Noe Valley Voice March 2003

The Lure of France:
How I Fulfilled My Dream of Owning an Apartment in Paris

By Suzanne Gendreau

My story begins in February of 2001. My husband Michael, a gentle yet persistent creature, was working nonstop and traveling constantly. So he asked if I would be in charge of investing our two young daughters' college funds, which were sitting in a savings account earning a meager 2 percent interest.

Michael thought that since I was staying at home tending to our domestic flock--children, house, and occasional gardening consultations--I would have the time to learn about investing in the stock market. I thought, He can't be serious! Just seeing the trading floor on TV filled me with anxiety--the numbers flying across the screen, the shouting and gesturing, the bell dinging like a fire alarm at the close of the session.

No, if I wanted to be successful in this endeavor, investing our family's precious resources, I'd have to come up with something creative, something I was really interested in. Real estate! Yes, houses! I truly loved houses and architecture. I had searched for a year for our current home. Each Sunday, I would load up the car with toys and boxes of juice, and the children and I would make the rounds of the open houses.

Yes, buy a house, but where? I knew it would have to be a place that my husband and I both loved. Also, I needed to convince Michael that my detour from tedious, mind-numbing stocks to comfy, homey, affordable property was economically viable. It also had to be a place where we would be willing to pay a second mortgage, smiling. But where?

Then it came to me. How easily the word slipped from my lips.... Paris! Paris. Is it not the greatest city in the world? The center of art and culture? The only vacation destination where it can rain every day and you can still come home beaming, telling everyone how romantic your trip was?

La recherche

The research

A week later, as I was scouting for information on Paris real estate prices, I came across an article on the Internet titled, "Your Own Apartment in Paris Can Be Closer Than You Think." The story was about Catherine Aubale Epstein, a French-American real estate broker working for a firm in San Francisco, on Fillmore Street. (She now has started her own business: Paris Immo Realty.) The story said Epstein took clients step by step through purchasing, financing, and renovating apartments in Paris.

That very moment I telephoned and set up an appointment. Little did I know how fortunate I would be to find this amazing woman. Catherine is charming, totally professional, and a lot of fun to be with. Maybe it's her throaty laugh, her twinkling eyes, or the special way she says "Stupeed," like only the French can.

After meeting with Catherine, I realized I had many more things to think about. Which arrondissement, or district, did we want to buy in? (Paris has 20.) Where could we afford? One thing I knew for sure--bigger was better, even if it meant buying on the edges of a perfect location. I reminded myself that one day I would have two teenage girls. What would be a better choice, a studio in the trendy Marais or three rooms a little further out?

I telephoned my dear friend Bobby, who had lived in Paris for several years. I asked her where I could still find old Paris, or a neighborhood with buildings from the 1800s not yet overrun by commercialism and tourists. It had to be a place with interesting shops, boulangeries (bakeries), and produce stores, as well as playgrounds and parks for families--both charming and child-friendly. I had been to Paris several times myself, always staying on the Left Bank or near the elegant Place des Vosges. But I knew those neighborhoods were very expensive and I would not get a lot for my money.

"Suzanne, you would love the Ninth Arrondissement," Bobby said. "If you live in the Ninth, it's only a 10-minute walk up to [the Church of] Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre and a 10-minute walk down to the Opéra Garnier. And the neighborhood has everything."

I telephoned Catherine and asked her opinion. She agreed with Bobby: "Métro Saint-Georges has always been a nice address."

It was April, and Catherine was leaving for Paris, so I gulped and signed a contract for her to represent us. I wrote her a check and gave her our financial information, and off she flew to find our dream.

Meanwhile, I called the airlines to see when we could fly out in September. Sept. 10, 2001--a Monday--was chosen. That gave us enough time to save more money, avoid the tourist season, and arrange an apartment to stay in while we looked for one of our own. Catherine had also agreed to go back to Paris two weeks before we arrived, to set up appointments for us to view apartments.

