PARIS — I've always wanted to spend a couple of weeks painting in Paris, but I hadn't figured on sanding floors and steaming off wallpaper, too.
The opportunity came when our daughter lucked into an apartment with a lot of space and almost-reasonable rent but which "needed a little work," in the classic real estate phrase.
The project had to be sandwiched between Susanna's regular job as art director of a French magazine whose normal operating pace varies from mild hysteria to emotional meltdown, so in a burst of paternal generosity I volunteered her mother's and my services. After all, we once fixed up a Washington slum, so this should be no big deal.
A Lot of Work
At most, I figured, it would take a week to whip the place into shape and we would have a week to idle around town. Two weeks later, as we dragged ourselves toward the airport with sawdust still clinging, I had to accept the hard truth that quite a bit remained to be done.
What was wrong, I decided after a preliminary analysis, is that doing it yourself, like many other things, just isn't as easy in France. Take the paint, for example. Susanna had located a cut-rate store on the other side of Paris and we spent a day finding the place and consulting with the manager on our needs. But when it came to paying, the woman regretfully informed us a few minutes after all the banks had closed that traveler's checks, even in French francs, were unacceptable.
That's all right, madame, that's what we rented a car for. We'll come back tomorrow. Tomorrow, we load up what looked like enough paint to cover the Eiffel Tower and return to the job site. We had already stocked up on sandpaper and steel wool.
The most important French thing in this kind of work is, however, something called Lessive St. Marc, a cleaning powder that can be mixed strong enough to dissolve nails or mild enough to wash dishes. Medium strong is the formula de rigueur for wall cleaning before painting.
Getting the Tools
With only a couple of trips to the local quincaillerie-- that's hardware--to find a long-handled roller to reach the 10-foot ceilings--we're painting the front room, which boasts a wrought-iron balcony overlooking the Rue Marsoulan. Things are going so well that we're looking for geraniums, although it's a little late in the season, to decorate the ornamental railing after somebody finds the key to a basement storage room in which to stash the aged motor scooter now parked on the balcony.
In the second room we hit trouble in the form of old wallpaper that can be torn off partly but not completely. The solution lies in the tool rental department of the Bazar de l'Hotel de Ville, the store that has it all, including a decolleuse papier. That is a little electrically-heated tank on wheels which produces steam after 15 minutes or so. The steam dissolves the paper and paste and you finish it off with a putty knife.
Just as we get the last plastic bag of damp paper down the stairs and start talking about making the one-week deadline after all, Susanna decides she really wants the floors sanded, not just bleached and disinfected. Back to the Bazar tool rental department for a 100-pound ponceuse a parquet that gets hauled up the stairs.
Despite the diagram that comes with it, getting the paper on the drum is a major job and the first sheet tears into small pieces in two minutes. A phone call to the Bazar tool renting department gets helpful advice and sawdust is soon filling the air and coating the walls, including the ones just painted.
In the better part of two days, the sanding phase is over and in another half day of careful vacuuming all traces of sawdust have disappeared.
The big reward comes when Susanna, who has done this before, mixes what she calls plastique, and I think is something like polyurethane, in a dishpan and applies a coat to the floor. Four hours later, the second coat goes on and it's instant Versailles. The only trouble is that you're supposed to wait three days before walking on it or returning the furniture, which has been piled in the kitchen and bathroom.
I'm sorry not to see the project completed. Susanna, though, has promised to provide pictures.