It isn’t obvious, but Paris grows on you — a slow seductive charming muse, in whose bosom you willingly lay your head and conjure up visions of blissful eternity. Be it in the graceful lilt of the language when even strangers greet you with bon jour, the stylishly dressed handsome men and graceful women at all hours of the day and night, the bustling street-side cafes and bistros to watch the world go by, the absolutely delightful bakeries and patisseries with their own wonderful aromas and promises of sinful pleasure, the attention to detail in anything culinary, and in the decorative and expressive facade of each and every building hinting at the glorious past, Paris will captivate, enchant, and eventually, bewitch.
It isn’t easy and it wasn’t going to be easy for us. A change of residence is always beset with teething problems, particularly if it is inter-country and inter-continental. And Paris is known to present difficulties to the incoming resident. There are mega bytes of web pages all detailing the rude Parisian, the “no-English” iron curtain that puts a stop to all attempts at conversation, the small apartments that come bare with electrical wires substituting for light fixtures and unfurnished kitchens, the cost of parking, the deplorable absence of toilets in public places, the poor service mentality (and what more could you expect when you are mandated to work not more than 35 hours a week, and then have generous vacation entitlements?), the announcements every other week of some organization or the other going on strike, the pickpocket laden metro and so on. Add to that the extremely high cost of living and even higher taxes, and you have a recipe for a perfectly disordered stay. As the plane banked to the left in its final approach to the Charles De Gaulle runway on that cool April evening I wondered how the next couple of years in the “City of Lights” would turn out for us.
You will have realized that I am talking about establishing residence in Paris. This is a completely different experience from the general tourist who would probably spend a few days to a week here, dashing from one “must-see” attraction to another, cameras and cell-phones on the ready, determined to make the most of his visit, chatting excitedly with other members of the group whenever a site is recognized and trying to have as much of a cultural initiation as possible within the short period of time. And where else can you get more monuments which are universally recognized than Paris ? From the Eiffel Tower soaring majestically into the blue sky, the glass pyramidal entrance at the Louvre made memorable in “The Da Vinci Dode”, the awe-inspiring cathedral of Notre Dame which started construction as early as 1160, the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate Napoleans’ victory at the Austerlitz wars and to the Palace of Versailles, where Louis XIV moved his court from Paris in 1682, and many others in between, Paris is a vacationer’s dream city and is on the bucket-list of many retirees as places-to-visit-before-I-kick-the-bucket. For many such tourists that this city hosts temporarily, the visit is an episode in their life that is going to be unsurpassed by anything more resonating. To all such visitors, I quietly doff my hat and agree with their sentiments, mostly. But my thoughts on that April evening of 2014 as I made my way across the immigration line at CDG airport was more apprehensive than reassuring, less of delightful anticipation and more of contemplative silence. And then my passport was stamped and I entered Paris, France.
The first thing that hit me was how green the city was. If it was not green, it was in bloom. Coming from the Middle East, where sighting such scenes outside of oases and carefully nurtured super-luxurious housing compounds was well nigh impossible, I could not have enough of the bounty of nature. Eyes flitting from one green patch to another through the rain-spattered tinted glass of the taxi as it sped towards the destination, I could not help but marvel at the exquisitely beautiful play of colors that the world had to offer. For a brief moment, I wondered if the occupants of other cars and buses were also marveling at this delightful show of Mother Earth or were immersed in the artificial lighting of their tablets, cell phones, laptops. And then the taxi took a curve and a small jardin (garden) in the corner, with a forlorn green bench beneath the statue of some lady of nobility, and some ready-to-bloom lilacs behind, caught my attention and I forgot about all other co-travelers in separate vehicles.
My initiation into the real Paris started soon enough. Deposited outside an arched doorway with a metallic number-pad to key in the building access code, an apartment on one of the higher floors was going to be our temporary accommodation for the next month while we searched for our own place to rent. The first shock was seeing the capacity of the lift. It proclaimed boldly on its wall plate that it could accommodate 2 persons (150 kgs), but I am absolutely certain that if at any time it carried two adults, they needed to be consenting adults. To me, the most it could accommodate was one person plus one medium sized suitcase. Coming in on a transfer of assignment, I remember there were multiple trips that needed to be made before all our luggage had safely landed on our apartment floor.
