Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. Having won the lottery, he starts travelling first-class around Europe on Day As, and proceeds to upgrade his life and career on Day Bs… starting by moving out from his parents’ place.
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Chapter 7: O La Miéu Bella Nissa
“Where should I put the beer?” asked Cedric.
“Fridge is full,” I answered, “Just put it in one of the cupboards under the sink.”
Cedric looked around the living room of my new flat and whistled.
“This place is nice!” he said, pushing his hair back from his eyes with one hand.
As busy as I was with travel on my Day As, I had kept almost busier on my Day Bs. The priority on my list had been to move out from my folks’ home. After a long talk with my banker, and the first interest installment I received from the million euros I had invested with my private bank, I had a better idea of my financial situation. I had calculated that including my salary, after tax, I would be making between 6,000 and 6,500 euros a month. I figured I could afford to blow about half that amount on rent, and went out looking for a real-estate agency.
My entire childhood had been spent lost in the suburban forest of Valbonne, so I wanted to be closer to the action. I looked for an apartment in downtown Nice. With the highway, I would be only half an hour away from work and my parents’. More importantly though, I would be within walking distance of Hanaa and the bars and clubs at the heart of the South’s nightlife.
The first three properties I saw were disappointing. One was in a modern and airy new building, but it was lost in the heights of Nice. I wasn’t willing to trade one suburban nightmare for another. The second was right off of Nice’s main pedestrian street, which made it ideally located if it weren’t for the fact that the noise from the street below was deafening. I would have had to change all the windows and redo all of the sound insulation. Next. The third one was the worst, a literal dump, dark and dank, with what I was fairly certain were rat droppings on the floor.
But I hit gold on the fourth. It consisted of the top two floors of a building on a tiny pedestrian street climbing up the hill right beneath the Castle. I had to go up four flights of narrow and unevenly spaced stone steps to access it, but once inside I immediately fell in love.
The entrance opened on a gigantic living room with huge windows. On the right side was the kitchen, separated from the room by a brushed metal bar counter. Its white walls and shiny black tiled floor gave it a distinctly modern vibe. On the second floor were two bedrooms and the bathroom. The place was absolutely huge. There was only one major drawback.
“How the hell can you afford this place?” asked Cedric.
I had thought this through for a long time. From the moment I first saw it, I knew there was no way I was letting this place go. But I also knew that I needed to come up with an explanation for how I could afford a place that was way over my means without revealing my secret to Cedric and Hanaa.
“Well,” I said, “I got really, really, lucky. I didn’t just find the best apartment in Nice. I found the best roommate.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“This place actually belongs to this guy called Maxime. He works for a company that builds luxury yachts for wealthy clients all over the world. And, well he just spends three quarters of the year visiting clients in the most beautiful places. Right now he’s in the Caribbean somewhere.”
“I’m guessing he pays something like 3,000 euros a month in rent,” I added, “But he only asked me for 500 a month for the little room upstairs. In exchange I’m supposed to take care of paying the bills and making sure the whole thing is clean. I think he’s mostly worried about people breaking in so he figured having someone in the spare room wouldn’t be so bad. And in the meantime, I have all this…” I motioned to the living room.
The apartment had come unfurnished, and I had spent a small fortune on setting it up. I bought a premium black leather sofa with accompanying La-Z-Boys that I then arranged around a low glass table. The wall sported a 4K TV and I had set up Bluetooth speakers in every corner. I had also put up framed posters of comic book artist Bilal on the wall, futuristic characters drawn in strong pastel strokes of greyscale and aggressive dashes of electric blue and blood red. I liked to think it added to the modern and minimalistic vibe of my flat.
I was most proud of the bar however. I had not only found perfect stainless steel bar stools to complement the bar, but a few hours of hunting on the Internet had landed me three beer taps. I had chosen to go with Stella, Vedett and Liefmans, all three among my favorite Belgian beers. I now had access to cold and cool draft beer whenever I wanted.
I poured a Vedett for both Cedric and I.
“You want to go check out upstairs?” I asked. He nodded enthusiastically.
We climbed the stairs two by two, and I opened the door to the first bedroom on the right.
“This is Maxime’s room. Obviously it’s the big one.”
Maxime was an invention of mine. This bedroom was the one I used, but I had made sure to put none of my personal belongings in it. I had put in a giant bed with a memory foam mattress, which cost three times the price of a normal one. However, I was still debating on whether it made any difference. I slept just as well in my old bed at my parents’. Under more Bilal prints stood my new dual-screen Alienware PC that I had maxxed out just like my laptop. It was a gamer’s wet dream, but I had actually barely even had time to begin setting it up. I had been way too busy with furnishing the place. All told, I had spent close to 40,000 euros, which was a dent, although not a big one, in the million euros in my current account.
“And this is my bedroom,” I said, opening up the second bedroom. It was Spartan in comparison. I had taken some posters from my old room and scotched them, unframed, to the walls. The desk was littered with gadgets and books that I knew Cedric would recognize from my parents’. It was designed to look unmistakably like my room, that of the poorer roommate. From what I saw on Cedric’s face, the illusion was working perfectly.
