The Exchange, Part 1

By Bonnie Weiss

I’m knocking on the door at 14 Square Alboni. The door opens and the sweetest and most excited faces--all smiles--- grandmother, mother and child, greet me. Behind the smiles is a very large, totally barren entry hall and living room, bare wood floors that look as if they haven’t been sanded for 50 years, and walls with no decoration, absolutely no decoration or color anywhere.

I think about the house I left in L.A. “Oh my God, I traded my gorgeous home for this!
And for two and a half months!”

We sit down and I am offered refreshments. The pretty eleven-year-old girl tells me that she has been singing, “My Bonnie Flies Over the Ocean” all morning. We are all talkative and excited.

I look at the three ladies in front of me who look like characters right out of Oliver Twist. Three little urchins with their thread bare smocks, albeit charming, clean, intelligent and alert. They tell me how they came to live in this large elegant apartment—an architectural landmark in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods of Paris in the 16th Arrondisement.
The grandma and mother moved to France ten years ago. The child was born in France. The grandmother owns condominiums in LA. However, because of some family issues
in L.A. they decided to move here to France. In the beginning they lived in a little one-room apartment across the courtyard from this apartment. At an opportune moment this three-bedroom apartment went on the market and they bought it, apparently with their life savings and last penny. Three bedrooms, hot water, bathtub, walking distance to the best shops and cafes, and two minutes from the metro.

They apologize for the lack of furniture and show me my room that has a little cot in it. We make the bed together. I am taken on a tour. There are three bedrooms each with a little cot, a small table and little lamp. One bedroom has a TV table with masking tape holding it up. The TV table is the only table in the room. There are beautiful French windows, two of which have the shades pulled down. The others have a white sheer curtains. There is no decoration on any wall. The beds are unmade. The kitchen is
immaculate (as is everything also) with new beautiful counters, cabinets a beautiful refrigerator and a new stove. However I notice the dishrag, a torn, dark grey, threadbare piece of cloth hanging on the waterspout in the sink. I’m sure it’s clean but it looks filthy. I can’t wait to hide it and get a new one. The sink is surrounded with empty little cans for trash, a paper clip, a plastic fork, a cracker—whatever. Plastic bags for garbage are on the doorknobs. The bathroom has a tub and very old thin clean towels.

There are signs of exquisite taste—two antique Japanese tables, a worn, once beautiful, sofa covered with silk fabric, very nice little wooden table with two carved chairs. Given the financial means and or intention, they could make this place gorgeous. There is no sign of either.
This is poverty consciousness.

This is not what I expected. Last year I took my now fourteen-year-old granddaughter to Paris for two weeks. We stayed in a perfect little hotel on the left bank. There was a lovely staff and concierge. We took taxis everywhere. My foot was in a cast because I had fallen down some stairs before we left. We had only two weeks and I wanted to make the most of our time.

This year we’re here to live as residents, study French and travel with our railroad passes. The ladies insisted I come and stay with them before they were to leave for America. There were so many things they wanted to teach me not only in regard to the apartment, but also practical knowledge regarding shopping and living in Paris, valuable knowledge that they learned living there for the last ten years. They wanted to teach me how to shop, how to clean, how to bathe, how to take the metro, make international calls, local calls, train and hotel reservations, but most important to carefully follow all the rules for
living in their apartment.

This is my first night and they are very happy and excited to have me join them for dinner. They have cooked a lovely meal. We sit down to eat and the conversation immediately turns into a lecture - how to save paper napkins, save paper towels, save plastic bags, save jars, turn off lights, actually hardly ever turn on any lights. They can barely wait to orient me. I can’t help thinking of the word ‘anal.’ In fact, they are beginning to make my definition of the word ‘anal’ look like ‘ghetto.’

I am listening to this with only one ear. I am still planning in the back of my mind to take taxis if I need to. I am still planning to have a housekeeper, have company over.

I respect and admire their extraordinary fastidiousness and economy, but already I feel a sterile, dark, immaculate, Spartan way of living which completely lacks any resemblance to any letter of the word, ‘soul.’ There is no breath here.

I go to my room for a moment, and return to the table. “You don’t turn out lights when you leave a room, do you!” “Oh, yes, yes. I was just going to go back to my room and then turn out the little light.” “You must turn out every light as soon as you have finished using it. Never turn on the overhead lights, only use the one small lamp we have in each room.”

If you don’t turn off the smallest light imaginable as you leave a room, you are called,
“A person who doesn’t turn off lights.”