Le 10 Septembre

Sept. 10, 2001

On Sept. 10, we all departed on a late-afternoon flight direct from San Francisco to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Our flight arrived around 2 p.m., and we took a taxi to the apartment we had rented in Montmartre. We dropped off our luggage and, curious about our surroundings, decided to try to stay up as long as we could, before sleep overtook us.

Michael needed a chip for his cell phone. We all needed real food. So we left our apartment to find the cell phone shop. Then we ran across the street for pasta at a little neighborhood restaurant. While waiting for our meal, Michael put his shiny new chip in his cell phone and called into work (he's an acoustic engineer). Suddenly, he had a strange look on his face. "Something really horrible has happened," he said. He told us the news: the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked by terrorists.

Stunned, we got our food to go, and raced back to the apartment to find the TV, which was in the closet. I telephoned my father to ask, "What should I do? Should I continue looking for an apartment? What is going to happen?" He said, "You must continue with your plans, life cannot stop." But I was not sure continuing was appropriate.

I called Catherine to see how she felt. When I reached her, she was on two phones, trying to reach friends and family in the States. She told us our flights were among the last planes to make it out of the U.S. With the airlines at a standstill, we could not go home even if we had wanted to. Numbly, we made plans to meet the next morning.

As the European sky grew dark, a gentle rain fell on the rooftop above us and the children drifted off to sleep. My head was slowly dropping. It didn't matter if I was sitting up or lying in bed. Exhaustion took over. My batteries died.

Le voisinage

The neighborhood

The next morning, we fed the children croissants and strawberries. Then we walked about six blocks from where we were staying in the 18th, to the Ninth Arrondissement. We had arranged to meet Catherine at the subway stop--Métro St.-Georges--serving the Place St.-Georges. We instantly loved the square, with its circular fountain surrounded by three huge mansions.

The plan was that Michael would take our daughters to the Pompidou Center while I looked at the apartments Catherine had ready for us to view. If I found anything I liked, I would phone Michael on his cell phone and he and the girls would come join us.

Catherine and I walked up Rue Notre Dame de Lorette. As we walked, I told her that the Ninth was exactly the kind of neighborhood I wanted. As we reached Rue Navarin, we came to a small cobblestone plaza called Place Gustave Toudouze. Nearby were a tea salon and two Indian restaurants, with outdoor tables and chairs shaded by huge plane trees. We continued down Rue Navarin, where we passed many small boutiques and antique shops.

The first two apartments we saw were small and dark, and I started to worry. We had traveled halfway around the world on a whim and I had only 10 days to find the perfect apartment! Then I remembered Catherine's advice back in San Francisco: "Suzanne, you will know the apartment you want to buy in Paris the moment you walk in." I held this idea tucked close to my heart as we continued walking to the third of four apartments we were seeing in the St. Georges area.

Our next appointment was down Rue des Martyrs. This street made my head spin, but in a good way. Rarely found in the tourist books, Rue des Martyrs is where the real Parisians live, Catherine told me. There were cheese shops, charcuteries (delis), olive sellers, an international newsstand, a fish shop, three boulangeries, three wine shops, butcher shops.... I wanted to stop and take it all in, but Catherine hurried me along.

Then she suddenly stopped in front of an ornate building with flower-filled balconies. "I am really excited about this one," she confided. I couldn't even find words for how I felt.

As my heart started pounding, a Parisian real estate woman met us outside the two large oak doors at the entrance to the seven-story building, which, it turned out, had been built in 1840. (I also later learned that Maurice Ravel, the composer, had lived there as a child.)

Once inside, we saw cobblestone courtyards with small antique stone water fountains. I could see shutters on all the windows as I looked up toward the sky. I was enchanted.

There was scaffolding up, and the exterior walls were being painted. "This is a really good sign," said Catherine. I just nodded. I was floating in a dream.We followed the realtor to the back staircase, then up two flights of stairs to the third floor. She reached in her pocket and drew out a key. I held my breath as the door to the apartment opened.


