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Nov 24, 2013

Invisible Neighbors: Machecoulais

THE STORY:
 
Look at these views of and from our building. Notice anything? Despite the fact that these are taken at reasonable hours -- around 9pm, at different times of year -- there are almost no lights on. We're pretty sure that the people aren't just sitting around in the dark, unable to pay their electricity bills. There is just very low residency, since it's a desirable neighborhood to own a little (million dollar or more) pied-a-terre.

 
Down at the far end of Ile St. Louis, the Hotel Lambert is being renovated; despite the name, it's not a hotel in the English sense of the word but rather the French, meaning "mansion". The brother of the Emir of Qatari bought it from the de Rothschilds in 2007 for around $111 million, with proposed renovations that will, supposedly, roughly double the cost. Some of these were controversial, since it is a designated historical building, but he finally got approval, and work has begun. There was an issue of a medium-sized fire a few months back, but construction is still chugging along. Besides bringing back many rooms to their former glory, he's also allowed to modernize a bit and put in, among other technologies, air conditioning. I have to say, that seems barely necessary here (only a couple weeks a year), and he could've knocked fifty thousand off the construction costs right there.


There's the new rich, the old rich, and the movie-star rich, all on our one tiny island. But despite our lofty neighbors (but not neighbors in lofts: strictly old-school here), we are not the only non-rich, non-famous, non-royal, non-Qatari people living here. Several of Pippa's and Gigi's classmates do, in fact, live on the island; three of them, coincidentally and confusingly, with the same given name. One of them lives on the island across the street from her mother's childhood home, where the grandmother not only still lives but also grew up. So it is a place for "real" families too.


Ile St. Louis has oodles of charm, and the French themselves wax rhapsodic about it. The island has always had an air of grandeur, with mansions on the quays starting from the 17th century, when the islands cow-grazing land was first replaced with residences. From the start, many rich and famous people have made this their home, including Charles Baudelaire, Camille Claudel, Léon Blum, Marie Curie, Voltaire, Georges Pompidou, and even, at one point, Jodie Foster. Sometimes it's actually a little embarrassing to tell people we live here; in order to de-snobbify the situation, we feel we need to qualify it with an explanation that we got really lucky, and got a good deal. Nearly every French person, upon learning where we live says the same thing, "C'est la rêve." "That's the dream."

Pippa's friend's grandmother tells me that until about twenty years ago, it was not a heavily touristy island, and the shops down below were mostly little grocers. Now, besides the one or two wildly overpriced emergency food shops, it's mostly expensive jewelry, clothing boutiques, restaurants, and a few souvenir shops. The grandmother remembers before the gentrification, when it still had a rat problem (they should have visited Aurouze). I'm kind of happy the rats are gone, but if I had a time machine, I would love to go back and see it before it became such a destination. And to buy some real estate at twenty-years-ago prices, natch.

But why do they sit empty? There are a few big reasons, even besides the fact the many of these owners don't need to worry about the rental income. One is that property taxes are low here, so inherited or fully-paid-for apartments do not cost much to upkeep. More importantly, if you thought it was bad to be a landlord in the Bay Area (hello, rent control!), French tenancy laws make San Francisco and Berkeley look positively right-wing. At the moment, the law is such that nobody can be evicted, for any reason at all, between the months of October to May (the point being, it's too cold to put somebody on the streets). The current administration, much more left than the previous, had even proposed extending this to a year-round no-eviction ban.

Under the current system, it is already extremely difficult to get somebody out of an apartment, even for excellent cause, and even during the summer. Everybody has horror stories to share about somebody they knew (either tenant or landlord) in a situation where even respectable, well-heeled tenants simply stopped paying, for years on end, because essentially they knew there would be no repercussions. It is slightly easier to get somebody out of a furnished apartment, which is why, when apartment hunting, one will see many "furnished" apartments that basically consist of a few junky pieces of mismatched garage sale furniture. I also think it is one reason why our own landlords were more willing to rent to us. Originally, they weren't even planning to rent their apartment, probably for the reasons listed. But we were introduced through a mutual friend, so we came recommended. Plus: ex-pats have a good reputation both for paying and -- most important -- for eventually leaving.

THE CHEESE: Machecoulais

Machecoulais is an elusive, exclusive cheese. It's so uncommon, it's not even listed in the Encyclopedia of French Cheeses I regularly consult. It's actually the creation of Pascal Beillevaire, who is one of Paris' most successful and respected cheesemongers -- a Maître Fromager Affineur with many stores around the city. Though he doesn't make all his own cheese, he does have a dairy farm in Machecoul, on the Atlantic coast, where this delicious cheese is born. Made from unpasteurized cow's milk, the outside edges have that melt-in-your-mouth-and-on-your-plate texture that makes me want to weep with joy. Even the children dig right in, and it's the first cheese gone from our platter, with a lightly earthy flavor but not so much that it covers the sweet, buttery flavor.





WHAT'S THE CONNECTION?

An apartment on Ile St Louis may be a cash cow nowadays, but historically, this island was just for the actual cows: This is where the cattle from the palace -- now the Conciergerie -- would graze. There is just a hint of grass in the flavor of this cheese (and there's just a hint of grass left on the island, too...). Also, the cheese, like the island, is very, very rich, and it disappears so fast, it's practically invisible, much like our neighbors. 

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