Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Stairway

Sometimes all it takes is one frame to get a huge cutaway slice of Paris life.

And what better slice than an apartment stairwell?

In a 48-hour period, life in my stairwell has told volumes about what makes Paris Paris.

1. Tuesday morning, I was with Gerry, the smiling, energetic guy who brings order and cleanliness to my flat once a week. When he had finished making the kitchen sparkle, I asked if he would help me bring up a few remaining items from la cave for my moving sale.

I am really spooked by the cave -- and cave is a far more appropriate term than basement or cellar. I hate going there alone because the lights go out every two minutes and it's pitch black because it sucks the very lightbeams from a flashlight until you can find the light-timer switch and it's terrifyingly old and cobwebby and moldy and you are stuck down a labyrinth of ancient walls and dirt floors and you know this time you are going to die in the dark and no one will find your dessicated body for months because after all it's a close cousin of the Catacombs. So I was more than a wee bit distracted and anxious, but relieved to have company for the dreaded spelunking.

As we headed out the apartment door, Gerry asked, "Do you have your keys?"

"Yep," I answered, clutching the keys to the cave in my hand.

Click went the apartment door.

Then dread. I froze in my tracks.

"Gerry, you have your apartment keys, right?" I said in horror.

He looked at me, panicked, and shook his head. "No, mum, I just asked you if you have your keys before I closed the door."

"My cave keys. Oh shit." I don't usually swear like this in front of Gerry because he's just too sunny and sweet a fellow. But this was one of those moments. Gerry and I possessed the only two known sets of keys to the apartment, both of which were on the other side of that closed door.

I have heard the horror stories of being locked out of one's apartment in Paris, and I didn't ever want to experience it. One friend of mine locked herself out of her apartment on Christmas Eve and had to get SOS Serrurier to break into her apartment and change the locks, and it cost her 2000€. Yes, the zeroes are correct. From what I've heard, if you're lucky you can squeak through the lock-out ordeal by paying only 1000€; but holiday rates are higher -- if you can find a locksmith.

Tuesday was -- a holiday, of course. I saw my financial life passing before my eyes. And since it was a holiday, of course when I frantically rang at my gardienne's apartment there was no one there. Not that she had any keys, but maybe we could use her phone. Or sit someplace warm.

So Gerry and I went back to the cold stairwell on my fourth floor (3e etage). We were hunched over on the steps, thinking out loud. Okay okay. Something has to work. It turned out Gerry had his cell phone.

I could call my landlady, who lives in the 6e arrondissement. Maybe she had a key. But it was a holiday, and I was sure she'd be away for the long weekend with her family. And I didn't have her phone number, which of course was inside the apartment. Maybe I could get it from directory assistance, I hoped.

"What's the number for information?" I asked Gerry.

"Information?" Gerry looked puzzled. Although he speaks English really well, his first language is Tagalog.

"Wait, wait!" I said. "I know!" We were sitting on the steps and I started singing the peppy dancing-guys TV jingle, "Cent dix-huit, deux-cent-dix-huit." I punched 118-218 into Gerry's phone, but it didn't work.

"Oh, yes," said Gerry, catching on. "How about 'cent-dix-huit-sept-cent-douze'?'' he sang, mimicking another commercial. We bobbed our heads to the beat. Brilliant. 118-712 worked.

The very kind directory assistance voice gave us the number (whew -- it wasn't unlisted) and wished us a very very bonne journee, and I held my breath as the phone rang. Five times, six times, and then, hallelujah. Monsieur le Mari de la Proprietaire answered in a gravelly voice. I wanted to kiss the phone, but first quickly explained our predicament.

This man is a true saint. A saint. He explained that his wife was at the office, and he was home with their young son, and he hadn't even showered yet, so he apologized that he wouldn't be able to get to the building in less than 45 minutes; and, since the apartment belonged to his wife, he didn't really know if there was a key or where it would be. He called us back in 5 minutes and said he'd meet us at the front door in three quarters of an hour.

Whom do I call to have this man canonized?

To kill time until Monsieur le Saint arrived, ever-efficient Gerry suggested that we at least go get the stuff from la cave, since that was the one set of building keys we did have in our possession.

The basement door is at the bottom of the stairwell. After wrangling with the lock for a few minutes, Gerry gave up. Then I tried, remembering that there was some trick which the gardienne showed me, but I couldn't quite imitate. I think it goes like this: wiggle the lock a lot clockwise till it stops, then counter clockwise until it stops. Then rattle the door. Repeat. Then stop for a few moments of blaspheming. Give it a hip check and a quick jiggle of the key to the left, and the door bounces open.

We hastily retrieved the last items from my wooden cubicle in the cave, and I am thrilled that I will never have to, er, darken its doorway again. Then Gerry and I sat on the steps together again and he told me stories of his other employers, his family in Manila, how he came to Paris, showed me all the business cards he has collected, and we were just about to go into family genealogy when Monsieur le Saint arrived, we found the proper squarish key, entered the apartment, and all was right with the world.

Make that two saints: Monsieur and Saint Gerry.

2. Yesterday was a busy time at my moving sale, and I was looking forward to spending some time with Pam FrogBlog and Claire Bonheur Occidentale, who stopped by to check out the mayhem and the goods and to lend moral support. They loaded up their bags with great selections, and we left the bags chez moi while we headed out to le Nemrod for a little post-sale pick-me-up. We could have chatted forever, but since dinnertime was approaching, Pam and Claire had to head to their respective homes. They retrieved their bags back at my apartment, we gave our little bisous, and they stepped onto the shadows of the landing to get the elevator.