The electricity bill here must be the all time record low for any apartment in Paris.
“Actually, you know what! I must have light. When my granddaughter and I leave
and you receive your electricity bill, I will pay you for anything above or over your usual
charges. I need light.”
Dinner is over. We sit in close to darkness as evening comes, even when some
neighbors come over to visit. I find it so uncomfortable trying to see their faces.

It is still day one. I have already learned not to touch the walls---any walls, any time. The paint job cost $100,000 (so they say although it doesn’t look like a very good job.)

They cannot believe the size of my 69 1/2 pound luggage. I cannot believe that they are going away for 2 ½ months, the three of them, with one little overnight suitcase.

Just to lighten things up, and to justify myself somewhat, I jest about my philosophy of money. I tell them that my husband and I have a balanced budget. I spend and he saves.
They don’t seem to find this amusing. Neither does my husband for that fact.

Day two arrives. We have toast and coffee together. I love the way they make their coffee in a little pan and add wonderful cream and sugar. After breakfast it is time to
learn the rest of the rules for the apartment. As I listen, I realize I am being drilled to the point of terror regarding:
1. Most scary: the keys. This is a historic building and the key and lock is formidable. If it is lost, it is not only $1,000 to replace, but worse you have to wait
three weeks to get the new one made. I am not being left an extra key, or allowed
to make a new one. Scary especially since I am full of stories about people
stealing your purse etc. Angry because the three ladies are taking the extra two
sets of keys with them to LA.
2. God forbid you touch any wall with your fingers, or even let the furniture touch the walls. The furniture must be kept two inches away from all walls. Remember how much the paint job cost.

3. The dishrag, (oh my God) looks like it is from the 1890’s. No paper towels, only torn paper ‘somethings’ for napkins. Just two Japanese antique tables for furniture. “Don’t ever touch or put anything on them.”
4. And the two antique chairs in the living room. “Never sit on them.”
5. And the table in front of the sofa, “Don’t put too much on it. It could collapse.”
6. The living room drapes must not be touched when you open the window. “Don’t try to open the shades because they will fall down. There is also a shade in the bedroom; you must also not open it.”
7. The oven—“Don’t use, it could explode, and anyway it is full pots and pans.”
8. The stove, “If a burner is left on, you could start a big fire. Do you see that apartment across from us with the charred exterior wall? Our neighbors left their burner on.”
9. The clothes washer and dryer. “Don’t use, it is too slow and filled with
plastic bags”
10. The washrag—“Don’t have one. Stop wearing make-up. You will look better without it anyway”.
11. The shopping cart. (It is bandaged and as old as the dishrag.)
“Be sure to watch the sidewalks at all times when rolling this
thing to the market. Look out for not only dog poo but also
any little lines on the cobblestones that may look like dog pee. Then when you get to the curb, wash the wheels in the water to keep them clean. Don’ t look at up as you walk, only the sidewalks” (‘up’ is the streets of Paris).

10. The refrigerator—“Very tricky. You must always verify that the main refrigerator
door and the freezer doors are totally closed with little lights indicating they are
closed. Otherwise the freezer will defrost and you will ruin the entire
11. “Do not let the back door close when you are taking out trash or you will be
locked out with no keys.”
12. The floors. “Clean the floor every day. (As they are speaking they are picking up dust with their fingers and putting it in a plastic bag.) Don’t get a housekeeper unless it is someone we know. Unfortunately we don’t know anybody. This is how the bathtub should be kept clean. This is how the stove must be cleaned. And be very careful with our
special antique pots.”
13.We have built a new bathroom with a shower and sink. You must water the sink twice a week. (Water the sink!) Otherwise it will smell”
14. The lights, of course. “Only use the tiniest light when needed and be sure to turn it
of as soon as you leave a room.”
15.“Here is a bamboo plant, one stalk. Water it every two days even though it is half-
It died.

I hate this place.

If I tell my husband about all this, he won’t come. If I tell the ladies how messy my husband and granddaughter are they won’t leave.

But I’m here to stay no matter what. It took too much work to get here. I’m keeping my mouth closed and making the best of it. If I want to come back here some day, and I may,
I must become‘Miss Really Really Clean.”


This is day two. We ‘re going to the supermarket. I wheel the little bandaged food cart.
I learn it is a French thing to be frugal, check all the prices and make this a topic of conversation. So I buy groceries, enough for several days, and we talk about prices.

On the way back to the apartment I ask if I can take them all out to lunch. “No way,” says grandma ungraciously. “We have not gone to a café or restaurant in ten years.” “That is a sin,” I say under my breath.

