Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 2: Reluctant Realisations

Arrival at Gare du Nord, Paris

In mid-September, eleven months after the sinistre dégâts des eaux (sinister water damage) journey began, Clive and I returned to Paris for my birthday and to take the next steps for the bedroom ceiling and wall repairs.

A welcoming note from Bernard, our friend and neighbour, greeted us the evening we arrived, as is often the case. He said the building’s newest resident, Marc, had discarded two pairs of metal window shutters during his renovations. The shutters were in excellent condition, and Bernard and Berthe were planning to have one set installed for their bathroom window. They wondered if I’d like the other pair for my bathroom. He had temporarily stored the second set in my cave, the below-ground storage room.

Having a cave is considered a plus; some people use the dark, cool depths to store wine. My cave contains disused items; I loathe going down the curving steps and into the narrow hallway. Clive doesn’t mind; everything is wired for electricity so the stairwell, hall and caves can be illuminated, and it’s all high enough that you can comfortably stand up.

The cave some years ago — more like a prison cell to me

The next morning, I gathered my courage and followed Clive and Bernard down to the cave. I tried not to think about the claustrophobic space and instead complimented Bernard on his amazing determination and agility, having endured a serious illness on top of a recent hip replacement. At 85, he’s a remarkable person in so many ways.

Marc’s discarded shutters were indeed in excellent condition. I accepted Bernard’s offer to include my bathroom window when he gets estimates and decides to have the work done. Back upstairs, Bernard also confirmed he would accompany us the next morning to the building contractor whose estimates we were using for the bedroom repairs.

Not your typical stereotype

As it happened, it was on my birthday that Bernard led me and Clive on a mini-procession through our local streets.

No time to stop in the park

Even with a new hip, and walking with a cane, Bernard moves briskly along. He stopped only to point his cane upward to an ancient, faded but still-visible sign high on the side of a building, naming his grandfather’s business. I’d never noticed it before and was thrilled to discover another piece of local history. Bernard beamed when I wanted a photo.

A few short blocks later, he zipped into the side street where the building contractors’ firm is located. The firm, founded in Paris in 1876, has multiple offices and a long history of servicing residents and buildings in our quartier. I’d used them once myself, years ago, when they installed a new toilet. That may be a relatively straightforward task, but getting it done in Paris was very satisfying and felt like another step forward in my journey as an owner. I recalled the plumber finishing his work and saying, ‘Now I’m going up for a drink with Bernard.’

As in many other places, relationships are so important and highly-valued in Paris. Bernard has a decades-long (maybe lifelong, I’m not sure) relationship with the firm’s director, a distinguished-looking Frenchman I’ll call Big Boss. I’m not certain of Big Boss’s actual position but I think he’s an owner or partner of the firm. He’s clearly head of the office in our quartier.

At the meeting on my birthday, we met several of Big Boss’s staff, including his assistant, Elodie, who manages the office and speaks some English. Elodie sat down with me and walked me line-by-line through several forms and the contract for the work.

Of course I was with Bernard, who watched over the proceedings, and I was about to hand over a large deposit. But Elodie seems by nature helpful and she was even a teeny bit friendly – that is, along with my insurance agent Monique, completely unlike the negative images some seem to enjoy promoting about the French.

I’d never say all Parisians — or all residents of any city, even warm and friendly Sydney — are perfect. But my experience with Elodie (and Bernard and Berthe and Monsieur P and Monique) yet again put to shame those maddening French stereotypes.

Me with a positive Paris image

 The contractor’s estimate was for six days, though Clive thought three would be more like it. They wanted to begin on a Monday and work through Saturday, but we planned to arrive directly from the US and wouldn’t reach the apartment until mid-day on the Monday. They agreed to begin first thing Tuesday and potentially go over to the following Monday.

This was a slight concern: we had to leave no later than the following Tuesday to get back to an important early-November appointment in the UK. Despite the lack of any back-up days, I was pleased and relieved the plan worked with our schedule, because all along, Clive and I knew we wanted to be there.

Be there

‘It’s easier if you just give them the key,’ many said. We understood the point of view, but for us it was important to remain on-site.

I remember Gary, my late husband, always said, ‘The first rule of renovation is Be There.’ When I met Clive, I learned he feels the same. Once more my most trusted DIY experts were in agreement so I was, too. It also matched my own instincts.

In our experience, even for small projects, questions often arise, unexpected events occur or changes are discussed and made as the work progresses. We also have personal technology and possessions in the apartment. I’ve always felt protective about the place that means so much to me, and I didn’t like the idea of strangers moving around freely or not taking sufficient care with the furniture. We also felt, rightly or wrongly, that our presence might encourage greater focus or productivity, perhaps fewer breaks. And of course I wanted to make sure they provided my chosen colour for the wall paint.

Luckily I chose the colour

With our focus directed to how long the work would take and finding dates we could be there, Clive and I had only one or two brief conversations about the contents of the bedroom.

Clive mentioned we’d probably need to remove ‘some’ furniture; certainly the bed would need to be tipped on its side and moved into the living room, and the large armoire (freestanding wardrobe) would at a minimum need to be moved to the centre of the bedroom. I said we could go to a hotel if there wasn’t enough space or the paint fumes became overpowering, but Clive thought we should still be able to pull out the living-room sofa bed.

Dates in place, we spent the next few days enjoying walks, museum visits and a few pâtisseries and chocolatiers.

