Thursday, November 27, 2008

Apartment search, act 2

If we were having so much trouble finding a place in Marseille, you might ask, why not live in Aix? James' job is in Aix, no commute, beautiful historic city, the stomping grounds of Cezanne and Zola -- who wouldn't want to live here? Well, we really liked Marseille, as you can probably tell from the previous posts, and we had also heard that it was a lot less expensive than Aix. However, we came to the conclusion that we should consider it and decided to give Aix a try.

After a lunch with James' colleagues during which they all sang the praises of Aix and Marseille equally (though were quick to point out how different the two cities are), we went for a walk to get a feel for the city. And the feeling we got was that we did not like it. It was like walking around in an outdoor shopping mall for really rich people.The collage photo doesn't exactly do justice to my last comment, but I can tell you that the Dolce & Gabbana shirts in the upper left are a relative bargain at 180€ compared to the jeans on the mannequin in the Hermès window, which go for 565€. The winner of the "wow, that's fancy" award (but only because the employees were lingering around the window when I walked by Escada and I couldn't take a close-up of the 3060€ coat) is the 1690€, white bag you can see in the Lancel window (on the left side, just below the Christmas tree decoration). It is made from Orylag, which is the "technically ideal and ethically acceptable" trademarked fur from a crossed, selected and perfected breed of rabbit. It still requires killing the rabbits as far as I can tell -- it's just ethically better because it doesn't kill wild animals? (But who am I to judge? I eat meat, wear leather and I have worn one of Grandma's fur coats.) Now, it's fun to window-shop and it's fun to see the luxury items that I will never buy, but in the day-to-day, Aix really didn't seem like a good fit.

So back to Marseille.

Living in the hotel was really starting to wear on us. We were living out of our suitcases (literally, because the room was so small there was no room for a bureau). We couldn't cook and since we didn't have a refrigerator, we were limited to things that we could eat in one sitting or that wouldn't go bad overnight on the window ledge. The wi-fi still was only sort of working, which made the revisions hard, it also made getting in touch with people in the States -- family and dissertation committee members -- really hard because Skype calls would just cut out or wouldn't connect at all. Normally, not a single one of these things would have been a big deal, but all of them together were getting pretty difficult. There were no furnished apartments to be rented, or they were only slightly larger than our hotel room, which was too small for two people to dwell in.

Then, we finally had a bit of luck. Two things, actually. First, the owners of an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in the Vieux Port area called me back. It turned out that this unfurnished apartment at least had a sink, two electric burners and a large toaster oven (which some of the furnished apartments we'd seen didn't even have -- and you should forget about getting a full-size oven unless you plan to buy one yourself). There was no fridge, but the owners said there was a place in the kitchenette to put a small one. The couple lives in Aix so they wanted us to check out the building and see if we liked the exact location. If we did they'd come show it to us.

Well, the building was this one, which I had already noticed and thought was pretty cool. The apartment was one on the first floor, facing the Vieux Port. Obviously, we liked it, and it's about a 7-minute walk to the shuttle to Aix, so it was convenient too.

There were other people in the running, both people who had looked at the apartment already and some people who had made an appointment for the following week, but I had a pretty lengthy conversation with the wife, Madame V., and she really seemed to want to help us out. Her daughter lives in the States now and had a lot of trouble finding a place when she and her husband moved there. Not only that, but Madame and Monsieur V. had lived in Chicago when he went to grad school and after for a year or two when he worked there.

So we went to see the apartment. Madame and Monsieur V. were very nice and the apartment was great. There was a living room that opened onto a post-card view of the Vieux Port, then in the middle of the apartment were the kitchenette and bathroom and then the bedroom was on the back side of the building.

We loved the apartment and wanted it, but there was the issue of furnishing it and the expense that commuting to Aix effectively added to our monthly rent. Besides, we realized we might have been a little unfair in our original assessment of Aix because there were definite advantages to Aix over Marseille: James would be able to walk to work, it would be easier to run/bike (if we had brought our bikes with us)/hike and most importantly because there are tons of students (including study-abroad students) the renter's market is different and finding a furnished apartment was almost guaranteed to be easier.

The second piece of good luck, which happened about the time I made the appointment to see the Vieux Port apartment, was that we found a couple of furnished apartments that were listed in Aix with Agence Come In! (yes, it has that exclamation point as part of its name, it's in English, but the name really doesn't sound like English or French when they say it on the phone), which advertised being a different kind of agency. Ok, we'll bite. How different are you, Agence Come In!?

So we called Come In! and it is indeed a slightly different kind of agency. They charge you a non-refundable fee up front and they charge you if they place you, but what they charge (total) ends up being less than 1/2 of a month of rent and they show you apartments or make appointments for you to meet the owner. We made an appointment at the agency for Friday, the day after we would see the apartment in the Vieux Port. When we got there, S. (the agent) got us five appointments to see apartments for that day.

