Inspiration has been hiding from me, but I caught a whiff of it today when I read Véronique’s latest post. She was writing about youth and feeling happy without any possessions or plans while living abroad in her twenties. A lovely kind of nostalgia: so nearby, yet such a faraway time and age.
Inspiration is funny. If you read Véronique’s post, you’ll see that all of this comes down to an empty gas station actually.
Anyway, back to my story.
Living in small rooms without many possessions – it reminded me of how I’ve done that too, and how those years were very happy years for me, just like they were for Véro.
Whether it was traveling to Greece for half a year with only a cabin bag for luggage or touring Italy for months by myself with no itinerary, it was always an adventure. Whatever happened, it just added a nice notch on my travel belt.
These adventures sometimes involved my family, too. During my French days, my mum traveled to Paris to help me move all my possessions by car. We rented a Chrysler minivan and drove all the way to Nice, spending a night in Lyon. I didn’t end up staying in Nice for as long as I thought I would. Such a hassle, you might say. But it was an adventure. Unique and ephemeral.
In France, in my twenties… I guess Montpellier and Paris hold such special places in my heart because they were the places where I truly became independent as a young adult. All those experiences were new and there was a certain thrill to it.
Like Véro was saying, I didn’t need much to make me happy. I just wanted to be there and experience it all.
At one point, I was sharing a flat in an old, old, old stone building in Montpellier with two Finnish girls I had just met. There was no heating despite it being winter, and we could see our breath – the air was so cold you could cut it. We were absolutely freezing all the time. So cold that we started wearing layers upon layers of “pulls” (sweaters) and beanies and scarves. Indoors. Sometimes we’d sleep with our coats on. Sometimes we’d exercise just to get warm.
One of the girls had lived in the flat longer than me and the other girl. It was an unfurnished flat but she had found furniture on the streets and made some herself. She’d made a living room table from an old, worn wooden door by putting some boxes underneath as legs. It looked really cool and I envied her sense of style. There were candles stuck in empty wine bottles with the wax dripping out onto the table, making the make-do candle holders stick.
She had created the kitchen table in a similar fashion from another door she had found. The door had little glass frames painted in a wonderful Mediterranean blue.
There was only one bed. The original girl had it. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor.
The third girl was new. I remember when she arrived, her first evening. She was scared of everything. I thought she would get over it but it turned out living abroad just wasn’t her thing. She was jumpy. We didn’t get along very well.
Montpellier had some gorgeous Medieval streets in that area of town – I don’t know how old that building was. Its staircase was like the ones at old cathedrals from the Middle Ages that you can visit, like the Notre Dame: a steep spiral, no handrails, so tiny only one person could walk there at a time and if you were tall you would have to hunch over. The steps were so worn out they had become uneven, sliding towards the spot people had treaded on for decades, maybe even centuries.
But this wasn’t my first flat in Montpellier nor was it my last. Before this, I had stayed in a 17 sq.m room in a student residence. It had been a new building, modern and nice. I’d met other foreign students there and made friends. There were dinner parties, jogging dates, Mexicans making sangria, Canadians planning road trips and Dutch students cooking their own kind of fondue.
My third flat was a tiny dollhouse, two stories but probably no more than 30 sq.m altogether. I shared it with a Dutch girl and a Belgian guy. We had a grid on our window because it was street level and there were many nightclubs on that street. Someone was always knocking on our window.
In Paris some years after Montpellier, I lived in the 14th arrondissement in a slightly bigger flat, by myself. There was mold in the bathroom and gas heaters which I had trouble turning on. I sometimes used the good old Montpellier trick and dressed in almost all my clothes to stay warm. In Finland, there’s always hot water in the shower and that’s a great way to warm up. But in my Paris flat, there was a limited amount of hot water.
The flat had at some point earlier in its history been a shop of some kind, it had been converted into a flat. So one wall was still a huge sales window. It was covered with a metal shutter all the time. Luckily I also had windows facing the inner yard so it wasn’t completely dark inside. The flat was full of art.
There was an old lady who I think was some kind of janitor. She kept track of me, whether I wanted it or not. During weekend mornings, very early, she would wind my inner yard window covers up and I had no curtains so I’d wake up to see her peering through the window at me.
My landlady lived abroad, but once, she decided to stay in the flat without telling me. She just walked in with her keys and asked me to go somewhere else for a while. I can’t remember what I did. Maybe I found another flat at that point.
I’ve lived in too many French flats to remember all of them very well. There was the moldy wall fraud flat in Levallois-Perret, where my shampoo went moldy every day between showers. I could hear the woman above me walk around in high heels all the time. Through my window, I could see an office building and watch faceless silhouettes of people work at their desks.
There was the posh flat in the 9th arrondissement where I couldn’t stay for very long because it was very expensive. I had no furniture so my landlord left me a table to use. It was a Moroccan table: a beautiful golden tray on wooden legs. I fell in love with that table.
There was the flat in Nice which I did furnish, only to end up selling the furniture and moving back to Paris six months later. It had a bakery downstairs and I was quite addicted to their pain au raisin.
There was the period where I shacked up at a friend’s tiny studio in Bastille (Paris). But she hadn’t told me that she was suffering from insomnia. At night, she would get up, get a snack from the fridge, turn on all the lights and start reading. I’ve never been able to sleep with lights on. So I moved in with another friend. Except she had a cat, and I’m very allergic to cats…
I didn’t really mind wherever I landed. It all seemed to work out, one way or another. Back then, all I needed was some sun and I was good to go!