What I learned by watching French property programmes

A Parisian apartment for rent. Image: Getty.

There are many reasons to watch Recherche appartement ou maison, a French property programme similar to Location Location Location. You get to be a virtual tourist in different French cities, imagine a world without carpets, and enjoy lots of bidet-based historical anecdotes.

But it can also tell us a lot about the housing situation in France – and in turn help to make sense of our own property market. Here’s what I learned.

The housing ladder is a very British concept

I always assumed that our neighbours shared our Thatcherite obsession with home ownership as a symbol of adulthood and social mobility. Recherche appartement ou maison taught me that I was wrong.

There is not even a satisfactory French translation for the concept of the “housing ladder”. Participants seem somehow freed from the societal pressures to buy, and renting is not seen as a sign of failure.

It is possible to make a property show without tourturing the young

British property programmes are famously aspirational and, for millennials, they are often seen as a form of torture.

Recherche appartement ou maison is equally guilty of caving to our masochistic desire to watch other people viewing things we could never afford, and rejecting them because the toilet and the shower are in the same room.

Yet it also has a more compassionate side: for example, you can go on the show if you are looking to rent. There are also plenty of participants who are seeking to buy their first home, without having suspiciously limitless funds.

Then again, perhaps a similar approach would be impossible in this country. It’s possible viewers wouldn’t enjoy seeing millennial after millennial coming to Kirsty and Phil with a quarter of a million pounds and the goal of owning their own home in London, and having their dreams crushed. week after week.

Flats are the norm

I also noticed that a high proportion of the properties featured are flats, especially in the larger cities, and that families seem a lot more prepared to live in apartments. After a bit of digging, I realised that the UK, not France, was the anomaly. Of the EU-28, UK residents are the second most likely to live in a house rather than a flat, behind only Ireland.

This is particularly true when we compare Paris and London. In London, only 14 per cent of homes are in buildings of five floors or more, compared to 59 per cent in Paris.

Flats are smaller, of course. In Île-de-France, the region which includes Paris, the average surface area is 60m2. In London, it is 80m2. But when we are shown tiny, one-bedroom flats in the French capital, they often seem well-conceived and make good use of the space, rather than visibly being part of a larger house which has been awkwardly divided up.

Paris is extremely expensive per square metre, yet it seems more affordable than London, because of its high proportion of smaller – and thus cheaper – flats.


English words are everywhere

No language is truly as universal as estate agent-speak. Like us, the French find themselves saying “studio” and “kitchenette”, when what they really mean is “no adult human could live in this space without going insane”. French housing vocabulary is also full of English words, from design aspects like “bow-window”, to pseudo-anglicisms, such as “dressing” (room), and “immeuble de standing” (a high-class apartment block).

Sometimes things get lost in translation. The term “WC” is widely used across the channel to refer to the toilet, but for some reason the pronunciation has been shortened, so that it becomes “VC”. (For those who don’t speak French: the language, sensibly enough, pronounced W as “dooble-vee”). This resulted in a visit where the estate agent showed the client to the “WC”, and the client responded, confused: “Why double-VC? There’s only one.”

Paris is expensive, but London is worse

In Paris intra-muros – the administrative centre of Paris, which is separated from its suburbs by the Périphérique ring-road – the average property costs an eye-watering €8,940 per m2. This is still slightly less expensive than central London, depending on how you define central.

But therein lies the difference: central Paris is clearly defined. The Périphérique provides a neat boundary beyond which house prices fall, often drastically, even though most Parisians live outside of these boundaries. In La Goutte-d’Or, for example – a traditionally working-class neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement in the north of Paris – property costs on average €7,030 per m2. Walk a few minutes north until you cross the Périphérique into Saint-Denis, and the price drops to €3,300 per m2.

“If you would cross the Périphérique, you could get a lot more value for your money,” says the agent-presenter. The clients look shocked. It seems the agent has broken a taboo. “Once you’ve lived in Paris, nobody wants to move to the suburbs.”

I guess there is one thing that links property programmes on both sides of the channel: people are impossible.

You can hear more about some of these subjects on a recent edition of our podcast Skylines.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.