After weeks and weeks of searching, we finally had an apartment lined up in Paris. It was a 2-bedroom in the 11th arrondissement – tastefully furnished, spacious (80 square meters) and it had the French moulding and other decorative details I loved. The only drawback was that it was a 2nd floor walk-up, 3rd floor by American standards, which meant we’d have to carry bags of groceries and our fold-up stroller up the stairs, and maybe an exhausted 2-year-old from time to time. Not a big deal. I had spoken to the landlord (we’ll call him V.V.) a few times via Skype and he seemed really nice. He had young kids too and spoke a little English. It was just a few days before we left the U.S. for France and we were ready to wire our deposit and first month’s rent. We did it!! We were really moving to Paris! Except V.V. vanished. I contacted him three days in a row letting him know we were ready to transfer funds as discussed but he did not reply. It was so bizarre. I gave him one last chance to respond, saying we’d move on if I didn’t hear from him that night. Crickets. I couldn’t believe it. We were back to square one.
We arrived in Paris on September 7th, fresh (or not so fresh) off the red-eye. We booked a vacation rental for a week in a suburb of Paris called Asnières-sur-Seine. It was the most reasonably priced place we could find that was still close to the city as we’d need to go in and out every day. The plan was to spend the first day adjusting/recuperating and to set up as many appointments as possible so we could find our new home! The first apartment we saw was a disaster. It was dirty, stuffy, smelled like a combo of 3-day-old grilled cheese and mulled red wine and it had a shower covered in black mold. “Students,” said the agent. “The shower will be cleaned.” That mold wasn’t going ANYWHERE. Rhône and Rocky were running around, trying to open up cabinets and drawers and Jonas looked like he was going to pass out from the heat and overwhelming smells. “Why don’t you take the boys outside and I’ll meet you,” I offered. After this experience we were both so relieved that we did not sign a lease for an apartment without visiting it first. This one had looked fantastic in the pictures, but it was obviously a different story in person!
The next day we decided I would look at apartments alone because, well, I speak French and we did not need to be dragging our kids all over the city while jet lagged. I took the train to Gare Saint Lazare, then hopped on the line 14 to the RER B to get to a place called Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement. I had an uneasy feeling on the train. I can’t really explain it except that I felt in my gut that something was wrong. I shrugged it off and exited the RER at Cité Universitaire on the edge of the park. I went to my first appointment on Rue Gazan where I was grilled job interview-style in French and then the landlord asked if I wouldn’t mind switching to English. He wanted to practice. He gave me a tour of the place, which revealed that there were two futons for beds. We didn’t really want to purchase new furniture for a 1-year rental but if we lived here, we’d have to get a new bed with a decent mattress for Jonas’ back. The bigger issue was the landlord’s requirements. He wanted us to open a trust account with 6 months’ rent in it that would be frozen until we terminated the lease, the apartment was inspected and the landlord gave the bank permission to release the funds. I had no doubt we would take great care of the place but what if the landlord decided for whatever reason that he didn’t want to give the bank approval at the end of our stay? He argued that French people don’t trust foreigners and that this was simply a form of financial protection. It seemed a bit much.
I walked back to the RER through the park. It was sunny, breezy and peaceful. I glanced to my right and was stunned to see four soldiers carrying machine guns. They looked completely at ease ambling along, but I was taken aback. Where were they going? Why were they here? I took the train back into the center of Paris and saw more military guys with guns on the platform. The fear in the air was palpable. It might have just been my own. For the first time in a while, I thought about possible terrorist attacks. What if someone blew up the train I was on that day? How long would it take for my family to find out I was gone? What would Jonas and the kids do? My mind traveled back to July 14th, 2016. Jonas and I were sitting on our couch in sunny SoCal when we learned about the driver in Nice who used a truck to cruelly plow over people watching Bastille Day fireworks. I felt sick to my stomach thinking about all those lives cut short and the loved ones dealing with the aftermath. I remember asking Jonas, “Is going to France right now a good idea for our family?” We talked through it and agreed that nowhere in the world was really safe. We’d just had a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California a few months before and the mass shootings in America are sadly all too frequent. We decided the best we could do was stick to our plan and pray for safety for all.
I snapped back into the present and again contemplated the dangers of living in Paris. You’d better believe I was praying on that métro train. I exhaled the feelings of fear and doubt and pressed on to my next appointment. I was seeing three places that day. The second apartment near Bastille was fine – two-story, modern, bright and clean – but they wanted us to have a French guarantor. Ha! That was not happening. I did not even end up seeing the third place because the agent cancelled on me right as I was standing outside the building. There was a two hour gap between my second and third appointment so I had been twiddling my thumbs at a nearby park for a while. I was steaming mad, and not just because I’d been baking in the heat outside. There was no apology, just, “I can’t be there and no one else has the keys, so non, you can’t see it today.” I walked into a real estate office nearby and asked if they had any apartments for rent in the neighborhood. The woman looked me up and down and said, “Pas à votre prix.” (“Not at your price.”) Hmm. I never told her our budget. I was too tired to ask what she meant by that comment. Feeling defeated, I finally headed “home” to Asnières-sur Seine to kiss my boys and set up more appointments for the next day.
Rhône and Rocky had slept pretty well the night before (merci Zarbee’s Melatonin Supplement!) so we decided to bring them along for another round of apartment hunting. The soldiers with machine guns were out in full force again. I was waiting for the kids to notice and ask me about them but they were oblivious. First we saw the apartment in the 11th with the elusive real estate agent who flaked on me the day before. She was young and socially awkward. It seemed like she was new to the job because she didn’t know anything about the place, including when it would be ready to live in. There was a guy there doing repairs as we walked through and it seemed like they were at least a week away from finishing. She did know that we were required to have a financial guarantor. It seemed like a silly concept for a financially stable couple in their forties to provide this but apparently it’s a French thing that you can rarely get around. We racked our brains trying to think who in our lives would be willing to act as guarantors and share all their financial details with a foreign landlord. It was a big ask and we were definitely trying to avoid it.