The second shock was as we made a tour of the apartment. Actually, “tour” is a wrong word as it emphasizes distance and time. Here the “tour” was over even before it started. Surely, there would be more floor space — was I missing a door somewhere that led to the main living room or another bedroom? The “hallway”, was wide enough to allow one person-width to walk along. If another person came from the opposite direction, both needed to turn perpendicular to avoid brushing against each other. The door of the kitchen opened into the pantry and guess what — both could not be opened at the same time. You had to enter the kitchen, close the door behind you, and only then open the cupboard. A similar situation existed for the bathroom, and speaking of which, was this a bathroom or a toy-bathroom? The only way I could console myself was that this was just temporary — our own apartment was going to be fine. There was legitimate reason to worry because our furniture was being shipped from the Middle East and Texas (US), both known for sizes extra-extra-large and I had a full 40 ft container, packed to the gills, waiting to be delivered at whichever would be my new residence in Paris.
It will be fair to say that France does not look very welcoming to long-term visitors. Starting from the rather abrasive visa interviews held at the French embassy of the previous location, where volumes of paperwork are needed, and where much of the information is helpfully provided only in French, one gets the feeling of being tolerated rather than received with open arms. Bureaucracy is endemic in all official work and “time” has no meaning. There is no website where one can monitor the progress of one’s file as it supposedly moves through hierarchical office desks before a final arbitrator decides on the merit of the case with your destiny stamped in bold red letters — ACCEPTED or REJECTED. The labyrinthine rules and procedures of filling in various application forms must surely exist, as no Government office in any country can function otherwise, but none is readily visible to the uninitiated. And no document is more important than the coveted “Titre de Sejour“, the residence visa, as almost every other document, including the “Carte Vitale” (Social Security Card — required for medical reimbursements) and French Driving License, need to refer to it.
But I am making a hash of the sequence of events. Let me back track a couple of weeks. Before applying for the Residence Visa, we needed to have a residence first — bought or rented. Buying was out of the question as Paris realty prices would have bankrupted me a few times over. My wife took the onerous task of locating an apartment that would not put a fatal dent in our monthly paycheck and yet qualify as being in Paris. You see, after spending all our married lives in the suburbs of various cities, complying with the stereotypical lifestyle of parents of school going children, we desperately wanted to live in Paris, to explore and experience what city life has to offer. She realized soon enough that this was going to require some serious juggling. Located in Paris but yet financially sustainable, financially sustainable and yet having two bedrooms, having two bedrooms and also two bathrooms (a not too common feature, unfortunately), having two bathrooms and yet a furnished kitchen, a furnished kitchen and yet, financially sustainable — this was definitely not an easy task. She marshaled all her resources — friends, company expatriation agent, local relocation agencies, company spouse association and others — and to cut a long story short, within a couple of weeks we could agree on an apartment with as few concessions to our wishlist as possible.
Even with all advance preparations, there were a few major causes of headache, if not actual trauma. The strict rental contract with penalties for every known or unknown cause for any change to the apartment should be used by law schools to define what iron-clad means. The naked bulbs hanging precariously from the ceiling conjured up visions of lighting arrangements in small-town grocery shops of India. That an apartment could be rented without ceiling fans, leave aside air conditioners (because Parisian weather does not require such fanciful gadgets), was an act of faith that I still find difficult to comprehend. The fact that you have no letter box of your own and all mails are delivered to the common pool, whereupon the Guardianne sorts and distributes, seemed especially quaint in today’s day and age. And getting the furniture delivered via a mobile crane and through the balcony door was an experience that had to be experienced, but not without generating innumerable hiccups prior to the actual operation. It was indeed remarkable that we got done what we got done within the time frame that we had initially set out for.
And that gave us a false hope — that the most difficult part of settling in was over. We had, however, not accounted for standard work practice, or SOP in organizational parlance. To set up any recurring service, such as internet, cable, electricity or water, one needs to have a bank account as it entitles you to what is called a RIB. However, opening a bank account can be a long drawn out process, quite contrary to my experience elsewhere and counter-intuitive, because I was going to put in my money at the bank. First, I needed an appointment with a banker — you cannot just walk into a bank and request to see one — and I got one three days later. Second, I needed my paper work ready, including a note of introduction from my employer certifying something (since these official looking documents are always in French, I can only guess at their contents). And third, I needed the rental agreement to the apartment, which at that point did not have electricity, gas or water connection set up because I did not yet have a RIB, but where I was supposed to be living anyway. You need to have an understanding employer in such cases who will put you up in some hotel or serviced apartment for this period.
