I decided to turn 40 in France because it had a wonderful alliterative ring to it. What better place than Paris for a birthday party?
Immediately, I faced a dilemma. I didn't want to be a tourist, typical or otherwise. This was a significant birthday and I wanted a significant experience. I wanted to be a part of Paris. And I wanted it for 10 days.
A hotel, no matter how distinctive the decor and solicitous the staff, missed the mark. I would still be an outsider looking in. From the pages of the travel section of my Sunday newspaper came an intriguing option: rent an apartment.
After reviewing brochures from the rental agencies mentioned in the travel article, which included Chez Vous and Paris Connection, I opted for Paris Connection. The company is owned and operated by Jim Buongiorne out of Paris and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
To be sure I had some choices, I booked in April for an October arrival. I selected an apartment at 7 Rue Jacob, a narrow street full of history and romance in the Sixth arrondissement on the Left Bank. The building was constructed in the 17th Century, and the French writer Racine once called it home.
My one-bedroom apartment--a combination of Old World charm with modern conveniences such as a microwave/convection oven, a bath and a half, television and radio--was a five-minute walk from the Seine and Notre Dame. The price last October was $1,200 per week, which a friend and I split.
When the day came and my flight landed at Orly, I collected my luggage and phoned the Paris Connection office, as instructed, to let them know I had arrived. With a warm "welcome to Paris," Buongiorne told me how to get a taxi and what to expect to pay.
When I arrived at the apartment, he was there waiting to greet me and to make sure the taxi fare was correct. With that, he grabbed my bags, directed me up two flights of stairs and pressed the doorbell, which played 12 notes of "La Marseillaise." This was home for the next 10 days.
As promised in the literature, Buongiorne also spent two hours in what proved to be an indispensable orientation to the city and its transportation, not to mention his personal hit parade of things to see and do.
Also part of the Paris Connection package, I received a transportation pass and one for my friend, who was arriving a day later. That little perk alone gave us unlimited use of the bus and metro system. The pass, coupled with Buongiorne's orientation, successfully eliminated any concerns we had had about using public transportation.
Our apartment was stocked with arrival goodies, including coffee, the ubiquitous baguette and a bottle of red wine. There also were maps and guidebooks for our use. Perhaps most comforting was the knowledge that the Paris Connection staff--friendly American voices--were only a phone call away if we needed them, which we did on several occasions.
Within a few days, we felt as if we truly were Parisian, if not in speech, then in spirit. Each morning I tossed on my raincoat and walked around the corner to wait my turn in the neighborhood boulangerie . For three francs, roughly 60 cents, I bought a freshly baked baguette for our traditional French breakfast. The sweet, yeasty smells were enough to convince anyone who normally skips breakfast to do otherwise.
The best part of the morning, however, was the stroll back to the apartment. Each day I became a little more attuned to the sights and sounds of Paris waking up. The carts nearly overturning with fresh fruits and vegetables as the vendors readied for business in the open-air market. The shopkeepers wetting down and sweeping up only the precise section of sidewalk in front of their shops. The echo of bonjour as one Parisian greeted another to a new day.
We leisurely planned each day's schedule over that bread and butter. The ritual was something we looked forward to instead of rushing to get dressed to go out for breakfast.
We hadn't planned to do any serious cooking during our stay, but it would have been possible since the kitchen was equipped with the basics. We did, however, enjoy buying fresh flowers, sampling sausages at the outdoor market and toting home our share of vin de la semaine, the wine of the week, typically a good, inexpensive wine on special.
After our orientation to the transportation system, we didn't hesitate to ride the metro, which is quite safe after dark. At Buongiorne's insistence, we also tried the buses, which I now consider a must. They are the ideal way to at least travel through sections of the city you don't have the time to visit.
Renting an apartment is not for the faint-hearted or weak-kneed. Most of Europe was built before the elevator, so many apartments are walk-ups. You should be in moderately good physical condition. Our apartment was up two substantial flights; some are up as many as five.
Don't expect concierge service. With Paris Connection, I was met at my apartment and given assistance moving in and out. The staff was there when I really needed them, but after the orientation I was well-equipped to get along in Paris as the locals do--even as a first-time visitor. The two other apartment services I checked require you to pick up your apartment keys at their main offices. Then you really are on your own.
Renting an apartment is a good value. You get more space than in a hotel room, even if you rent a studio. Staying in a hotel automatically means you pay taxes and tips. It also is necessary to eat all meals out or opt for expensive room service.
Included in the Paris Connection price were taxes, utilities, sheets and towels and local telephone calls. Other apartment services I checked with charge extra for linens.
There were several other reasons that I selected Paris Connection. The agency required no security deposit. I was able to arrive on any day of the week I wanted. I could add extra days to my stay, prorated at one-seventh of the week's cost. There was no cleaning fee at the end of the stay. The price I was quoted was the price I paid.
When my 10 days passed, I left the City of Lights with a kind of nostalgia that I never expected. It probably shouldn't have surprised me. After all, I didn't just visit Paris, I lived there.
Renting a Paris Apartment
Before renting a Paris apartment, ask the agency:
--How much is the deposit? When and how is it refunded?
--Are references from past clients available?
--What happens if reservations must be canceled?
--Is there a security deposit? If so, how much? When will it be returned?
--Are there extra charges for linens, utilities, telephone, maid service? Are there extra charges for anything?
--Is is possible to arrive and leave on any day of the week?
--Is the rate guaranteed even if the dollar fluctuates?
--Can extra days be prorated?
--Is it possible to receive and make long-distance telephone calls?
--Can the client select the apartment and, if so, is it guaranteed? If the chosen apartment is not available, are upgrades provided at no extra charge?
--Are staff people available if problems or questions arise?
For more information: Paris Connection, 301 N. Pine Island Road, Suite 106, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 33324, phone (305) 475-0615.
Chez Vous, 220 Redwood Highway, Suite 129, Mill Valley, Calif. 94941, (415) 331-2535.
B&D; de Vogue, 1830 S. Mooney Blvd., Suite 203, Visalia, Calif. 93277, (800) 727-4748.