hunting season: on finding an apartment in lyon

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I shouldn’t even be writing this.

I have work to do.

Less than two weeks ago, we packed a car-full of belongings and came to Lyon for Victor’s new job at Corning: the latest development in a year where the only constant is change. Our things are now scattered around three different lodgings on two continents, but we are working towards the goal of settling in. Staying put. Making a home in this dynamic city I’ve admired since I was a wide-eyed college sophomore.

Already the city rush makes a welcome change from the sleepy hills above Fréjus. I want to walk every street. Think of places to take Clara when she’s older. Linger at the markets. Oh, but before I get too lost in reveries, we need a place to live. That’s my job.

I’ve long harbored a dream of a French apartment. It’s in a Haussmann building with high ceilings and honeyed wood floors. There are big mirrors and fresh flowers. A balcony holds a creaky wooden chair on which to sit and ponder and scribble in a Gallimard notebook. In other words, a place exactly like our Airbnb. While the place is my vision come to life, it is only home for one month.

The apartment search is, to borrow some classic French understatement–pas facile. There are a few reasons for this. The first is personal. When I started the search a little over a week ago, I had all the tools for success. Victor’s French Mac and my American version, charged and ready for double-screen visibility. A cup of coffee. A sleeping baby (albeit with all the security of a ticking time bomb). I began to stalk Le Bon Coin and Se Loger, the two main search engines for lodgings, and I found plenty of possibilities. But when it came time to contact owners and agencies, I found that my French phone shyness still lived on. It was a quiet, residual shyness but it had me scrambling to find really any other distraction. Oh look at the time! Better take out the trash… 

If you’ve lived abroad, I’m sure you can understand this feeling. It’s the all-too-typical phone anxiety (a Millennial hallmark–google it), multiplied by ten. I still remember my psychosomatic response when the home phone rang on my study abroad trip to Lyon, over five years ago now. Alone, I paced. My face grew hot. Answer? Don’t answer. Pretend I didn’t hear it? Go outside? Jump into the shower? What if it’s my host family. How do you even answer, do you just say bonjour? How do I not know this! I must have missed class that day. The mysterious caller hung up, and feelings of guilt, shame, and total relief mingled as I transferred my nervous energy into rummaging in the cabinet for a sugary snack. The way my heart hammered was appropriate for being held at gunpoint.

Years later, while I can have a long, meandering, comfortable conversation in French with someone I know well, phone conversations with strangers are still not something I jump out of bed for. So while the blushing language-student part of me would have preferred for my French-national spouse to manage the search, there was no practical way of making it work with his schedule. Plus, I actually possess the language capabilities (unlike five years ago, where you wouldn’t have wanted me within ten feet of an official document in French).

15 phone calls in, I felt like a pro. It was almost fun. Where my initial calls had probably sounded something like durrr I need an apartment, my hastily-accrued experience had taught me what to do. I could rattle off the apartment specifics without missing a beat. Of course, I still had a couple of misses.

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During one of my inquiries–for a small but pleasant apartment near Vic’s job–I forgot how to say “ninety one.” But I didn’t realize this until I had repeated to the woman on the phone that the reference number was indeed “forty-eleven.”

Mais…ça n’existe pas, madame. Ça n’existe pas? I’m looking at it right here on the page–

It didn’t matter anyway. It was already taken, along with almost every other apartment I’ve called about. This isn’t because I’ve been combing through postings from last spring. Even though we are not in peak apartment-hunting season, the market is oversaturated with potential renters.

When I’ve needed to find a place to live in France in the past, I’ve always had success through word-of-mouth. I’ve had days or weeks to consider a move. I am out of my league here, a puppy chasing the pack of street dogs as they fight over the bone that is an acceptable, affordable apartment. Yelp. Help! 

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To illustrate: I missed my first apartment visit last week by about fifty feet.

I had found a place that seemed to have great potential and organized a visit within an hour of its being posted online. In the event I liked the place, I wanted to improve our chances, so I visited the rental agency with the documents needed for our dossier. Every move was of course complicated by baby Clara, whose presence necessitates a greater level of organization than I’ve ever quite mastered. So there I am. Hurtling the stroller over ruined sidewalks. Wrestling it into a tiny elevator. Later, pecking out emails with one hand while I nurse Clara on the other arm.

A few hours later I am standing in the lobby for the visit and I am humming. Clara is sleeping. The location is better than I could have hoped for; I’m prepared to say we want the place. It’s two minutes until I’m supposed to ring for the visit, when what rings is my cell phone.

It’s the agency. Someone else has taken the place; sorry; you can come back and pick up your dossier. So this is how it’s gonna go.

As I write this, we have managed one visit, last Friday. (Our documents are being processed and we should hear back tomorrow.) The apartment was better than in the photos, great for the price. No Haussmann building but it’s clean and modern (and has an elevator, which is not a given). It was a quick visit, only ten minutes, during which two other people showed up to scope it out. I had Clara in the Baby Bjorn–no stroller–so we could move faster. One guy about my age, friendly, laid-back, told the current tenants that he wanted to take some pictures and show them to his girlfriend later, see what she thought.

Poor soul, he must be new to this. Even newer than me. Because, according to my research, most rental properties are on the market for less than 24 hours. So here it goes, here’s how you get an apartment in Lyon. Take notes.

1) have your documents submitted before you visit. 2) be the first to visit. 3) say yes IMMEDIATELY.

Add one baby for greater aerobic potential.

For our part, we flew down the hall, jumped out of the elevator, and called the real estate agent, before putting in writing that we wanted the place. The way my heart beat could have rivaled my first French phone calls. I’m no expert but I do know this: apartment hunting should be considered an extreme sport.

4 thoughts on “hunting season: on finding an apartment in lyon

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