If the goal of the first part of our week was finding an apartment, the goal of the second part was making it livable. I’m not sure how close we’ve gotten.
Our apartment is in the “Centre-ville,” the medieval (or maybe even Roman) center of Aix. We’re a block from the cathedral, Saint-Sauveur. It’s not very big, but it’s very gothic—gargoyles, pointed arches, sculpted saints—the works. There’s even an older section dating from the 600s. We can hear the bells echoing in our little alleyway throughout the day.
Our apartment has one room and one window, but the window is tall, and has old-fashioned, paint peeling shutters that you have to lean out to open and close. The building was built before the advent of electricity, but after the late middle ages. We know the building predates electricity because of the wires tied to the outside of the building and running along the baseboards. We’ve fixed the earlier parameter based on the building across from us. It looks just like ours, but part of its first story wall incorporates a section from a medieval stone mansion. The man who lives on the third floor of our building started a conversation with us today as we were running out the door to try to get our cell phone plan before the store closed. We somehow got around to asking him what the old door across the street was. He told us that it was part of a mansion built by one of the Italian nobles in the retinue of the king of Naples, who was also king of Provence in the 1400s. They all lived here in Aix, a center of power and culture. Our neighbor then proceeded to tell us the entire history of the region, starting with the Greeks settling Marseille. We didn’t make it to the cell phone store. But, the medieval* link between Naples and Provence explains why our neighborhood looks so much like Italian cities I’ve seen. Those strong square blocks forming bases for stately rows of windows say, “Vasari wuz here.” It makes me miss my traveling buddies from my trip to Italy.**
*I use the word “medieval” loosely. Technically this building is from smack in the middle of the Italian Renaissance, but I’m not sure what date we use to signal the start of the Renaissance in France. You’ll know about it once I do.
**Vasari was an Italian Renaissance architect.
So, we’re trying to make our apartment feel like home, and the place to get things at good prices is the grocery store. We can take a bus to a big supermarket called Carrefour, which we have done twice this week. We will also be going again tomorrow. “Why?” you may ask. “For the yogurt?” Ay, there’s the rub. Carrefour’s yogurt in no way compares to that of our first grocery store, Auchan. Carrefour store brand multipack has added fiber, tastes a little chemical-y, and comes in four flavors: pineapple, strawberry, mango, and PRUNE. Yes, prune. I did not come to France to eat anything prune flavored (although even the prunes are good here). So, why have we made so many trips to Carrefour?
Well, we noticed very quickly that our matelas (mattress) was not going to do the job. It was about three inches lower in the middle, which meant that we kept rolling into each other and waking each other up all night long. In our eagerness to settle on the apartment, we failed to realize that the bed was not a full, but something only just enough larger than a twin to make us think that it was intended for two people. We were obviously mistaken. The rolling effect made it impossible to sleep. We made our second trip to Carrefour to purchase a new matress. We will be making our third to return it. It turns out that French matresses are sold in sizes varying by ten centimeters. We purchased a 140 x 190 cm matress, while our tiny lofted sleeping space is only big enough to fit one that is 120 x 190. There is no way the new mattress can be smushed into the frame of the “mezzanine” (loft area) without us knocking out some vital support or wall. So, after paying 30 euro for this sucker to be delivered by truck, we are hoping that we can A) take it back on the bus, B) find a suitable replacement and C) manage not to buy more storebrand yogurt while we are there. We’ve gotten four eight packs so far because the price is too good to ignore.
Already expecting to have difficulty with the French beaurocracy system (extremely strict return policies at stores, miles of paperwork and red tape), I have not been disappointed. To get a telephone you need an electric bill. To get an electric bill you have to call the company. To get an apartment you need a French bank statement. To get a French bank statement you need a local address. The high point of this all was finding that our apartment did not exist. We rented number nine. The street has only even numbers, and everyone else in our building gets their mail at number ten. The post office had never heard our address. We have to go back to all the places we set up accounts and re-order things (phone service, checks, etc.). The only organization that had no problem with our address was the store that delivered the matress.
Now, I know it sounds like I’m doing a lot of complaining, and that’s because I am. Moving to another country is not like taking an extended vacation, at least not yet. But there are a few bright spots, and their names are Kim, Emilie, and Swann. Kim is an American woman we met at church. She’s a student in the program I’m going to be starting next week, and she’s been over a few nights for Josh to help with her homework. She’s also bummed around with us on some of our grocery excursions (and she made me buy a rug which does WONDERS for our linoleum floor). It’s great to know someone else in such a similar situation, to share discoveries and cold remedies. Swann and Emilie are our upstairs neighbors. We’ve just come from dinner in their apartment (multi-rooms. So jealous). And they’re so funny, and fun, and nice. As we let ourselves back into our apartment tonight, we were like, “Yeah! We’ve got friends!”