stares later, we were the proud owners of a couch The Heaviest Sofa Bed in the World. Josh and his wife are now permanently invited to come stay with us anytime they want to come to Paris.

With no idea when our furnitureless shipment of belongings will finally be delivered, an empty apartment, and a lot of time on her hands, Alannah has gotten really good at something: Shopping.

I kid. And I want to make it crystal clear that Alannah's not some shopping-machine housewife, joining some "Ladies Who Lunch" club and spending our single income into oblivion. If anything, she's much more sensible than I am when it comes to the household finances, and she's only been buying what we've agreed is necessary. Or awesome.

I've joked around that she's following the footsteps of Julia Child - marrying, moving to France because of her husband's job, getting to know the same places - and sometimes it really does seem to be the case. As Ms. Child did many years ago, Alannah has now befriended the staff at nearby E. Dehillerin, Paris' ultimate restaurant/cooking store. Every time we walk by there, I ask her, "Do you want to go see your dealer?" referring to the stacks and stacks of culinary goodness within. But as much as she loves kitchen implements (as do I) she has been remarkably restrained, and only purchased a few things. Luckily, I'm at the office all day when these magical cooking places of the old Les Halles area are open, for I'd probably be bankrupting us on copper-core pots and whiz-bang gadgets. 

Besides high-quality kitchen goodies, she's (we've) found another addiction: Power tools.  

The French term bricolage refers to do-it-yourself, and a DIY junkie is called a bricoleur. Paris is chock-full of bricoleurs. In a city with sky-high rents, you'd think apartments would come equipped... but they don't. They're typically just a shell waiting to be filled, improved, renovated, and - by the end of your three year lease - made livable. 

Knowing that we'd be doing a lot of bricolage, Alannah started bringing home power tools as though adopting puppies to save them from being put to sleep. And I love her all the more for it.  A Dremel, a cordless drill, a cordless sander, a cordless jigsaw... She's indulging my fantasy of being a younger, better-looking Bob Villa, and our place is rapidly becoming a home because of it.

We've now spent a small fortune at Leroy-Merlin (the European equivalent of Home Depot) and BHV (the glitzy Right Bank department store that happens to have the most amazing hardware selection in the world), rationalizing that with a shit-ton of tools and hardware, we can build anything. Instead of buying everything, we'll do much better in the long run being able to make things ourselves. "Teach a man to fish..." You get the picture.

And thus began our first weekend of bricolage. Project I: Mounting the TV.

Huh? What TV? Considering the insane amount of money we saved by buying our sofa via Craigslist, I determined there was room enough in our budget to buy a big TV. And big TVs need to be mounted on walls.

So, as opposed to partying the night away, Saturday evening was spent firing up the drill, marking up the wall above the mantle, and putting up a TV wall mount. I hope the TV outlives its extended warranty, because this sucker ain't moving. I was wondering, when I bought my box full of drill bits, why each set comes with more masonry bits than anything else. That's because Parisian walls are generally either stone or plaster, with the occasional petrified beam of wood that's older than the United States. For example, our building dates back to at least the 18th Century, and is on a street named after a baker... in the 14th Century. This pretty much guarantees that I will almost never be dealing with drywall or 2x4s ever again. Anyway, a building so old and beautiful deserves a TV as elegant and timeless in design. Needless to say, we'll be eating macaroni and cheese for dinner for the rest of the month. Or really cheap noodles in Japantown, which is how we rewarded ourselves for a job well done that night.

Sunday morning called for an early rise, so we could run over to Galeries Lafayette's "Maison" store to beat the crowds and get a jump on the rare sale prices on designer household goods there. The object of my desire: A Miele vacuum cleaner, marked down to less than the price of a sucktacular (pun intended) Hoover.

The lady and I have joked about it many times - that like Will Ferrell in Old School, marriage has emasculated me. To quote the film "Well, um, actually a pretty nice little Saturday, we're going to go to Home Depot. Yeah, buy some wallpaper, maybe get some flooring, stuff like that. Maybe Bed Bath and Beyond... I don't know if we'll have enough time." Habitual readers of this blog will probably agree. "Where's all the fun stuff about being abroad?" you may ask. "What happened to partying all night with Latinas and a liquid breakfast with Scandinavian blondes?"

To which I say... things are still hotter abroad. Especially the electricity.

Unlike the pussy-ass US and Japan and much of the "New World," electricity runs at 240V here, double the voltage in the aforementioned nations of wussdom. It's enough to stop your heart with a single, well-placed jolt, so it's extremely important to be extra judicious with any electrical projects.

Take, for example, the installation of a lighted medicine cabinet (which itself has an auxiliary power outlet for plugging in appliances like hair dryers or curling irons - if you're into that sort of thing). This is the next task we undertook on Sunday, hoping to fill the ugly, empty area that was heretofore occupied by our travel toiletries bags. At first, this was not unlike mounting the TV the night before. Some measuring, drilling of supports... In fact, this was much easier, because instead of drilling into solid rock, it was only several centimeters of plaster. After all, there's a bunch of electrical wiring running behind there. Needless to say, we shut off the circuit breaker while doing this work. The tricky part was the wiring itself. Stripping and stretching ancient wiring is no fun to begin with. And trying to screw it into a small junction box is still a bit stressful, even knowing full well that the power is shut off. Overall, though, it wasn't too difficult, and everything was hooked up and on the up-and-up for the final mounting. We proved this by turning the circuit breaker back on and lighting the puppy up. I started preparing to lift and mount the medicine cabinet by checking the wall mounts, the mounts on the cabinet itself, and the positioning of the electrical junc---BZZZZZZZZT! Fuck! God dammit! Ahh! Alannah dropped what she was doing to see if I was still alive. Somehow, despite pressing down on one of the metal contacts of the still very much open junction box, I wasn't dead, nor even knocked out.

