Wednesday, June 3, 2009


We arrived in Paris on a Sunday afternoon; it turned out to be the Sunday afternoon of le week-end d'Ascension which we would have understood had we stopped to think about it. We knew it, of course. But we didn't understand it. L'Ascension--the day in the Church year which marks exactly what you might think it marks, Jesus' ascension into heaven--fell on a Thursday this year and France, being a bedrock secular country, took the day off. And, since it was a Thursday, also took the day following. Which meant, had we but taken the time to consider, that arriving in Paris on Sunday afternoon was the close equivalent of arriving in any major American city on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. In short, a bad idea for the traveler.

And a worse idea, it turned out, for the traveler needing to collect the key to a rented holiday apartment. We had rented an apartment for our few days in Paris through one of those agencies that rents holiday apartments to Americans. You know the ones: they serve as middlemen between French apartment owners who have found a way to bring in some extra euros and eager Americans who have found a way to Live Like a Parisian in Paris. The agencies themselves always seem faintly shady, as though, when you send off your credit card number, instead of getting, in return, an apartment in a Classic Parisian Building in a Quiet Street, Walking Distance to Place des Vosges and Convenient to Métro, you get dunned for a thousand or so dollars.

We'd sent off our credit card number and emailed the agency our arrival time for the Sunday afternoon. M. Gaymard, the propriétaire of the Charming Studio Apartment with Mezzanine in the Heart of the Marais, was to meet us at the apartment with the key. He had our flight information. We copied his phone number into our cahier.

The flight was an hour late. The baggage arrived forty-five minutes later. The Air France autocars into Paris were running a reduced schedule. We phoned M. Gaymard (1) while standing beside the baggage carousel; (2) while waiting for the bus; (3) from the bus; (4) while standing in front of the gates to the courtyard through which we had to pass to enter the Classic Parisian Building where our Charming Studio Apartment waited; (5) while standing outside the door of said apartment (after someone had kindly buzzed us through the gates). Each time we left a message in which we stated where we were (airport, bus stop, bus, gates, corridor) and how dearly we would love to catch up with him on this fine Sunday afternoon.

After phone call number five, we thumbed through our cahier in search of other Paris addresses and phone numbers and, finding a likely one, rang up a friend of a friend and explained our plight. Could she--if M. Gaymard did not turn up (was, perhaps, even now enjoying a holiday in the Seychelles on our credit card), as looked increasingly likely--put us up for the night? Mais bien sûr, came the blessed words down the line. Absolutely! How awful! Stay here in any case! Come right over! Or she would come to us!

We decided to hang on for a little longer to the dream of the Charming Apartment in the Heart of the Marais. It being nigh on five o'clock, and one of us having started her journey well over 18 hours earlier and on another continent, we went round the corner to a café and ordered a meal.

The rosé had just arrived when our phone rang. It was M. Gaymard.

I am calling about the apartment, he said, in correct, accented English. Was there anything in particular that you needed?

Yes, we said. The key.

Ah, bon. We could see him nodding. En fait, in fact, I am just finishing lunch with my family, and now I must take my mother back to her house. Perhaps I could meet you at the apartment in--oh, perhaps in two hours?

I had a professor in graduate school who used routinely to stand me up for appointments. She had two offices on campus, and no matter which office I turned up at, she was never there at the time we had agreed on. Sometimes she showed up in a half hour or so; more often, never. She never apologized and never explained. It's an enviable skill. M. Gaymard possessed it in spades.

An hour and a half later, we rolled our suitcases back around the corner. In front of the gates, standing still in the middle of a sea of sunny Sunday evening strollers, was a man who resembled a middle-aged Christopher Plummer, if Plummer had been cast in the role of a bourgeois French gentleman. Neatly pressed linen pants, a striped Façonnable shirt, a navy linen jacket slung--slung? no, draped--over his shoulders, his hair carefully swept back from his brow, M. Gaymard greeted us by our first names. We greeted him as Monsieur.

He had been at lunch, he explained. Had our flight plans changed? Had we been supposed to arrive today?

Clearly the idea of arriving in Paris on a Sunday afternoon, the Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend, boggled the mind. And it was beyond boggling--unthinkable, really--that there could ever have been an expectation that one would interrupt one's Sunday lunch en famille to provide a key to tourists. And after lunch, of course, one had to take one's mother home, and settle her for the week. There is no reason to apologize when one has behaved comme il faut.

The apartment, once we breached its defenses, was lovely. Its meters-high window looked down on a hidden garden; the building was steps from one of our favorite streets in our favorite city. We shook hands with M. Gaymard as he handed over the keys and vaguely answered our question about whether or not the electricity and hot water were turned on, and then we closed the door behind him. We looked at each other and shrugged. A holiday weekend, a French gentleman, and his Sunday lunch: we should have booked our flights for Monday.