11/28: Thanksgiving and Sabotage in Paris
I’m going to show you two photos that sum up my most recent week in Paris. On the left, I’ve got a cranberry rosé spritzer in hand, surrounded by new friends celebrating an unconventional but undeniably chic Thanksgiving in the sixth arrondissement. On the right, I’m lugging a two-gallon bucket of water up three flights of four-hundred-year-old stairs to flush my water-less Airbnb toilet – for the second night in a row, while trying to avoid the neighbors that all signs indicate slashed my water supply.
I’ve dreamed about living in Paris for years. So have you, I’d bet, at one time or another. I’ve been dreaming about it so long and so hard, in fact, that before I got here, I went pretty deep in the expat literature – from The Sweet Life to Lunch in Paris – deep enough to read about not just the delights of a perfectly shattery croissant and a culturally sanctioned three-hour lunch hour, but about the administrative and domestic horror stories lurking behind Paris’s butter-scented, cobblestoned exterior. But my horror story still hit me, this week, like a ton of crumbling cobblestones.
The final week of November started out innocently enough. I mean, it was truffles and meringue week at Le Cordon Bleu. How much more wholesome can you get? And this week, I was one of the students in my class (Basic Pastry Group D) who was ‘team leader,’ responsible for preparing the ingredients in the kitchen and keeping workstations clean. My goal for the week was to finish the recipes on time, get yelled as little as possible (team leaders are always targets), and make it to Thanksgiving weekend without a hitch, and with a properly-baked lemon meringue tart for the holiday meal with my friends.
The week went almost too smoothly. I didn’t get yelled at once, and while my raspberry macarons on Wednesday were a little chunky and my meringue on the lemon tart a bit over-whipped, it was one of the first weeks where I was starting to feel like I’m floating above the French current, rather than, well, you know. I should have known it was too good to last.
The first sign of something strange had come the week prior, when I was out to lunch with my school buddies who’ve dubbed ourselves the Bois (pronounced Bwah, because we went to the Bois du Boulogne once, on a Sunday, made a joke about Sundays being “for the bois,” then made the same jokes a thousand times more, eventually driving everyone around us and even ourselves insane.)
We were at Gloriette Cafe near Le Cordon Bleu, drinking our way through Beaujoulais Nouveau Day, the one day a year that the new harvest of that wine variety is delivered everywhere around France. (Although I’ve since been told by actual Parisians that Beaujoulais Nouveau le sucks and this whole day is a marketing scam for foreigners. Luckily, I’m not wine-savvy enough to know the difference. All I know is, I had fun.)
My phone buzzed in my lap, and I looked down at it. A message from my Airbnb host – we’ll call him Dan – said he’d been alerted by my downstairs neighbor – we’ll call him Satan – that my unit was leaking water into his ceiling, and I’d better get home and check it out. I explained to the Bois what was up, and I zipped off to the metro, a faint scent of red wine lingering in the air behind me as I jogged.
I got back to my 400-year-old apartment building near Les Halles, the former site of an 800-year-old food market torn down in the 70s to build a mall (classic), and once I’d huffed my way up the slick, tightly spiraling staircase to my unit, I was relieved to find no obvious signs of a faucet left on or appliances leaking.
My host Dan came by later that evening, swirling in as he had on the day I’d met him in a fit of agitation, excitement, and Franglish. I hadn’t seen him since the day I arrived in Paris on September 29th, and I hadn’t banked on seeing him until I left. When I met him to get the keys and sign the bail mobilité that governs long-term Airbnb rentals in Paris, he had spent a surprising amount of time – not slowed down in the least by my bemused, jet-lagged stare – complaining about past renters. This particular evening, he was complaining about the downstairs neighbor.
Satan, it seemed, had some beef with Dan. Actually, the whole building seemed to have beef with Dan – according to Dan. Satan claimed his apartment was being destroyed by a slow but steady water leak coming from Dan’s apartment – my Airbnb. Dan claimed there wasn’t enough proof it was from his unit and not another; and in a building this old, all the pipes were bad and it could be from any of the floors above. Seemed like a reasonable enough position to me.
After more recounting of the building’s water and other infrastructural issues that had been unjustly blamed on him over the past decade, Dan left. But then he messaged me: Satan had retained a plumber to diagnose the situation, and the plumber would be going to Satan’s place in the morning. He and Satan might want to come up to my unit, but Dan said to not open the door, or to make them call him.
