Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Last Stage to Paris

WHY NOT . . .
These are the two most dangerous words in the English language. It has always been a pet theory of mine that where you are is not necessarily where you are supposed to be. Where we were was in a tidy house in the suburbs, at the beginning of the worst economic meltdown of this short century. Where we were supposed to be, I thought, was Paris.

The way it came about was my wife, Louise, and I decided to sell our house. She asked where we should move next.
I said I didn't care.
"You must have some idea," she pressed.
I shrugged. "Hawaii."
Be realistic she said.
I have been realistic, I thought. That's why we've lived in the same house in the same town, doing the same thing for 27 years. So I continued being unrealistic, "Let's move to Paris."
She sighed. "You've been saying that for years."
"Yes I have," I admitted.
She looked thoughtful. Then: "Why not."

So with an uncanny sense of timing we put our house on the market at the precise moment home sales all over the United States began plummeting to a 30-year low. Not to worry, our realtor assured. Unlike all the other places all over town with their weather-beaten FOR SALE signs forlornly dangling in their front yards, our place was eminently saleable. All we had to do was spiff the place up a bit. That meant doing something called staging.

I discovered I was the last person in America not familiar with this term. Basically, I learned, you are supposed to redecorate your house to look the way you would like it to look if you didn’t actually have to live there.

Apparently it’s a two-part process:

1. Erase all traces of yourself
It is not unlike having your house join the Witness Protection Program. Professionals Stagers universally agree a well-staged home is an anonymous home. It should not be marred with family photos, sullied with memorabilia like your Oscar or your Pulitzer Prize, or tricked out with quirky personal items such as my telephone in the shape of a motorcycle.

2. Channel Martha Stewart
All the souvenir magnets came off the refrigerator. The kitchen counters were cleared of anything remotely useful, and in their place appeared a small espresso pot and a couple of delicate hand-painted demitasse cups, a cookbook on a wrought iron stand casually opened to a recipe for a dish whose name I could not pronounce, and a basket of fresh fruit I could not touch. Winsome objets were artfully scattered around the living room. Tasteful picture books fanned out on the coffee table. We angled our chairs and couch just so, to energize the room’s feng shui.

We painted over everything, including the dated pencil lines on the doorframe of our daughter’s room marking her growth spurts. Shampoo, toiletries, shabby bath robes disappeared from our bathroom. Pristine show towels and charming little baskets filled with those cutesy guest soaps shaped like woodland creatures and acorns took their place. Like the Japanese, we took our shoes off when we came in the door. We even walked around the edge of rugs so as not to leave footprints.

With all trace of us erased, I felt like I had moved into the house of a stranger, or to put it more accurately, that the house of a stranger moved in around me. It was a little disorienting at first, but after a few days I was enjoying the pleasant befuddlement of stepping into one neat, unfamiliar room after another. It was like going off to a B&B without having to get in the car.

The experience didn’t last long. To our astonishment the house sold in a matter of weeks. Now we had to vacate for the buyers.

Speaking of whom, I should mention this: all the staging, all the daily rituals of moving like ghosts through the showplace our home had become so as not to disturb the fantasy tableau, was, in the end, irrelevant. The people who bought the place never noticed the fancy soaps, were oblivious to the cunning placement of objets and were impervious to the feng shui of the rooms. They wanted the house because it was near the grandkids.

For our part, we were officially homeless and very pleased about it. Now all we had to do was get permission from the French government to move to their country, find a place to live and learn French. No problem, I thought.  

French mystery: Why are the words for "bottle" and "carafe" feminine, but the word for "glass" masculine?

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