Parisians have a conception of public and private space that differs markedly from that of Americans, and the difference is, for me, one of the special charms of Paris. Let me begin with some matters of fact and law. Susie and I bought our Paris apartment in the spring of 2004. It was listed as a “Loft, rue de Maître Albert” [odd, considering that it is on the ground floor], with a “surface” of 32.58 square meters. For those of you a trifle out of practice with the metric system, that is 339.32 square feet. By comparison, the apartment we have just moved into in the Carolina Meadows retirement home is 1607 square feet, which is to say roughly five times as large. Our Paris apartment is truly a pied-à-terre if your feet are not too big. Lest you imagine that we bought the smallest apartment available, I will just note that in our little copropriété or co-op, there are next door to us in the courtyard two smaller apartments which together have exactly the same square meterage as we do!
The precision is essential to a Parisian. “Surface” includes only that part of the floor space in which one can stand up erect, so in those charming top-floor apartments under the gambrel roofs of Paris, the bits of floor under the sloping roof which are only good for shoes or perhaps a cat box do not count when the apartment is advertised. Indeed, if one buys an apartment and then discovers that the floor space, or “surface” is less than advertised, one has the right in law to demand a proportionate refund of the purchase price.
The obsession with precision in floor space manifests itself in many ways. We pay quarterly co-op dues and also, of course, periodic assessments for whatever repairs and such must be made to the buildings. Our dues are precisely apportioned according to our floor space, as measured in ten-thousandths of the total, or tantiemmes. Our apartment has 277 tantiemmes, which is to say 2.77% of the total floor space of all fifteen apartments in the co-op, and so we pay 2.77% of any dues and assessments.
Our apartment’s tininess is by no means unusual. When we were in Paris two weeks ago, we were invited for drinks and snacks to the apartment of a charming American ex-pat with whom we struck up a friendship in the local café as a consequence of her delightful dog, Apollon. Joan lives, not for two or three weeks at a time, but year-round, in a seventh floor apartment [sixth floor by the French system of counting] with Apollon and two cats, Mozart and Clara [for Clara Schuman]. She has a view of the towers of Nôtre Dame [a signal selling point]. Her apartment is roughly half a square meter smaller than ours.
How do Parisians survive in such constrained quarters? The answer is that they spend a great deal of their time in the ubiquitous bustling, exciting public spaces that are the distinctive charm of Paris. Half a block from our apartment is Place Maubert, a lively constantly active space dominated by Le Metro, our local café. Susie and I go the Le Metro every day, sometimes several times a day. A single espresso or kir gives us the unquestioned right to sit for as many hours as we desire, watching the huge tour buses negotiate the narrow side streets, observing our fellow patrons, saying hello to the waiters we have come to know and like [such as Samy, who juggles trays of drinks and dinners like a juggler at the Cirque de Soleil], and checking on the condition of the local street person who has staked out ownership of one small bit of sidewalk.
The French protect their public spaces, cleaning them, improving them, renovating them, maintaining them. In the spring and summer, at lunch time, the open air cafés are jammed with people eating, gossiping, relaxing. The French workers, by the way, are quite as productive as American workers, but they cherish and protect their time to enjoy the social life of the streets.
Susie and I do not spend long periods in our apartment. I think a month is the longest we have stayed. But we do not feel cramped or oppressed in 339.32 square feet, and I think we could spend much longer before we began to need more space. Our kitchen, in which I have prepared duck, rabbit, quail, tuna, swordfish, dorade royale, coquilles St. Jacques, and countless other dinners, is probably no more than 40 square feet, including the stove, fridge, microwave/oven and dishwasher, and yet I am happier there than anywhere else on earth.
One of the oddities of the real estate market is that with very few exceptions, the only factors determining price are location and square meterage. A shell and a beautifully renovated apartment in the same location with the same square meterage will list for roughly the same price. Fortunately for us, real estate values where we live have been rising slowly but steadily for the past four hundred years, and will probably keep doing so for another four hundred years.
I can’t wait to get back.