This time, Aix was different. On our way to where we'd be seeing our first apartment, we happened to walk down Rue d'Italie, a street filled with food stores -- pastry shops, butchers, a natural foods store, wine stores, a health-food store, an Italian market that makes its own fresh pasta and gnocchi, some cafés. There were a couple of hardware stores and even a few clothing stores, but they weren't so fancy. It got better still. By chance, we chose a path toward the first apartment on streets that were not completely filled with luxury shops. Instead, we got to see the charming centuries-old buildings, cafés situated on picturesque squares and cobblestone streets that, on a sunny day when you're already feeling pretty optimistic because you know that you're actually going to see five apartments (all on one day!), can actually put Aix in competition with an unfurnished apartment on the Vieux Port.

And then we entered the Place Richelme.

Shaded by sycamore trees, the Place Richelme is a very scenic spot. One side of the square is occupied by the back of the 18th century grain market that is now the post office and on the other three sides there are cafés that spread out into the square in the afternoon and evenings, as well as some shops. But on this Friday morning, it was the center of the square where the magic was happening -- a market, which I now know happens every day of the week. There were two fishmongers (and these seem to be fishmongers, not the fishermen themselves like in the Vieux Port) selling fish and seafood (even sea urchins) from the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

There were tons of vegetables from the region, like these romanesco broccoli. The sign says "from our garden", but usually it says the town or region if it's from France (country if it's from Spain, Italy or Corsica).

And there were eggs, chickens, rotisserie trucks, tapenades and spreads, cookies, honeys, bread, cured meats and cheese. Delicious cheese. Right in front of us as we walked into the square were some Corsican cheese vendors selling Tomme de Brébis (Tomme made from ewe's milk) ranging in age from a few months (creamy, bright) to almost two years (sharp, drier, zesty). Of course they had samples. Of course I had some.

We wanted to stay at the market and buy some of the beautiful eggplants, tomatoes and zucchini and make a gratin to eat with crusty bread, cheese and a nice, dry rosé. Sitting outside, of course, with a beautiful view. But we didn't have an oven, or an apartment, so we had to move on. We ended up getting to our appointment a little early so we went and had a coffee at La Fournée de Joseph, which is a local bakery (two locations in Aix, one in Marseille), and looked across the street at a pretty fountain and Le Chado Café (say it like "Shadow"), a swanky club popular with young Aixois, that were our landmarks for the first appointment.

Well, the apartments were mixed. They were all furnished, and all potentially had potential. However, in their current states, three of them were appropriate only for students and of those three, two of them had places in the living space that were too short for James. One of the other apartments was fine, but not great. One apartment was perfect, as in we probably would have taken it on the spot, except that it was only sort of available.

Apparently, the night before we went to see the apartment, Madame P. had rented it out from the beginning of November through the end of January (on a vacation rentals website). She does a lot of short-term rentals so when the agency said "October 1st or as soon as possible," she didn't necessarily think we'd be looking for long-term. Another issue with this apartment was that Madame P. likes to rent it out for the month-long opera festival that takes place in Aix every summer because she can charge a lot more, so we would have had to leave for July. This apartment was so great, though, that we were considering unconventional rental arrangements. It was on the third floor, the living space included a bed, plenty of closet space, a futon couch, TV and wi-fi. The kitchen had four induction burners, a washing machine, a dishwasher, the large toaster-oven, microwave, was fully stocked with pots, pans, china, etc.

Madame P. also had an apartment on the first floor that she was going to renovate and there was a chance that that could be done for November, but it wasn't available right away and besides it was dark and kind of gross. We really liked the third-floor apartment so we proposed that we rent it for Oct., move downstairs (or elsewhere) in Nov. and then back upstairs at the end of January. Since we still had three more places to see, we told her we'd call her later that night or the next day. She couldn't commit to November - January in the downstairs apartment, but she said that the plan to let her know sounded good.

James and I talked about our options throughout the day. In fact, during the hour and a half before our final appointment, in which we watched the rain pour down and hoped that it would let up before we had to go out into it ... without an umbrella, we made a list of expenses and pros and cons, both monetary and lifestyle-related, of Aix and Madame P.'s temporary apartment and Marseille and the unfurnished Vieux Port apartment. It was really hard to decide. In one resepct we were happy to have to make this decision, because it meant we were getting out of the hotel, but there were significant advantages and significant disadvantages to each option.

After the last (and disappointing) apartment, made worse by getting caught in the cold rainstorm and getting soaked by a car that drove through a pothole, we waited in line for 45 minutes for the bus back to Marseille. We were tired and needed warm food to help us make our decision. So instead of eating sandwiches in the hotel room, we splurged and went to the Cours Julien for Provençal food: Daube and a delicious slice of fig tarte (with fresh and dried figs). As we ate our dinners and watched the 18-top across the restaurant -- 18 normal-looking people in their late-20s to mid-40s, who looked like people we'd know -- we decided that it was probably smarter to take the apartment in Aix, even if it was just for a month.


So we told the hotel we'd be leaving, but since it was kind of late at this point, we decided to call Madame P. in the morning.

Huge mistake.

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