When I saw the guy smoking on the Métro the other day it triggered a line of thought that led to a rather intriguing observation. Not “Holy [moly], what a stupid [despicable person],” although that’s what crossed my mind first. Or words to that effect.
But seeing him flout the tobacco ban reminded me that when I first moved to Paris in the early 1980s, smoking was allowed in the Métro — in the stations, but not on the trains.
This in turn reminded me of a then-common sight that now seems utterly ludicrous. Under the old smoking rules, desperate nicotine addicts used to position themselves in front of a Métro car door as their station approached, cigarette in mouth and lighter in hand. Then they would time it just right so that they could light up inside the train while it was coming to a halt, suck down a deep drag and then exhale it right as the door opened.
So it wasn’t breaking the rules! The smoke went into the station, even though the smoker was still inside the train. Dieu forbid that they should have to wait an extra three seconds! This used to kill me. Come to think of it, in one sense or another it used to kill everybody.
But that wasn’t my rather intriguing observation. That memory started me thinking about how the price of cigarettes has more or less centupled since then, which in turn made me think about how the price of everything in Paris has skyrocketed since the 1980s, and that thought led, at last, to my rath. int. ob.
I swear this is true: back then, it was literally possible to rent an apartment in the heart of town and eat every single lunch and dinner in a restaurant for a total lodging and dining budget of €2.50 (just over $3) per day.
Under certain conditions. Obviously, I’m not talking about the Elton John Suite at the Ritz and the tasting menu chez Robuchon here. The lodging condition was that you had to have an apartment that fell under the provisions of the “Loi de 1948” — the Law of 1948. This was, as the name vaguely implies, a law passed in 1948.
A word of explanation: historically, the French identify their more famous statutes not by their content but by the year they were enacted — so the “post no bills” ordinance is the “Law of 1881,” a non-profit organization is a “Law of 1901” corporation, “Thou shalt not kill” is the “Law of 5823 BCE,” etc.
The ’48 law was, of course, about rent control. Rents had been frozen in Paris in 1914 and never thawed, so to speak. In 1948, they rewrote the rules, allowing rent hikes on most properties but perpetuating the freeze for apartments that met specific criteria. As a result, even in the 1980s a surprisingly large number of amazingly fortunate people lived in astonishingly well-located apartments for jaw-droppingly low rents.
I once met a couple who had a “48 apartment” in a beautiful historic building on Rue Monsieur le Prince, a block south of Boulevard Saint Germain, for a monthly fee of 200 francs — about €30. That’s one euro per day. One little coin every time they took a vitamin. They could have paid their rent with change they found in the street.
Not surprisingly, these shockingly cheap apartments came with some staggering inconveniences. About the only way to get one was to happen to know somebody with a ’48 flat who was moving out right when you wanted to move in. Kind of like getting a parking place anywhere in town today.
Also, one of the above-mentioned “specific criteria” was that a ’48 property could not have been improved in any significant way since before the law was passed. This usually meant that the plumbing was either rudimentary or nonexistent. For many tenants, any pressing concerns involving their own biological plumbing required a trip out the door and down the hall.
In addition, as a corollary to the no-plumbing postulate, many of those apartments had no kitchen. But this didn’t matter so much, because the food condition for adhering to the €2.50 nanobudget was that you had to eat every day at Casa Miguel.
It also sounds absurd now, but this place really did exist: it was a restaurant on Rue Saint Georges that kept its price for a meal fixed at five francs (about 75 euro cents) well into the 1990s.
And when I say “meal,” I don’t mean a bacon-grease sandwich and a glass of tap water. The chef, a Spanish woman with an idealistic disposition, served three courses — starter, main dish and dessert — plus two glasses of wine, all for the equivalent of six eurobits.
Obviously, the cuisine wasn’t racking up any Michelin stars, and the wines weren’t the kind that you tilt-a-whirl in the glass while waxing rhapsodic about notes of truffle mold and burnt currency, but you didn’t go away hungry.
Of course, like the Pax Romana, the Belle Epoque and my record score on the Pac-Man machine at the University of Ohio Student Union, it couldn’t last forever. Casa Miguel is now long gone, and so are the rent-controlled apartments — probably.
In 1986, a new law was passed specifying that 1948 apartments could no longer change hands, which effectively spelled the end of that particular gravy train, or, as they don’t say in French, ce particulière TGV de la béchamel.
But I leave room for doubt because, theoretically, there could still be tenants who haven’t moved in 28 years and who, to this day, are paying the same rent that their apartments commanded a full century ago.
If there are any such renters out there, all I can say is, “Holy [smoke], what a bunch of lucky [despicable people]!”
© 2014 Paris UpdateFavorite
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