A la Mère de Famille, Paris

It wasn’t until the end of the week, at an evening soirée chez moi (at my place) with Bernard and Berthe that we – or at least Clive — heard the distant ringing of alarm bells.

Reluctant realisations

As the four of us sipped champagne and ooh’d and aah’d over Berthe’s coconut custard delight (once again made especially for Clive, comme d’hab, as usual), we chatted about the upcoming work.

At some point, Bernard made an almost-offhand remark, along the lines of, ‘Of course, getting your kitchen and bathroom ceilings repaired will not be too big a deal. But the bedroom: that is très formidable (a very big deal)! Of course the whole room must be emptied.’

I may have replied, ‘Yes, the bedroom will be a big job.’ But only Clive really got it.

(Clive’s) wheels begin turning

That night, as we lay in bed getting to grips with Bernard’s comment, Clive said, ‘Bernard’s right. We’re going to have to empty the bedroom.’

Already I could feel his mental wheels turning, pondering this challenge and contemplating different ways we might approach it. Initially he thought that upon our arrival from the US the day before the work would begin, we could clear the room in one afternoon.

I wasn’t so sure. Not at all sure. My biggest concern was the beast armoire, which is tall, deep and wide. I remembered Gary and our son assembling it in the bedroom because it’s so humongous it had to be put together in the room where it would remain.

The armoire is one of those useful storage pieces that seems bottomless. Over the years we’ve gradually filled it with all of our hanging clothes and footwear, bags and backpacks, extra bedding including the ten-ton duvet (quilt) for the sofa bed, my carefully-boxed Christmas crèche and santons de Provence figurines, chair cushions, a large tube containing a to-be-framed art poster, a box of postcards saved by Bernard’s mother which I now own because they’re all in English (I was touched he gave them to me) and other random items.

The prospect of emptying and moving the beast was a daunting challenge on its own.

Santons de Provence, the only small items stored in the armoire

Beyond the size and weight of the furniture, I worried about jet lag, not to mention we’re no longer college students who can move a friend’s entire apartment in a few hours. Arriving in Europe from the US, Clive manages to stay awake but jet lag seems to hit me harder every year. I usually need to shower and sleep for at least a few hours.

In the day or two that followed Bernard’s comment, we assessed the size of the task and considered our options. Eventually Clive rather reluctantly agreed it wasn’t feasible or wise to leave it all to a few jet-lagged hours.

I wondered if we should hire someone but Clive saw no need for that. At some point, a ‘what if’ idea emerged: what if we made another, separate trip to Paris beforehand, for only a few days, with the sole purpose of emptying the room?

As if it were meant to be, our diary was unusually clear for a few days in early October. Clive wasn’t completely convinced, but it was too late to extend our existing trip. After I reluctantly promised to remember ‘sole purpose’ (ie I wouldn’t make sly attempts to distract us from the task at hand and go out and about in Paris — well, maybe a visit to Vlad would be OK), he agreed an additional trip would be the best solution.

We emailed our updated October plans to our friends D&J in Felixstowe. D replied, ‘Good that you have managed to fix a schedule with the painters. You will effectively be living in Paris with the odd commute to Felixstowe!’

On the Eurostar to Paris

My two heroes — but only one can be in charge

By the time we shared our new schedule with Bernard and Berthe, I knew Clive’s brain had fully engaged and he already had a plan in his head.

Bernard also had ideas. With customary energy and directness, he offered advice about moving the furniture and packing up and storing our things — mostly in my cave. I’d already gone down there once with him this trip to see Marc’s shutters and had no intention of trekking up and down those stairs lugging boxes or lifting bedside tables in my arms.

As Bernard continued with his firm suggestions, I sensed Clive’s silent but growing frustration (which he later told me was accurate), ‘Only one of us can be in charge here.’

My dear, well-intentioned neighbour also had ideas about where we might sleep during the repairs. He talked about contacting one of their friends, or someone they knew (it was never clear) who for some reason might be able to offer us a bed but no toilet. We’d have to return to my place for that. We did not encourage this idea.

I felt I was treading a very fine line: my gratitude and affection and respect for Bernard (and Berthe) run deep, but Clive was the right one to be ‘in charge’ of our multi-day project. We listened to all of Bernard’s input, and told him we didn’t think we’d need to pack up any boxes for the cave.

Stay cool

I admit I was at this point freaking out a little (or maybe a lot). Despite my mother’s timeless wisdom, ‘Don’t look for trouble,’ I worried about offending Bernard or hurting his feelings, and about Clive’s and my ability physically to handle the armoire and the bed, desperately wanting to avoid the additional ordeal of taking them apart.

I reminded Clive we know a couple of nice young Frenchmen who both live or work nearby. I knew if we needed extra muscle, we had only to ask and they would willingly assist.

But Clive had it all figured out. He had mentally sized up everything, developed a sequence of steps and even designated a location in the other rooms for each item from the bedroom. With the additional trip, he said, we’d have more than enough time to get the job done. He assured me he’d moved so many times on his own over the years that doing it with my help would be a breeze – or a nightmare.

Back in England, St Pancras station, London

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come: Part 3, A Giant Jigsaw.

2 Responses

  1. How true about renovations: you always feel that you have pounded every nail and swung every paintbrush. Always more prep work than it looks too. Lucky you with on-site friends and neighbors.

    • All true, Eleanor! I am indeed lucky (though I will say I’ve tried to be a good neighbour and friend as well, over the years). The prep work is amazing … thank you for your comment.

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