Anti-Charm

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One of my advisors in graduate school was Polish, a survivor of World War II.  On the way to immigrating to the United States, he passed by and resided in several countries including the Netherlands and France.  When I was living in Aix-en-Provence, taking a sabbatical year in France that would lead to my spending many more years in that country, he visited and stayed in the rented apartment of a mutual American professor friend in town. I remember visiting the apartment. It was one of those places described as having “du charm” on vacation rental websites. This means that it was built a couple of hundred years ago and that the kitchen sink was a sort of flat slab of marble with a shallow basin in the middle. The electricity was wired in the 1930s.  The shutters were warped and closed with difficulty, and the façade of the building had not been resurfaced for decades, further adding to “le charm.”

Over a Monaco, a beer with grenadine, in a café on the Cour Mirabeau, my former advisor rolled his eyes. “Ridiculous, that apartment. I could never actually live there! Quelle horreur.” I fell off my chair. “It is such a neat place; so old and with so much soul,” I protested. I would have loved to have rented it for the year instead of the one I now lived in, which came with a very complicated landlady who stopped by way too often and told me way too much about her personal worries, her soucis

Of course, my advisor had seen it all. He had seen the charm of bombed-out Warsaw in 1939, and the charm of Paris in 1945. He had raised three sons and was raising a daughter, and trying to wash dishes for five people would never do in a shallow marble slab. I was on sabbatical, and so if I had to call workers to come and fix the 1930s electrical wiring, that would be OK. In fact, I had the time to learn how to explain – in French – my problems with the electricity over the telephone. And I was working mostly at home, writing scientific articles. So, if I had to wait hours or even days for the workers to come, that would be OK too. If plugging in my computer overloaded the circuits, no sweat. I didn’t have rigid deadlines on those articles.

On sabbatical, I was also single. Feeding myself took very little time or effort. Six years later, living in a different city in France, Clermont-Ferrand, and working full time, I had a husband, two young step-sons (see my post Une Comedie Francaise for further details), a toddler, and a baby.  

Six years later, I would have found that same apartment in Aix-en-Provence une horreur. In fact, I have lived through so much charm, that I am now anti-charm in any country. When reading about vacation rentals, I see the word "charm" as code for, “Not kept up.” As code for, “I didn’t want to spend the money for a new sofa; sorry if you feel as though you are sitting on the floor.” As code for, “What is wifi? Never heard of it.” As code for, “No, the threadbare rugs are not authentic Persian, but we’ve had them here forever.” I will no longer pay for charm. If I wanted to have a backache in the morning, I would go camping. Or sleep in a train station (which I have done).

This is just another example of how you start to see things differently with the accumulation of new knowledge. I just can’t see the charm anymore. Reading the word “charm” on a vacation rental website elicits in me the same jolt of avoidance as does reading that a film is “madcap.”  Or that a play’s staging is “minimalist.”

So, if you just booked a “charming” place somewhere, I am really sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. I’m just not going with you. 

Paula NiedenthalComment