The second place we looked at was located in the Marais. It was a charming 2-bedroom apartment in a 17th-century building with exposed wooden beams. The landlord was a tall, friendly, silver-haired Irish guy named Brian. After talking for a few minutes, he offered the apartment to us on the spot. I had experienced so much French coq-blocking in terms of apartments that I was completely thrown off! We had another appointment in an hour to see a place in the 15th arrondissement that I thought could be good for our family too. I like to explore all my options before making a decision so I said we needed just a little more time. Brian walked us to a nearby secret garden where there were lots of families picnicking and playing. This neighborhood was looking better and better. Rhône and Rocky were happy climbing trees and playing with other kids so Jonas and I decided I would look at the next apartment alone while he watched over them. We thanked Brian and told him we would make a decision by that evening.
I rushed to the 15th for the last appointment. The neighborhood was nice – plenty of shops, grocery stores and small parks nearby. It was a completely different vibe than in the Marais. Less bohemian I’d say. I saw the landlord standing out front. He was the taller, thinner, French version of Ernest Borgnine. (If you know who that is, congratulations. You are officially old.) He was wearing a houndstooth blazer and a scowl on his face. I introduced myself and shook his hand. He nodded and led me inside silently. We got in one of those tiny elevators together and it seemed like the longest ride ever to the third floor. I fought my American instinct to break the silence and just stared at my clasped hands instead. When we got upstairs Monsieur Borgnine finally asked me where I was moving from. I told him California but that we had just spent 5 weeks with my in-laws who live about an hour and a half outside of Orlando. He said in French, “Not The Villages…” I replied “Ouais,” and he broke into a huge grin. He told me he owned property there and knew it well. The warm camaraderie ended there. We stepped into the apartment and I discovered yet another “student situation”: unmade beds, futons, strange smells, trash everywhere, broken drawers. It looked like someone literally destroyed a dresser in a fit of rage. “What happened here?” I asked. “Je ne sais pas,” he said. “It’ll be replaced.” I thanked him for his time and said I’d be in touch.
I half-jogged back to the Marais and met my family at the carousel near the Saint Paul métro station. I’m not usually this impulsive, but I said to Jonas, “Let’s take Brian’s place.” There were more apartments we could see but I felt like this one was a good fit for us. It was available immediately, there was no broker’s fee and Brian wasn’t even requiring a guarantor. The boys were spinning around the carousel and squealing. I smiled and told Jonas, “We’d better buy more more tickets because we’re going to be coming here a lot.” He stepped away to call Brian and I sat down in one of the dark green plastic chairs near the carousel, feeling both excited and relieved. Jonas came back a minute later and sat next to me. He took my hand and said, “The apartment’s gone. Some students looked at it this morning and they called Brian a few minutes before us to tell him they wanted it.” Wait, what? Noooooooooo. My heart sank. Rhône had already missed the first two weeks of school and now it was looking like he would miss the whole month because we wouldn’t be able to register him until we had an address.
Before we got on the métro again I picked up a free newspaper. I flipped through it on the train and noticed a small article about three women who’d been arrested for an attempted terrorist attack at Notre Dame Cathedral a few days before. Now I know why I had that uneasy feeling on the métro. Apparently they had tried and failed to detonate a bomb near Notre Dame and were planning another attack at the Gare de Lyon that same week. “I KNEW IT,” I whispered to Jonas. I quietly told him what happened so the kids wouldn’t hear. We thanked God that the attacks were foiled and prayed for further safety and protection in Paris. It was a physically and emotionally exhausting day but we had to keep moving forward. We needed a home! It was presently Friday. The next day would be a prime day to look at apartments and time was running out as we only had a few days left in our vacation rental. Saturday also happened to be Rhône’s 6th birthday. What to do?
We decided to take a day off and focus on celebrating our first baby boy. We spent the day at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, an old amusement park in the middle of the Boulogne Woods in the 16th. There were antique rides, games, cool gardens and buildings. Rhône and Rocky loved every minute there. In the evening, we made sure to include mac and cheese for dinner and let Rhône pick out his favorite pastries at our local boulangerie. After dinner the birthday boy opened his gifts and got to building. His grandparents got him a Ninjago Lego set that we transported in our suitcase. Grandma Fish even included tissue paper so we could wrap it once we got to France. Our gift to him was Monopoly, which he still asks to play almost every day. We spent the evening building together, laughing and rolling Rocky around the apartment in a laundry cart. Our little family needed this break from the grind.
After being charmed by the Marais, we decided to focus our time and energy on finding an apartment there. As the clock ran out on our 1-week vacation rental in Asnières-sur Seine we wondered how much more time we would need to find a place. We tacked on three more days and hoped for the best. I was so relieved our vacation rental was still available because I was not ready to pack up and transport two bouncy boys, four heavy suitcases, four ginormous bags, a stroller and a car seat to another place unless we were moving in! We began the search again. Between real estate appointments, I met up with my old roommate Daniel and told him how tired I was of this process. Daniel had actually looked at apartments for us before we arrived so he was already aware of our struggles. He shared his own horror stories about getting approved for a studio in Paris and added, “I know it’s crazy and difficult right now but you are going to find the perfect place. I am sure of it.” And he was right. There were more ups and downs but we eventually found a beautiful gem in the heart of the city. You’ll be able to see it in great detail when our episode of House Hunters International airs this fall.
We finally did it. We found a home of our own in Paris!