Is Paris cheaper than Martha's Vineyard?
Photo by Holly Nadler
Last summer, when Holly and I were planning our budget wedding, she asked whether I'd like to spend a summer in Paris. That's Paris, France, not Paris, Maine.
Obvious answer, right? But could we afford it? It had to cheaper to live in Paris in July and August than to live on the Island, or we weren't going.
Like a lot of people here, we hardscrabble along on very moderate fixed incomes and freelance work. We pray every year that the truck passes inspection without major repairs. We've danced the Vineyard shuffle for years — living nine months with affordable rentals, balancing summer housing between gruesome rent for a nice place or gruesome places with affordable rent.
Bottom line, Holly and I spent two months in the City of Light this summer and our tightly-budgeted trip finished in a virtual dead heat with summer expenses as a working-class couple on the Island.
We splurged here and there. Éclairs at the local patisserie, for example, and we brought our Boston terrier. His passage was $250 round trip, but Huxley is stylish, spoiled, and willful. We figured he'd fit in just fine.
Here's how we did it along with a few tips if you want to try it:
First, we were lucky. We have friends with an empty apartment they rented to us well below market price in trendy Saint-Germain-des-Pres on the Left Bank. We had a year to save up the airfare, essentially the difference between our Paris rent and $1,800 a month for a barely legal summer apartment here.
Now, you can rent a place in a less tony neighborhood for about what we paid, but the 20th Arrondissement involves a long bus ride to the Louvre, and the Tuileries Garden, just across Seine, was a beautiful 12-minute stroll from our digs. What's the 20th like? Think Inman Square in Cambridge before Yuppification — kinda cool but scruffy.
Second, we lived there like we live here.
We ate at home a lot. Eating out here in summer means finding good meals at reasonable prices — your Edgartown Pizza or Linda Jean's, say – and we found those places in Paris. They exist. Working class Parisians eat out too. It's easier than we thought, and there is great, great food.
We splurged once in a while at out-of-the-way places. Price is not a measure of quality. The French take their cooking personally. The best crepes we had came from a tiny kiosk hideaway. Stay away from restaurants on main boulevards or close to tourist attractions. Walk two blocks off the main drag for best price results. Paris has restaurants like we have ticks. One anomaly we loved was the Happy Days Diner just off the Boulevard St. Michel. It's a knock-off of the TV show setting. Burgers from $11 to $15, terrific shakes for three or four bucks.
We came to terms with the fashion thing. We brought the clothes we needed. Never, ever, buy apparel of any kind in Paris. Mind-numbing prices. Trader Fred would have a stroke.
To tell the truth, the fashion part was more difficult than the food part. Parisians dress well and it shows. Everyone, regardless of age or job status, looks fabulous. They buy one or two outfits a season, mix and match, and wear them a lot. Parisians are also thin, every one of them. Maybe they trade off eating well for looking good.
We wanted to look good, well, at least not like fashion-challenged Wal-Mart wanderers. Holly has a well-developed personal fashion style, but I really like old and tatty. Dressing well is part of French genetic code. Americans can't compete, and frankly, on the Island, we don't want to. Best bet: leave the baseball cap at home on top of the tee-shirts with dumb stuff printed on them and you'll be fine.
Learning how to work Parisian laundromats was an art form. We got good at it. Washing and drying a good-size load was about $6.50. The instructions are tortuous and arcane. Push the wrong sequence of buttons and your euros are gone, baby, gone.
Frankly, there isn't a whole lot of difference between supermarket prices in Paris and the Island, and Parisian pricing strategies are the same as at American markets. They charge more for prepared foods than the ingredients bought separately would cost, and store brand is always the least expensive.
Peanut butter was an issue. I can't live without it. The nutty treat is hard to find in Paris supermarkets, comes in smaller jars, and is 50 percent more expensive than good old Skippy.
We shopped at Monoprix, the largest chain in Paris. Our Monoprix was about the same size as Reliable Market and with the same homey feel. Our store is on the bottom floor of a beautiful old stone building. Great interior design, artful product presentation. Sounds stupid, but our Monoprix was a beautiful store.
Parisian supermarkets offer two or three options compared with six or eight competing brands of an item at home. Parisians don't fill the ol' SUV with food once a week, they shop every day. Inventory turns quickly, so fresh is their watchword.
The greatest benefit of our low-key approach was living in Paris rather than seeing Paris as tourists. We got to know neighborhood people, even occasionally helping them. For example, the South American woman above us had plumbing issues and had to move out for nearly a week. Holly wrote the landlord a letter in French to ask for some rent relief.
I got to know the guys rehabbing an apartment below ours. They were proud of their work, as they should be. No building in Paris has been plumb for at least a hundred years. I loved watching the DPU street guys, sweepers who could flick a cigarette butt out of a cobblestone crevice with one pass of their long brooms.
Several Island connections appeared. We watched Bastille Day fireworks on a bridge at the Seine with Suzanne Warren and her daughter, Lilla, an art student transfixed by the beauty around her. We actually met a guy who asked, "Do you know Peter Simon?"
Paris teems with bookstores and we haunted them, including Sylvia Beach's famous Shakespeare and Company. We talked literature, history, and life with the owners. They made us coffee because they wanted to, not because we might be customers.
We lived intentionally. Simple things. For example, if in a hotel, we'd have taken the elevator up and down ten times a day. When your apartment is 57 narrow, winding steps up, and another 57 steps down, you learn not to forget stuff and to plan the day. We avoided all lines at all museums. As a result, we didn't go to many museums, but we walked 10 miles a day.
I get lost in a closet. Unfortunately, I also love finding what I believe are shortcuts, so if Holly wasn't with us to navigate, Huxley and I would spent entire afternoons wandering around lost, learning that the city itself is a beautiful, living museum. (Actually, Hux spent most of his time confused by the unwillingness of Paris's perfectly behaved dogs to roughhouse with him.)
After five or six weeks, we began to get happy feet for home. We didn't miss the summer madness at the Triangle and Five Corners. We just missed the place.