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'Buying a Piece of Paris' by Ellie Nielsen

Little is illuminating in this apartment-shopping memoir set in the City of Light.

February 07, 2009|Charles Solomon

"Buying a Piece of Paris," Ellie Nielsen's account of her quest to find the perfect apartment in the French capital, continues a recent trend in popular travel writing that started with the success of Peter Mayle's books about Provence. This led to the literary subgenre of British expatriates recounting how they bought an old house in the south of France or Italy or Spain and fixed it up.

Made up of equal parts of love letters to the adopted country, rueful memoirs and mildly patronizing descriptions of the locals, these travelogues offered lightweight reading for people who couldn't afford European retreats of their own. Now that Provence, Tuscany and Majorca have been pretty well covered, expat writers have turned to their quests to live in the most civilized of cities, Paris.

A former actress from Melbourne, Australia, with some minor television and theater roles to her credit, Nielsen comes to Paris on vacation with her 6-year-old son, Ellery, and her extremely patient barrister husband, Jack. Overcome by the city's beauty and charm, she decides to spend their two-week visit buying an apartment, preferably on the swank Rue de Rivoli on the Right Bank.

The reader would be more sympathetic to the tribulations she experiences in this quest if Nielsen didn't seem quite so scatterbrained. She doesn't think to go to one of the agencies that specializes in a non-French-speaking clientele, although she makes the prose equivalent of deprecating moues over her assaults on the French language. Her friends have to suggest looking at the listings in the newspaper want ads. Nielsen walks into various real estate agencies expecting to find her dream apartment at a bargain price.

All that's missing is Ethel Mertz crying, "You can't buy an apartment in Paris that way!"

And Nielsen's wants aren't exactly modest: at least two bedrooms in a picturesque old building with a view, parquet floors and a fireplace, all in central Paris. She's surprised to find that the available apartments in such trendy areas as the Bastille and the Marais are small and expensive. SoHo and TriBeCa aren't cheap either. Although she's visited Paris several times, she's also stunned to learn that apartments built a century or more ago might have been subdivided or built on oddly shaped blocks, may be inconveniently configured and may need work.

Nielsen treats Paris as a cross between a theme park and the planned communities that emulate them. If someplace familiar changes, she reacts like an indignant fan learning that Disneyland has replaced the House of the Future with a new attraction. When a butcher shop she enjoyed looking at (but where she never bought anything) is replaced by a gay bar (in the Marais, the gayest area of Paris), she comments, "I stand on the street, defeated. My butcher's shop has been twenty-first centuried. How could they let this happen? I thought the French were supposed to have laws to protect this sort of thing."

Her insights are limited to such pithy comments as "Has anyone ever studied how much water the French consume? They drink water like a nation continually parched."

After several disappointments -- too small, too run-down, no view -- Nielsen eventually stumbles onto an apartment on the Rue de Rivoli near the Hotel de Ville (the flamboyant 19th century Parisian City Hall). The price? A total of 458,000 euros (about $605,000).

It would be churlish to wish Nielsen and her family anything less than happiness in their new second address. But the reader can't help wondering whether Parisians who live on that stretch of Rue de Rivoli will enjoy becoming actors in her ongoing costume pageant.

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Solomon's most recent book is "Disney Lost and Found: Exploring the Hidden Artwork From Never-Produced Animation."

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