Visions of happiness
In the interests of keeping things lighthearted, particularly when the going has been a little less polished and serene than I might have liked, I have often wise-cracked that there has clearly been a dreadful mistake and that I am in fact supposed to be living a different life. Usually the whimsy life referred to contains a palatial home and whatever accoutrements the unfortunate recipient of my frolicking wit cares to embellish it with. In fact it is not at all uncommon for me to help myself to a counterfeit life just for the helluvit and to make fictional daydreaming sugar whatever the reality of the bitter medicinal pill of the moment is. It is fair to comment that in my own make-believe there is much detail in the sketch. Details like tall columns and ornate plaster-work and rooms big enough to dance in. It’s a trifling and inoffensive affectation. Harmless, I am. Occasionally deluded but entirely inoccuous.
Now imagine this, if you will. When I knew for certain sure that we would be spending the first six months of this year in Grenoble, a city we visit often and of which I am fond as one is fond of a rather nice passing acquaintance – that person who always seems so cordial and kind and whom you don’t really know at all but with whom you are certain you could be the bosomest of buddies given the chance. That was Grenoble for me …. a hint of something possible and tantalising. So once I knew we would be here, my reverie started in earnest.
The rapidly gilded fantasy had some concrete and real decisions attached. We wanted to live right in the middle of town to get under the skin of the city at it’s heart, not at it’s suburban fingertips and we wanted to live in an old building. Around this time, as my frenzy of searching for flats heltered and skeltered hither and thither bouncing round the internet like a manic squashball I came across a place which prompted me to forward the detail to the long-suffering Husband with Two Brains with the covering note ‘Please can we have this one? If you let us have this one I will live with no furniture and will exist on a diet of dust and air for the whole six months. I actually will. So please please please say we can’. The Brains responded with the email equivalent of a non-commital smile and nod.
When we arrived in Grenoble just before Christmas to arrange viewings through the Institute that HB2 is working with, The Director (a fellow I have always liked) made a cool and frankly rather too razor-sharp exit saying that renting places in Grenoble is like extracting well-rooted teeth with no anaesthetic and sweetly wishing us well as he fled for the hills. The unfortunate and delightfully stoic young assistant assigned to us, started to work through our list of properties. She arranged two viewings that afternoon and two the next morning The first place, the top floor of an historic monument facing l’ancien Palais du Parliament, was love at first sight, albeit unfinished. The second would certainly do with a lovely double aspect salon and excellent location. I should explain two things at this point. The first is that we are experienced at renting in France. Here, you will normally sign a lease for three years after which you can extend for a further three or six years. The rights remain with the tenant – the landlord can’t kick you out but you can terminate with notice at any time. That is hugely over-simplified but you get the gist. So apartment number two was shown to us by a young estate agent who seemed incapable of standing up straight but favoured leaning provocatively on any available solid object of sufficient height, facial expression impassively composed somewhere between nonchalant and fashionably bored. The deep inpenetrably dark eyes of this glacially chic individual flickered with contempt when we explained that we only wanted the place for six months (something that in the UK a landlord would be generally delighted to bite your hand off for, particularly when the agreement will be with an institute of standing in the city meaning no risk at all on the landlord) …. six months? No. That absolute, resolute ‘non’ beloved of the French when there is positively no wiggle room, no negotiation and it’s been a pleasure, bonne journée. Never mind. We still have number one and that was our favourite. Or do we? The assistant called the agent who escalated her to the manager and the manager called the landlord to confirm that it would be ready mid-January and with the lovely early Christmas present that they had secured good tenants through a venerable institute for six months thereby neatly bypassing the winter months when rentals are lean in the city and dropping them into prime renter-reaping territory in mid-summer. And there was that word again ‘non’ … not because they didn’t want us for 6 months but because they were unsure that they could get the tiny amount of work required to complete the flat done before …. March.
