Chapter 1: Moving into Poodleland

by / Sunday, 11 August 2013 / Published in Architecture, Book Excerpt, France, Paris

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I was trying to conceal my elation as the estate agent showed me around the fabulous Art Deco flat.

I loved this apartment.

As we glided into the spacious dining room he looked up and gestured toward the cube-shaped lamp fixture on the ceiling.

“Original from the period,” he said. “Thirties. A work of art.”

The agent, a bald and garrulous little man called Michel Allard, next led me across the marble-floored vestibule and down the hallway into the kitchen. He pointed to the large window overlooking a back courtyard.

“You can’t actually see the Eiffel Tower,” he said, “but at night you can see the light beam coming from the top of the tower. You know the Eiffel Tower is right there.”

I nodded approvingly.

When we returned to the vast and empty sitting room, Michel stopped and scrutinised me carefully.

“I apologise for being so direct,” he said, “but may I ask what your monthly salary is?” 

Startled, I gave him an exaggerated figure, rounding up quite liberally.

He winced and began rubbing his fleshy jawline with one thumb.

“You know the general rule in Paris,” he said. “You should have a net monthly income roughly three times the rent.”

I was indeed familiar with that calculation, though I had never actually met a Parisian flat dweller who earned three times the rent. Anyone who could afford that comfortable ratio owned their apartment.

I had long been putting off a move into the city – and now I remembered why. The apartment hunter in Paris is at the mercy of sniffy landlords and grasping agents who make extravagant up-front demands for detailed personal and financial information – monthly salary, bank balance, employment status, photocopies of passport and past utility bills. In Paris the outlay just to get your hands on the keys of a decent rental flat is a big enough sum for the down payment on a house in London. I was a university professor, not an investment banker. I was also already carrying the rent for my flat in Fontainebleau.

Capture d’écran 2013-08-11 à 10.52.56But moving into Paris was inevitable, indeed urgent. I had been steadily growing tired of commuting into the city from Fontainebleau. Some days I was spending three hours on the motorway just to give a two-hour lecture at the American University of Paris. With traffic jams – or bouchons – I was away even longer while Oscar and Leo waited anxiously in my sitting room windows on the lookout for my car. On some days the dogs were alone in the Fontainebleau flat for eight or nine hours. I was starting to feel like a negligent parent. 

My basic requirement for a Paris apartment was unique. I wanted a flat that was as low as possible in the building – even on the ground floor. Not many tenants in Paris express a preference for rez-de-chaussée apartments – unless they are confined to a wheelchair. In my case, the deciding factor was two small white dogs. I did not want to spend my life in a Parisian lift with Oscar and Leo, especially as Leo’s pee-pee urges were unpredictable.

I had another, less unusual, requirement: I wanted to be near green spaces. One of the enduring myths about Paris is that the city is a paradise for dogs. The reality is quite different. True, dogs are allowed into Parisian restaurants. But dog-friendly public parks are not easy to find in Paris. Most Parisian squares and parks are strictly off-limits to pets. There are small signs attached to the gates of every public square: Interdit aux chiens, même en laisse. No dogs allowed, even on a lead. One section in the Jardin du Luxembourg is reserved for dog walkers: the patch along the boulevard Saint-Michel where you can find a stone bench statue of Gustave Flaubert. But for dogs without the luxury of close proximity to a select number of fashionable parks, life in Paris is a daily trundle down hard stretches of cold pavement.

I knew that finding a suitable place in Paris required unbelievably good luck or impeccable connections. I’d learned many years ago, when a graduate student in Paris, that good fortune in France comes through a personal connection – or a piston, to use the commonly understood slang term. My piston at the time was my graduate thesis adviser, Yves Mény, a convivial, well-connected academic from Brittany whose affectionate attitude toward me seemed to be vaguely influenced by my status, based on my surname, as a fellow Celt. He lived with his wife and family in a posh Left Bank building in the rue des Saints-Pères. When I told him about my hunt for a flat, he immediately had a solution. He just happened to know that his neighbours owned a large first-floor studio recently vacated by their spoilt son who’d finally left home at nearly thirty. Thanks to Professor Mény’s goodwill with his neighbours, I became that dormant flat’s happy and grateful occupant.  

Arrt_Quai_300Professor Mény gave me some advice that I have never forgotten, and indeed have passed along to other new arrivals in Paris. “These are going to be the best years of your life,” he said. “What you look at around you every day will make a difference. It’s better to pay a little more and live in a decent place than saving money on rent and finding yourself in the suburbs.”