Before the hallway minuterie button could be reached to turn on the light, and with all her bulky stuff, Pam shifted to the right, where there is no landing, only steps. We heard the tumble in the dark. I pictured a Scarlett-O'Hara-falls-down-the-red-carpeted-stairs type terrible accident. We heard crashes and bangs. The lights went on. Pam had very intelligently let go of her bags in order to clutch the railing and save herself from a fall. She was uninjured (or didn't let on if she was aching) and the contents of at least one bag were strewn down the length of the stairway.

Normally that wouldn't be too much of a story, except that one item was a half-liter jar of honey. Bouncy bouncy bouncy down the four flights of stairs went the honey, ping-ponging down until it hit the banister on the 1er etage, smashed open and then spewed and dribbled waves of honey and glass shards on the stairs and walls all the way to the rez-de-chaussee. I was glad it was just honey and not Pam that we had to mop up.

We attacked the clean-up with two basic things.

1. Paper towels. A bit of digressing into word history here. I had been referring to paper towels as serviettes en papier all my life, until last week when Gerry had asked me to buy Sopalin. I thought he meant some sort of soap. Sopalin, it turns out, is the name commonly used in France for a roll of paper towels (the same way we call all facial tissues Kleenex in the US). So fortunately I had a big roll of Sopalin.

2. Une serpillère. I am enough of a Francophile to know that every household must have a serpillère to take care of all sorts of household clean-ups, and it's a useful big soaker rag that absorbs and swabs and does just about everything while looking really grey and hideous. I had bought a serpillère when I first moved here and it was still under my sink, freshly folded, untouched, price sticker still on. But believe me, honey dripping down the walls called for the serpillère-and-bucket touch, and we were not disappointed with the results.

When we were through, Pam remarked that what made the whole ordeal even more 'French' was that none of the neighbors had emerged from their apartments to see what was going on. While we three were on hands and knees ("les Gervaises," quipped Claire) scrubbing the floor, walls and carpet, my upstairs neighbor arrived with two friends, greeted us with a friendly and perfunctory bonsoir, climbed in the elevator and rode up to her apartment. It was strictly mind-my-own-business as is usual here; she didn't ask what was happening. I can't say that it's better or worse than American custom, but just different.

And I know enough gossip about the neighbors on the other floors -- love, hospitals, other life issues -- to figure out why they might not actually have been home. But I wonder, if they had been there, would they have emerged from their apartments to see what all the honey-drenched ruckus was about?

And, finally, a quandary. I always want to do the right thing, but I don't want to make unneccessary complications, either. I think I asked Pam and Claire about five times, "Should I call the gardienne to let her know?" "What's the protocol in a Paris apartment building?" No one had a good answer.

I still haven't told the gardienne. Should I?

I know what I would do in the US.


Autolycus said...

Heaven forfend, they might have thought making mayhem with jars of honey or worse still, scrubbing the stairs, actually is an American custom...

Lora said...

What a fun read was this post! And I absolutely love the picture of the stairwell. I was just imagining myself with you there the whole time. (And wishing I was there!)

Isabelle said...

For sure you will remember your last days in Paris, Polly!

I think that I would tell the gardienne about the honey, but to make things less bad for you and make the gardienne a little bit less "en colère", you should say that your friend did fall in the stairs, but that luckily only the honey jar was broken. This way the gardienne will feel sorry for your friend and less irritated by the honey spilling everywhere lol.

christine said...

You have such a way of telling a story! I love that none of he neighbors came out to see.

I just remembered your post a few weeks back about "eet eeez not my dog" and was laughing. How about "eet eez not my unee" or something along those lines.

Sorry that I've missed your sale. I desperately wanted to adopt your Nespresso :(

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Thank you so much for the words of wisdom; I think that's perfect advice. Maybe Pam should stop by with her arm in a sling. JK, JK!
She did fall, after all. But it's a good idea, as you suggest, to frame the incident so the colere will be mitigated. Of course the gardienne is a real sweetheart, but I just didn't know if there would be other retombees that I was unaware of.

the sale is still going on. But my wonderful landlady (more about this later) is buying all my kitchen appliances, including the Nespresso maker. Win win win situation.

Actually, it gave me a newfound appreciation of what the gardienne has to go through on a regular basis, the scrubbing of the floor and such. I'll have to leave her a big etrennes as I depart.

Jennifer said...

Polly, I am so sorry that you have to leave Paris. I'm sure you'll be back one day!
Did you find a home for Lou-Lou? If I were there, I would definitely have taken her.
Take care of yourself!

Diary of Why said...

The package of paper towels in my house says essuie-tout, so that's what I've been calling them. Have I made a horrible gaffe?

Starman said...

Glad your friend was okay, but I would not tell the gardienne. What she doesn't know, won't hurt you.

Anonymous said...

That is quite an entertaining story.

By contrast, I lost ALL My keys last week (motorcycle and apartment), and while the apartment key cost me $50 because they had to replace the whole deadbolt, what surprised me was that the motorcycle key only cost $25. Not only that, but the man sat outside, in the cold, for half an hour, HAND MAKING a key for me, with an old-fashioned file and metal clippers. It was pretty neat to see.

Bandini said...

How do you know your commercial have made it ?

When people sing the tune to remember the message and/or the finance minister uses your campaign to make a political point !

Je ne sais pas s'il faut en rire ou en pleurer !

Oh and by the way I'm glad you didn't have to stay out of your flat more than necessary ;-)

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