Having procured my RIB, and after doing a double somersault on realizing that the monthly charges of accessing my bank account through my debit card would cost me Euro 14 a month — yes, per month, I went after the other necessities of life. Some went relatively smoothly, thanks to our executive relocation agency, but I do want to highlight two cases here. The fact that I have a much more pronounced MPB, or male pattern baldness, now than even a year back, must be due to the innumerable times I almost pulled my hair out in frustration.
We needed to buy a fridge. Friends had warned us to measure the maximum dimensions that the doorway and kitchen space would allow before going to the store, as American style fridges, though available, usually would not fit in the provided space. The beauty of American style double-door fridges are that once you do some serious grocery shopping you should be good to go for a couple of weeks, and even more. All I can say about my landlord is that she seemed to be one who preferred everything fresh. The space provided for a fridge in our kitchen would get me at most a 200 L sized unit, and would require me to stock up every third day. If we went on a diet, perhaps that could extend to every fourth day, but not a day more.
Anyway, we went to one of the gleaming shops at the local Quatre Temps in La Defense and ordered our coveted unit. Delivery could only be scheduled after a couple of days and we were thankful that the wait was only for a short time. On the appointed day, the fridge was surreptitiously brought up the elevator (building regulations apparently allow furniture and goods movement only via the staircase), unpacked and connected to the electrical outlet. The proud owner in me immediately placed six beer bottles to cool. When after six hours the beer still had no chill, I knew something was wrong and called up the store. You may already have guessed the next step — we had to set up an appointment with a technician, and which was not available for another 72 hrs. On his arrival he looked at the fridge and after a cursory glance, certified that the unit indeed was defective and that we could now go ahead and place a replacement order. Losing no time we rushed to the store minutes before closing time and ordered a replacement — and, in a recurrence of our bad luck, the delivery was scheduled again after 3 days. You see, no delivery is allowed on the weekends as per labor union rules. Thankfully, the saga of the refrigerator ends there, or so we continue to hope.
The second incident was the more painful of the lot. If you do not have a working fridge, you can eat out. But what can you do today if you do not have a working internet? Since TV, internet (wi-fi), and landlines all come bundled today, it effectively meant being cut-off from the world. And add to that the football World Cup being played in all its splendor in Brazil and the blank TV set mocking your helplessness here in France, can you really fault me for dark murderous thoughts that were never very far from my mind? We wanted fibre optics instead of ADSL because we thought we would also do a fair amount of streaming. We did not relish going through withdrawal symptoms of “House of Cards” or “Homeland”. It was too bad that “Breaking Bad” was over, but there were new seasons of “Orange is the New Black” and “Downton Abbey” to look forward to, if only the technician from Orange could give us a time. On the anointed day he came, he saw and he made a list of things that needed to be completed before he could “draw” the fibre-optic channel from wherever the last landing point lay quietly in the neighborhood. Two weeks later, and a full 21 days after we moved into our house, we finally had a working phone, TV and wi-fi services. Thanking Him for small mercies we directed our laptop to the Netflix URL to check out the latest in the lives of Nicolas Brody, Lady Edith Crawley, Piper Chapman, and all the other “streaming” friends who we had missed the last few months, only to learn that Netflix was unavailable in France (it debuted later in Sep 2014).
Meanwhile, we hung on — tenaciously, unwilling to let go of Paris without giving it a chance to redeem itself. We had lived in Mumbai, Beijing, Dallas and Dhahran (Saudi Arabia) and it took time to adjust in each, but once the initial teething period was over, the stay would turn out to be very enjoyable. The problems here, however, seemed so interminable that there was a serious test of resolve. The Titre de Sejour was ready in about 8 months, but since the visa validity for my wife was for only a year, she would have to undergo the process once again in another four months time. The internet stopped working one fine day for no apparent reason and we perforce had to call the utility help line, which charged us an exorbitant rate per minute for calling them for something they should have been ensured was working in the first place. There was a water leakage in the upper apartment but it affected the walls of our kitchen. Remembering the no-nonsense rental agreement, I contacted my insurance agent and it has now become my responsibility to make sure that the upper floor tenant fills out three forms (Constat Amiable Degats Des Eaux) and have them co-signed by and sent to different agencies and then my insurance company will hopefully initiate contact with his. I am still looking forward to a successful resolution to this case.