Back home I offer to make them lunch with the food I have just purchased. They accept.

Last night when I arrived, they invited me to eat with them, and this morning we had coffee and toast together. I want to reciprocate and am happy to make lunch.
Evening approaches and I am invited by the charming little daughter to come and visit her in her room. She enthusiastically shares videos of her school projects and travels. We talk for a long time and eventually she receives dinner in her room.

I hear sounds of pots, pans, cooking noises and I figure dinner must almost be ready. I go into the kitchen and see dishes being washed. I am totally mortified. I catch my breath.
I have not been included in their evening meal. Aghast, I ask if it is all right for me to make my own dinner. “Of course,’ they reply and watch me cook, eat and clean up.

For the next two days and nights before they leave, I cook my own meals.
I cannot even conceive of ever doing this to anyone who is staying in my home. They give me two meals, and then it is up to me. And to think I even offered to take them out to lunch.

Thank the Lord they are off to America tomorrow with their little suitcase. They’ll probably be traumatized by our home that is full of color, soul, beauty,

My job is to put breath and soul into this place for Samantha before she arrives.
I have four days.

Time to go out for lunch.

Here is Paris—a lovely little shopping street with flags that cross from one side to the other, a light breeze. The French owner of the restaurant is sexy without glitz; the French women, confident, strong. Here I see life walking by.

My grand daughter has arrived! She loves the apartment. It has become beautiful, elegant and frankly fabulous.
No need to put in soul. It is here.


Phone conversation from Paris to LA:

"Are you having fun?"

"Fun?  We didn't come to LA to have fun.  We came here to work, to go to the doctors, to go to Costco, to go to the dentist."

"Can't you have a little fun in between these things?'

"Oh no.  It is just horrible.  We have so many things to do."
 Everyday in Paris:

Grandma puts together the key, passport, list of medicines and money on a pin 
that she pins inside her pants to be sure not to loose the key—rather uncomfortable
and bulky.


The French ladies arrive to a house in which the LA husband has turned on all the lights
for them as a welcome.  They turn  them all off.  They look at the three bedrooms with the
beautiful three beds all made up.  They all go in the master bedroom and climb into one
bed which is the only one they will use for the whole trip."


"So we don't have to make up three beds."


As soon as the granddaughter from LA arrives in Paris, Grandma and granddaughter turn
on every light in the place and dance.

In Paris:

Grandma, while cooking, scrapes  the little pan with a fork and is horrified.

In L.A:

French ladies put their stew pot that won't open in a sink of cold water.  It explodes. They are horrified.

Both Grandmas on the phone:

L.A. grandma, "You dented the lid!,"  (To herself, "I am so relieved, now I don't feel so
bad about the little pot.")

 Paris to LA:

"How about having a little party?  Our home is a great party house."

"No, we don't want to get anything dirty."

"Get it dirty.  It cleans up."

"It's too much work.  We don't use anything.  We don't get anything dirty.  We don't use
the dishwasher, and my daughter cleans, cleans, cleans."

"You don't have to get it so clean.  Try to have some fun.  Go outside in the beautiful
garden.  Have people over.  And please open the shades inside the house.  This is a
daytime house, and it is so pretty when you see the gardens out of the windows."

"No, we would have to pull the shades down again at night."

"Well, think about it." 


L.A.  people return home.  There are no flowers, the blinds are closed, the lights are off,
little plastic bags are on the doorknobs, and there are little tidbits of crackers, bits of soap,
bits of pretzels in little plastic bags.  The sink has little cans with rubber bands and soap
in them.  There is a dishrag over the faucet. 

Paris people return home.   The Paris house has flowers in it, fresh fruit in a bowl.   The
Bamboo plant has been replaced by a new one, and there is candy on the table.  The old
dishrag is back in place, as well as all the cans and little plastic bags.

Each party looks upset and sets about immediately fixing everything.  The LA grandma
opens all the shades and windows,  throws out all the little plastic bags of tidbits, and puts flowers from the garden everywhere.

The French grandma freezes the cakes and puts away the candy for the future.  She starts checking everything for cleanliness and starts re-cleaning the house that the LA grandma cleaned by hand for hours and hours.


The exchange is over.
My granddaughter and I had the time of our lives.
And when all is said and done, the truth is I have a profound respect and affection for my French counterparts. I hope in some way I can emulate many of their principals of economy, frugality and cleanliness.
Maybe they will be inspired in some small way, also, by me.
Beauty, love wisdom and caring come in man disguises.
We all did our best.