Unsettled by his instructions to pretend I wasn’t home, when the doorbell rang in the morning, I hesitated by the door just a moment, and decided to open it. (Raised during my teenage years in Pittsburgh, the Midwestern politeness never goes away.) But I split the difference and played dumb, finally agreeing only frigidly, after pretending I didn’t understand what they were saying, that Satan and the two (!) plumbers could enter just pour regarder.
A while later, after much rapid-fire French and some shouting up and down between the two units to check the leaking, they issued their verdict: the leak was indeed coming from my apartment, and the kitchen floor would have to be torn up to prove it, and soon.
In the meantime, if I could please turn off the water main using the red lever outside my apartment door every time I left, that’d be great.
I mentally rolled my eyes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a half-dozen memoirs I’ve read of Americans who’ve moved to Paris, it’s that contractors never do work as quickly as they say. I would only be here another two weeks before heading to the US for Christmas (and to try to get a visa – that’s another story), so surely the whole tearing-up-the-kitchen-thing would be happen long after I left, if ever.
But the following night, after I’d eaten the bulk of my freshly-made and just a little lumpy macarons while applying for the visa in question, I received a message from Dan: Per the plumbers, I was not to use the washing machine until the kitchen floor could be torn up, likely the following week. Oh and, I shouldn’t use the kitchen sink either. The prospect of my exams – and all the recipes I needed to bake and the dishes I’d need to wash – swam in my mind.
But the next day was Thanksgiving, and there were fun things ahead for the rest of the week, so I swallowed my frustration and focused on preparing a butternut squash crumble (from David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen).
Thanksgiving dawned cold and bright. At 9:00am, I wrapped a scarf tightly around my neck, picked up my heavy knife kit, and walked to the metro, humming the Peanuts theme song in my head. Once on the 10 line, my friend K hopped on the train, and I was reminded, not for the first time, of the Polar Express picking excited kids up on the way to somewhere magical. I grinned at the thought of how my friends back home would think my optimism heinously obnoxious.
The students all made our lemon meringue tarts in a whirl of páte sablés and crème de citrons and, oddly enough, a bright-red apple compote hidden in the bottom of the tart, and breathed a sigh of relief when class was over. Now, my friend K and I were off to stock up on Thanksgiving foods before our friends all came over to her place for dinner.
The afternoon passed in a whirl of foods, some familiar to me and some new – piles of dates at Delices d’Orient, where we bought the labneh to go on my brussel sprouts side dish, a sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region that the helpful saleswoman at the fabulous fromagerie Quatre Homme described as tasting like it’s “full of animals” (it was better than advertised), and a rotisserie chicken whose sawed off leg poked defiantly out the plastic bag all the way home from the butchershop. One of our other Bois friends, S, showed up with an armful of baguettes, and then soon after our other friends streamed in, all Americans celebrating Thanksgiving in Paris.
We overate, and over-drank, and when the plumber who’d been at my place Tuesday called me asking if I could let him into my place to check more pipes, I felt proud for being able to explain in polite – albeit kindergarten-level – French that I couldn’t, because I was across town celebrating an American holiday.
When I got home late that night, I discovered when I tried to wash my hands that someone – perhaps Satan? – had done me the kindness of turning off my water main for me. I was annoyed, but I tried to be understanding: I wouldn’t want water dripping into my apartment unnecessarily either.
Friday passed in a food-coma stupor. K and I met near school and nursed an espresso, a baguette, and then a very spicy bowl of noodles, walking all over Paris trying to shake off the fullness that eight different carb-based side dishes will give you. We even found me a deep-green cashmere peacoat from a tiny French brand on a steep Black Friday discount, and reader, I bought it. I was feeling on top of the world, if a little heavy around the stomach.
And then night fell.
It was after midnight on a Friday night, and I was reading and trying to drift off to sleep, when I heard a loud metallic noise – BANG! – coming from outside my bedroom door, or my apartment? I couldn’t tell. I turned on the light, heart beating fast, and opened the creaky bedroom door as quietly as I could. All was quiet in the darkened living room – the only other room in my 300-square-foot apartment. But I could hear whispering outside my front door.
There’s a tiny landing there, leading to just two apartments: mine, and one across the hall that’s unoccupied, as far as I know. I stood still, listening. The whispering continued, and I heard what sounded like papers shuffling. I thought perhaps of drunk residents trying to slip up or downstairs without disturbing others. I waited for them to go up or down, but they didn’t. The whispering just continued. I tiptoed to the door, holding my breath, and peered out the peephole. The hallway light was on, but my field of vision was obscured – the view was as cloudy as if it were covered in film. I leaned back away from the door, still holding my breath. Why couldn’t I see?
