The first draft of the following piece was written in 2008, before I moved from Paris to Brussels.
When I first saw my flat, I thought, “Yes, this is somewhere I could work.” It’s on the seventh and top floor of a 1920s redbrick building, at the point where Boulevard Voltaire is joined by a busy smaller road called Rue des Boulets in the 11th arrondissement.
The ground-floor is a post-office, which is handy, and Rue des Boulets métro station is just across the road – practically in the basement – which is even handier, since when it’s raining you can take Ligne Number 9 all the way to the basement of Galeries Lafayette, in the 9th arrondissement, without getting wet.
After years of having to put up with stoned Canadian hippies vacuuming at 3am over my head, or out-of-work Swedish actresses throwing impromptu midweek parties directly below my bed, or paranoid French journalists accusing me of shifting furniture around at 3am (not true – I was tucked up in bed) but who were themselves pathologically incapable of closing a door without causing a 7-on-the-Richter-scale tremor, or white Trustafarian students with a taste for deafening rap (“But I have a right to listen to my music”) or drug dealers’ chained-up guard dogs barking all through the night in the yard next door, I have developed an aversion to loud neighbours.
But traffic noise I don’t mind, so Boulevard Voltaire suits me fine. For two years I lived in a flat on the Rue Saint-Antoine, a major Parisian artery that turned into the Rue de Rivoli only a few blocks away. There was traffic noise all through the night, but it lulled me to sleep.
So far, I’ve been lucky here. I can hear my next-door neighbour when she plays her cello, but that’s fine. I can hear the small children downstairs when they scream or run up and down like elephants, which they do a lot at 7am, but they have yet to wake me up in the middle of the night, so that’s just about tolerable. I can hear a loud bass beat from the flat on the other side – but only when I’m in the toilet, so again, that’s tolerable, and reminds me of the days when I could hear organ music in my toilet from the church next door in Rue Saint-Antoine.
My flat used to belong to a lady in her nineties. When she died, her nephew was obliged to sell it as quickly as possible in order to pay the exorbitant French death duties. He put it on the market in August, when it seems I’m the only Paris resident who’s not away on holiday, so I was the first prospective buyer to see it, and the first to make an offer, which was promptly accepted. It was exactly what I was looking for: top floor, balcony, facing east (I’d had my fill of south-facing windows during two blistering Parisian heatwaves), with five Métro lines and an RER within walking distance. Also, unlike my last flat in the Bastille, the quartier wasn’t excessively trendy, so the neighbourhood bars were relatively quiet, and there was just enough through-traffic to dissuade gangs of local youths from using the street outside as a football pitch every evening, or stop drunken pedestrians from using it as a pissoir.
I could see there were a couple of things which needed doing before mid-December, when I moved in. The grungy moquette (fitted carpet) had to be pulled up, the parquet needed sanding and the walls had to be painted. There was no cooker in the kitchen, and the bathroom needed refitting. All that could wait, I thought. The only things I needed immediately were some additional electrical sockets; I guessed the lady in her nineties hadn’t needed to plug in a computer, printer, telephone, DVD player, audio system et cetera all at once. I reckoned it would take a couple of weeks, and then I’d be able to get down to some serious writing.
Was I ever wrong. Jean-Paul, my electrician, came round to install the extra sockets and found the whole place needed rewiring. He wasn’t trying to rip me off, either – he showed me one of the cables, which literally crumbled to dust before my eyes. Clearly a conflagration waiting to happen.
I moved in towards the end of December, 2006, and then spent the next three months hunkered down, trying to write for a living without a wi-fi connection while Jean-Paul and his crew drilled large holes in walls, hammered away at masonry, and laid new cables inches away from where I was sitting.
A couple of adorable male friends very kindly volunteered to paint the flat for me, but then got stoned and spent an entire weekend covering just one ceiling and one of the walls, though it has to be said they covered that ceiling and those walls perfectly. I started painting another wall myself, but was so slow, and used up so much paint, that it threatened to turn into an ergonomic disaster. So Jean-Paul introduced me to a retired electrician called Dédé who rollered his way through the flat more rapidly and economically than I could ever have done, while I doggedly shuttled my cartons of books and items of furniture from room to room like the pieces of a Chinese puzzle.
After that, what I’d envisaged as a basic fitting-out of the kitchen somehow got away from me and ballooned into a major project costing thousands of euros and involving a full complement of floor-layers and fitters, including a really ham-fisted floortile-layer from Leroy Merlin who confessed midway through the job that he’d never laid tiles before; the results, inevitably, were uneven. Leroy Merlin failed dismally to respond to my letters and photographic proof of the badly laid tiles. Tip: never get Leroy Merlin to do your floors.
I took a deep breath and spent a summer of relative tranquility before starting on the bathroom. The tap on the washbasin gave out only a thin dribble of water, and the tap on the bath was broken, so you could only fill the tub via the rudimentary shower attachment. The bathtub itself was shaped like a tiny coffin, with the plughole sited precisely where you needed to place your arse, and the colour scheme was vomit-pink and pus-green, which would have made me feel ill had there been strong enough lighting to see it properly. Something had to be done.
So, in early October 2007, Dédé ripped out all the bathroom fittings, while I covered all the furniture in the adjoining bedroom with plastic and retreated to the living-room to sleep, work and eat.
