Tuesday, June 14, 2016

History Smells

We meet Serge at the big blue door in the building "Detective Duploc" on Rue de Louvre. He offers to carry my suitcase up the five flights of pre-French Revolution stairs, and travel weary as I am, acceptance is conveyed with barely a shrug and a "Merci." Six floors of apartments without an elevator. Renting our fifth floor flat, is a weight control program for an indulgent three weeks of bread, cream, and butter.

When we enter the charming apartment, I am accosted by smells and think of Helen Keller who said she could enter a home and smell five layers of families who'd lived in that home.  Without her heightened perception of smell, I can detect at least three, but given the age of our building, there could have been a hundred families who once occupied this space.

Our apartment is so unique, or so I think; when I read a passage from Eloisa Jame's memoir, Paris in Love, except for the layout, it seems she rented the same  flat. She writes,  Our Paris apartment is elegant in the way of a Chanel coat found in an attic trunk: worn around the edges but beautifully designed. The building dates to the 1750s, and the wood floors are all original. The kitchen and bathroom are at the far end of a long corridor that bends around one corner of the buildings courtyard--so that the smells (and the servants) would be isolated.

Rarely do I ever wish I could see ghosts--except today when I can almost imagine the 18th century artisan kneeling in his rough wool knickers and his bumpy leather boots. He pounds the wood into its basketweave pattern, the hard work distracting him from his political concerns of the day: the difficulty in supporting his family, the talk of aristocratic extravagance.

Right away, we see our apartment layout is such that we cannot hear one another from the bedroom to the living room. The apartment is approximately 600 square feet, but the early French designers understood sound isolation. Like James' apartment, our bedroom is separated by a bend around a courtyard from the kitchen and living room. While in these separate rooms, we call to one another and are never heard. This is fantastic since jet lag has us waking at odd hours of the early morning. I can go about my day at 2:00 a.m. and never disturb Tony.

In the wee hours of this morning, a day after imagining the floor craftsman placing and pounding his wood slats, I am laying on the couch reading a book. In the quiet room, I hear breathing as if it is right next to me. I startle. Tony must be breathing loud, I think. But it can't be Tony. For me to hear him breathing when I cannot hear him call from the bedroom...is...impossible? I'm still. I listen. Could it be in the next flat? Impossible again, as we have yet to hear any noise from what must be a well insulated building. Only one conclusion will do. The floor craftsman is here. I don't see ghosts, but I hear them. Or maybe I did see the 18th century man and attributed it to my imagination. 

When I finally creep back to bed at 4:00 a.m., I do so with an unsettling awareness. The ancient Paris apartment has revealed more than expected.