After a few more minutes, I heard whoever it was going either up or down the stairs, as quietly as they could, very slowly. The light from the peephole disappeared – the hallway light had gone off automatically. I pressed my ear to the window, listening to see if I’d hear shoes tapping against the cobblestone courtyard below, indicating people were leaving. I didn’t.
Then the light in the hallway flicked back on, though I didn’t hear footsteps. I peered out the peephole, and this time, I had an unimpeded view of the empty landing, from the wrought-iron railing of the staircase to the other apartment’s door across the hall. Nothing looked amiss, but my heart skipped another beat: Why could I see now when my view had been blocked before?
I found my hot-pink hand-held mace my best friend Kathryn gave me for an early birthday present before I left the US, and put it on my bedside table. I slept badly that night, afraid that perhaps someone had been trying to break in, and had been scared off when I turned on my light. Would they come back?
In the morning, groggy, I woke up and went to get a glass of water from the sink. I lifted the faucet handle – nothing. I huffed. Had the neighbor turned off the water main again? I opened the door, and saw the red handle was firmly in the on position, but strangely, it was dripping water, which it had never done before. There was a puddle below it on the tile floor. The whispering and metallic noises from the night before came back to me.
Had someone cut my water?
I checked all the faucets to be sure. Yep. Nada. I messaged Dan on the Airbnb app and explained there was no water, but didn’t say anything else. I pulled on my boots and jacket, grabbed the keys, and headed downstairs. First things first, I needed to buy some bottled water.
At the foot of the stairs, I ran into Satan coming up them. He’s a young guy, I’d guess mid-thirties. He’s short, and doesn’t smile, and doesn’t enunciate, either. The plumbers he’d hired kept having to ask him to repeat himself.
By this point, I was suspicious, but I kept my tone polite and innocent as I began in French, “Pardon, j’ai une question…” do you have water at your apartment? I don’t, even though the main is on.”
Expressionless, Satan replied slowly that “normalement,” he has water. He unlocked the grate-covered stone cave holding god-knows-what on the first level of the apartment building, and went, he told me, to check the main water line for the whole building. He told me it was on.
OK, breaking the fourth wall here: This conversation with Satan was yesterday. Right now it’s 9pm on a Sunday night, and I’ve got to take the metro over to my friend’s house to crash on her couch soon, so I’m going to speed things up here.
Later that morning, Satan told my host, Dan, that water was turned off for the whole building because of a massive water leak elsewhere. But as I told Dan, that’s not what he told me!!
Dan came by himself later in the day on Saturday, opened our interaction by complaining about how difficult this whole situation was for him for about a half hour, and then listened intently as I told him what had happened after midnight the night prior.
His brow furrowed, he went upstairs to the fourth floor and asked the neighbors up there if they had water, and they did.
He also told me how much the neighbors below Satan hate him (Dan).
Based on Satan’s contradictory stories and the fact the upstairs people had water, he told me agreed – he believed it was sabotage. He then left me a few water bottles, and a big, two-gallon bucket to fill at the spigot on the ground floor and flush the toilet with. Perhaps, he said, the water could be fixed Monday. I’ll let you imagine the look on my face as he handed me a bright purple bucket and turned on his heel to leave.
After a day without running water and no resolution in sight, I got in touch with Airbnb. They told me my options were to cancel the remainder of my reservation and use my cash refund to rebook something else, or to stay put. But since rebooking at the height of the holiday travel season in Paris isn’t going to get me a place with an oven – which I need to practice a Paris-Brest and a dacquoise and éclairs for my exam next week – my only real choice was to stay. It was not their responsibility, they said, to put me up in a hotel or find me a place to stay while the water was repaired. (I will definitely not be using long-term Airbnb again.)
So tonight, for the second night, I’m heading to a friend’s couch to sleep. It really makes you wonder: If not the lack of running water, and if not midnight sabotage by an angry neighbor – or a band of them? – what would make Airbnb step in and give me a safe place to stay? And moreover, to paraphrase the wise Eve Andrews, all I want to do is make my little desserts. Why are my fellow Parisians trying to make that so hard?
BUT, I’ve been telling myself today, as I schlepped back from my friend’s apartment in Montmartre on a bus and a train this morning, it’s all part of the adventure. Because of this series of very odd water events, I got to spend a beautiful morning with my friends S and A at their Montmartre apartment, having raspberry croissants as we traded Paris housing horror stories and listened to Christmas carols. And tonight, I get to stay with my friend K, and we can get up together at 5am to head to class, hopping on the metro at the same stop, on our very own Polar Express.
And tomorrow, god damn it, I get to make a giant mocha cake. And then I’m gonna come back to my place and shove it up Satan’s ass.