A Tiny Bit Of Paradise

Published in French Property News (July 2013 issue) | Written by Polly Fielding

It's a crisp, sunny morning in early spring. I jump out of bed (something I never do in England), put my track suit over my pyjamas, don a jacket and pop across the road to the patisserie. My mouth is already watering with the delicious smell of freshly-baked 'goodies' wafting towards me. Remembering to begin with "Bonjour" - etiquette is extremely important in France - I ask the baker for a very soft baguette. He greets me, smiles and slides one from the most recent batch into its paper sleeve.

Back in what I refer to as my 'cupboard' (my third floor apartment is 30 square metres), I brew some coffee whilst buttering the hot bread.

Dennis, my husband, is invariably galvanised into action by our petit déjeuner. Like me, he values every day in this beautiful city.

It was his idea, eight years ago, to spend our retirement savings this way. He suggested it to me casually over the phone when I was holidaying in Paris with our daughter. Nikki, who had recently moved to Paris with the intention of making it her home, was hoping not to continue imposing on her friend's extended hospitality. It was her enthusiasm for Dennis' brainwave that turned my brief stay into an intensive daily hunt for a suitable property within a stone's throw of the city.

Amazingly, less than a fortnight later, I had put down the obligatory ten percent on a fifty-nine thousand euro apartment (just under forty thousand pounds at that time) in Montreuil - a cosmopolitan town, on the east side of Paris, with a history that takes in peach-growing and the earliest days of Cinema.

We did, at least, have the sense to visit the local town hall to find out whether a motorway, or some similar venture, was likely to decimate the 1930s apartment block in the future and I asked parents of a few of Nikki's friends, who owned property in Paris, about the sort of things to be aware of when looking for a place to buy.

The low quarterly charges on our little 'home from home' made it a more tempting proposition. A lift would have been handy but such luxuries inevitably incur greater outgoings. Though whether we will still be able to climb the fifty-three steps of the narrow, windy staircase to our apartment in our eighties is debatable and there doesn't seem to be any likelihood of an electric stair seat being installed within the next twenty years! However, in the early days we thought we were unlikely to live that long, given the precariousness of crossing Parisian roads where cars seem to zoom in every direction with the occasional policeman in the middle frenetically blowing a whistle and frantically waving his arms. Now, however, familiarity with the city's traffic system means that we navigate our way more serenely.

Ah, the joy of retirement! With the centre of Paris a mere thirty minutes from our doorstep, via the city's efficient bus and métro system, each day is an interest-packed adventure with so much to see and do. Apart from well-known attractions like Montmartre's artists quarter, the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysées and the cathedrals of Notre Dame and Sacré- Coeur ... there are shopping arcades and markets to explore and a vast variety of ethnic quarters to visit. And, on the first Sunday of every month, most museums and art galleries are free. Even those where a fee is payable are well worth going to such as the doll's museum, which is tucked away in a small corner, less than a hundred metres from the Pompidou Centre.

Architecturally, Paris is a treasure trove, particularly when we remember to gaze well above eye level. And when our necks begin to ache with the strain, we chill out with one of France's incomparable cups of coffee on the 'terrasse' of a café, watching the world go by. If it's a warm day, we relax in one of the city's numerous parks, being careful not to walk on the grass, between October and April when (as the signs warn) the lawns are 'resting'! Especially delightful are the open air concerts in a number of parks. During Summer weekends the Parc Floral in Vincennes, which is adjacent to Montreuil, has some wonderful jazz and classical music featuring world-renowned musicians.

When Dennis first joined me on my trips to Paris (once I had completed the mind-boggling task of making the apartment habitable), I had to consider his rather limited tastes in food. I am perfectly happy to eat French style but he tends to be a 'chicken and chips' man.

This presented a challenge when we found ourselves one lunchtime at Picpus métro station, where we alighted at random to see what the area had to offer. Dennis was intrigued to see what somewhere was like with a name that he thought sounded like a cartoon cat. Although the menu on display in the window of the closest bistro did not mention Dennis' favourite fare, we settled on an omelette as the least worst offering for him.

Inside, we seated ourselves and were immediately approached by an unsmiling waitress, pad in hand and pen poised, ready to note down our order.

Knowing that I invariably get a better response if speak in French, I asked for two omelettes with chips. She shot me a withering look, stating firmly "Sorry Madame, it's lunchtime. We haven't got time to make omelettes." And when, in bewilderment, I asked what was available she proffered "Croque Monsieur" and drifted away without waiting for an answer. Since Dennis is not partial to ham, we were left with no choice but to make a hasty exit to hungrily walk the streets of Picpus to continue our search for lunch...

To be fair though, despite this sort of attitude that gives Parisian waiters the reputation of being rude, we have found that the vast majority are pleasant and helpful. And we have long since educated Dennis' tastebuds to enjoy some of Paris's many tasty alternatives to French cuisine. I have not yet been able to fully convert him to the latter - though he does confess to an addiction to French tarts!

As night closes in, we make our way back to Montreuil, pausing every now and then to listen to buskers in the tunnels of the Métro. Sometimes, on the platform, whilst waiting for Dennis (an unabashed métrophile) to take yet another photo of Bastille station, for instance, with battles depicted on its tiled walls, or Arts et Métiers which is decked out like the interior of a submarine, I chat briefly with another traveller. Perhaps it is because I'm so caught up in the buzz of this city that I find it much easier to connect with complete strangers here than I do in England.

Once inside our apartment, we often throw open the large windows to watch the glowing colours of the evening sun setting over the rooftops of this magnificent city and reflect for the thousandth time how lucky we are to have such a beautiful oasis of peace and tranquillity.

My book: 'Going In Seine' tells the full story of how I searched for, bought and transformed the shell of an apartment into our mini paradise, and how we gradually adapted to the Parisian way of life.

A few tips for anyone tackling a similar project:

  • Inform yourself about the areas in and around the location where you hope to buy by reading about them, visiting the town hall and, above all, by exploring the neighbourhood to get a general feel of it.

  • Learn some French (especially important when trying to navigate the maze of French bureaucracy!). It will make people more willing to listen patiently and help you, if it's within their remit.

  • Buy a Navigo Pass which enables you to travel the length and breadth of Paris (by bus, métro and tram) for a week for the price of meal for two.

  • Accept Parisians on their own terms and you will find the majority of them extremely helpful and obliging.

  • If you are invited to a meal in a French person's home, by all means take a small gift but, if you choose flowers, do not give chrysanthemums since these are reserved for funerals!

  • Before you open a French bank account (to pay bills by standing order - virement - for example) check their charges. I have an account with the Post Office, (La Poste), where fees are minimal (I get no commission for this bit of advice!).

  • Book Eurostar tickets well in advance (up to twelve weeks), if possible, to get an excellent deal, even at peak times of the year.
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