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 (This story dates back several years, to the week I bought my apartment.)

Some people visit Nôtre Dame when they are in Paris.  Not me.  I’m spending my week exploring building supply stores – Batkor, Leroy Merlin, BHV and more – choosing materials and appliances for my newly purchased apartment.  My transportation is a well-used white van. My companion is Dariusz, a congenial, efficient contractor.   And my makeup is plaster dust.

Dariusz is young – only 28 – but my realtor, who recommended him as un homme de l’art*, was correct.  Dariusz has a decorator’s eye and solid skills.  What he doesn’t have is – English.  He is Polish, and our only common language is imperfect French, supplemented by gestures, hand-drawn diagrams, and shared enthusiasm.   

I finished the apartment purchase Monday and must return to the US on Saturday – leaving four days to make renovation decisions for an apartment that has not been updated since the 1970s.  Ancient wallpaper, 40-year-old carpet, shredded curtains, aged appliances, dark tiles – everything is battered, grungy and unusable.

So, Tuesday morning I’m waiting in front of the building when Dariusz scoots his van into an illegal spot.  “Vite, vite!”, he calls, sweeping a pile of rulers, invoice forms, maps and empty coffee cups from the passenger seat so I can scramble in.

Dariusz seems to fill the  truck.  Though hardly taller than I, he is what the French call  costaud – sturdy, solid and muscular – with a sweet round face ringed with close-cropped black hair. He wraps his arms around the steering wheel, pulls forward and launches into a stream of Polish-accented French – commenting on traffic, apologizing that he didn’t clean his truck, and explaining, amused, that I am the rare client who actually wants to explore the aisles of appliance stores, lumberyards and paint shops.

What an education this is.  Ivry-sur-Seine, the district where most of our stores are located, was once just a dot on the Métro map.  Now I know that this area, east of Paris’ center, has been rebuilt into a modern and appealing neighborhood, somehow preserving the spirit of its former docks and factories.  I have also heard Dariusz’ personal version of the migration of Poles worldwide:  He has a brother in the UK, a sister in the US, cousins in Australia and parents still in Poland.

At the end of our whirlwind days, the apartment is in deepest demolition. The kitchen is an empty shell.  The ancient wall-to-wall carpet is covered with a storm of paint and plaster chips.  Bathroom fixtures in plastic wrap sit like ghosts in the dark bedroom.  The hall closet, dismantled, awaits the washing machine.  My beautiful marble fireplaces hide behind stacks of kitchen cabinets.  Tools, ladders and unidentifiable hardware are littered everywhere.

But I am leaving for the States. Dariusz must execute the apartment design, refine our color choices, and meet my deadline.  Necessity is the mother of trust.  My Parisian friends predict that, in my absence, the work won’t get done, or will be shoddy.  But I wave to the workmen and head for the plane.

The happy, lucky outcome:  I returned two months later to a practically perfect renovation.  The ancient wood floor gleamed.  The kitchen was stunning.  Chandeliers sparkled.  There was no furniture yet, but I danced around the empty space.   A new adventure began.

* * * * * *

* un homme de l’art means expert, with echos of craftsmanship and creativity

** kitchen counter, tile, hinge 

*** lave-vaisselle, four, four à micro-ondes