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House Talk

No. 12 - August, 2003

We Love Living in Paris, But We Sure Do Miss Peet's Coffee!"
A talk with Kathleen and Corbin de Robertis in Paris, France

What a surprise to learn the secrets of an expatriate's heart. When Sheila Sabine and Judith Glass met up with former Berkeley residents, Kathleen and Corbin de Rubertis, in their magnificent Paris flat, the couple, practically in unison, said "We love living in Paris, but we sure miss Peet's coffee!" When questioned further, they expanded on this theme. There's just no place in Paris where one can buy coffee "to go." As Kathleen often finds herself in her station wagon with one or all of their three young children, it is difficult for her to stop and leisurely sip an espresso at a sidewalk café, as most Parisians do. Therefore, she envies the American moms who can stop for a hot coffee to drink along the way!

Otherwise, the de Rubertis Family is loving the French experience. Corbin works for the Boston Consulting Group, and when he was offered the post in Paris, the entire family agreed that it was a good idea to go for it! Well, everyone, that is, except for Celeste who wasn't even born yet when the decision was made. It was early in 2001. The de Rubertis' were enjoying life in a newly-purchased home in the Berkeley Hills. Daughter Frances and son William were settling in, and baby #3 was on the way. Then things happened very quickly. Corbin accepted his new position and went to Paris immediately to start a house search. Kathleen stayed home but as soon as new baby Celeste was old enough to travel, the Berkeley house was sold and the family moved to Paris.

Judith Glass and Sheila Sabine met the whole family in their elegant flat located on a wide street in the 8th Arrondisement on the Right Bank of Paris. After being served a glass of champagne by their charming young daughter, Frances (well, after all, this is France), Judith and Sheila were given a tour of the flat. With 2400 square feet, the flat features high ceilings and windows, parquet floors, large rooms, and plenty of space for everyone. A unique aspect of renting a flat in Paris is that it is delivered to the new occupant literally stripped of everything - including the kitchen sink! When Kathleen and Corbin moved in, there were no light fixtures, no shelves in the closets, not even a toilet paper holder! And the kitchen was a mere shell - meaning that they had to buy all the appliances, cabinetry and fixtures.

So here they were in an elegant Paris flat with its impressive location on the Right Bank, but they started their new life cooking over a hot plate on the floor while they waited to furnish and outfit their kitchen! Luckily, IKEA stores are available near Paris, so the entire kitchen - counters, cabinets, appliances, you name it - was finished with IKEA products. However, space restrictions led to the use of very small appliances: the refrigerator is so small that daily grocery shopping is part of the routine - and part of the fun! And it is always possible to order food over the phone and have it delivered. One aspect of their building that makes life a bit easier is the presence of a 24-hour gardienne who has an apartment in the building. She is able to accept deliveries, take care of the mail, and generally keep track of all activities. The building features a central courtyard which provides an outdoor space where the children can play and, as part of the Paris experience, there are frequent outings to the nearby Parc Monceau.

For a quick bit of French history, the building occupied by the de Rubertis' is one many created in the late 1800's by Baron Haussman. Everyone who's been to Paris has journeyed along Boulevard Haussman, but the Baron's projects were much more far-reaching than just that one street. In 1853, Paris was growing at a rapid pace and was desperately in need of some city planning. Haussman was brought in by Emperor Napoleon III to transform Paris into an artistic, fashionable and cultural capital city. So, in demolishing many existing undesirable houses (causing the poorer residents of the city to move to the suburbs), many of the ancient streets were widened and aligned and the new boulevards (such as Rue de Rivoli) were lined with buildings displaying uniform, consistent façades and similar roof lines. The de Rubertis' flat is in just such a building on just such a boulevard.

As is true of the ex-patriate experience in many places in the world, it can be difficult to meet the local people, and Americans tend to stick together and spend leisure time together. The whole family continues to study French and improve their language skills, and then, of course, there are wonderful travel opportunities to nearby European countries.

The de Rubertis return to the U.S. frequently to visit family and friends. They have even bought "a vacation home" in Iowa! Although this seems to be operating in reverse (since some might not view the Midwest as an exotic location for a second home) but in their case, it allows them to spend time near the town where most of Kathleen's extended family resides.

They are not sure how long the French adventure will last. But, for now, they can see the long-range benefits for themselves and their children. As a child, Corbin lived all over the world, so living abroad is second nature to him. And for Kathleen - so far, so good. One thing that makes the experience easier for her is that her parents are able to visit them in Paris frequently, so the trans-Atlantic grandparent/grandchild relationships are being maintained on a consistent basis.

Thinking of moving to Europe? If you ask the de Rubertis, it's a great idea - but first you might want to move to a country where you can find coffee to go!

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