“Pee in this cup.”
The stern doctor sat behind the desk in her dim beige office, under-illuminated by a metal desk lamp fitted with a bulb that cast a dull glow over everything and seemed to have been last changed when De Gaulle was president. She handed me a paper receptacle that felt like it was made of newsprint and averted her eyes--somewhat.
It had been eight exasperating months since I’d signed the first promesse de vente and finally, I was close to the day when I would sign the acte de vente, the deed to my apartment in Paris. Or as time-pressed Parisians shorten it: l’appart.
And here I was. The last acte I had to do was . . . just . . . relax . . . Which, considering the circumstances--being vaguely scrutinized by a doctor while standing in the middle of her cabinet, anxiously trying to fill a paper cup that threatened to crumple in my free hand--is not an easy task.
Maybe if I’d had a grand café crème beforehand . . . or better yet, a big glass of rosé, I thought, while she--and I--waited for me to breathe a shudder of relief, so she could go home and I could get the final approval on my bank loan. We were in the same position (well, not literally), waiting for the same thing. She’d already taken a blood sample and rigorously checked my vital signs to make sure I was in the bonne santé required by the French bank to approve my mortgage.
I’d applied for a few mortgages before, in the United States, but a medical screening had never been part of the approval process. I was puzzled, until a banker explained it to me: “Monsieur Lebovitz, we don’t want you to die.” Which was something I couldn’t disagree with--they wanted confirmation that I would live long enough to pay for the place. (Later I learned that they had good reason to worry, because that almost didn’t happen.) I urgently needed to complete this final task before they’d release the funds for the loan and I could finally take possession of the apartment I’d spent years looking for.
Ever since my arrival in Paris a decade earlier, I had been living in a charming chambre de bonne, one of the minuscule top-floor apartments tucked just under the curving roof of a blocky yet regal Haussmannian building in the Bastille quarter of Paris. Chambres de bonne are single rooms where the maids (les bonnes) once lived. Nowadays, they’re sought after by Parisians because they are often the cheapest places to buy, especially the ones in buildings without elevators. (Which is why you rarely see Parisians needing to engage in the unsightly spectacle of le jogging--although I’d recently spotted one woman running in the Tuileries, doing her laps in espadrilles.) Other advantages are the spectacular views, and best of all, there are no neighbors in heels clomping around above you.
In Paris, the more high-strung the woman, the higher the heels, which I know from firsthand experience. And not just from one of the many narrow misses I’ve had with them playing the Parisian version of “chicken” (not sure if they call it poulet . . .) on the sidewalks to see who will move first. (I’ve learned that holding a baguette and swinging it parallel to the ground, just below waist level, gets anyone you’re up against to move first.) But because there was one living below me who was so hyperactive that I could hear her racing around at all hours--most often between one and four thirty in the morning, when her heels resonated so loudly that the noise woke me up a full floor above her.
Another thing that made it hard to sleep in that apartment was the weather, though I didn’t mind staying awake, listening to the pounding thunderstorms that lash down on Paris. The pelting rain in the fall and winter drowned out the traffic noises on the busy boulevard below and would eventually soothe me to sleep. But come summer, sleeping--or doing anything else--became impossible, as the temperatures soared under the zinc roof (which I lived directly beneath) to as high as 110ºF. The only upside was that I had a lot of premelted chocolate always on hand.
The chambres de bonne were built to house the help, so were intentionally Spartan. The apartments didn’t have kitchens and some had separate back staircases so the domestics could discreetly slip into the family’s apartment without having to pass through the front door. Bathrooms were shared Turkish toilets in the hallways. So next time you’re in Paris and lusting over a rooftop apartment listed in a real estate agency window, check to see if there is a bathroom . . . and an elevator, unless you don’t mind climbing up seven flights of stairs. More and more of the buildings do have elevators now, but many still share one bathroom with everyone else on the floor. (And speaking of floors, they’re often Turkish toilets, which consist of a hole in the floor with two places to stand your ground.) Fortunately, my landlord had previously lived in the apartment, so I wasn’t sharing any bathrooms, which was good for my neighbors considering the length of time it was taking for me to finalize my real estate transaction. Sure, the chambres de bonne are charming, or “cozy,” as they’d say in American real estate lingo, but most are just a single room, 200 to 300 square feet (18 to 28 square meters), or roughly the size of an American kitchen.
