Apartment hunting in France

A few months ago, I arrived in France at an Airbnb studio apartment situated to the north of Paris, and just like that, a clock started ticking.

12 weeks to find a real apartment. 

(And if I’d known then what I’d end up having to text real estate agents about…)

12 weeks to get out of the Airbnb meant we should start looking before the end of November, so the clock skipped forward a few weeks.

And we were told about the formidable French apartment-renting dossier – a collection of bank statements, guarantor certificates, personal letters, IDs and visas, and passports – and the particularities of each agent, so we figured we’d need a little runway to work out the issues.

Plus, we figured there would be issues. Some French, some self-inflicted. 

We did not figure on a second confinement. But we’ll get to that.

So facing the prospect of all that, we got down to it. I figured we should budget a week of searching to work through our own problems, one week to just pretend like everything was going to work out perfectly for us and not worry at all, then to start November seriously.

Then if we didn’t have any news by November 10th, I said we could panic.

(But not a day before!)

So we set out. We found the apartment websites. We got the alerts coming to our emails (so many alerts). We started to get a sense of the too-good-to-be-true prices for the spaces. We avoided the scams.

We prepared our fancy printed dossier, made some adjustments and last-minute audibles (let’s scan our IDs! It looks more official than a printed cell phone picture!), and went off to the 18th arrondissement where our first apartment visit had a view of the Sacré-Coeur.

Plus, space. And a laundry machine.

The only thing it needed was us!

Why shouldn’t it be us, we asked ourselves? Why couldn’t it be us? Surely, someone, somewhere, got their first apartment on their first try.

Besides, we’d done everything right.

So we left the apartment, giddy, searched up and down Boulevard Barbes for a cafe to sit for a spell (again, during that charming period before the second confinement – that fun is coming), drink a coffee, pinch ourselves, adjust a few details in our dossier with the complete address, then email it off (the agent was trying to minimize contact, a pretty reasonable pandemic attitude).

And wait.

The next day, no response, despite having said we’d hear by then.

I re-checked the message. Something seemed off. I checked the attached file, then realized…

We had deleted our IDs (and visas and passports) from the digital dossier since we’d planned on printing it out. 

Because we wanted the scanned images in the printed one instead. 

And we hadn’t noticed.

So we’d turned our application in without proof that we could legally be in France. Which, it turns out, is a very good quality to have when renting an apartment in France.

But still, week one. Mistakes happen. This was all part of our budgeted mistake week. We learned, and that afternoon, we got an invitation to another apartment.

This time, the 15th arrondissement. Our goal, after nearly three months outside of the official city limits of Paris, was to be in Paris, by any means necessary. This apartment also qualified.

(And to avoid Line 13, voted to be the worst Metro line in Paris, and the only line to serve our studio in Saint-Ouen.)

So after a 40-minute metro ride to my French writing class, a 40-minute metro ride to the apartment, we took in the grandeur of a freshly remodeled shoebox on Rue Leriche.

We (too) quickly talked ourselves into it, enjoying the neighborhood, the nearby park, and the closeness to a Latin market. On the next 40-minute subway ride home, I began to feel … spent. 

Two hours of subway rides in four hours will do that to you.

That weekend, we headed out of town to see extended family. As we got back in the car after visiting an abbey along the way, we had an alert. 

An apartment. A nice one. Not too far from where we were in Saint-Ouen. A side street called Rue Kleber. Worth a look, I thought. So we sent over our information and waited for a call.

On our ride home after that weekend, we got a call. Not the call we’d been waiting for from Saint-Ouen, but another call from another agent. Also in Saint-Ouen.

She asked if we knew the area. I thought so, I responded. We’d been there six weeks.

She asked if we knew that it wasn’t that popular, that it was a place where people went to buy and sell drugs, if we knew all that, and if we were available Wednesday to come to see the apartment.

In the area that wasn’t that popular where people buy and sell drugs.

We gave a tentative yes, hung up. Gotta admire the honesty, I suppose.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we were accepted to the apartment from the first Saint-Ouen apartment. A moment of exaltation, as we stared dumbfounded at the lease in our inbox, the lease that showed up without us having visited the apartment, nor having talked with the agent. 

Then doubt. 

The other agent had been less than enthusiastic about her own apartment, but at least she’d called and explained. What did it mean that this second agent was trying to dump their place on us?

Uneasy with the thought of committing to an apartment we couldn’t see (no matter how convenient drug-buying activities might have ended up being!) we let the agent know we’d keep looking.

Then came one last in-apartment visit to the center of Paris, the 2nd arrondissement, blocks away from where I spent a month last summer learning French. We sent in our application, and then the second confinement took effect. 

We didn’t hear back from that apartment, nor the others. 

We had two visits scheduled for the day after, the first day of the confinement, the first day of 135€ fines. We asked what we should do. 

The apartments said come, but also that they wouldn’t be paying our fines. 

Instead, we settled on a WhatsApp video call to see a one-bedroom apartment in the 18th arrondissement.

You know, that neighborhood with the Sacré-Coeur.

Sadly, the view at this one wasn’t of a world-renowned basilica, but the inner courtyard of a few buildings, and the many apartments with various plants hanging out of their windows, some of them flowering.

It’s hard to know if the visit went well. Long moments of silence as we watched her point the camera at different aspects of the apartment. Then out the window. Then a slow backward walk through the living room.

Were we supposed to make an impression? Just sit and watch? Ogle from afar? Given that life here has been reduced to a series of video calls – video Italian lessons, video presentations to UN-affiliated organizations, copywriting brainstorming with clients – I lost my video call bearings a bit.

But the apartment seemed spacious and well-equipped and close to what we wanted to be close to, so we applied. Again.

Then we kept looking. We never knew how many people were looking at any one apartment (except the agent that looped us in with 15 other people in a WhatsApp group to schedule visits), so we didn’t really know our odds. Onward, we’d say. 

Then on Saturday, I got a text.

From the agent. I opened it, nervous, excited, reading and re-reading what she said about the owner wanting to know…

… how I met my girlfriend?

That girlfriend, the one who had also just received a LinkedIn notification that our agent had looked at her profile.

Figuring this sort-of intimate backstory research boded well for us, I explained in a brief message our origin story, and she replied that she’d have news for us Monday. 

Then, after nearly four weeks of searching, apartment visits, bungled applications, and being ghosted… 

We got our apartment.

So I sit here now, in that apartment, on a couch that is not broken (miss you already, Airbnb) while a pork shank roasts in the oven with a window (a luxury I’ve not known since time immemorial) drinking a glass of French wine from the Asian market next door to my building, content. 

Not just grateful to have had a compelling enough French meet-cute story to get this French apartment (I’m sure that’s actually what’s important to have in a dossier), not just pleased to have my own actual mailing address that receives actual mail for the first time since July, not just thrilled to have found an honest-to-goodness coffee shop (that sells nothing but coffee beans, freshly roasted, from twenty countries), but at ease, at rest (locationally if not creatively, because this creaky old brain certainly doesn’t idle), ready for what comes next.

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