My tiny room in the centre of Paris

Years ago I remember a friend telling me that he'd just bought a house in a NSW country town for the price of a car. I've just done something similar with my purchase of a tiny room in the centre of Paris for less than the price of a car parking space in Sydney.

At the end of April, I spent three days staying in an airbnb maid's room near the Luxembourg Gardens. I'd just arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport and I was headed to England to spend a month with my sister.

I thought to myself that I would like to own a room like this. I mentioned that in conversation with a friend in Lille who once worked selling real estate in Sydney. He's bought and sold several apartments in France, and he told me that it was easier than I imagined.

So with his help, I found online a five square metre room on the sixth floor of a building without a lift, for sale for 65,000 euros. It's in Châtelet in the First Arrondissement, a few minutes walk from either the Louvre or the Pompidou Centre. One of Paris's priciest locations.

I had my offer accepted in late June and signed the final papers and received the key at the notaires' office in Paris on Monday.

The room has a single bed, a shower, a toilet, a kitchen sink, a fridge, a wardrobe, and not much else. Just about all I need.

Five square metres is about the size of the bathroom in most Australian houses. I've stayed in capsule hotels in Japan in the past, and the room I lived in when I spent five weeks in Tokyo around August measured exactly five square metres.

Most buyers would probably classify the property as a renovators' delight. I could spend tens of thousands of euros gutting the room and engaging professionals to transform it into a designer showpiece. But I like it the way it is, at least for now.

It's too small to rent legally, and the low purchase price means I don't have to earn an income from it. I will just spend a few months here each year getting to know Paris, and offer it to friends who don't mind simple accommodation for one person in a ramshackle building.

The notaire was intrigued and described the purchase as 'interesting', the same word an Australian lawyer friend used a couple of months ago. Before I signed, he also warned me of some of the things that could go wrong. For example the Marais - the Paris City Council - could decide that it is too small for human habitation and force me to rent it as a storage room.

It seems it's not wired to make it easy to connect to fast internet. So until I find a better solution than my current 3G mobile phone data plan, my online life will be in the slow lane. Which doesn't have to be a bad thing.

Margate and gentrification's fear and self-loathing

I visited the seaside town of Margate for the second time in a week, on this occasion with my sister. From time to time she goes there for work and knows it well.

She told me that central Margate contains areas in which the residents are in the top five per cent of socially deprived populations in the UK. I read that a study by the End Child Poverty charity revealed that 47.5 per cent of under 18s are living in struggling households. Many have a history of abuse and there is a very high rate of offending and reoffending.

The finest sands in England at Margate

Margate is also a beautifully laid out Victorian town with a magnificent beachfront. It is ripe for gentrification, and that is in fact happening quite rapidly. The deprived areas are in the centre, and the houses occupied by the privileged stand side by side with those of the deprived. They are easily identified as the freshly painted ones with plantation shutters and neat front gardens.

My sister said she sees further signs of gentrification every time she visits. Gay couples arrive in a street and set a standard and they are soon followed by the straights. The change has been accelerated by the prominence of the Turner Contemporary art gallery, which was established there in 2011. Indeed that was what attracted me to Margate.

As we walked along one of the streets close to the gallery, we spotted a hand written sign at the front of one house. It was requesting fellow residents not to disturb the children by slamming the door. The sign attracted my sister's attention because earlier in the day she'd been listening to her daughter telling of her struggle with being woken regularly by a 5:00 am door slammer.

Stop slamming the door

My sister photographed the sign, and the resident who'd scribbled it immediately appeared on the door step. She was a struggling single mother whom my sister had anticipated would swear at her for the invasion of privacy.

Instead we heard the resident's story of how the challenge of raising young children in such circumstances was exacerbated by the door slammers' insensitivity. My sister told of her daughter's struggle with the door slammer at 5:00 am. It was an unexpected and moving expression of mutual empathy between privileged and underprivileged.

