We met with Edouard’s brother and Nici at their apartment. I instantly felt incredibly welcomed by them both, sitting down, eating saucisson, drinking beers and exchanging stories until we were laughing. It was such an amazing feeling just knowing that we were starting somewhere.
We wasted no time, making appointments for the very next day. We arranged to see three apartments, one at 3pm, one at 4:30pm and another at 7pm. The first was an old apartment in the centre of Marseille, ten minutes away from Nici and Jeremy, the second was one that we had spotted whilst in Paris, just outside of the city about 30 mins away. The third was five minutes away from where Nici and Jeremy lived.
We drove to the first one, excited and dressed nicer than normal.
“You look like a lady, Lizzy!” Edouard said with a grin.
I straightened my dress self-consciously. “I want him to think I can pay my bills.”
We parked the car and walked down an old street. The buildings towered above us, the streets buzzing with life. People were buying bread from the bakery, meat from the butcher and drinking wine outside of cafés. It felt like how every city should feel. Alive and enjoying the small things.
I loved every inch of this street already.
But I knew this apartment was old and needed a lot of work. I had lived in old apartments before and I wanted to be cautious. To be smart. I didn’t want to get too excited.
But I think it was too late.
Edouard and I had made an agreement before we even started looking at apartments.
“I don’t want somewhere furnished,” he said. “I literally want to move in with just a mattress and find everything else on the streets, build things and upcycle. We don’t have to buy new things.”
This was refreshing for me. “Yeah, all right!”
He looked at me strangely. “You are ok with that?”
I shrugged. “Why not?”
It made sense to me. I had always wanted this sort of challenge and here I was! I loved being creative and it only seemed right to give this a go rather than spending all of our money in Ikea.
I think it was a relief for Edouard to be free to do that. I wanted to encourage the things he wanted to do, not try and chain him down and make him do things that he didn’t enjoy doing. I wanted this to be different for us. I wanted us to be free.
We parked the car and walked to the number of the apartment. We stopped at a very tall, old and dark building with huge wooden doors before us.
I wondered what it would have looked like a hundred years ago and the people who once lived inside. My thoughts were jolted as the owner came and greeted us.
An older gentleman, he fumbled with a huge set of keys to find the right one to open the door. I struggled with finding the right words to say to him. I scanned my brain for the French dialogue I had learned so far.
Say something smart, Elizabeth, I told myself. Say something so he thinks you are cultured!
But all I could do was smile, nod and say, ‘Merci’ as he opened the door.
The door was ridiculously heavy, creaking open finally to reveal a tall set of winding stairs. The paint was flaking onto the ground and it looked like a plaster and repair job had been started but not completed.
Or had even got halfway for that matter.
The tiles were the original terracotta tiles from when the building had been built, gently sloping towards the middle where people had walked over them so many times. My hand clutched the metal banister arching upwards, the ironwork curling in intricate patterns, original to the building, beautiful even in its decay.
I looked up and saw the staircase continue to spiral up and up and up until I could finally spot the light from above. Darkness surrounded us as the old man shuffled forwards, the huge set of keys jingling in his hands. Eventually he stopped at a pair of blue flaking double doors.
Unlocking three locks, he walked in, exposing three doors in the blackness. He pulled out another set of keys and started undoing the locks to the furthest door on the right.
I waited. And waited. And waited.
Until, he finally opened the door.
I walked in, the scent of dust and must filling my nostrils. High ceilings stretched above my head as I walked down a narrow corridor towards a kitchen. The old man tottered towards the huge French windows to open the shutters and at last, light streamed in.
The apartment seemed to sigh in relief as he unbolted all of the windows. The view beyond was the rooftop of the workshop next to us, the sky opening up before us. I don’t know why, but I was disappointed with the view at first, seeing nothing but tiles and dirt.
But the space was huge. A huge lounge spanned out before us, big enough to do cartwheels in. There was a separate toilet and bathroom intact with a miniature bathtub with a little seat inside. The bathroom was painted a bright yellow and red, the colour scheme leaking into the kitchen with all of the old cupboards painted the same sickly stain of scarlet.
The old man and Edouard talked together in French and I was free as a ghost to walk around. I suppose that’s the beauty of not being able to speak the language. Or a curse. You are like a ghost. You can come and go as you please, wandering around as no one really takes notice of what you are doing.
