The cliche says “Paris is for lovers” but at the age of forty-something when my husband and I arrived for the first time in Paris at the 19th arrondissement with several backpacks in toe (his idea for lighter travel which almost gave us hernias) and in the company of not one, not two, not even three teenagers but four, we were far from love but not yet beaten. That would come later at the hands of a simple key and a stubborn locking mechanism on the sixth floor of a narrow hallway on Avenue Secretan.
We knew the City of Light would not hold any romantic interludes or enchanting escapades or amorous adventures for the Dickerson couple – the most we could hope for was to check in to our Paris apartment, set up sleeping arrangements (which often meant us cramming into a twin bed so the kids could spread out a bit more) and see if there were any restaurants open late that would serve the non-French well after dinner hours. Much to my surprise, signing for the key was effortless, unlike the treacherous Parisian rush-hour traffic which I cannot detail at this juncture for fear the horrid memory will send me into another post-traumatic stress disorder episode I may not recover from.
We pull up to the curb on this beautiful boulevard-like street. From the corner we could see the entire block lined with neobaroque buildings – monuments of stoic stony grays with just the right splash of color from the cafes, brasseries and other street-level storefronts flaunting their cool blues, dark greens and vibrant red double doors and awnings – Paris knows how to say, “Bienvenue!”
After each of us has poured out of the mini-car, daddy offered to find a meter while we got a head start settling into the place. Sounded like a good idea at the time. Five minutes into the scariest ride up six flights in the world’s smallest elevator (maybe 2X3 because I’m feeling generous), I squeezed out of the elevator or ascenseur and greeted the kids with a psychotic half-smile. It was clear the demented traffic patterns and claustrophobic lifts were beginning to take their toll on my sanity (especially after surviving over ten hours on turbulent flights from JFK to Dusseldorf then into Zurich). I slid through the three inches of space between the kids and the hallway to reach the apartment door – a solid barrier that would prove my first real challenge (since I wasn’t the one swerving through the death-defying drivers).
Okay, you would think that step 1: insert key into key whole, step 2: turn said key left, maybe step 3: if key did not open door, you may need to turn key to the right instead and finally step 4: push or pull door open for access. Presto! Door should open, right? Well, the door did not open. Not only did the door not open, the heavy wooden fortress wouldn’t even budge. Teen #1 tried and failed. Teen #2 tried and failed. Teen #3 wanted to try to but stubborn teen #1 demanded another chance. Fifteen minutes into the battle I realize my dear and loving (and much stronger) husband is not up yet. We get to texting Dad to find that, much like us, he is enjoying his own very special Paris moment as he circles the block for parking meters only to be denied over and over again – its as if the City of Light smelled foreign intruders and was trying to keep us out – out of the parking spaces, out of the apartment, just out.
Texting was not urgent enough for me so I yelled at one of the kids for their iPhone so I could proceed to yell at my husband about the door that won’t open because the stupide desk clerk had giving us the wrong fucking key – now we had to defy the laws of physics and maneuver our way across town back to the freaking travel place because it’s of course too much like common sense to have the travel and operations office in the same building or at least in the same zip code – I don’t even know if Paris has zip codes – are those international? My husband finally saw a spot opening up so he got his blinker ready to pounce on the meter. He hung up without giving me further instructions – a sign he too was reaching his breaking point. Ten long and sweaty minutes later, up the spiral stairs came Dad, wondering no doubt why the elevator did not descend even when he pressed for it so many times – when all of a sudden we noticed that the little accordion doors had to be closed for the lift to actually function. He pushed past three kids and snatched the key from the fourth one who was relentless in his pursuit of access. Dad tried and failed. Left. Right. A tug here. A very hard push there. Nothing. Not a millimeter this way or that. He figured at first that the owners were within and had deadbolted the door, hence its resistance. Ultimately we decided, the damn clerk gave us the wrong key, right? So we called the 800 number and mademoiselle suggested in a serene voice and thick accent that we try to catch the super of the building on the bottom floor before he left for the day – a mad dash for the ascenseur which barely held two and the rest of us ran for it down the corkscrew stairs. All of us out of breath on the first floor looking in the dark for any likeness to a service door or a placard that may indicate an office of some kind.
All seemed lost as we prepared our adventurous spirits and minds for an overnight slummer party of sorts. We would descend into the bowels of Paris’s Metro – embracing the idea (despite any guidebook warnings) of spending the night slumming it with the local vagabonds on benches trying to sleep upright – our heads against the frigid comfort of the subway’s tiled-walls.
À notre grande surprise out of thin air appeared a very tall, very French, very cultured, very worldly, very friendly and extremely helpful neighbor. I like to pretend now that his name was Pierre even though we were never formally introduced or if we were I missed it given the exhaustion, rage, helplessness, confusion, etc, etc, etc. After Pierre and I fumbled through some cryptic communication concerning the super – who apparently had left many hours before – my husband and I managed to explain (through an exhaustive amount of hand gestures and universal body language) that our key was not opening the door. Without further conversation he grabbed said key and began up the steps at an alarming rate of two steps at a time. My husband trailing behind him. On the sixth floor without any apparent loss of breath or composure, our French neighbor from the 4th floor stood directly in front of our apartment door and with key securely in his right hand inserted and effortlessly clicked opened a door that had mocked us for over an hour. He attentively demonstrated the procedure numerous times and before waving off explained that all the doors in the building were difficult to open – a good-hearted attempt to make us feel less idiotic, no doubt.
Once inside the five-hundred square-foot accommodations, we found it to be the most chic and quaint little enclave in all of Paris. In retrospect, the apartment’s beauty may be attributed to an old adage that goes something like this: Nous voulons que ce que nous ne pouvons pas avoid (we want what we can’t have). We instantly decided we must return for another summer in Paris very soon and stay in the same cozy apartment where Dickerson memories where made: The Best Little Apartment in Paris – on Avenue Secretan – the one with the key and the stubborn lock.