Two Ways to Find a Paris Vacation Apartment : While in Paris, Scout Out Ads

Dirlam is a Santa Barbara free-lance writer.

For someone who speaks only a little French, it's not easy to negotiate an apartment rental in Paris, but it can be an amusing adventure.

We arrived in Paris planning to stay for about three months. The lowest-priced hotel room we could tolerate (clean sheets, private bath) cost $65 a night, not including breakfast. Granted, that's not bad at all for a tolerable room in the world's most wonderful city, but something in us wanted more for less.

We wanted to get our clothes out of suitcases, to spread out and to accumulate books, maps, writing paper, coffee cups and the other little accoutrements of life. We wanted to be here, but we also wanted to feel at home. And we wanted to stretch our dollars as far as possible in this expensive city.

The first step in finding an apartment is to pretend that the trauma and anxiety of seeking a nest is really a fun-filled adventure and a way to get to know the city in a hurry. Consider it a challenge rather than a route to rejection and frustration. Assume that it's OK not to speak fluent French, and fight down the feeling that the entire process is probably an exercise in futility.

Step No. 1: Have two good maps--the free metro-and-bus map available at any tourist office, train station or airport and at some metro stops, and Michelin's "Paris Plan, Repertoire des Rues," or the little red "Paris Metro-Autobus Plan-Guide" by Editions Taride sold at newsstands around the city.

Step No. 2: Buy Le Figaro, the morning newspaper, and with a French-English dictionary start deciphering the ads. Or buy the International Herald Tribune, which also lists apartment rentals. However, these are usually aimed at English-speaking foreigners and are the upscale places.

Step No. 3: Go to the American Church in Paris on the Left Bank (65 quai d'Orsay). Not just to pray, although that may help, but to join the little throng of people--mostly young--clustered around the bulletin board. I don't know how they all know it's there; it took us three days to find out about it, and our informant was a young man we had met while standing in line to see one of the apartments for rent.

The bulletin board lists apartments to rent, apartments to share, help wanted, work wanted and secondhand things for sale.

In our search, we saw that Parisians live in garrets, maids' quarters, centuries-old buildings or mansions that are subdivided into private accommodations, in luxurious apartments with extra rooms, even on barges in the Seine.

Students often double up in apartments in the Fifth arrondissement near the Sorbonne, on the Left Bank, which are very handy to the part of the city that most tourists love the most. An advantage to apartment-hunting in this area is that many rooms are vacated when school terms end. The flip side is a decided disadvantage in the fall when the students arrive in waves and the rent goes up.

Rentals listed in Le Figaro usually state a pair of hours, 3 to 5 p.m. on Wednesday, for example, when the place is open for inspection--unless it's already rented, in which case a small crowd may linger outside a locked door for two hours with nothing to show for it. However, it was during one of these sessions that we learned about the ads at the American Church, so maybe the best recourse in such situations is to relax and make friends.

Generally, during the designated hours, someone shows up and lets people into the empty apartment. (We were looking at apartments in the lower price range--$540 to $750 a month; the higher-priced places may not draw the same crowds.) Everyone mills around looking the place over, some leave, others try to make a good impression on the owner or agent and several fill out application forms. The process is like a casting call, complete with a "don't call us, we'll call you" attitude.

Oddly, we came to believe that the best ads to answer were the ones that gave the least information, maybe because the competition didn't bother with them. The place we found using this tactic was perfect. The ad said only that it was available in June, not mentioning that it was also available in July and August and beyond that, except that the price goes up in September. The ad also failed to mention the price, which was a reasonable $625 a month, and the location on the Ile St. Louis, one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Paris.

The charming studio had a tiny kitchen, beamed ceiling and leaded glass windows, and was completely furnished, including linens, dishes and small appliances. The only disadvantages were the 93 steps we had to climb to get to it and the fact that the toilet was tucked away under the slant of the roof, a man-size problem.

Once we found our place, the difficulties of the search dimmed in our memory and we realized that after all, it had only taken us four days of full-time searching. And it really was an interesting way to get to know Paris.

We had arrived at one address, in the 16th arrondissement, to find that it is an elegant residential area near the Bois de Boulogne. The owner was a plain, thin woman with long brown hair and freckled skin; her manner was pleasant and bemused.

Madame S. took us into her living room and we all sat down. She asked us several questions about ourselves, in English, and then said she had already rented out the room for $520 a month.

