In the Paris apartment, up the long winding staircase on the 5th floor — the 4th floor in Paris, as it were — I shower, or maybe I just bathe, in the cramped tub, taking turns between water and lather because you can’t do both at the same time. Otherwise you’ll drop the shower nozzle — the telephone shower, as we call it — and get water everywhere. I have had more comfortable bathing situations, no exaggeration, in parts of the developing world.
But this is Paris, and all I can remember as this is happening, is the warning at the beginning of Rick Steves Paris 2006 where he says something to the effect of: If you’re ready to travel, you have to accept that showers are not always hot, cups of coffee are not always the size of your big American face, and that beds are not always comfortable.
Well, let me go further. The showers in Paris are not always showers. Sometimes they’re just a faucet and a basin and a hot water tank that’s smaller than a mini-keg of Stella.
I rinse off my jetlag and wash my hair upside-down and the water pools around my ankles, blue-black with the dye from my new jeans. I leave my bracelet on because if I take it off, they may not re-admit me to the festival and that would be hundreds of dollars down the drain. And I would miss St. Vincent.
But for all the bathroom’s hazards, its soup bowl of a sink and slippery tiles, the apartment itself looks like the set of Last Tango in Paris. Plaster ceiling moldings and hardwood floors and fireplaces in two rooms. A brass doorbell. A wrought-iron window grate. Books on a shelf — Paul Auster, the same novel I brought to read on the plane. Collages with flowers. A kitchen smaller than the bathroom, and no trash can, and a view over the street below and the long row of buildings just like it, a march of wrought-iron and blue roof tiles and cream-colored stucco.
The heat is just little electric space heaters that cost a fortune to run and don’t heat the space very well anyway. And there’s no insulation. No soundproofing so the neighbor’s argument is your argument. The crying baby upstairs is your baby, your headache, your sleepless night.
My apartment in Paris, when I lived here, was just like this. Drafty, up a long flight of beautiful stairs, a nest above the city where I turned up the expensive heat as high as it would go and huddled under blankets in January and read news from home using the excellent free wifi. Where I got really good at taking 7-minute showers. It was all love and discomfort. I kept a bowl of clementines on the table and ate mache salads every night with balsamic and kiwi and whatever weird thing I found at the market — maybe the clementines. I don’t think I’ve even seen mache in New York. If I found it, I would buy it.
And the rental apartment of this vacation, this non-living situation, which looked so perfect in the photos, actually is perfect. What I had not realized, before I walked in the door. Before I twisted the complicated double-pronged key in the sticky lock — all Paris apartments of a certain age have a double-pronged key and a sticky lock — is that it would not be such a surprise or such an adventure. It would be perfectly typical — a thing that has not changed. That is what it is — sheltering and imperfect and sure of what it is.