The following morning we had number three, a sprawling loft inhabited by a seemingly endless cascade of student girls and filled, predictably with all the necessary and un-necessary detritus of girlie-ness which took me ricocheting back to the years and seemingly endless years of four daughters and one bathroom and no-one ever in a matching pair of socks. I put my bravest mummy face on, Two Brains walked round with a visible and clearly disgusting smell under his fine Gaelic nose. I was stoically convinced that it could work, that once the girls had erradicated the landfill and revealed the space that I could get a certain urban edgy vibe going in this place and release my thinly veiled inner bohemian on the unsuspecting Grenoblois population. And I might have continued in this vein were it not for the casual statement by head girl that the broken door to the building had been like it for months but the landlord was tired of fixing it so he’d decided not to repair it ever again. Now don’t get me wrong, I can fantasise about a bit of gritty living, indeed I was at that very moment inventing a bit of latterday Beatnicking but the idea of absolutely random anyone being able to walk into the place uninvited at absolutely random any time was not appetising in the slightest. Really, not at all. Oddly enough. Number four was in a good location, a good building (Haussmannian) with high ceilings and lovely floors. But compact. Very very compact. Particularly the shower with resplendent puce toilet squished next to it – the colour enhancing the fact that it was clearly extremely uncomfortable with it’s situation. The cubicle was so small I am confident that I would have got wedged whilst washing and warbling and had to be prized out with grease-guns and crowbars by a team of jolly pompiers (firemen) thus making the wrong sort of headlines in le Dauphiné. Or worse, le Monde and picked up and flashed round the world by Reuters. I felt quite faint at this inevitable prospect and the place did not make the list. Which left us with precisely no list and no choice but to drive to England for Christmas knowing that instead of planning removals we would be living out of a suitcase in a hotel at the start of January.
And so it was that at the dawn of 2017 we arrived back in Grenoble filled with the resolution that New Year’s inevitably ingender and fixing our determined chins, set about finding our perfect nest. The valiant assistant made more phone calls working her way through the new list we had drawn up. She netted three visits from six possible roosts and off we set to visit the first one. I was filled with zealous hope for this one. In the Quartier des Antiquaires the dossier showed a beautifully presented place with high ceilings and lovely floors and oozing appeal and charm. We arrived on the nose of the appointed time and a waxy rather sallow skinned fellow opened the door. He reeked, positively seeped from his every pore, of smoke and clearly not just cigarette smoke. If you catch the fetid drift. I am fairly certain that he never ventures outside and if he does it is certainly not in daylight. His eyes were hollow and red rimmed and I am quietly confident that he had not seen this hour of the day in many a decade. This was not an advertisement for spritzy healthy living. The flat, as it turned out was quite hard to see being entirely rammed solid with his enormous volume of possessions. In fact the place had the air that if you moved too quickly and caused the tiniest zephyr it would simply burst. He told me happily that he and his wife were performance artists. I wondered idly if this place were actually a set for one of their plays because it was like wandering through a hellish series of tableaux – you know those performances in several parts where you walk from set to set and are treated to seemingly disconnected installments that somehow in the minds of the creator make sense. And you adopt that air of serene interest whilst all the while looking for an escape route. That. There are no doors you see, just a series of depositories for some of the most seriously cluttered clutter I have ever seen. None of which has ever been cleaned. I enquired politely if the kitchen furniture would be staying. Which it wouldn’t. This (and it is not at all uncommon in France) meant that the kitchen would consist of a space with a tap in it. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or dismayed as my addled mind tried to find a way of making this Danté-on-dope-interior work for us. I failed. Had I succeeded and decided this was the one, I would now be going through the rigours of divorce – HB2’s expression was granite-set and distinctly unpretty. As we left, the fellow invited us to his wife’s next performance. I smiled and nodded and remembered that I have not the teensiest smidge of space in my schedule for the next many aeons.
Which left us with two places to visit. One of my favourite parts of Grenoble are les quais and the second place was on Quai de France which is historic and convenient albeit the other side of the river. The call of water, a view of water has me every time so my hope-ometer was registering off the scale for this baby when we arrived early the following morning. Do you see a pattern forming? You are correct. The pictures of this apartment must have been at least a decade old when, un-lived in, the owner had restored it and dressed it for the Estate Agents to lure people like us in. Or not people like us actually …. this had been a co-location (flatshare) for years. The young people were delightful but let’s be brutally frank with self …. I have children who are older than these bambini. I am no longer content with student digs in fact I might venture that at my lofty age it could be construed as a teeny bit infra-dig. That and the off-hand remark by the young man showing us around that despite having two bathrooms they only ever use one because the other one is dangerous. The pompiers flashed through my mind again. Will I ever find a place where I can make my ablutions without fear of torrid headlines or death or both in this city?
