Every time I visited Ireland, my father would ask, ‘What kind of rent are ye paying over there?’ I would admit that Paris rents were high – even then, ours was what would soon be called a thousand euros. But we loved it.
My father’s questions may have eventually influenced the decision we made, shortly before the millennium, to buy a place. There were still some bargains to be found in Paris. We soon found a small apartment, applied for a loan, and waited. In a parallel move, using a small sum supplied by my dear and now departed parents, I bought a smaller place I hoped to use for writing. Writing was all I ever wanted to do, but there was never enough time, or a place for it.
We gave notice on our rental, a lovely place near Bastille with marble fireplaces, parquet floors and ceiling moldings. It was one room too small. The owner promptly put it up for sale, having paid too much for it some years earlier during a kind of boom. She had been very fair and easy to deal with, so when her estate agent announced he was bringing a client to visit, I pulled out all the stops.
The agent and the client visited one evening after dark. I had the lamps lit, Mozart piano in the background. The client told the agent he wanted to buy it. Now there was no going back. We waited for news of the loan. And waited. After what already seemed too long a time, I started harassing the bank. My husband’s work schedule didn’t allow him to hang onto the phone for an hour during the day. Anyway, he was too nice to harass anyone. My teaching schedule was more varied. I finally rustled up suitable interlocutors at the bank. At first hesitant, they finally suggested I call the insurance company dealing with the loan. Again, there was a lot of delay. I sensed kerfuffle and kept digging. The purchase of the writing studio went ahead.
I finally managed to wiggle it out of the insurance: my husband was unacceptable for a loan application, because he’d had stomach cancer. The cancer had been removed some months earlier, along with 4/5 of his stomach (that was when we learned that the digestive system is ‘outside the body’ – think about it). He hadn’t received treatment because he hadn’t needed it. His oncologist’s report, which we’d supplied to the bank and the insurance, contained one magical word: CURED.
Back in those days this wasn’t enough for the insurance. They refused the loan (they’re no longer allowed to refuse a loan in France on those grounds). Our rental lease came to an end. We packed up our stuff and got a removal company to drive it all to my new writing space, which luckily had a kitchenette and a tiny bathroom.
There was torrential Parisian rain the day we drove past the hospital in the removal truck, and eased into the narrow street to our new abode. Everything looked sad and run-down in the rain. Some buildings were in bad condition and would later be evacuated by the city before restoration. The removal guys worried for us. All the things that had seemed attractive and even romantic when I’d found a suitable – and cheap – place to write, especially on a sunny afternoon (narguileh parlors, Chinese herbalists, a broad variety of foreign food and music places) seemed to them doubtful.
That night, our boxes piled to the ceiling, we lay in the only flat space left on the floor. The move began to look like a terrible mistake. My gentle husband felt it was his fault. In fact, it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. We were about to discover, only a short walk from central Paris and its tourist hotspots, a universe teeming with immigrants of all stripes with their problems and the exacerbation of these by French habits and rules – or their own misunderstanding of these.
It was an amazing revelation and a life-enriching experience. I was paying attention to a new place, where our own dilemma, and my status as another immigrant, drew me to relate better to those of my new neighbors and friends. I’d had some success with a few early short stories when living in Morocco. Now, more stories were inspired in that Paris quarter, and Plugging the Causal Breach was born.
Mary Byrne graduated in English and Philosophy from University College Dublin. She has been a scientific and academic editor, French-English translator and English teacher in Ireland, England, Germany, Morocco and France. She now lives in Montpellier, and loves philosophy, art, and anything baroque.