"Actually, it's a cleaner burn than 110V," I told Alannah, assuring her that I'm ok. "It's a hell of a lot stronger, but it's... cleaner. My finger's not even burned." I theorized that it's like cutting yourself with a super sharp knife as opposed to an average knife - the cut is so powerful, it's cleaner and less painful.

Luckily, the circuit breaker did its job and popped, saving me from electrocution, and making the rest of the mounting process shock free. Undeterred by electric shock - and more encouraged by success - we moved on to the next project of this home improvement weekend.

Alannah and I both love to cook. The trouble with a French apartment kitchen, however, is that there's barely ever room for two people to cook together. Alannah had hatched up this grand dream - probably the day we first looked at the apartment back in July - for us to build a second countertop on the railing around our second-floor kitchen, hanging over the living room.

The logistics are a bit insane. The railing only provides two sides upon which we could rest a four-sided counter, one heavy enough to withstand rapid-fire chopping of vegetables, the pounding of cutlets, and the kneading of dough. We went through almost every little fastener and bracket in the hardware store, trying to figure out how to best mount this thing. Eventually, we figured out an elaborate rigging system that would require a bit of engineering and physics and steel cable suspension (no, really), and the purchase of a big, heavy piece of solid wood.

But sometimes things are just serendipitous. The other night, while taking one of our late walks, Alannah noticed a huge abandoned piece of butcher block, about the same size as her dream countertop. This is the benefit of living on a street with no less than 22 restaurants. Occasionally, one gets rid of its stuff. When activity died down on the street, we went into scavenger mode and procured this wondrous piece of wood. It had a few stains here and there, but nothing that couldn't be removed with a bit of refinishing.

Having had enough of me monopolizing the new power tools, Alannah went at it with the orbital sander, making the surface almost smooth and shiny as new. I used a jigsaw and the Dremel to create the notch that would tightly fit around the corner finial of the railing the counter would be resting upon. I planned on drilling holes to create eyelets for the suspension cable (which would then be fastened to the petrified wood beams of the ceiling) to keep the floating corner... floating. But once we did a test fitting, everything rested so perfectly - and the wood is so solid - that the suspension would amount to unnecessary gimmickry. It would look cool and post-modern, but it would really serve no purpose. So the only work left to be done would be to put lips around the edges (so things don't roll off into the living room below) and screw the countertop into the custom supports we devised from beneath... Et voila! An extra 11 square feet of counter space.

I woke up this morning in pain. My shoulders aching, my back wrenched, and my hands feeling as though I'd actually done an honest day's work. It was rewarding. Oddly enough, we woke up late Saturday morning feeling much the same way, before any of this work had actually begun. Then I remembered that on Friday night, we loaded up on many caipirinhas at the bar downstairs (who host a hoppin' transvestite night, by the way) polished off a couple of bottles of red back at ours upstairs, and while getting ready to go see Miss Kittin, I realized there's no way I'd be able to stay vertical the entire four block walk to the club.

See, kids, I've still got it. I may be a bit more focused on procuring power tools and building tables than chasing thrills in far-off lands, but I can still get smashed in a tranny bar and live to tell about it.


  1. i love apartments with crazy floor plans. i take places that end up being cheaper because they're crazy, and no sane person would live there. f'rinstance, i am moving this weekend to a new apartment. sure, the kitchen has about 5 sq.ft. of counter space, and NO hanging cabinetry (but i have plans much like yours) but it does have a covered balcony, glasss french doors with built-in shelves on either side, and a walk-in closet big enough for a la-z-boy, so i win.

    free...butcher...block. if that isn't an advertisement to move to paris, i don't know what is.


  2. dude. this is incredible on so many levels.

    first of all, AWESOME apartment. you are living the 'bohemian' parisian lifestyle that i've only read about in books.

    second of all, way to go with all the bricolage. truly amazed at yours and alannah's motivation and determination to get this done. kinda makes me wish i was that handy.

    third of all, amazing job with the cutting board hanging over the loft. i can't believe you guys thought of that.

    fourth of all, seriously i want to come visit, do restaurants, indulge in all the great pleasures, and stockholm, although maybe not as adventurous is always open to you.

    congrats on finally getting settled in.

  3. Exactly, Micah! Actually, the odball setup of this apartment is a) why we can even afford to live in this neighborhood, and b) why we love the place so much. Unfortunately, walk-in closets are rarer here than deodorant.

    Free butcher block rules. If this becomes a regular occurrence, I'll give you a shout ;)

  4. Thanks Rommy! Hopefully once we're done bathing in sawdust, paint, and plaster of Paris, we'll have the BoBo (local slang for bourgeois bohemian) crash-pad of your dreams. Come on over ;)