I arrived in Paris on December 1st to begin my three-month stay as an au pair with a local family. My decision to come here for an extended period was convoluted – a mix of emotional and professional burnout, pandemic fatigue, and an aching to reconnect with my Franco-European upbringing. I found the family I work for scouring listings on workaway.com, a website where international travelers can find work to trade for room and board as a means of cultural exchange. My searches led me to this family who offered a separate studio apartment for their au pairs. That piqued my interest. To live alone in Paris for 90 days? Where I would have my weekends and mornings to myself? It sounded like the perfect way to live out my existential crisis.
So I messaged the family and immediately hopped on a video chat with the host mom. Our conversation was quick and to the point, but we both felt good enough to keep the potential moving forward. After we hung up, she sent me a few photos of the studio I would be living in, and my initial excitement started to falter. I was so confused by the photos she sent. Why did the room look like a closet? Is that a shower inside the tiny room? And where was the bathroom? Is this even a real apartment?
Turns out, it is in fact a real apartment, and it’s called a chambre de bonne.
Around 1830, the chambre de bonne was introduced to Paris during Baron Haussmann’s renovation of the city, and created an even larger disparity in the city’s social hierarchy. Upper-class families resided in the larger apartments on the bottom floors while their working-class maids and servants lived in the tiny “apartments” — really glorified rooms on the top floor, typically only accessible by a single, narrow staircase in the back of the building. These rooms averaged around 10 square meters (about 100 square feet), rarely had running water, and would share a toilet in the hallway.
I am living in one of these kinds of rooms. I enter the building through the front, head to the back alleyway to access the staircase that leads me to my seventh-floor chambre de bonne walk-up. My bed hangs from the ceiling, my shower stands next to my kitchenette, and I share a bathroom with the other rooms on the floor. It’s totally out of my comfort zone, but I’m excited for the challenge. Living in LA, I’d become accustomed to sharing large houses with my friends, never settling for anything without a large enough backyard or patio for a weekend party. Forcing myself to live with less in a small space makes me appreciate my former living situations even more.
The chambre de bonne is a creative option for city dwellers who want affordable accommodation. You’ll most commonly find students or young professionals who just need a place to crash as they run around the City of Light. But age does not discriminate against those who simply prefer a minimal lifestyle, especially as the demand for affordable housing rises.
I feel lucky that I get to experience a brief glimpse into history during my stay here. As I walk up the seven flights of stairs multiple times a day, taking in the musty smell of cedar as I run out of breath, I think about the other people who’ve lived in these rooms and who are here now. Who else is behind these doors? What made them decide to live in such a small space? And could it be a wider solution to city living?
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Written by Shab Ferdowsi for HiP Paris. Looking to travel? Check out Plum Guide and our Marketplace for fabulous vacation rentals in Paris, France or Italy. Looking to rent long or short term, or buy in France? Ask us! We can connect you to our trusted providers for amazing service and rates or click here. Looking to bring France home to you or to learn online or in person? Check out our marketplace shop and experiences.