December 26th, 2015 was the day that I first arrived at the apartment that I have called home in Paris for two winters now. It sits on the forth floor of a beautiful old building in Saint Germain des Pres and is the most precious thing in the world, belonging to a beautiful French speaking Parisienne Melbournian. I pinch myself each day that this place was recommended to me by one of my favourite people in the world- she new I’d ‘get it’.
In the taxi on the way from the airport I skimmed the notes prepared for guests who stay in the apartment and I can recall reading about the woman upstairs but was busy taking in the classical music and making a mental note that the taxi driver sang quite the tune. Upon arrival at number 17, and after finding my way through the grille (the electronic door downstairs), I was struck by two things- the first being the sheer madness that were the nine million very hard and very steep wooden stairs that lead up to the fourth floor to Amy’s flat and the second, to the right of my doorway was a tiny little set of stairs that lead to a door behind which, I could only imagine, was the sky. Turning my focus back to my own door I huffed to myself ‘this must be me’, and then puffed and sputtered thinking my heart may stop at any moment. Hurling my bags through the door, I looked over my shoulder once again ‘where do those stairs go?’ I wondered, before throwing myself onto the sofa to catch my breath.
Five weeks and at least four thousand ascensions and descents of those stairs later, I hadn’t clapped eyes on anyone from upstairs, but I was sure I’d heard mouse like pottering’s and the door opening and closing from time to time. ‘Whoever lives up there must be tiny,’ I’d concluded in my mind before going to the airport in tears.
Since my return four weeks ago, I have had a strong desire to knock on the door and introduce myself to the neighbour- I feel as though I should let her know that I’m here. But each morning I run out the door in such a hurry to get to class no more than five minutes late, and usually I return late into the night, by which time my mystery friend would probably be asleep.
Today I came flying around the corner and through the door and was followed into the building by a very small woman with a perfectly coiffured bob- we ascended the stairs chatting to each other and I knew by about the ninetieth stair that I’d finally met her.
Nadine is a kind Parisienne who has lived in her tiny bolthole since the 1960’s, and by the time we got to my door this afternoon we’d become friends, so of course I obliged when she waved me up that little set of ten stairs and into her apartment. We stood shoulder to shoulder in a tiny landing which was full to the brim with cleaning products and linen- she had told me she was a retired school teacher so I was confused by these items as a start.
Her son is 50, which must make her 70 years old or more but her beautiful round face with the pinkest cheeks, looks not a day over 50 itself, so again, there was further confusion. Behind a curtain was a makeshift shower and more containers and two steps further and behind another curtain she proudly presented ma chambre, her tiny bedroom with a single bed neatly made with a doona adorned with cartoon characters. We sat in her petit kitchen and shared a coke out of matching Asahi plastic cups (she didn’t strike me as a beer drinker) and chatted under the indoor plants whose arms patted my head as Nadine spoke only in French and I nodded and said ‘oui’ (a lot).
Nadine has the patience of a saint, and she went on to tell that the French are an aggressive bunch and the gypsys taking over the streets are driving her mad, ‘Paris is no good’. I listened intently as she told me she had shared that same space with her husband before they divorced (I can’t count in French so I’m not sure what year that event took place) and we both agreed that Coke is the most delicious drink but it makes you very fat- just look at the Americans (her words, not mine but I was happy to respond with a further ‘oui’).
I never wanted to leave Nadines flat and I told her that I was so happy to have finally met her. I scanned the room, taking in the pots (some filled with up to nine hairbrushes) and the rest of the perfectly arranged, hoarded chaos. ‘How old are you,’ she asked, to which I replied ’37 and my brain is dead- I’m so sorry my French is terrible,’ to which she replied, ‘you cannot be 37- you have the most beautiful skin and a perfect French accent.’
I told you she was kind.
Remembering the milk and groceries still sitting in my doorway, I finally got up and walked down the 10 steps and back to my door, ‘bon soirée Virginia, take care of those steps they are very steep,’ she warned. I nodded knowingly, desperately wanting to tell her that I learnt the hard way when I fell down two flights last year at a rapid pace in leather soled shoes. To this day I’m sure the lady downstairs who heard the whole ordeal, thought that Nadine was having ‘a moment’ and had decided to throw her fridge down the stairs as a result- the look on her face when she saw me brushing myself off and walking sideways like a crab, was priceless.
But that is another story for another day.