I tried to buy the apartment I had been living in, because it was incredibly well situated. My place had been joined with another chambre next door, so I actually had two rooms, which made all my other friends who lived in a chambre de bonne (singular) jealous. It also had a phone booth–size elevator that I took for granted--until it broke. I was crammed in there when it malfunctioned, and barely managed to crook my elbow to lift the emergency phone to my ear to call the elevator company. Eventually, someone picked up, but the woman on the other end told me to call back in two hours because all the repair people were at lunch. Then she hung up. I broke the door to get out, which I didn’t get punished for, but walking up seven flights of stairs for the next four months was definitely punishment enough.
The apartment was in the Bastille, a lively neighborhood adjacent to the Marais and the Place des Vosges, and is a major métro hub with lots of connections so I could easily hop to anywhere in Paris. I was just steps from the largest outdoor market in the city. I could grab my market basket, which I kept next to my front door, and be perusing a spectacular selection of French cheeses, wines, pâtés, fruits, and vegetables within minutes. But best of all, it was the unbeatable view of Paris that I didn’t think I could ever leave. Each day I’d wake up and unlatch the wooden shutters, and after I adjusted to the barrage of light, I was presented with a spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower and a collage of small and grand buildings in the foreground, with Sacré-Cœur church off to the right and the Seine to the left; a spectacular mosaic of Paris that seemed like it was all mine. At night, just before closing the deteriorating shutters, which I was sure would one day blow off in one of the abrupt storms that whips through the city without notice (during one such storm, I almost lost an arm trying to close a shutter that wanted to play tug-of-war with me), I would take one final gaze at the twinkling lights before climbing into bed. If you’ve seen the movie Ratatouille, I shared the same view that Chef Linguini’s apartment had (people even say I resemble the movie’s main character--the cook, not the rat). One night, I was lying in bed watching the film on my television, which was just next to that window, when I sat up in surprise--at that moment in the film, my doppelgänger’s Pixar-perfect view was an exact replica of my Paris panorama. How could I ever move?
One of the few concessions to modernity in the apartment was the dishwasher (which, to a cookbook author, is the most important concession), but with a little polish, the apartment would have been the perfect home for me in Paris. All it needed were new floors, paint, an updated bathroom and kitchen, and air-conditioning (my French friends chided me for being très américain when I broke down and bought a portable air conditioner after searing my fingertips on my computer keyboard during one of the withering summer heat waves). Alas, it wasn’t to be: the landlord didn’t want to sell, and I couldn’t blame him. So after seven or eight years of living life at the top of the most beautiful city in the world, it was time to get back down to earth. Unfortunately when you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.
I’d moved to Paris from San Francisco, which, like Paris, is a collection of neighborhoods, or little villages, surrounded by water. Paris is a clearly defined area outlined by the périphérique, an always-clogged highway that circles the city where tempers flare as people seethe behind the wheel, heady from diesel fumes, lighting one cigarette off the stub of another as they inch forward, moving through the congested highway at the pace of an escargot. Le périph separates the city from the inner banlieues (suburbs), which are not to be confused with American suburbs, with their lush lawns, kids running through sprinklers, and minivans parked in driveways. These banlieues are notorious for their grim housing projects, inhabited by many immigrants and disenfranchised people, known as les banlieusards.
Parisians have never made it easy for outsiders to become part of their city, as all of us who have gone through the process of renewing our visas can attest. One year, the folder of documents that I’d spent six months meticulously compiling and organizing to meet the unpredictable demands was folded in half and slid into the garbage can by a poker-faced bureaucrat without a second thought. (I swear I detected a bit of a smirk, though.) Being from California, I probably would have felt better if she had separated the paper clips from the pages and tossed them into their respective recycling bins.