My charmed existence in Paris owed a great deal to that piston. While my classmates at Sciences Po inhabited cramped chambres de bonne in grotty Parisian districts like Belleville and Ménilmontant, I was grandly installed in one of the city’s best addresses in Saint-Germain-des-Prés – in the days before it became known as “Saint-Germain-des-Prêt-à-Porter”. The flat was only one room but had the visual appeal of a chic bachelor pad: spacious, high ceilinged and elegantly appointed with Japanese-motif screens and a colimaçon staircase spiralling up to a king-size mezzanine bed. I still recall the dazzling effect that flat produced on everyone who walked through the door.

Two decades later, I knew my move into Paris had to be well planned. At the outset it looked like a piston had serendipitously come to my rescue. A French friend in the theatre called Jacques Rivaud proposed a flat he’d inherited from his parents. It was located in the 14th arrondissement just up the road from the Alésia Métro station – and, more importantly, not far from the dog-friendly Parc Montsouris. The apartment was in a “grand standing” building, an English expression used by French estate agents to signify high-end luxury. Its appeal was further enhanced by a fascinating connection with classical music: Igor Stravinsky had once occupied the apartment. I was very tempted to take it. But even if Stravinsky had composed “Rites of Spring” in that flat, there were two insurmountable obstacles. First, it was too high up – on the 5th floor. Second, it had no balconies or terrace. I would end up spending a lot of time in the lift with Oscar and Leo morning and night. All things considered, the apartment met only one of my non-negotiable conditions: proximity to a dog-friendly park. I politely declined, with genuine regrets. 

Capture d’écran 2013-08-11 à 10.54.52Some time afterwards I came across an advert on Le Figaro’s website for a flat on Quai d’Orsay in the posh 7th arrondissement. I called the agent, Michel Allard, and booked an appointment to see the flat. When I arrived at the address, I was immediately intrigued. The building was an Art Deco classic designed by André Leconte in 1933, featuring a cylinder-shaped glass spine running up the corner of the façade. The circular curved-glass and black-iron entrance must have seemed fabulously modern in the 1930s when the building was spanking new. The rounded glass-and-iron doors featured two brass mermaids thrusting out their bountiful breasts toward passers-by. When you grabbed hold of a siren to push open the heavy door, you stepped into a circular entrance with brass banisters curving up to a violet rotunda. It felt rather like walking onto the purple Art Deco set of an old Fred Astaire film.

It wasn’t just the Deco style that fascinated me. The location was ideal. The apartment possessed a magnificent view of the Grand Palais across the Seine. The building also faced a well-manicured esplanade stretching along the river toward the Pont de l’Alma. Perfect for dog walking. And within a few minutes in both directions there was a magnificent green space with an exalted French historical connection: the Invalides on one side, the Champ de Mars on the other. The icing on this Art Deco cake was the flat itself: spacious, elegant, and located on the entresol first floor – one storey up. No need to use the lift. There was even a private courtyard off the kitchen in the back – with the view of the Eiffel Tower’s nocturnal light beams – where Oscar and Leo could slip out for a discreet pee-pee. The flat was doggy heaven.

There was, however, the not inconsequential matter of my slender earnings. There was another problem too. Michel informed me that loads of prospective tenants were ringing every hour for an appointment to inspect the flat. Some of them were nephews of African dictators and scions of Middle Eastern petro-dynasties looking for a suitable Parisian pied-à-terre. They could produce financial guarantees difficult for an Anglo-Saxon university professor to match. The competition was daunting.

Still, I knew Parisians well enough to understand that I might have a chance. I was a foreigner, true, but Anglo-Saxons generally benefitted from greater esteem in France than new arrivals from Congo, Mali, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. I was in possession of a resource highly valued in an elitist society like France: social capital. I was a lecturer at the elite Parisian university, Sciences Po. In France, any connection with elite schools provides instant respectability and acceptance. And Sciences Po was a top-drawer calling card.

Michel was quick to see this advantage. He warmed to me even more when I mentioned that I was an author and, before that, had been a journalist with my own television show.

“I can send you a copy of my latest book,” I said. I wanted this flat and was willing to engage in a little salesmanship to get in the door.

Michel suggested that I might know his wife, a well-known French author of children’s books. Yes indeed, I replied, untruthfully. A bond was now consummated. We belonged to the same tribe. Michel mentioned, as if confiding a tightly kept secret, that the entire top floor of the Deco building was occupied by the famous fashion designer, Valentino. Needless to say, I was a huge fan of the great Valentino’s genius.

By the end of my visit, Michel was using the familiar “tu” with me as if we had been harum-scarum schoolmates. I was almost expecting him to reach into his attaché case, pull out a lease, produce a Mont Blanc pen, and ask me to please review and sign at once. Instead, after giving the matter some consideration, he said: “Leave it with me, I think I can finesse it.”