Then – catastrophe. Dédé came down with flu, and his doctor forbade him to do any more physical work. Ever. Health obviously taking priority over my bathroom, he retired to Normandy. The plumber who had been working on the kitchen went AWOL, leaving a pathologically leaking pipe in the WC (it took three visits from another plumber before it finally stopped leaking), so Jean-Paul found me another plumber. And then when we unwrapped the new bathtub it turned out to be cracked – the suppliers generously assumed responsibility for the damage, for which I was grateful. But I had to wait six weeks for a replacement to be delivered.
The bloke doing the bathroom tiling used a random mixture of matt and shiny white tiles, which I didn’t spot until too late, because everything was covered with dust. Then he too went AWOL, leaving everything half-finished. The eventual replacement grumbled about the quality of his predecessor’s work, but then managed to lose my spare keys. Worse, he refused to admit it, swearing he had left them on the bed – which meant I had to fork out three hundred euros for replacement locks. Too late, I found Dédé had given me the wrong measurements, so the new washbasin I had ordered turned out to needlessly tiny. But by now I didn’t care. I didn’t care what size the washbasin was, just so long as there was one.
For the three months it took to install the bathroom, I was unable to take a bath or shower at home. When I wasn’t able to go to the swimming pool, I visited Eva and Philippe, Susie and Jonathan or Madeleine to take showers. Many thanks to all these people for their forbearance.
At last, the bathroom was finished, and so was the flat.
It was February 2008. It had only taken me 14 months to get installed.
And I thought, never again.
I loved that flat. But in the four years I lived there, my income was slashed in half by a combination of unfavourable sterling-to-euro exchange rates, the recession, and cuts in rates for freelance journalism. Meanwhile, the cost of everyday living in Paris soared – I gave up shopping in Monoprix and Franprix and found myself totting up prices in budget supermarkets. I ran out of perfume, and couldn’t afford to replace it. A Japanese friend of mine had a photographic exhibition in London, and I couldn’t afford to go.
The front of the Rue des Boulets building underwent a ravalement. From February to May of 2010, it was covered in scaffolding and swaddled in plastic, and the façade was subjected to a great many violent and noisy processes, some of which involved blasting large quantities of dust through the minute cracks in the windowframes and into my flat, without warning. For more than three months, I had to keep the curtains drawn, or the shutters closed, if I didn’t want workmen peering in. Since I worked at home and didn’t go out much during the day, I lived in a sort of permanent twilight.
What I’d been led to believe would be reasonable service charges, meanwhile, turned out to be almost double that amount, thanks to never-ceasing work on the communal areas of the building – not just the ravalement, which I had been expecting, but replacement of the lift – not to mention a gardienne who went on strike for a year over a complicated matter of back payment (it dated back to long before I had arrived) during which we were still legally obliged to pay her wages. (She did this just after I had slipped her the customary Christmas
bribe gift of 50 euros, so I think I have every right to feel aggrieved.) The people whose flats overlooked the courtyard were disgruntled at having had to pay their share for the ravalement of the front of the building, and were clamouring to have their side done as well, the carpet on the stairs was fraying, and the paint was peeling in the entrance hall. I could see no end in sight to the elevated service charges.
Added to that, the building was quite a large one, and quite old, which meant there was always someone, somewhere, moving in or out of it, which would inevitably lead to yet another session of hammering and drilling. I could hardly complain about this, since I myself had contributed to the noise, but I later worked out that in the four years I lived there, there must have been only a couple of months with no audible building work going on. Even in the summer months, when Parisians vanished on holiday, there would be hammering and drilling from next door, as for three years on the trot my neighbour took advantage of her own absence to get her bathroom or kitchen refitted or her living-room redecorated. I began to find the noise relentless.
All the money I had in the world was tied up in the flat, I could barely pay my bills, and the way my income was shrivelling, I could foresee a time when I wouldn’t be able to pay them at all. I started looking around for something cheaper to live. Except there was nowhere cheaper in Paris, not any more. Reluctantly I started checking out property prices in the provinces – Nantes, Marseille, Bordeaux – but the idea of living in a town or city where Hollywood films were dubbed into French was anathema to me. This isn’t as precious as it sounds, since what little money I earn is from writing about film.
Finally, in desperation, I started looking at property prices in other countries. And what do you know? Returning to London was out of the question. Berlin was a possibility, but I didn’t like the idea of having to get on a plane each time I wanted to go anywhere. Italy and Spain were too hot. Brussels hit the jackpot with the holy triumvirate – rents and property prices that were still unexpectedly reasonable, Hollywood films screened in their version originale, and a direct link to London by Eurostar. In addition, it was a capital city with lots of museums, cinemas and transport links, I already spoke one of the national languages, it wasn’t too warm (I sometimes found Paris quite suffocating in summer) and I’d always had a soft spot for mad Belgian painters.
I would also learn it had the best bars in Europe, the best beer in Europe, the best light in Europe, some of the loveliest architecture in Europe, and some of the nicest people too.
But that’s another story.
The best record of the Paris flat is probably Alouette, an eight-minute film I made with my friend, the actress Madeleine Bongard. There is screaming in it, so it might not be safe for work.
I’d envisaged having a small crew of friends, but this was August, and they were all out of town. The videocam packed up almost immediately, at which point I was ready to throw in the towel, but Madeleine refused to give up and bullied me (in the nicest possible way) into continuing. So we ended up shooting on a combination of my Canon Ixus camera and Sony Ericsson K800i and Madeleine’s Sony Ericsson W910i. Hence the variable quality. The sound recorded sur scène was unusable, so we dubbed in the dialogue and added sound effects afterwards (and a friend popped in on his way to the railway station to sing the title song), with results that are a little impressionistic – though perhaps not altogether unsuited to the story.
In any case, the flat looks great, I think.