The French saying ‘avoir pignon sur rue’ or’, ‘to have a house of one’s own’, carries with it the notion of permanency, stability, decisiveness. The phrase can imply that you’ve finally afforded that mortgage, finally qualified for an upscale neighborhood, or finally decided to bite the bullet and ‘be a gypsy in Paris’ with a year lease on a place overlooking a park. There are any number of iterations of ‘pignon sur rue’ in Paris, especially when broadening one’s perspective to embrace the notion of permanent impermanence that, some would argue, is the genuine descriptor of the lodging and housing industries worldwide! After all, a place of one’s own, if you ask that man snoozing atop a Métro grate, can reduce to a worn and dusty blanket.
At the moment, I can speak with a level of authority on a ‘two pronged’ ‘pignon sur rue’, two types of ‘owners’ if you will, me during winter and renters the rest of the time. My two bedroom in the heart of a sweet Parisian neighborhood of the 17th arrondissement, serves as a short-term rental that books with relative ease from early spring through fall. No need for heavy duty advertising or over the top incentives. Prices stabilize around 150 euros and up per night, which constantly and pleasantly reminds me that location, location, location remains the mantra of the real estate world. All said, if business continues along this vein, in five or six years I can let go of the renting aspect and enjoy ‘pignon sur rue’ without the mortgage part! Renters have charmed over the place, and most leave besotted with the quiet French surroundings that have helped broaden their perspective of what it is to spend time here, once the major sight-seeing is done. The nearby Martin Luther King park is one example, where all ages congregate for physical and mental reprieve and to wander the gardens and communal vegetable plots. This neighborhood also boasts the Batignolles’ weekly organic market, purchases from which many residents plan their evening meals, and colorful stalls and vendors attract tourists marveling at the regional produce. Some renters even return annually while others seek to secure their own Paris property. It’s catchy, this life!
Reserving the month of January for myself, I leave wintry New England for my 56 square meters of Paris, “city pignons sur rue” as I call it. Weekday mornings the upstairs neighbor predictably exits the building at 8:30, clip-clopping down the stairs and along the exterior courtyard. Unaware of my groggy attention, her movements make for a perfect wake-up call without rattling alarm clock. The boutique below, quiet all night, rumbles to action weekday mornings, as the owners scroll their carts and push trays to organize for their street-side market. Their patter-pattering reassures rather than annoys, perhaps because over the years we’ve come to chat each afternoon as I purchase vegetables from them. We share a plumber (everyone with ‘pignon’ in Paris needs a good plumber) and, when it comes to issues, opt first for discussion before voting or otherwise exercising our rights. One of Paris’ famed 19th century structures, my building is drafty in winter but the apartment’s heaters are reliable and a sweater or scarf beats getting a higher estimate for my pre-calculated EDF electric bill. The facteur rings at my door when there is a package so, if I am home, no need to traipse to the post office.
Saturday nights are a toss up where noise is concerned, either it’s vacation and many have left town, or house parties—a more fashionable way of entertaining these days—persist until the wee hours. Surprising myself, I have learned to live with the shouts and music knowing people are having fun and, well, sort of have fun along with them, especially if the music is to my liking. Each day, at my compact desk with view to the potted plants in the courtyard below, I write. Afterwards, I stroll the neighborhood to wash a laundry or take in some sunshine. I invite friends for dinner but not before scurrying across the street for my butcher’s advice because guests may be picky eaters or not drink wine. He always comes through—more recently with a soufflé recipe with truffles on the side. Every day, I wave to the cheese man across the street, and some evenings stop at his stall to see if the fresh Roquefort has arrived.
When it’s time to pack up, I gather belongings into doubly protective plastic containers and cart everything into the sub-level cave, hurrying along the narrow dank passageways, projecting back over one hundred years to imagine who walked these steps before me. Owned by one family in the late 1800s, the building adapted over time to the lodging demands of a city prone to crowdedness and a centuries in the making circular, outward expansion. One day, I will get around to reading all those moldy, dog-eared pages that were handed to me on closing day, the hard copy proof that in the days of the poet Mallarmé, who lived not far away, of Manet, Baudelaire, Zola, Degas, Monet and others of the Batignolles Group who gathered at the now-defunct Café Guerbois, my footfall honors their existence via this building, my pignon sur rue, that stood in the days when those immemorial residents moved about, like me and you, along with the city, to the beat of their worlds.
Photos 1 & 2: Kathy Burke
Photo 3: Henri Fantin-Latour [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Kathy Burke
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