Flat Sweet Flat

The author's rental flat in Paris had a grand salon with 18th-century decor.
The author's rental flat in Paris had a grand salon with 18th-century decor. (By Caitlin Ford)
By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 16, 2005

In the summer of 1992, my parents rented a stone farmhouse in the hills outside the village of Gordes, France, and invited our extended family for two weeks. Together or in little bands we explored Provence, feasted on local cuisine and circled back to share our tales. The house itself was quirky -- a bathtub stood naked in the middle of a bedroom, the kitchen was an afterthought -- but we still talk about the roasted lamb with tomatoes and potatoes au gratin that my mother improvised after consulting the village butcher.

You can't roast a lamb in a hotel room. You'd never plop yourself down on a hotel bed, study your surroundings and wonder what it might be like to live there.

Hotels? Not for this family. When we travel, we cherish our space, privacy and the chance to try on the life of a different locale. Not to mention the fact that rentals are generally far more affordable than extended hotel stays.

Last year, with that Provence trip as our benchmark, a series of significant birthdays and a 20th-wedding anniversary had me looking to celebrate large. So an idea emerged fully formed: Let's rent apartments in London and Paris.

Our rental adventures mostly have been in U.S. destinations, but how hard could it be to do the same thing in Europe? Thirteen years earlier, my parents had started with a friend's recommendation and arranged their French rental via catalogues, phone calls and, finally, a friend's recommendation. I figured this time around, I'd do it the way we've arranged many of our U.S. leases: online. But the Internet proved to be just the springboard.

Surfing for Apartments

Googling "London apartment rentals" and "Paris apartment rentals" turned up tens of thousands of hits for rental agencies, tourist organizations and individual apartments. The days that followed were a kind of online through-the-looking-glass adventure as I went site by site, stepping virtually into and out of bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms in flats from Cadogan Place in London's Knightsbridge section to the Rue St. Rustique in Paris's 18th arrondissement. Finally, I lined up my preferences and started e-mailing agencies to find out whether my top choices were available.

They were not. Nor were my backup selections.

I was looking for a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment, priced at no more than $2,000 per week, for a week each in London and Paris. Our preferred weeks were in June and July, favorite months to visit two of the most alluring cities in the world. By the time of my search, in late March/early April, many travelers to London and Paris had already booked their vacation rentals for the summer. (FYI: A popular sporting event called Wimbledon brings a lot of visitors to London in June.)

Back to the Web drawing board.

The author rented a London flat on elegant Queen's Gate Road.
The author rented a London flat on elegant Queen's Gate Road.
Certain factors, I realized, make the overseas vacation rental process a bit trickier than stateside rentals. For one thing, the back and forth of e-mail correspondence is often limiting and less expedient than a simple phone call, during which all questions might be answered in a single conversation. But long-distance calls abroad are expensive. The time difference -- London at five hours ahead, Paris six -- interferes with timeliness when you have to wait until tomorrow for an answer to an e-mail you send this afternoon. Language, too, can be a problem. What I really wanted was to talk directly to an expert about particular neighborhoods and apartments.

I then turned to agencies that were American-based, or at least have satellite offices here. I could pick up the phone and call these places, settle my concerns and at last nail down a reservation. I took a closer look at some of my online search results and narrowed the agencies down to two: the Wales-based London-rentals company In the English Manner, which has a Los Angeles office, and Cohasset, Mass.-based Panache, which arranges Paris leases.

Our London Flat

In the English Manner manages about 45 property rentals, according to the firm's L.A. rep, Glo Williams, who is familiar with all of them. I had my eye on a Kensington flat "on the ground floor of a handsome terrace of houses with pillared front entrances . . . A comfortably and elegantly furnished, high-ceilinged living room with two large windows overlooking Queen's Gate."

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