Friday, April 06, 2007

Space: The Final Frontière

It’s a Paris cliché that the city’s residents are most conscious of la merde while dodging the dog poop on the sidewalk. It was a New York-based Web site’s bathroom humor, however, that unwittingly drew the line between apartment living in North America and inhabiting a standard Parisian pied à terre.

DailyCandy – the hip Web site offering consumer product news to a readership primarily made up of women – recently ran a cheeky piece on the Brondell Breeza, a ‘deodorizing toilet seat’ that automatically eliminates embarrassing bathroom odors as the dirty deed is in progress. Women that spend the night with their boyfriends, the site cheered, will never have to cringe about doing their business while he’s in the apartment again.

It doesn’t take long to shed one’s modesty when living in a Paris apartment. Like many world capitals (DailyCandy’s hometown included), lodging is expensive, comfort for the average working girl (or boy) is minimal, and space is at a premium. Rent prices may not be as through-the-roof as they are in London or the Big Apple, but the average Parisian – even those who hold relatively respectable positions professionally – are accustomed to living in 30 to 40 square meters (a whopping 300 to 400 square feet). Considering the exchange rate between the menacingly strong Euro and the weaker Canadian and American dollars, urban tenants here pay the same amount of rent as those who reside on the other side of the Atlantic in accommodations that are double or triple in size.

Cohabitation, then – even if it’s just a sleepover – becomes, as the French would say, chaud. The restricted amount of space redefines the meaning of intimacy. The Brondell Breeza may answer nature’s call with a touch of discretion, but aside from blasting the stereo, little can be done to mask how loudly nature may be calling. If it’s togetherness you’re after, a Paris flat is the perfect environment for you to experience everything ensemble.

One of the most significant paradoxes of Parisian living demonstrates itself where the French are renowned for spending a considerable amount of their time: la cuisine. A city reputed for its gastronomical delights, Paris boasts a mouthwatering number of restaurants, cafés, bistros and brasseries – all of which are jammed around mealtime. This can’t be solely attributed to the thriving tourist industry, or to the fact that Parisians don’t like to cook (it’s hard to find a Frenchman or Frenchwoman who doesn’t). But unless you’re a member of the bourgeoisie, or you own your own place and are in a position to finance a remodeling project, or, even rarer, if you rent and are just plain lucky, chances are your ‘kitchen’ will consist of little more than a glorified hot plate.

The majority of apartment-seekers in Paris are students or young professionals: those in the market for housing that costs below 1.000 Euros a month. The flats that fall under this category are usually studios (single room affairs measuring anywhere between 10 to 25 square meters, or 100 to just under 300 square feet); or two-room apartments measuring between 30 to 40 square meters, or 300 to 400 square feet. Crammed into these spaces are sleeping accommodations, a bathroom (though not all flats are outfitted with one), a washing machine (if possible), perhaps a space for a living room/office, and, of course, a kitchen. The kitchens in these spaces usually boast no more than a bar fridge, sink (though some apartment dwellers must wash their dishes in the bathroom sink, or conversely, brush their teeth in the kitchen because the bathroom is just big enough to fit a toilet and shower), two electric elements, and a tiny patch of stainless steel upon which one might chop onions or leave the dishes to dry. Preparing lunch is a juggling act; realising a conventional French meal – complete with entrée (starter), main dish, cheese and dessert – requires the organizational savvy of a seasoned war general.

This isn’t to say that the quaint, charming Parisian pied à terre we see in the movies doesn’t exist. With regular jaunts to the myriad of brocantes – or flea markets – in and around the city, a well-planned trip to IKEA, and a little flair, many a dank, dreary, poorly configured apartment can be rendered warm and cozy. The secret, Parisians will tell you, is not to accumulate too much stuff.

It’s hard to cloak one’s North American-ness when one first arrives in Paris: we pack too much into our gigantic suitcases for a three-day getaway, we can’t help ourselves from wistfully reminiscing about the spacious living conditions we left back home, and we buy stuff in quantities that our new digs are too tiny to house. In Paris, even the most anti-consumerist North American is capable of feeling like a freewheeling shop-aholic…at first.

It doesn’t take long, however, to understand why Frenchwomen have the reputation for being a tough sell: it’s possible that the reason they spend hours agonizing over whether or not they should purchase that sleek pair of Dolce and Gabbana’s has little to do with the shoes or their price and everything to do with where she will put them when she gets home. To live comfortably in Paris, one must develop the skills of an A-type closet organizer (for when you think about it, arranging a 25 square meter space isn’t all that different), and even the most expert closet organizer will eventually command you to quit buying so much junk and focus on only stocking up on what you need…when you need it. Buying in bulk is reserved for businesses and families living in the suburbs. And, stopping by Monoprix to buy a four-pack of pens when the immediate situation dictates the need for only one might be regarded as excessive.

The benefit of this mode de vie is that if you were the kind of person who never threw anything away, you are now. Aside from the bare necessities and a couple of frivolous luxuries that you granted yourself (because you expertly made the space for them), you spend less money on crap and more on actually interacting with the rest of society. Living in a small space, after all, can result in cabin fever- one of the reasons why Paris is such a social city. And who wants to spend their time accumulating stuff when they can be out and about, admiring one of the most beautiful cities in the world?