A few weeks ago, I was standing in the perfect DC apartment. Impeccably well-maintained and at the bottom of our budget, it had everything we were looking for — hardwood, outdoor space, nice square-footage, tons of storage, right next to a bikeshare stop … The agent had already taken me there once, and we were back so Z could take a look. There were no applications in before us. In fact, we were the first prospective renters to even see the place. We were shoo-ins. And, Z and the real estate agent stared at me in disbelief as I turned it down.
My home, wherever it is and whatever form it takes, borders on sacred. I’d like to think I’m fairly adaptable generally, but on this point, I don’t budge. Call it basic, but I need to have a place, however small, that I can draw a mental line around and say “mine.” I think putting your whole life into boxes, bags, and suitcases over and over does this to a person. The uncertainty of apartment hunting is always stressful and down-to-the-wire, but I know when I’ve found something that I’m going to love (or not), and have trouble going against my gut.
My first apartment was a beautiful little chambre de bonne on the border of Paris’ 6e and 7e. I can’t take credit for it. Whether it’s a place to stay or a beautiful piece of tableware, my mother has a knack for picking little gems (or “finds” as she calls them), and this was no exception. I certainly had no business as a junior in college living a stone’s throw from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, but it was glorious. I learned to appreciate the beauty of an omelette for lunch and an espresso after a good meal, did the obligatory backpacking trip across Europe, and made life-long friends. That was the year I fell in love with Paris, and with a friend of a dear friend that walked into that apartment and into my life.
Then, it was back to San Francisco and into a Victorian in Cole Valley that started to feel more like a clown car as we accumulated roommates. When Z moved to the city to join me, we signed a lease for a postage stamp on Nob Hill. Every morning, we’d take the pillows off our bed and fold it into the wall so we could pull the table out from the wall and eat breakfast. The cable cars went right by our apartment. We walked to work, spotting the Twins from time to time; ate dim sum in Chinatown; lingered in cafes in North Beach; laid in the sun in Golden Gate Park; and twirled linguine alla vongole at Nob Hill Cafe. Our building had a beautiful little side garden with a table and a grill that no one ever seemed to use, where we spent many a night eating and sipping wine until it was so dark we had to turn in. It was a great summer.
Then, there was Beijing. We arrived with a job, embarrassingly little Mandarin and no knowledge of the city. Looking ahead at a year as teachers making RMB, the Novotel was quickly eating through our budget. For that first week or so we subsisted almost entirely on assorted baked goods from a nearby Korean bakery : little sweet buns, pigs-in-a-blanket, mini pizzas, and rolls covered in pork floss (not nearly as disgusting as it sounds). I had a pretty mean breakout of poison ivy on my ankle from we’re not sure where, and we spent our days scouring rental sites and rushing off to appointments. First there was Lucky, who assured us dump after dump would be “cool” and “very modern.” Then we found William, the swiftest walker I have ever met. While maintaining the appearance of an ordinary gait, he effortlessly glided across the pavement at break-neck speed, looking back with confusion at us half-jogging behind, my leg throbbing in the blazing heat. William was more above-board, but still showed us nothing we could see ourselves living in. At the end of our rope financially and mentally, Z stopped at an intersection near the subway, pointed to a huge, new highrise and pronounced, “We want to live here. Can you get us an apartment here?” Judging from the places he showed us previously, I’m fairly certain William had never negotiated a rental like this before, and finalizing it involved anxious waiting, a series of bilingual negotiations and several trips to the bank to retrieve manila envelopes full of cash. But, he pulled it off, all in a matter of days. When the handshakes and money exchanges were over and we were finally in our place, Z ran into the bedroom and slammed the door. “I’m a different room than you!” he yelled. “And, it’s not the bathroom!” Our first one-bedroom.
In DC, we landed our place essentially by chance. Knowing it was a steal, we went to scope it out before the open house. The tenant, who happened to be taking out the trash, was nice enough to let us in and we walked straight from there to the landlord’s house in Georgetown to sign a lease. It was an older building, with all the charm and downsides that come with it. We taped up and shrink-wrapped the fireplaces and old windows to keep the draft out and spent the winter months looking like Randy from A Christmas Story. We decorated it with memories of our Asian adventures, had memorable dinner parties, baked and snowball fought our way through “Snowpocalypse” (SnOMG!), and filled our living room with friends to watch the Pride Parade and High Heel Race pass by our big bay window. We can’t help but compare the apartments we looked at now to that place, but always agree, “well, that place was special.”
Back in Paris again, we subletted an appart in the Bastille area with big windows, a terribly uncomfortable mattress, and a kitchen with a huge oven and beautiful wood counter-tops that I adored. We went for runs along the Canal Saint-Martin and drank cheap wine. On Sundays, we shopped at the marché Richard Lenoir and I cooked my first rabbit that year. We feasted on cheese and charcuterie, teetering on stools in the kitchen discussing what we’d do with the place if only we owned it. “If we knocked out this wall and put cabinets there …”
Then Z went back to DC, and I moved a few blocks away to a tiny 6th floor walk-up with a bedroom only slightly larger than the bed itself, and a “kitchen” that consisted of a sink, a hot plate and a dorm-fridge. I started this blog out of those two rooms. My Mom came to visit and we had a blast exploring the rive droite. One morning, sipping her coffee with a puzzled look, she slid her slippered feet back and forth across the floor of the tiny living room. “Is this slanted?” In those few months, I finished up my degree program and said goodbye to Paris (for now), heartbroken to leave and excited for the future.
Back in DC again, with a week to spare, we’ve finally found it: another apartment that I’m convinced we’ll be able to make our own just as much as the others. This time we’re taking on the District’s Southern quadrants, where we can be close to this and this, among other things. Our things in boxes, we’re just about ready to go. But for now, it sits empty and waiting for us, smelling of fresh paint. Oh, the possibilities!