I went through a lot to get to Paris, starting my life over again not just in a new city, but in a new country, plunging into another culture, with a language I didn’t speak. (I could see my teacher at the Alliance Française, where I crammed for my move by taking a two-week intensive course before I left San Francisco, crying a little inside every time I tried to form a complete sentence in French.)
People have asked me repeatedly why I moved here, but I could never provide a more satisfying answer than “For the croissants!” But upon reflection, I’d ended a nearly thirteen-year tenure at Chez Panisse in California, a restaurant strongly influenced by market-based French country cooking: la cuisine du marché. The climate and ingredients of Northern California were similar to those you’d find in the south of France, whose residents are similarly smitten with the exuberant foods from their region--dewy goat cheeses (back in the ’80s, people in Berkeley assumed we were serving them rounds of tofu), olive oils that resonated with the terroir of their provenance in each glossy puddle, fresh herbs used liberally, robust wines, crates overflowing in the summer with pulpy, deep-red tomatoes, and a mutual love of aromatic garlic permeating everything, from aïoli to agneau. All those ingredients figured heavily into the cuisines of France and the San Francisco Bay Area, two places where people are obsessed with what’s on their plate. The transition was natural for me.
Another obsession shared by both San Francisco and Paris is real estate: it’s rare that you attend a party or gathering in either city and the subject doesn’t eventually become a topic of discussion, with plenty of grousing about the rising prices of homes and apartments. Because of fixed boundaries, including oceans and périphs, which won’t be changing anytime soon, prices in the highly desirable city of Paris will only go in one direction: up.
Decades in San Francisco made me realize that those who predicted prices were too high and would surely drop were setting themselves up for disappointment. It’s wishful thinking, but people have convinced themselves it’s going to happen, much like the communists who meet in their Paris offices under posters of tightly clustered workers marching in the streets alongside their comrades with raised fists, in the belief that France will move toward the ideal of communism. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but communism hasn’t worked out quite as expected elsewhere in the world, and France will likely remain a capitalist country. Few are willing to give up the fashionable black coat they saw in the window of that boutique in the Marais which was un must because it looked so good on them, or give up their maisons secondaires, the vacation homes that every French family seems to have, where they retreat to every summer. With Paris being such a desirable place to live, rising housing prices are here to stay.
As I learned in San Francisco, if I was going to remain in Paris, the best assurance of staying for the long term was to own a place of my own.
So in spite of folder-folding bureaucrats, I decided to stay in Paris. I’d acclimated to life here. I was on a first-name basis with the clerks in my local shops, especially the ones at the office supply store where I replenished the supply of paper and ink cartridges one plows through by photocopying the slew of paperwork that becomes a part-time job. I’d also become friendly with the vendors at my local market, where my life revolved around my twice-weekly rounds of shopping for fruits, vegetables, sausages, pâtés--whatever caught my eye--and stopping off at the bakery on the corner for a bien cuite (well-cooked) baguette (which to me are the only kind) on the way home.
The longer I lived in my neighborhood, the better I knew the vendors: Who had the strawberries that would be bright red all the way through when I cut into them later. Whose Comté was aged longer, giving it a sharper, nuttier flavor. Who would give me a better price if I bought several kilos of apricots because I was testing recipes and needed an entire case. And most important of all, who would let me pick out my own fruits and vegetables in a country where picking out your own produce can trigger a blistering reprimand (or even a hand-slapping, as a friend in Provence found out). It’s a good thing they retired the guillotine in 1977 before I arrived, because even though I know I’m not supposed to, I can’t resist touching and selecting fruit that I’m buying. It’s too frustrating for me to order fruit and vegetables by pointing and saying, “I’ll take that one of those . . . and three of those, no . . . not that one, the lettuce on the left . . . and a few of those nectarines, oh . . . no, wait . . . I want smaller ones. Can you rifle around for some that are riper? Or ones that have a redder blush, for a photograph? . . . Okay, now that I’ve asked you to do that, can I get four of those pears? I’m testing a recipe and need pears that weigh 125 grams each . . . and two need to be ripe right now, and two that will be ripe for tomorrow. Sure, I can wait . . .”