Often the best apartments are in the most unlikely places, so don´t be influenced by the building´s street-side appearance; the grungiest looking building with a seedy stairwell may have a beautiful garden in the courtyard and an entirely different look behind the front door. On the other hand, a well-kept entranceway with bourgeois details, polished brass, etc. indicates immediately that the building is of high standing, a term the French have borrowed.
New laws have been passed permitting old buildings to be gutted as long as the street façade remains unchanged. You´ll come to feel that the entranceway and stairwells of Parisian buildings possess an aesthetic quality that is particularly Parisian-the worn, wooden steps, the old tile, the snaking bannisters. At first what you might feel as old and seedy will grow on you, if you let it.
Most French urban structures are built in a square, around a courtyard. The Paris everyone can see is but a portion of what is there: behind the average front door may be a formal garden complete with fountain, a stone-paved walkway leading to a private residence, hidden behind the walls of the bâtiment (building) or parking lot. It may also be just a playground for the children of the concierge or a passageway to the back section of the building. Often it´ll host a series of ateliers(workshops).
The concierge in Paris, almost always a Portuguese or Spanish wife and husband team crammed into a tiny apartment in the entranceway of the better Parisian apartments, plays a unique role in daily French life. The Law of 1948 imposed rent controls which has limited the rapid improvement of buildings and thus helped institutionalize the concierge. He or she is the onsite representative of the organization or group of owners in an apartment building (syndic). He/she knows all, hears all, tells all, and is an essential person to get along with. Their principal tasks include shining the brass in the entranceway, distributing the mail in the building, cleaning the stairwells, doing minor repairs, carting out the garbage cans, receiving packages, etc.
When you move in, and at Christmas, it is a good idea to tip your concierge as much as you can afford (100 FF is normal) and according to the amount of extra work you make for them. Concierges are very valuable allies and very powerful enemies. If problems arise over such things as noise after 22h, your concierge can often prevent or instigate much unpleasantness. Almost all buildings, even commercial and public ones, have live-in concierges or gardiens, who keep an eye on things. North Americans find it unusual to see a family live in a small flat off the lobby of a public school. With the increased installation of securite systems, digicodes, interphones, and modern elevators, concierges are becoming redundant with over 2000 positions being eliminated each year in Paris.
WC means "water closet," and that´s what it is, a closet-sized space with a toilet. The WC (also called le water, pronounced as if the word was French) is very often a separate room. Although this may seem odd at first, it´s rather practical. The WC is colloquially referred to as les chiottes (the crapper). Don´t use the word too lightly. Other classic bathroom functions are performed in the salle de bains.
Bidet: You may be perplexed on your first trip to a French bathroom to find this little fixture. Historically designed to serve aristocratic women as a hygienic aid, today the bidet can be used for lots of things, from relieving the pain of hemorrhoids, hand-washing delicate clothing, bathing a baby, or soaking your feet. Fresh water enters the fixture through a vertical spray in the center of the bowl, through a flushing rim or integral filler or through a pivotal spout that delivers a horizontal stream of water. A pop-up drain allows you to fill it with water. New bathrooms often do not have these.
Le bain/La douche: Expect anything. Although on the rise, showers are not as classically standard in daily French life as baths. Consider yourself lucky if you end up with a large enough space to stand up and lather up, let alone possess a shower curtain. This seemingly essential bathroom fixture is not seen as essential to the French. Invariably, a shower is taken via a metal hose running from the bathtub spout, and dexterity is a must to prevent splashing, especially since you will probably not have a place to hang the nozzle on the wall. But washing your hair with one hand has got to be character-building. In the older buildings you´ll have to get used to tiny tubs, sitting tubs(sabots), and other microscopic means of washing.
It´s all great fun. But remember to be careful. You are responsible for water damage to any and all floors below if it comes from your apartment (See Housing Insurance). The bathroom sinks is called a lavabo, but a kitchen sink is an évier.
Parisian kitchens tend to be an exercise in space utilization. They often have tiny but efficient appliances, especially refrigerators (le frigo) and gas stoves. Unfurnished apartments almost never come with appliances, and often don´t even have kitchen cabinets.
Get used to the chaudire, the hearth of the French home, the gas apparatus that heats on command the water for the kitchen and bathroom. Appliances that you may not be familiar with: la friteuse. The pressure cooker (cocotte minute) is standard too. Also note that Parisian kitchens are very often where you house your washing machine or dryer, if you have one. In recent years, most French households have caught on to dishwashers (although small) and microwave ovens. The king of French appliance stores is Darty noted for its service aprs vente (after sales service).