I felt something in this apartment. It was a decayed sensation of loneliness. Like it had fallen asleep. Like a beautiful woman who had been left by her lover and had fallen into a slumber over years and years. I imagined what this apartment would have looked like a hundred years ago. The tall ceilings, the huge windows, the ancient sink in the bathroom. I thought of the people that had once gazed out of these windows, who had stood where I was now standing.
The glory of what it had once been.
I glanced at the discarded bra lying across the tiles and turned back around to gaze at the two small posters hiding small holes in the walls for the electrics.
This place needed some tender loving care, that was for sure.
The old man explained to us that the three apartments on this level back in the day had been one. I had guessed this by viewing the toilet and bathroom, probably added in the 70’s, finding a cupboard in the kitchen above the facilities with a huge cavernous space within.
“He says maybe we can have a second bedroom in this cupboard,” Edouard laughed to me.
It was a gigantic space, big enough to put a double bed in.
“If we have this place that is exactly what we’re doing,” I threatened him.
But it was perfect for us. The old man seemed surprised at the growing excitement in our faces as we talked about the different possibilities.
“We can put the bed here!”
“Yes- and I can have my writing desk here!”
“I can build something along here-”
“Yeah, you should do that!”
It was the first apartment we had seen and already we wanted it.
“This feels right,” Edouard said as we left the apartment, promising to call the old man later that night.
But we still had two more apartments to see. We drove straight away to the second one in the suburbs of Marseille. This had been the apartment we had seen on the internet back in Paris. But my excitement to view the place was non-existent. I kept thinking of the high ceilings and the tall windows of the first apartment.
The landlady met us outside the one story apartment. She was clean cut, attractive and efficient as she went through a huge amount of paperwork to see if we could actually afford the place.
I walked through the rooms and shook my head, knowing deep in my heart that I was not supposed to be here. This was meant for another couple.
It was clean, white and meant for people who wanted a big tv and a sofa from Ikea. The cupboards were made out of cheap wood, the rooms were small and there just didn’t seem to be any soul in the building.
I caught my reflection in the mirror of the bathroom and raised an eyebrow at myself. I wasn’t even sure what I looked like. With my tattooed arm, freshly washed hair, pristine blue dress and ancient flip flops, I didn’t even recognise myself. I had been living in shorts and a t shirt with no make up so long that I had forgotten what it was like to look like a civilian.
I felt uncomfortable for some reason. That I wasn’t myself.
But I knew that would come. I had to settle in, adjust and find my way.
I carried on walking around when the woman started talking in long monologues. I felt bad wasting her time as she spoke with Edouard for about an hour in the stifling heat as I wished for there to be some way I could communicate we should leave immediately. I didn’t want to waste another second.
But we waited it out as the woman demanded to see copies of our passports, our bank statements, our job contracts and everything else that required a signature.
We tried to be polite, talking with the landlady and escaped as soon as we could back into the Marseille sun.
“I think we both know what we’re supposed to do,” I said to Edouard in the car.
“I know,” Edouard said. “And it’s the first apartment!”
Returning to Jeremy and Nici’s apartment, we sat down with a beer and excitedly told the about the old apartment.
“But you’ve still got one more to see, haven’t you?” Nici asked us.
We had, but the guy wasn’t answering our phone calls and I didn’t want to view it anyway.
“Call the old man instead,” I said to Edouard. He grinned at me and picked up his phone.
“You want that apartment?”
It needed a lot of work. And a lot of love. Not to mention it had been the first apartment we had seen.
But I wasn’t scared.
The flat was in an amazing location and was incredibly cheap- probably because it needed to be completely repainted and it looked like no one had lived in it for years.
But I wanted to start this life. I had been without a home for so long, wandering the world and calling someone else’s bed my own, using someone else’s bathroom, eating in someone else’s kitchen. I wanted my own nest.
I wanted to lay my own foundations.
The old man was overjoyed to hear that we wanted the place, excitedly agreeing to meet us the next day for another view and to do the paperwork.
I couldn’t stop grinning as Edouard got off the phone, holding him tightly.
“We did it!” I crowed. “We have a home!”
And there it was. Within one day of being in Marseille we had our first apartment.
I had found my place at last.