Later in the day I was listening to a podcast of a recent long read article in The Guardian titled 'Confessions of a reluctant gentrifier'. It was written by a US academic who was suggesting that we build walls of attitude between differently privileged groups of people living in the same neighbourhood.

Turner Contemporary at Margate

This fosters unnecessary caution and irrational fear. She says we're more likely to be hurt by the cars we drive than the people we live among. Further she argues that this fear induces self-loathing.

'We are afraid, my husband suggests, because we have guilty consciences. We secretly suspect that we might have more than we deserve. We know that white people have reaped some ill-gotten gains in this country. And so privately, quietly, as a result of our own complicated guilt, we believe that we deserve to be hated, to be hurt, and to be killed.'

If my sister's experience is any guide, there are grounds for hope that unexpected encounters with the 'other side' might short circuit our guilt and break down the walls of attitude.


Letter from leafy South Yarra

I'm in Melbourne for 48 hours to attend a funeral. Thanks to the generosity of family, I have a beautiful apartment all to myself, in leafy South Yarra. I should be grateful. But I don't like South Yarra. I use the word 'leafy' in a derogatory sense. I've long referred to the 'leafy North Shore' of Sydney with a sense of disdain. 

In the 90s, a friend of mine was house-sitting for me in Newtown. His mother, who lived in Mosman on Sydney's leafy North Shore, was worried that something sinister might happen to her son while he was staying in what she referred to as a 'Newtown shanty'. I had a vague sense of what she meant, but I'm getting a much clearer picture from the novel I'm reading at the moment.

It's the recently published Dark Fires Shall Burn by Anna Westbrook. The setting is Newtown in 1946, when it was one of the seediest neighbourhoods of Sydney. What fascinates me is the familiar places and the streets that are described. I walk those streets every day with little idea of what was going on in them 70 years ago.

There is the St Stephen's Church and the historic cemetery near my house before it was cut in half for the Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, which was the scene last Sunday of the annual Newtown Festival, which perhaps shows off present day Newtown more than anything else. A murder in the cemetery, I discovered from the book, is the reason the cemetery was reduced in size. 

I have nothing against leaves. In fact my street is one of the leafiest streets in Newtown. It's just where the leaves are located. What it is about the leafy North Shore and leafy South Yarra is that I feel alienated. They are full of families and private school students, and it's as if the norm is to live in a big house or nice apartment, have a family and children, and be able to afford to send them to private schools. None of that is me. 

Instead, my norm is more offbeat. I quite like the values and politics of a lot of the population of Newtown, although that is changing - not for the better - with gentrification. I've been living in Newtown since 1993, so - while I'm not exactly an old timer yet - I've seen part of the transformation. 

Reading Dark Fires Shall Burn, I am pleased that it is not Newtown 1946. But part of me does feel nostalgic for Newtown 1993. Often I walk down King Street and look for shops and businesses that I can remember were there in 1993. Sadly there are not many.

This is a theme that I could write a lot about. But I'm in Melbourne now, a bit pressed for time, and making plans for today and tomorrow. Tomorrow I have asked a friend who lives in Yarraville if she is free for lunch. I am hoping that she is free because it is a long time since I have seen her, and also because I might get to go to Yarraville, which I regard as not too dissimilar to Newtown.

In 1985, when I was at Melbourne University, I did a history subject called Approaches to the Built Environment, which was taught by Dr John Lack in a Footscray Council building not far from Yarraville. We talked a lot about the history of Yarraville and surrounding suburbs. In those days they were very working class and a bit seedy, whereas today Yarraville in particular is a hipster mecca like Newtown.

This morning I am going to a funeral home in Brighton. The nearest train station is Bentleigh, a suburb that fascinates me at the moment. Recently I spent some time with a friend who grew up in Bentleigh when it was one of those forgettable suburbs that nobody would consider travelling to. A few weeks later, I read an article by the demographer Bernard Salt about hipsters on the move. In Melbourne, they're moving from Fitzroy to what he calls the 'Hills Hoist heartland' of East Bentleigh.  So I'm rather pleased that Bentleigh is on my schedule for today.