“You are one lucky motherfucker,” said Cedric.
“I know,” I laughed.
We suddenly heard knocking from down below.
“That must be Hanaa,” I said.
When I opened the door she burst into the living room like a hurricane. A quick bise to both of us and she jumped into the leather couch.
“Man this place is so kitsch,” she laughed, “It’s like you tried to build a man-cave. Where’s the Lego corner?”
I smirked, but she was spot-on. I had actually been looking at the Lego site barely two days ago.
“Knock it off, it’s not my design, it’s my roommate’s Maxime. I just have a room upstairs.”
“Whatever,” she ignored me, “So where’s the party? I thought this was going to be crazy? Should I call my girlfriends and tell them it’s off?”
“Come on,” I protested, “People aren’t going to show up for another hour. I need your help setting up first. I have no idea how to operate all of this.”
I wasn’t kidding. I hadn’t yet figured out how to link the Bluetooth to the TV and my laptop, which meant that I wouldn’t be able to play any music during my housewarming party. We spent the next hour fiddling with it, and finally got it right just as the first few guests started to arrive.
When I had drawn up the list of invitees, I had been astounded at how few friends I had left in the region, despite having spent my entire life there. Not that I had many friends to begin with, given how sectarian Cedric and I had been in high school, but it still felt as if my entire network had been wiped out.
The South of France was not amongst France’s economic centers. Aside from Lyon, France’s second biggest city, if one wanted to build a real career, the only option was Paris. Everyone had moved away.
Back in 1947, a French geographer and economist named Jean Francois Gravier wrote a book called “Paris and the French Desert”, in which he argued that the economic force of Paris acted like a gravity well, sucking up resources and talent and leaving the rest of France a barren economic wasteland. 70 years later, the situation had only worsened.
As a result, most of my past classmates had moved there after graduation, and the only friends who were still here tended to worked in the service industry: Julien, a cop, Audrey, a waitress and Rémi, a landscaper for private villas. From our business school years with Hanaa, only four people that we were remotely close to remained, all of them having chosen to work their way up to management positions within hotels. Add in a few of my colleagues, and Hanaa’s law school girlfriends, and I was expecting twenty-odd people to show up.
The beer taps proved the main attraction. As my guests piled in, I spent two hours just drawing out beer after beer until I completely ran out of Vedett and Stella, and we switched to the drinks people had shown up with. The girls seemed to prefer the store-bought wine or vodka and orange juice mix served in plastic white cups I had bought for the occasion, while the men stuck to beer.
My living room quickly became filled with cigarette smoke, as everybody mingled in small tight groups or lounged back in the black leather sofas. In typical French fashion, conversation centered on politics, with a vivid discussion around the unacceptably long vacation that Mr. Perret, our Finance Minister, was enjoying in the Caribbean, and complaining about their jobs. Julien, the policeman, told us about how l’Ariane, Nice’s ghetto, had basically become a no man’s land. No cop accepted to go in if they weren’t at least in teams of 6. Rémi moaned about how hard it was to get gigs these days, as people were dialing back their spending on gardens. Cedric gave an account of his most recent brush with death aboard the little Cessnas, which he aptly described as two-seater flying coffins.
I looked around and saw that Hanaa was in an animated discussion, bashing a professor who graded papers based on how much cleavage the girls in his class chose to show. I tapped her on the arm and pointed my eyes towards the second floor, indicating that she should follow me. She grabbed Cedric by the arm on the way and we discreetly left the crowd behind.
I stopped at the top of the stairs with a mischievous smile on my face, and turned towards them.
“What?” asked Hanaa with mock impatience.
“I haven’t shown you the best part of this apartment,” I said. I opened the door of a small closet. It was dusty, filled with nothing but cleaning supplies and the folded up cardboard boxes of the stuff I had ordered.
“It’s a closet!” yelled Cedric overenthusiastically, “It’s the most beautiful closet I’ve ever seen!”
“Shut up and wait,” I said, and walked in. I stood on tiptoe and grabbed a little string dangling from the ceiling. I pulled on it and a little hatch popped open, releasing a thin metal ladder.
“There’s a third floor…” I let it hang, grinned and climbed up. Cedric followed, and we helped Hanaa through the little hatch. We were in a tiny four square meter room with a slanted roof so low that we had to crouch. I had stacked more cardboard boxes in a corner. I opened the little square window tucked into the wall, pushed up against the windowsill, and passed one leg and then the other, ducking down in a right angle to slide the rest of my body through.
Both Cedric and Hanaa followed me to the other side, and stood next to me in silent awe. The buildings in the old part of the city were all several hundred years old, and all had roofs made of overlapping red terracotta tiles. The roof of my building had two levels, and we were standing on the lower one. Hanaa was holding onto Cedric’s arm, trying to balance herself on the rounded tiles.