Capture d’écran 2013-08-11 à 11.13.51The apartment’s owner, it turned out, was an immensely rich Parisian lady of a grand age who’d inherited the flat many years earlier from her deceased brother. The apartment, amazingly, had been vacant for nearly a decade. It was being let after all this time not due to an urgent need to generate income. According to my new friend Michel, the rich Parisian lady wished merely to avoid the embarrassment of being identified by leftist activists as a greedy bourgeois speculator, hoarding empty real estate. There had been a rash of inflamed newspaper stories about thousands of Parisian apartments left unoccupied while poor homeless people rough-slept on the pavement and under bridges. Activist groups were threatening to publish online a list of Parisian apartments that had been left vacant for more than two years. It was a pressure tactic on the Paris city council to have the apartments requisitioned. If I correctly understood the indiscretions of my genial agent, the rich landlady was terrified that an angry demonstration of gauchistes might turn up in front of the splendid Art Deco building followed by a scrum of cameras from the local television stations. That sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in the 7th arrondissement.

This was all very good news for me. And I was more than happy to play my part in this little drama as the gracious Anglo-Saxon. It was also convenient that the landlord was an individual person, not a corporate owner. Most high-end rental apartments in Paris are owned and managed by large French insurance companies. They usually apply cold calculations, demand exorbitant financial guarantees, and overburden prospective tenants with all sorts of Kafkaesque paperwork to reduce their own risk and place the tenant in a fragile legal position. Happily, I was dealing with a wealthy Parisian lady with subtle motives. She was looking for a suitable tenant to legitimise the flat’s status as occupied – and thus protect her personal finances from the glare of media attention and public scorn. I was only too happy to be her accomplice.

I neglected to mention to Michel that I had two bichons. On that point my long experience in Paris proved tactically useful. I knew well that, while Parisian landlords cannot refuse you on the grounds that you have a dog, the prior knowledge of this fact often leads them to select another tenant. Parisians may love dogs, but not in their own buildings. So I kept mum about Oscar and Leo. They were well out of view down in Fontainebleau, perched in my windows waiting anxiously for me to return home.

A few days later, Michel rang me to announce the news.

“Congratulations,” he said. “The flat is yours. You can have the keys straight away and move in early if you like.”

“I’m delighted,” I said.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Michel. “You were a bit short on the income requirements.”

Fortunately for me, that criterion had been of secondary importance. In France social capital is always more highly valued than financial capital. I wasn’t filthy rich, but I was eminently suitable.

I confess that I’d initially had some doubts about living in Poodleland. That’s how I’d once read the 7th arrondissement described: Poodleland. An uncharitable reference to these upper-crust Parisian precincts where rich ladies can be seen primly walking their well-coiffured little dogs down the wide and prosperous boulevards. Too quiet, my friends said. Dead, lifeless, a morgue. I tended to agree. I certainly never would have lived in Poodleland twenty-five years ago during my Parisian student days. At that time I regarded the 7th arrondissement as a boring, orderly residential zone for diplomats, corporate executives and international bureaucrats. Two decades later, I put my reservations aside and signed the lease.

Capture d’écran 2013-08-11 à 11.14.10My most illustrious neighbour, the great Valentino, has been relatively discreet. He lives on the top floors with his long-time “companion” and business partner Giancarlo Giammetti. I almost never see them, though their chauffeur is frequently waiting outside in a blue vintage Jaguar. Sometimes he stands grimly in the entrance under the Deco rotunda like an undertaker in a dark suit waiting for a cadaver to be wheeled out under a white sheet. Occasionally when I’m coming in with the dogs, Giammetti brushes past in his impeccably fitted grey suit and glowing suntan, quickly sizing me up with a quizzical look. But I’ve never exchanged a greeting with the great Valentino himself, nor seen any of his famous Pugs: Monty, Molly, Milton, Margot, Maude. So far, my fashionable upstairs neighbour has remained a mystery.

The bourgeois lady living in the apartment directly above mine has been less mysterious. She made herself known to me even before I moved in. Her name is Madame Kessler, a psychologically corseted brunette of perhaps sixty years. One day when I was moving my personal belongings into the flat, she took the liberty of coming down and inviting me upstairs for tea. Her offer, I quickly learned, was motivated more by curiosity than generosity.

“Your place is a veritable art gallery,” I remarked when stepping into her sumptuous apartment. The walls were covered with works of modern art that, while not to my taste, seemed entirely suitable to the Art Deco style of the building.