But slowly, subtly, things began to change. I guess it is all a matter of perception. It was Yeats who said, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for senses to grow sharper.” Nothing could be truer for us than our daily mishaps with the French language. What was a hurdle one day turned into a desire to learn a beautiful language that’s harmonious and lilting and so much like a song. What I initially complained about as ridiculous — the fact that the words are rarely pronounced the way they are spelt — I now find endearing. It now seems so much more natural and free-flowing than if it were written exactly as it sounded. And so much more fun too. And what better excuse to learn a new language than to be able to immerse into a culture known for its richness, vivacity and charm?
And look at the city. A vibrant happening place that has space for everyone — young, old, babies, teens — mothers with strollers, aged with walking sticks, active joggers, wandering tourist, playful kids. The innumerable parks, gardens, forests and water fronts ring out in joyful abandon as children play, couples romance, people walk along, groups commune while the solitary sit on a bench somewhere and watch the world. Each is happy in his own way. Every fragment of time in these salubrious surroundings soothes the self.
But Paris is more than this, of course. It has been at the cutting edge of science, mathematics and technology since ages. And what to speak of art! Look at the architecture and design of the chateaus, palaces, monuments, churches, cathedrals, and even the facades and intricate designs of wrought-iron grilles of supposedly ordinary buildings, and you get a sense of pride just being able to experience all of this. My wife and I love to walk along untrod avenues and rues and seek the thrill of locating a church tucked away in a forgotten corner or a beguiling statue half-hidden in a small patch of green. Even on streets well traveled we are often tingled to discover a fascinating structure hidden between two late 19th century buildings that may have eluded our attention the previous umpteen times we walked there.
In which other city will you have objects of arts displayed across countless public and private museums spanning centuries of human efforts to capture the noble? The beautiful bridges across the river Seine connecting the left to the right bank, the majestic Horse Chestnut, Linden and Honey Locust tree-lined boulevards with numerous round-a-bouts, the weekly farmer’s market in temporary stalls, the cafes, bistros and brasseries with small circular tables monopolizing the pavement and filled with beautifully dressed men and women watching others rush by — all seem so very delightful. Every neighborhood has its own charm and we often find ourselves on buses, trams and subways with no plan other than that to just walk around another out-of-the-way locality. We find it so very pleasing that Paris still hosts charming little independently-owned bookshops, and the smell of half-opened books, together with the aroma of espresso coffee wafting through an open window, is enough to make our day.
No discourse on Paris will be quite complete without a reference to the cuisine that has won the hearts of the sternest kings and nobles. I hate to classify the locals as epicureans, which has shades of gross sensuality attached to its meaning, but the cuisine really transforms a daily kitchen chore into a subliminal culinary journey. It is something that a non-French palate has to develop a taste for, but once you are there, you are hooked. I had heard about layered flavors earlier — I understood it only after coming here. Like the various levels of consciousness laid out in various religious texts, I never realized that one could savor a preparation with so many nuances at different levels. Dorie Greenspan (DorieGreenspan.com) says it so well: “It’s about building flavors…It’s meant to unfold, so its really a relaxing moment at the end of the day. Its about the pleasure of sitting down, enjoying family, company and food.”
I remember our first experience of a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris. We were three of us: myself, my wife and our daughter, freshly arrived from the USA and jet-lagged. She had just got admission to a prestigious university in New York and we wanted to celebrate. The maitre ‘d understood our discomfiture and took extra pains in explaining the ingredients of each dish, the significance of pairing the correct wine with the correct course, the different kind of cheeses and finally, the array of desserts that could only have been conjured by the chefs in Heaven. Suffice to say that months after that delightful rendezvous with the God of Taste we still talk about it — and one day, when we have recouped our savings — we shall be there again.
Oh, one last thing about food, and then I’ll shut up. Did you know that there were more than one thousand varieties of cheeses? Take any one, and bite into it with a chocolate croissant and your sip from the morning cup of Joe — you shall start your day on Cloud Nine. I do not have a favorite variety of cheese, yet. There are just too many to choose from, and have not yet ventured into the aged cheese section, but I’d definitely like to hear from you if you have any favorites already.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “Paris is a holiday, which is always with you”. We are indeed so lucky that our residence has a Paris address, for now. And as for the supposedly rude Parisian, I’ve never really met anyone, except for an occasional grumpy waiter somewhere. But then everyone has a bad hair day. Let us leave it at that!!