“Take off your heels Hanaa,” I said. She did and we sat down, our backs to the wall we had just climbed out of.
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
We all nodded silently, taking in the view. Ahead of us was an ocean of red roofs, wave after wave of terracotta tiles, lit only by starlight from above and a few bright windows shining from below. Three stony bell towers rose above them, the dark shadows of their bells visible through arched openings. The Mediterranean Sea sparkled in the distance, the streetlights bordering La Promenade reflecting off of it in an ever-shifting myriad of little fireflies.
“It really is. It’s the place I love most in this entire apartment.”
Hanaa took out a pack of Dunhills from her bag, lit one, and rested her head against the wall.
“Sure beats the view from my place,” she said.
“Tell me about it,” said Cedric, waving her cigarette smoke away with a hand, “Next time I should bring my guitar up here.”
“You totally should!” I said, “We can spend three hours singing Seven Nation Army.”
Hanaa snorted in laughter. Cedric had taken up the guitar 6 months ago and he still only knew the one song. Cedric ignored my jest. “Instead of being a smart-ass, where’s our drinks?”
“I left them just inside the window,” I said. Cedric leaned through it, his legs dangling in the air as he reached down, and came back with a 6-pack of Carlsbergs. He handed one to each of us, and popped his own open.
“This sure brings back the memories,” he told me with a grin.
“Not again!” said Hanaa, rolling her eyes, “I’ve heard this story a thousand times. The first time you and Leo got drunk, you stole your dad’s beers and Leo ended up throwing up in the garden.”
“Thank god your dog was there to eat it all up, or can you imagine your mom’s face the next morning when she went out to water the plants?” I laughed.
“I mostly remember having to take out cactus spines from your back with tweezers after you drunkenly stumbled into one,” Cedric hooted.
“You don’t remember shit from that night!” I shot back, “You were all like, ‘Leo, my head hurts, what did we do, never again’ the next morning.”
“Guys come on!” said Hanaa, “We’ve gone over this a million times. It’s gotten old.”
Cedric and I chuckled for a while in our respective corners. Then Cedric broke the silence.
“You know what hasn’t gotten old…”
“…Marcello!” we both shouted out.
“Come on,” she protested, “Drop it already!”
“Forget your Italian stallion? The one who managed to break the ice off of our Moroccan princess’ heart?” said Cedric. Hanaa had made out with an Italian exchange student while at a drunken party in our business school, and he had turned into a creepy stalker. Despite Hanaa completely locking him out, he had e-mailed, called and texted her every day for all of the six months he had been in France. It had only stopped when she had punched him in the face. Cedric had burst out laughing when he heard the tale and offered to train Hanaa’s skills further at his Viet Vo Dao dojo. She had threatened to show him exactly how she had done it if he dared to mention it again.
“You know, if you had married him you wouldn’t be facing any visa problems.”
“I’m keeping him as my back-up plan just in case,” she smiled sarcastically, her eyes tight lines.
“Better than Cedric, I think his back up plan is his left hand,” I laughed.
Cedric threw some beer onto me as Hanaa and I cracked up laughing. “I could always go for your sister!” he threw back.
We laughed and talked for an hour, looking out over the old Nice as the lights went out one by one. I found myself wishing that I could have more of these moments with them. I wanted both of them along with me in my travels. I could already imagine how it would go down: Hanaa would sarcastically comment on the locals’ fashion sense while Cedric would keep dragging us to the nearest bar to try their local alcohol.
Instead I just listened to their banter and smiled. I missed not having them in my other life, but it just didn’t work if they couldn’t remember any of it. And in a way, it was actually driving me closer to them. Solitude was making me value their company more than ever before. I used to take it for granted, but I was beginning to realize just how lucky I was to have them in my life.
Hanaa’s phone started to buzz. She picked up in Arabic and spoke with the speed of a machinegun.
“The girls are heading to a club,” she said, “Let’s go?”
“Which club?” asked Cedric, “If it’s Le Palais I can’t afford it. 20 euro cover and no drinks is just way too expensive.”
“It is Le Palais,” said Hanaa, sighing, “Come on, you’re a pilot, how come you’re so poor?”
The worst part about Cedric’s job wasn’t how dangerous it was. It was that he had to log in a certain number of flight hours just to keep his flying licenses valid. He couldn’t afford not to fly, a thing his boss was well aware of. In this market, he had been offered 20 euros/hour, and had had no choice but to accept. He would almost have been better off working at McDonalds. It was why he also still lived with his parents.
“Cedric,” I said, “It’s on me. To celebrate my new place! I’ll cover it.”
“Well then what are we waiting for? ” he shouted, standing up immediately.
As I stood my head started to spin from the alcohol. I was going to be hung-over tomorrow. And since we were Day B, I would be hung-over the day after as well. That sucked.
Cedric handed me a second beer on the other side of the window.
“For the road?” he asked with a smile. I laughed and cracked it open.
~ End of Chapter 7 ~
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