“They belonged to my husband,” she said, nonchalantly. Her use of the past tense made me wonder if she was divorced, or whether her husband was deceased.

Madame Kessler’s housemaid brought out tea and biscuits and we sat down somewhat stiffly on an orange Deco sofa with a hard curved back.

“You may find the building terribly quiet sometimes,” she said. “Few of us are here all year. I’m away all summer and a month at Christmas. Do you go away?”

When this question is asked in bourgeois Parisian society, it’s a way of trying to place you socially. When the holidays are approaching, they ask “vous partez?” The proper answer, of course, is yes – and you are meant to indicate where your résidence secondaire is located. That gives your interlocutor an even more precise idea of your place on the social hierarchy. There are certain places in Normandy and Brittany where the ultra rich keep country homes. A vague “dans le sud” will do if you have a place in Mougins, Antibes, or Juan-les-Pins.

“I have a place in Fontainebleau,” I said, concealing that I was a mere tenant in that town. “I’ll be commuting quite a bit.”

I was being evasive – and careful not to mention Oscar and Leo.

“I understand you’re a professor at Sciences Po,” she said.

I confirmed that information to be true.

“I so much want my daughter to go to Sciences Po, but I’m worried she doesn’t have grades to be called for an interview. She’s thinking of marketing at Dauphine, but I know her heart is set on Sciences Po.”

The purpose of this spontaneous cup of tea was now coming into focus. It wasn’t the first time I’d been gently lobbied by an ambitious parent seeking to gain an advantage for their offspring hoping to be accepted at Sciences Po. The upper classes in France are particularly adept piston practitioners. I was recently contacted by an ex-girlfriend whom I’d been dating in Paris twenty years ago, back in the days when I had my dazzling one-room flat in rue des Saints-Pères. I was actually glad to hear from Patricia. We’d spent a lot of time together and I had pleasant memories of a holiday at her parents’ villa on the Cote d’Azur near Bandol. After my return to Canada she’d married very well – in fact, her husband had made a fortune with a chain of low-cost retail stores. They had two teenage daughters, including one who was thinking about applying to Sciences Po. When Patricia and I met for lunch near the Opéra, it didn’t take long for that subject to come up. Socially ambitious French parents will do almost anything to get their children into an elite grande école.

Capture d’écran 2013-08-11 à 11.04.47Suddenly an attractive teenage girl emerged from Madame Kessler’s corridor. Blonde and lithe with her hair pulled back, she looked to be about seventeen or eighteen. I stood to greet her and she looked directly in my eyes as we shook hands.

“My daughter Aude,” said Madame Kessler.

“Enchanté,” I said, absurdly.

I asked Aude about her studies. Her mother answered on her behalf, giving me a thorough account of her “S” major (for sciences) at the Lycée de la Rochefoucauld up the road. 

“How interesting,” I said.

Aude didn’t say much. She remained clinging languorously to the door as if to indicate that she was just putting in an appearance. It seemed to me that her heart was set on marketing at Dauphine.

 “Let me give you a tour of the building,” said Madame Kessler.

We rose and I followed Madame Kessler down a long curved corridor, out the door and back into the hallway. She showed me the main lifts, one on each side of the spacious landing.

“I’m not likely to use them,” I said.

“Why of course!” she said.

Next to the lifts a discreet door led to a back staircase spiralling up the spine of the building. Madame Kessler opened the door to reveal a metallic elevator. This out-of-view lift was for servants.

“You will have a housekeeper no doubt?”

I gave her question some thought, hesitating.

“Well – yes,” I said. “I mean probably. I have a housekeeper in Fontainebleau. I’ll probably find one in Paris.”

“You will remember to tell her to take this lift,” she said. “It goes down to the courtyard where the bins are gathered. Nearby there is a door leading onto the street. The servants enter and exit through that door. They mustn’t come through the front entrance.”

Her matter-of-fact condescension was almost outrageous.

“I’ll bear it in mind,” I said.

She looked at me in a puzzled way. I had the impression that she understood me perfectly well.

Madame Kessler was in for another surprise. A few weeks after I had settled into the flat, one night I was entering the building with Oscar and Leo. When I bounded up the stairs with the dogs scampering behind, Madame Kessler suddenly stepped out of the lift. At first startled, she gathered her composure and treated me to the usual faux-friendly greeting that Parisians reserve for neighbours with whom they never genuinely interact. Then she looked down at Oscar and Leo.

“Oh, you have two dogs?” she said, scarcely concealing her astonishment.

Oscar and Leo ran up to her playfully and jumped on her legs.

“Meet my children,” I said. “Oscar and Leo.”