"Then why are you asking us these personal questions?" I asked, pulling a layer of annoyance over my disappointment.

"Oh, I may have something else," she said, smiling mysteriously, and she left the room. We sat there looking around, at the marble fireplace, the pretty paintings and assorted antiques, and heard her murmuring in French on the telephone.

After several minutes she returned and said, "I could let you have my room," explaining that she spent most of the summer at her country home near the coast. She showed us her room--a suite, actually--light, bright and cheerful, with a mirror interestingly positioned at the foot of the bed.

We could live there for $625 a month. With just one catch: Would we be willing to manage the house for her? See that the immigrant laborer cleaned the kitchen properly, field any complaints from the other tenants, put down the sun umbrella (on the rooftop patio) every night? Oh, and one more thing: We would not be allowed to use the kitchen. But we could heat water for coffee or tea on a hot plate shared with three other tenants.

Her $520 room had become a $625 suite, including management duties to tie us down, and Madame herself moving to a smaller room when she was in town, and no kitchen privileges.

We actually considered this proposal; that's how anxious we felt by the end of the third day. I resisted saying so at the time, but I also thought that Madame S. was showing entirely too much interest in my husband.

We left and promised to call her back the next day.

When we called back to say we had decided on another place, she expressed great disappointment and then said, "Oh, I have friends going to the countryside this weekend. They have room. Would you like to join them?"

Definitely a friendly woman. But we'll never know what we might have missed.

We saw the advertisement for a barge rental on a chalkboard outside the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, an English-language meeting place on the Left Bank across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral. We took the metro and train out to Port Marly, in suburban St. Germaine-en-Laye, where the old black vessel was permanently moored.

The rent was only $300 a month, but we soon saw why. There were four minuscule bunk rooms and their occupants shared a kitchen and living area. Adequate for youths used to dorm living, but not for us. The owners, a retired teacher and his wife, lived on the other end of the barge. Their quarters were topped by a deck with lawn furniture and a big umbrella. They liked to sit and watch the boats go by.

Some people who have found rentals in Paris say it's easiest to find one at the beginning of summer when the students leave, but incoming summer students from around the world provide plenty of competition at that time. The easiest short-term rentals--one or two months--are in July and August when many Parisians take their annual vacations. These also are more likely than not to be furnished. The selection may be limited in early to mid-spring, but negotiations may be easier for those that are available, as the turnover is slow.

We found that the more stairs one has to climb to get to it, the cheaper the apartment. All over the city, residential buildings are six or seven stories high, with the top rooms under the slanted roof. One garret studio near the Bastille was so tiny and the ceiling so slanted that an average-size person could only stand up straight in half the room.

One can head straight to a rental agency (immobiliere) to find a place. But for those who aren't employed in Paris, an immobiliere will probably insist on six months' rent in advance, plus the fee which equals one month's rent and is non-refundable.

Beware of an area that the landlord claims is "gentrifying." We sought out one such place, down a narrow alley in the 11th arrondissement.

We circled around four adolescent boys who were having a shoving match, an unfriendly dog on a tattered leash tied to a post, a beggar and an oily-haired man in a dirty apron. He directed us further along, to a building undergoing extensive remodeling. It was showing signs of future beauty, but the current reality was incredibly noisy and dusty. No thanks.

Another apartment for rent was in the St. Germaine des Pres area, on the Rue Guisarde, and because it was in such a popular location it drew a large crowd. It was a studio, about 12 by 15 feet, with no closets, shelves or storage area of any kind, even in the kitchen space.

By 6 p.m. there were 21 would-be tenants standing in the seedy hallway waiting for the 6:30 viewing--a young man who knew another tenant in the building, a hopeful couple, a mother and her small daughter. An odd buzzing sound came from somewhere behind the stone wall, the hallway light dimmed, flickered out, came back on. Church bells began ringing--gong, gong, gong--and went on for 10 minutes. Maybe this only happened once or twice a day, but we didn't stay around to find out.

The worst "cattle call" was the one at which no one showed up at all to let people in. A simple note would have been so kind.

Then at last we found our temporary home. The landlord was cheerful, the location ideal and the 93 steps up to our apartment kept us in shape.

The necessary attitude for apartment hunting in Paris is expressed by a sign on the bulletin board at the American Church:

"Dear frustrated seekers of places to live: Remember that the Puritans considered perseverance a mark of sainthood. So persevere without ceasing and be of good cheer in the process. If nothing else, sainthood might be yours."

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