The final place on Cours Jean Jaurès which is the main artery of Grenoble was lovely. Honestly. No catch. It was delightful. Good Belle-Epoque building (not Haussmannian but with views over those that make up the bold and bustling corners of the streets facing the river); high ceilings; shower that would not risk entombment every time I entered it, nor, the slightly bewildered agent assured me in that ‘humour her, she can’t help it, she’s foreign’ way when asked, any other lurking dangers in the bathroom; fitted kitchen to include white goods (we have them but preferred not to have to move them if possible) and all in all a jolly good fit. But of course we still had to traverse the, apparantly insurmountable, six months issue so we wanted another as back-up.
Except there were no more choices. Don’t get me wrong, the little hotel-appart was very comfortable but living in a space where swinging a cat even if we had one and thought that was the reasonable pastime of a sane person, was not in the plan for six months. What to do? The poor assistant was developing an unbecoming facial tic and I really didn’t want the guilt associated with this developing further into a full-blown twitch. At this point, I suggested in the faintest of whispers that I actually knew that the place I had suggested we live in with no food nor furniture for six months was still available. I let my sentence trail ephemerally into sweet silence and waited for the inevitable pounce of desperation. One. Two. Three … Two Brains and The Assistant politely, and to my possible shame, predictably, obliged and later that afternoon, I walked through vast coaching doors into my own dream. The ceilings are at least 13′ high with panelling and moulding and ceiling roses that would grace any fine born abode, pillars and a 65 foot hallway with lovely tiling, parquet floors and a kitchen sporting a piano. No honestly a piano. Un piano de cuisine is a range cooker. This one is vintage if you take vintage to include sometime in, at a guess the early seventies. I’m a sucker for a good cooker and this one has me smitten. You can opt to take the gorgeous old elevator complete with pull-down highly polished wood seat on brass fittings, or glide up the lovely gently winding stone staircase. The double front doors to the apartment are high, heavy, adorned with beautiful brasswork and so finely balanced that they seemingly float open and shut with the merest whisper of pressure. The windows are floor to ceiling and open onto plant balconies, the internal doors mostly double have glazed panels to let the light flood the place. But did I mention pillars? Pillars! It has beauteous ornate columns supporting it’s dizzingly high ceilings. The views from the front are of la Banque de France, itself a gorgeous, unmistakeably French, almost Chateauesque building. The ground floor of the building also houses a bank so if I get bored with living my go-to daydream I can press reset and imagine myself Bonnie plotting with Clyde to pull off the heist of the century. I could happily sport that beret ….
I wafted around the place with a look of the contented Tigger when he had tried the haycorns and the thistles and the hunny and discovered that Roo’s strengthening medicine was actually what Tiggers are meant to eat. In the same vein, Osyths are meant to live in this place for this six months. Of this I am thoroughly certain. In fact, I may chain myself to the fine vintage radiators on move-out day and go on hunger strike. It is love. In 1822 Stendhal noted in ‘On Love’ that ‘there are as many styles of beauty as there are visions of happiness.’ Welcome to my vision of happiness ….
PS: There is learning in most everything if one is open to learning. Some years ago and not of choice I lost most of what I owned. All the things that I had moved and moved and moved with and which had enabled me to make each place that my daughters and I arrived in, a home in a jiffy. What I now have is very little. And it is not of any significant value. Were it to be auctioned I imagine it might buy a bag of soggy chips but that is the sum of it. There are some pretty things, there are my father’s plants, and of course there are books but what were always referred to as our ‘things’ are gone. Most of what I have is second hand Ikea. And here is the lesson. I worried and worried that my skimpy collection would be ridiculous in this space. I had japed about living with no furniture but I had serious misgivings that we would simply look ludicrous. As it transpires, when you have bones as beautiful as this place has you can artfully arrange a very few things (and I speak as a magpie who may finally be embracing her suffocated inner minimalist going forward) and hey presto bongo … house beautiful. Rather like the notion that Audrey Hepburn or Sophia Loren could wear a bin-bag and be elegantly alluring. It turns out that it’s not a notion at all but rather it is a solid, unassailable truth.
And if you are wondering … the place that stole our hearts at the very start? Is still under construction. And the place that wouldn’t have us for six months? Still to let.