The apartment

The first thing I saw was a hallway with two doors on the right and a door straight ahead. The hall had nice hardwood floors. I opened the first door on the right. It was the bathroom. I again held my breath--French bathrooms can be cramped and small. But this one was fine. It was what the French call American­style, having a combination shower and bathtub. The fixtures had been updated, and the floors had new white tiles, inlaid with smaller black tiles that looked like diamonds. There was also a small window.

The next door led to the kitchen, which was French country­style, with original "beehive" terracotta-tile floors. I learned later that these are called ancient tiles. Then I noticed a light fixture hanging from the ceiling. It had a 1920s glass shade decorated with handpainted flowers. Truthfully, I would have bought the apartment because of this one special feature, which I found exquisite. The kitchen also had a long French window.

The door down the hall opened to a delightful room with buttercream-yellow walls accented by white wainscoting and crown molding. I then saw a long French window with sun pouring in. Meanwhile, Catherine was opening another door asking, "Oh, what is this, the closet?" But no, there was still another room, a living room with a black marble fireplace. My mind raced. I loved this apartment.

At this point, I decided I needed Michael and the children. Strong feelings of possessiveness engulfed me. My eyes met Catherine's. She smiled and laughed. She knew what was happening. Having been in the real estate business for 27 years, she had seen this face many times before.

As I phoned Michael, Catherine opened yet another door and discovered a small bedroom. This was so much more than the studio I had come to expect.

When Michael answered, I said, "You must come now. We have found the perfect apartment!"

"Suzanne, are you sure? We just got here," he said. I insisted: "It's perfect. You must come now. We must buy it."

I explained that the apartment was big for Paris, about 500 square feet. And it needed only minor renovations: fresh paint, a new window in the bathroom, new butcher-block counters in the kitchen, and new closet doors in the bedroom. And it was beautiful.

In less than an hour, Michael and the kids were there and I was showing them around the apartment. That afternoon, we asked Catherine to write an offer for 950,000 francs, $130,000 in U.S. dollars. Later that night, our offer was accepted.

In the morning, Catherine took me to the bank. Our loan was approved (with no money down and a 5.7 percent fixed interest rate for 15 years). Next we met with the notaire. A notaire is a lawyer who works the same way a title company does here in the States. We learned that our taxes, transfers, and other fees would amount to 8 to 10 percent of the selling cost. Of that, the notaire's share was 1 to 5 percent.

The next day, Catherine had a contractor at our apartment to give us an estimate on the renovations. The work would begin the first of January. (It takes three months to close escrow in France.) Catherine agreed to return to Paris in December. She would sign the closing documents and bring home our keys! We would return in February to furnish the apartment and get it ready for an agency to handle it for weekly rentals. We flew home exhausted but thrilled.

Le reste est l'histoire

The rest is history

I spent the next few months designing and redesigning where the furniture would be placed in the apartment. I packed boxes with linens, tools, hooks, and knobs. I made list after list of things to do.

Catherine rented us a truck so that the day after we got to Paris, we could drive to IKEA and have a six-hour shopping spree. I told the children it was going to be fun. I think I even said, "Fun, fun!"

I couldn't wait for February to arrive. I couldn't wait for the day we opened the door to our freshly painted apartment. We would spend the night on the floor. We would picnic on our boxes, drink wine, and eat the food we bought at the shops right outside our front door. We would be happy, very happy. Our destiny fulfilled!

A year later, I'm still marveling that we really did buy an apartment in Paris. Every day I think: How lucky we are. How lucky my daughters are. They can be an artist or a writer or musician and live in Paris if they want to. Is this not the greatest gift we can give them?

It occurs to me that we never even touched the college fund. It is still sitting in the savings account earning the same interest rate. I have to laugh. h

The Gendreaus' apartment, located at 40, rue des Martyrs, can be viewed at To reach Catherine Aubale Epstein, e-mail And if you'd like to contact Suzanne Gendreau, she's at